There is a Hasidic Jewish saying. “The world is full of wonders and miracles, but we take our little hands and cover our little eyes and see nothing.”
At my former parish, I would, especially on baptismal days, ask the children of the parish to gather around the altar during the celebration of the Eucharist. For me, it transformed this holy meal. I would see the shining, eager eyes of the children, who were still wise enough to know the power of this sacrament. One Sunday as I broke the priest’s host, a piece of bread fell to the altar and landed in front of one little boy, whose eyes got as big as saucers and who quickly flicked it back toward me. Somehow, this child knew the true power of this very common thing, bread, in which we all miraculously experience the true presence of Christ. From the very ordinary, bread and wine, comes the extraordinary, the true presence of God in Christ. This child did not cover his eyes in the face of the power of the sacrament. Perhaps children understand the Eucharist better than adults because God chose to be manifest in something so ordinary, so understandable, that even the smallest child would understand. All you need do is trust, taste and see.
The first thing a child knows outside of itself is a mother’s breast or a bottle. Then they are at the family table in a high chair, then booster chair…there is never a time when our children aren’t at our family table. This, is a Christian’s family table. It is why I love that in the Episcopal Church all are welcome, even the tiniest child. No first communion preparation…because children know when they are included and when they are not.
My grandson, Will, just turned five. He loves the Eucharist. He was at his great grandma’s church, where communion is limited to those who are adults and who believe as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod believes. My wife explained it to him, and he, reluctantly, accepted the reality that he would not be fed at Christ’s table. After thinking about it he said, “Yikes! I don’t think this is right. This is Jesus bread and Jesus loved everyone, so everyone should be able to eat it.” Note that in the hymn we just sang the words say, “ALL who hunger gather gladly”…not just some, or those who believe this or that, but ALL. Will knew that he could trust, taste and see.
The well known theologian, Marcus Borg, tells the story of how intimately children know God. A little girl pressed her parents for a baby brother or sister, and finally, after a few years, her parents were able to present her with a baby brother, Michael. She was entranced by him, and one day, after the baby had been home from the hospital about a week, she asked if she could be with him alone. At first her parents were a bit nervous about that, images of awful sibling rivalry stories dancing in their heads, but then they remembered they had a baby monitor in the nursery and allowed the little girl to go in. They rushed to the monitor speaker, and could hear here little footsteps and almost see her leaning over her baby brother’s crib. Then they heard her speak. “Mikey, tell me what God looks like, I’ve almost forgotten.”
We so often get confused about the sacraments, between their true power and the miraculous in them, and what their purpose is in our lives. To this day many people feel unworthy to go inside the communion rails, which some church historians tell us were created to keep the livestock, which were often marketed in the first great Cathedrals, from munching on the linen. But right from the beginning of creation, God has desired us, called us to be God’s own people.
In his marvelous book, Quantum Theology, the Irish physicist and priest Diarmud O’Murchu writes, “God is not a passive, detached, external ruler, but a passionate, relational presence, embodied in the creative evolutionary pattern itself.” I’ve been a casual student of the branch of physics called cosmology, which looks at the beginning of things, in that study one sees God’s handwriting everywhere. Long before the incarnation, God taking human flesh in Jesus, God sought out all life, nurtured it. O’Murchu writes movingly of how divine revelation and creative love has unfolded in the process of the creation and evolution of life.
Episcopalians have always had the good sense not to try and explain scientifically how Christ is fully present in the Eucharist, but we believe that to be true. And we must be certain that we do not lose the sense of power in the sacrament of the Eucharist which children know instinctively. The Eucharist is essentially a mystery, and we learn from our children that one need only trust, taste and see to become one with the risen Christ, part of Christ’s body.
In this section of the Gospel of John, we have seen Jesus coming home to Galilee. All the way he had been performing miracles and feeding people with real bread, dispensing “living water.” He fed the 5,000 after his disciples wanted to send them away. He has told the Samaritan woman at the well that he offered the living water that would ensure that she never was spiritually thirsty again. After feeding the 5,000, he traveled across the Sea of Galilee only to find that they had followed him in boats of their own. But Jesus is becoming concerned that they might be missing the heart of the message of his teaching.
Eugene Peterson’s contemporary language translation of the Bible, The Message, sometimes has a really pithy way with the sayings of Jesus. In the verses immediately preceding today’s gospel, Peterson shows the frustration of Jesus very clearly. Jesus says, “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your bellies—and for free.”
Then Jesus has the audacity to say “I am the bread of life that came down from heavens.” The local folks who had known him since childhood, the hundreds, maybe thousands who followed him across the lake, all must have been shocked at this, saying, “Isn’t that Joseph the carpenter’s son? I know his mother, Mary; she and I drew water together almost every day for the past 30 years.”
This saying was terribly shocking to the largely Jewish audience. Blood had such power in Jewish tradition and the prohibitions against ingesting it underlies the kosher process even today. Religions around Israel did human sacrifice, so these seeming cannibalistic statements must have shocked. Immediately following this section of the gospel we read that his followers found this to be a hard teaching, and that many turned back and did not follow him. What are they so afraid of? They were following Jesus when he was feeding them, but now he was getting personal. Ah what trouble we get ourselves into when we take things too literally. But Jesus is asking them and us to suspend our literalism, to go beyond, to go deeper than intellect, deeper than rules and to know that in this sacrament we celebrate today, all things are made possible, even the conquering of death.
You can hear the frustration of Jesus so clearly in this. Yes, have your body fed. Better yet, feed others who have no bread. But I was sent by The Holy One to fill the deeper hunger, that God-shaped hole in your soul which only God can fill. Just how powerful this bread from heaven is can be seen as we encounter Elijah, who had given up hope. He simply sat down to die in today’s reading from I Kings, but here, prefiguring the Eucharist, he is given his life back as God gives him food and drink. There is a catch! He was given back his life in order to do God’s work in the world. The Eucharist is the sacrament that feeds us so that we might go out into the world and feed others.
But there is more to it, Dear Ones. We are talking about God’s holy longing here as well as our own. God took human flesh in Jesus so that God could show us who God really is. God became incarnate so that the love and power of God’s compassion could actually be seen, heard, touched and felt by those who encountered Jesus. And in John’s gospel today, Jesus is getting concerned that the people would miss the heart of the message. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….Jesus would, like bread, be broken on the cross, and somehow, miraculously, the very power of God is loosed in us who become the Body of Christ, the ones who inherit the task AND the power, to change the world as Jesus did if we will ourselves, and empower others to trust, taste and see.
I don’t think it was just the shocking statement about his flesh that chased them away. It was a flight from intimacy with God that truly scared them, and I think most of us. For to be one with Christ is to be wholly transformed, to become bread for the world just as Jesus was bread for us. The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, spoke of how hard it is to accept that we are God’s beloved in this poem.
…I could not bear to touch God with my own hand, when he came within my reach, but he wanted me to hold Him. How God solved my blessed agony, who can understand? He turned my body into his.
Here we see the truth of the Eucharist, the truth of what Jesus is suggesting when he speaks of his flesh and blood being food for the world. It was such a disorienting thing to those who heard him. Jesus needed to give them direction. Peterson’s translation gets it right again. He has Jesus responding “Don’t bicker among yourselves, you’re not in charge here. The God who sent me is in charge. God draws people to me—that’s the only way you’ll ever come. Only then do I do my work, putting people together, setting them on their feet and meeting their deepest needs, not just filling their stomachs.”
God is taking the risk of intimacy. God took the risk of taking frail human flesh in Jesus, and now, Jesus had come to the “fish or cut bait” point with his followers. Jesus knew that the kind of intimacy he had with God could be known by each person, for we are all children of God, made in God’s image. Here Jesus is telling us to know him is to know God, and he knew that this intimacy with God was beyond anything they had known either emotionally or physically. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Here, beyond our wildest dreams is the promise that each heart, each mind, each soul longs for, but fears.
As you receive the bread and the wine this day, let your body, mind and spirit take in the power of this sacrament. Be like a child and let the words of the hymn sink in. “All who hunger, never strangers, seeker be a welcome guest. Come from restlessness and roaming, here in joy we keep the feast. Come from loneliness and longing here in peace we will be fed.”