The obvious Eucharistic implication of today’s Gospel (John 6:25—52) cannot be missed. Perhaps that is why a rather strange sermon I once heard came to mind, well it was really more of a tone poem than an address. What I remember is the almost hypnotic theme and chorus that echoed throughout the piece. It went something like this: “It was only words, words were all they had, ‘Take, eat . . . this is my body,’ ‘Take, drink, . . . this is my blood.’ It was only words, words were all they had.” Now since it was the commemoration of William Tyndale, first translator of the Bible into English, the preacher’s phrase “it was only words” takes on new meaning. The words of Holy Scripture, the words of Eucharistic thanksgiving are words that are more than “just” words. They are words that bear the weight of the inexpressable–of God’s interaction with humanity, of our thoughts and experiences of God. But being words, they are held in bondage by the confines of language, open to the potential slavery of our perceptions.
The crowd in today’s Gospel is also held captive by their perceptions. To set the stage: On these Sunday’s in August, we’ve been reading from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, from the part of the Gospel known as the Book of Signs. Jesus has fed the multitude with the bread and fish from one young boy’s lunch. The people have followed after him (during which he has also calmed the seas). The people have followed after him, ready to make him their king. After all, doesn’t he appear to have an endless supply of food? The crowd, for the moment, is held captive by the literal interpretation of what they have just experienced. They perceive Jesus as the bread giver. They want more bread. Straight away, Jesus addresses their thoughts, their misconceptions, and exposes the truth. “You are looking for me for all the wrong reasons,” he tells the crowd. “Don’t become preoccupied with the food that still leaves you hungry, but with the food that endures for eternal life.” Life is more than eating, and Jesus is more that just a miracle grocer; but until the crowds understand that, they will not grasp the significance of who Jesus really is and what he is about. So in spite of his miracles, in spite of the “Bread which comes down from Heaven,” which is in their very midst, they are still seeking signs, they are still in bondage.
The story of our salvation history is a reminder that there are, indeed, many forms of bondage and slavery: the bondage of the children of Israel in Egypt; the bondage of our sisters and brothers to poverty and hunger; and we are reminded especially of our own bondage, our slavery to those things that prevent us from seeing beyond ourselves, our addictions and dependencies that keep us tied, short-sighted and, indeed, bound and sometimes gagged from expressing or even seeing that which is real and true.
But God refuses to leave us bound. In the sending of himself into our midst God breaks open any and all chains that may attempt to bind us. No matter what negative things we may tell or be told about our personhood; no matter what oppressions, slavery, persecutions and poverty the powers and dominions of this world may attempt to impose on men and women–God’s love for us in Christ says otherwise. God’s love is the defining reality for humanity. This is why Christianity at its heart is so subversive to totalitarian regimes. This is why at its heart Christianity can never just accept the “status quo.” It is about the Kingdom of God. It speaks of infinite worth, infinite love, the uniqueness, and in God’s eyes, the infinite potential of each and every human being. To support us in this vision God’s very self sustains, nurtures and nourishes our souls and bodies with bread that is beyond all bread, with drink that is beyond all drink, and we who are the beloved of God are bound together, no longer with chains, but in love. Augustine, in a baptismal homily, says: “Take, then, and eat the body of Christ, for by the body of Christ you are already made members of Christ. Take also and drink the blood of Christ. Lest there be division among you, eat of what binds you together.” He goes on to say, “There you are on the altar, there you are in the chalice. In this sacrament you are united [one with the other]–we are joined together, we drink together because we share life together” (Sermo Denis 3.3, 6.2). So fed, we become the body of Christ, we are reminded of our true selves; our true home; made one with each other and with the risen Christ; empowered to live as he would have us live.
In Jesus, the Bread that comes down from heaven, no longer are we held captive by our own self-centeredness and false perceptions. It is no longer my finite self-justification, over and against the world, and over and against each other, which defines what I have or who I am, but it is God who becomes, and is, the source of my being. Just as Jesus tells the crowd that it is God who gives the manna in the wilderness, not Moses, so it is God who gives us meaning and value, and not the world’s or our own skewed perceptions. It is God who gives us hope, and hope, writes Jim Wallis in his book The Soul of Politics, “always involves the breaking open of a new possibility from seemingly hopeless circumstances.” To the crowd at Capurnum, to we who worship here today, Jesus is our “new possibility in seemingly hopeless circumstances.”
This is the heart of John’s message today. Jesus’ miracles are extraordinary deeds that help and change the situations of needy people–the sick, the hungry, the dying. But the results are not lasting unless the miracles are also recognized as signs that point to the eternal gift of God in Jesus. The crowd’s preoccupation with the benefits of the temporal has diverted them from seeing what really matters. And what really matters is the miracle of faith, that moment when God breaks through the bondage of our misconceptions about life, our pursuit of unsatisfying answers, our self-centered worlds, to reveal the radically new age embodied in and taught by Jesus.
Bishop Rowan Willams has said that “to believe in the risen Jesus is to trust that the generative power of God is active in the human world; that it can be experienced as transformation and recreation and empowerment in the present; and that its availability and relevance extends to every human situation.”
In this light, the entirety of our human existence has Eucharistic potential. Not only are bread and wine transformed, but we who share in it are transformed as well. We are no longer able to live life in bondage to a temporal perspective, from a place of possessions and self-sufficiency; instead, we are enabled to live life from the place of gift–God’s gift freely given, to be freely shared.
So seek the true bread–”the bread that comes down from heaven.” In Christ our chains are freed, and we are gifted, transformed and fed. Fed with the bread of eternal life; transformed and sustained by God’s generative power; and gifted with the hope made real to us in Jesus Christ. Amen.</P