Sunday, August 19, 2018

Bread and Word

Preached for Proper 15, Year B. The lessons read were Proverbs 9:1-6, Ephesians 5:15-20, and John 6:51-58.

Jesus is talking about bread again this week, and, well, we had bread in the gospel last week, and the week before that, and the week before that, and it looks like we're going to have bread again next week. Why so much bread? The reason is this: at the end of July we started a series of readings from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, and there are seventeen mentions of bread in that chapter, beginning with the feeding of the five thousand and ending with the verse which ended this week's reading and which will appear again in next week's text.

This week Jesus is talking about communion, which is curious since the narrative of its institution in the last supper does not appear in John, but only in the three synoptic gospels, and in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. But the words are are plain: we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, and the bread he provides is that flesh, and those words are consonant with the institution narrative which we repeat, week after week: “this is my body” shall be said of the bread, “and this is my Blood of the New Covenant” of the wine, as Jesus said that holy night. Paul says that we do this to remember, but we understand from the words here that it it is not just a memorial, but that we are fed in the Eucharist, not materially, but spiritually.

Now bread in the gospels, it signifies feeding, all right, and more specifically feeding as something we need in order to live. In recounting the last days, there is not a single mention of bread: perhaps it may be part of the marriage supper of the Lamb, but that feast is about something other than base nourishment. Bread, in the gospels, is connected to hunger, and thus it is that the very first mention of bread in the bible comes not out of the mouth of Jesus, but from Satan: “command these stones to become loaves of bread.” And Jesus' reply is interesting in light of his words in this week's lesson, for he says to Satan, “it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” The passage he is quoting is from Deuteronomy, wherein Moses says, “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Jesus also refers to the manna, the bread which came down from heaven, the bread of angels as the psalmist says, but Jesus says that the new bread, his bread, is not like that old manna, which nourished the body, and yet, the Israelites grew old and died.

But in the end, we are promised, we shall not die. Oh, in the short run, in the passing of the years, we shall age or shall succumb to accident or violence or disease, but in the end, the end of days, we shall be raised: that is Jesus' promise. And while we work this earth, we are fed by him: his flesh and his blood. I do not think it profitable to choose from among the various theories about how the elements of communion can be said to be Jesus, but one thing is plain: in some sense, He is becoming part of us as we eat and drink, week by week. We, as the church, are the body of Christ, but we see in Jesus' words that this is not merely a way of talking about how we carry out His will, but also, in a way, a statement of literal truth.

And in this, I want to go back to another point which comes from Jesus' rejoinder to Satan. He says that man, that is, the people of God, is nourished by the divine word. One's first impulse here is to understand this as meaning the word of scripture, but we know also that Jesus is that Word as well; we have that in the first chapter of John. Thus we can say that truly are nourished by word and sacrament, for in a sense, they are the same thing: we of the new creation are fed, literally and spiritually, by what we partake, both in our eyes and ears, and in our mouths: Jesus, the bread of heaven, the word of God.

But enough of bread: I would like to turn from mere bread, to the feast of our first lesson. The proverbs do not appear often in the Sunday lessons, and each of the three times is an address by Holy Wisdom, calling all people to heed her. But in this case, the cry is a summons to a feast. There is bread here, but beyond that, meat and wine. This is not just to satisfy the hungry, but to feed richly and abundantly; not just to live, but to grow and be strong.

And thus, with wisdom, we are back to the Word. Wisdom in the Hebrew carries a different sense than it does in English, and the same with foolishness. The “simple” who are invited are to become wise not only in judgement but in plain learning; here it is the eyes and ears which are the conduits by which God enters in. But it is still the Word; it is still Jesus, and scripture again uses the idea of feeding to convey its effects upon us. We hear the word of scripture, and if I and other preachers and spiritual writers minister effectively in the Spirit, we and you are all instructed so as to be graced with the fruits of the Spirit. Therefore Paul, preaching to the Ephesians, counsels them, and us, to live wisely, that is, to heed scripture and to understand it, and to live it out—for it is in such a life that we have life, we the members, the limbs and organs of the body of Christ, working in the world. And we do so not just in repeating what we have been taught, but in every loving act me make in the world, for it is by that love that we show the Jesus in us: it is in that love that we show what we are made of: Jesus, the bread of the world, come down from heaven, the Son of God, whom with the Father and the Spirit we worship and adore with every feeding from his flesh and blood, the holy food and drink of new and unending life.