(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
Text: John 6:60-69
‘After this, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him.’ (John 6:66)
We often read together stories from the gospel where the Lord Jesus is revered, sought by many, and listened to. When we hear of opposition, this generally comes from outside, from the people who do not accept him and look for to his demise. John 6 – which we finish today – has so far fitted into these parameters. Jesus has worked miracles, he has been pursued by the crowd who even wanted to make him king by force (Cf. John 6:15), he has taught countless people and he has revealed himself as ‘the living bread that came down from heaven’ (John 6:51). Whilst opposition has come from the usual places and it was summarised last week in a simple question, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (John 6:52).
However, as we reach the end of the Bread of Life discourse we encounter something different – an unexpected turn of events where both openness and opposition to Jesus come from among the same group, from among his disciples. The reading picks up from where we left it last week and says, ‘After hearing his doctrine many of the followers of Jesus said, “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?”’ (John 6:60).
The disciples hear Jesus saying ‘my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’ (John 6:55), they hear him talk of his body as the Bread which give life to the world (Cf. John 6:51), and they are stunned by these words. A rift opens among them. On one side, many disciples – not one or two, but “many” – are sceptic about how Jesus could ever give his own self as food, and they brand his teaching as “intolerable language” – in other translations this is rendered as “unacceptable saying”, or a “hard teaching”… On the other side, we have Peter and the other eleven disciples – whom, far from being perfect, trust in the Lord’s word and remain with him. The rift among the disciples hangs on this; Jesus said,
‘Very truly, I tell you... Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink’ (John 6:53-55).
Think about it. Of course this is could be seen as an unacceptable saying. Many disciples thought they were following a religious leader who would have restored freedom to the people of Israel with his revolutionary ideas. But what they hear now from him is a speech about giving himself up as food and drink to those who believe… What on Earth could this even mean? As a consequence, the gospel tells us, a good number of disciples leave Jesus – they literally do the opposite of conversion; they turn away from him – and stop travelling with him.
The words of Jesus plunge disciples into crisis, and still to this day the Bread of Life discourse is the stumbling block for many Christians. The teaching about the Sacrament of the Eucharist, about Jesus’ Body and Blood, has become a visible rift within the Church for the last 500 years at least – but it has been present since the very beginning. The fact that Jesus is present on our altars with his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity is an unacceptable doctrine for many but the cause of hope, consolation, and joy for others. It all depends what side of the divide we decide to go for.
‘The Eucharist is the place where one comes to eternal life. Encountering the broken flesh and the spilled blood of Jesus, “lifted up” on the cross (vv. 53-54), [we] called to make a decision for or against the revelation of God in that encounter (vv. 56-58), gaining or losing life because of it (vv. 53-54)’ (F.J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, p. 224).
The words of Jesus may be a difficult saying to understand, but that should not be an obstacle to faith. Jesus calls us to believe in him and in the mystery of his Body and Blood, not to have a PhD in sacramental theology. Therefore, when he says to us ‘my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink’ we have a straightforward choice. We can stubbornly rely on ourselves and our cynicism, believing only what we can prove or understand (like the many disciples did), or we can courageously embrace the faith, aiming to rely solely on the Lord Jesus and on his words no-matter-what – never ever letting go of him.
It could be that the Lord Jesus is addressing us today as he did to the Twelve, ‘What about you, do you want to go away too?’ (John 6:67). But, through Saint Peter, the gospel gives us the words with which we should answer him. Kneeling at the altar rail to receive the Body and Blood of Christ it is as if we were saying, ‘Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life’ (John 6:67).
Text: John 6:51-58
[They] started arguing with one another:
‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (John 6:52)
In 1263 the small Italian town of Bolsena became the backdrop for one of the most famous miracles of the Middle Ages when, in the ancient church of Saint Christina, the consecrated host inexplicably began to bleed during Mass. The host, the Bread of the Eucharist, bled over the priest’s hands and over the corporal – the square linen placed on the altar. The corporal stained with Lord’s blood was taken to the city of Orvieto and enshrined as a relic in the cathedral where it attracted both pilgrims and sceptics who wanted to see this wonder for themselves. Almost 800 years later that corporal is still there on display; still the cause of much devotion for believers and of speculation for sceptics. Perhaps more remarkable (and relevant for us) than the miracle itself is the back story of the priest who was celebrating Mass when all this took place; the man whose hands were touched by the blood flowing from the host. He himself wasn’t the stuff of miracles or a famous wonderworker; he was just a pilgrim on his way to Rome named Peter of Prague. He was devout and committed priest but, as the story goes, Pater also harboured doubts that the Lord Jesus could be truly present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. And so, this miracle that touched him so literally was soon perceived by people as God’s own intervention to restore the faith of one of his doubting servants. But it didn’t stop there; news of this baffling event spread like wildfire and the Miracle of Bolsena became the cause of much devotion and catalyst for renewed faith in the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
Today the lectionary presents us with the most important instalment of the Bread of Life discourse from John’s gospel. And as we listen to the Lord Jesus saying, ‘I am the living bread which has come down from heaven’ (John 6:51), we too might start to feel a little like Pater of Prague. In fact, we might be tempted to dismiss the entirety of John 6 as nonsense or as a convoluted metaphor, by echoing the words of Jesus’ opposers who say, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
For three-quarters of the Church’s history the vast majority of Christians have believed that Jesus comes to be really and truly present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist; have believed that the bread and the wine offered on the altar are permanently changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord; and have believed that through participation at the altar (by receiving Holy Communion) soul and body are nourished with Christ himself. Then came the various waves and controversies of the Reformation, and with them arrived terrible confusion for the average person in the pew as well as doubts about the presence of the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. Ironically, it was precisely those reformers who advocated a form of Christianity based simply on literal teachings of the Bible who brought many Christians to doubt the very words of Christ himself and to ask sceptically once again, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
The result of this dreadful confusion is that so many devout and committed Christians nowadays harbour doubts like Peter of Prague; so many are left confused. They stay away from the Mass, regarding Holy Communion as an optional extra, rather than a necessary, personal, and intimate encounter with the Lord Jesus. A repeat of the Miracle of Bolsena would be a great blessing from God, and it may help Christians to recover faith in the Eucharist. But where would it leave us in the long run? Do we really need another Eucharistic miracle in order to reaffirm the belief that Jesus is present for us on the altar? The truth is that we don’t. If we needed miracles, then God would provide them. We have something greater than miracles here; we have the word of the Lord Jesus… and if we can’t trust the word of Christ, who could we trust?
‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ People might ask, but to this question Jesus simply and unequivocally replies, “the bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Cf. John 6:51) and,
‘my flesh is real food
and my blood is real drink’ (John 6:55).
Whenever we approach the altar rail at Holy Communion, or whenever we approach the tabernacle, Jesus is there for us – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The one who loves us, is here for us. The one feeds us, is here for us. The one who saves us, is here for us.
Though the lowliest form doth veil thee
as of old in Bethlehem,
here, as there, thine angels hail thee…
…here for faith's discernment pray we,
lest we fail to know thee now.
Thou art here, we ask not how.
(from Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour)
The Ascension of the Lord, apart from being an astonishing event in the life of Jesus, can somehow bring a little sadness or melancholy to some Christians. The Lord goes up to heaven, to sit at the Father’s right hand, back to the Father’s bosom from where he descended at his Incarnation, and we are left here; maybe looking up and wandering whether he sees us, hear us, or even care for us. But Jesus knew this sense of loss would come, and so he prepared his first disciples for the moment of this glorious departure. He said to them, ‘In a little while you will see me no more’ (John 16:16); to St Mary Magdalene, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father’ (John 20:20); and finally, before leaving, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). The Lord indeed has gone us to heaven but, as he promised, he is still with us in many ways; the Holy Spirit breathes the life of Jesus in us, other believers represent and interact with us as Christ, the poor and the marginalised personify Jesus in the world, and most importantly the Lord is still with us in the Blessed Sacrament, in the Eucharist. So, tonight we can celebrate with joy Jesus’ return to the Father without feeling bereaved or abandoned by him. We can celebrate with joy at being with the Lord who is with us here and now on the altar. Here his presence is life-giving, constant, and real until the end of time; here we can physically hold on to his Body and cling to him as the source of all life and love.
But we don’t come, or we shouldn’t come, in the Lord’s presence alone. As we begin the 40 Hours we join the Thy Kingdom Come prayer wave which will sweep across the world over the next nine days, praying that more and more people will turn to Jesus in faith. Each of us is encouraged to pray for five specific people, that they might come to believe, and so we ought to come into the Lord’s presence with them, with their names on our lips and on our hearts.
In my opinion, one of the most beautiful and outstanding miracle stories of the gospels is the one of the man who was let down through the roof of a house (Mark 2:2-12 and Luke 5:17-26). In this story a group of people tries to get Jesus to cure their friend, but the house where the Lord is staying is completely packed and, try as they may, they can’t get the man (who is paralysed on a stretcher) to Jesus. So they cut a hole in roof of the house and lower their friend right in front of Jesus. And at this point the gospels say that the Lord ‘saw their faith’ and he both cured the sick man and forgave all his sins.
During these forty hours we are the people mentioned in the gospels. We are the ones who need to make every spiritual effort to get our friends, family, and neighbours in the presence of the Lord through our prayers. We are the ones to ask (in faith and on their behalf) that Jesus might free them from the paralysing sickness of religious apathy, atheism, and misbelief.
In the gospels Jesus saw their faith. He sees our faith now and he is here to heal, to cure, and, as the 1980s hymn goes, to minister his grace.
‘He had always loved those who were his in the world,
but now he showed how perfect his love was.’ (John 13:2)
Only this afternoon, whilst leading the Easter services for Thomas Whitehead Academy, I joined the children in singing,
Higher than the highest mountain,
deeper than the deepest deep blue sea,
stronger than the love of everyone
is the love of Jesus for me.
And indeed, yes, Jesus’ love for us is higher, deeper, and stronger that anything we can ever imagine. But it is not only those things. Jesus’ love is also perfect – perfect in the sense of being mature, grown-up love; forever unchanging; always preceding our actions; always more generous than what we expect or deserve, and always ready to welcome us; perfect in the sense that it is entirely selfless, and intentionally self-giving.
Tonight we begin to celebrate this perfect love by rehearsing the first chapter of the Easter story where the Lord “gives us the Eucharist as a memorial of his suffering and death”. But as we enter the upper room of the Passover meal with the disciples we see that Jesus does much more than simply sharing a meal with his friends. His love is perfect, so in that love Jesus also prepares us for this meal by washing away our spiritual dirt like he washed the disciples feet; he then feeds us and as food he gives us the gift of his own very self; and finally he makes the Eucharist as the central celebration of his love and as his enduring presence with us for all time.
Yet, so many Christians keep away from this most holy Sacrament; so many parishes have given up almost entirely on celebrating the Eucharist often and with regularity; and so many people seek true life and true love everywhere but here.
Saint Alphonsus in our Offertory hymn speaks of this Sacrament which Jesus establishes tonight as the bond of that perfect love which makes us one with Jesus, as the food of true life, and as the source of only lasting joy.
O Bond of love that dost unite
The servant to his living Lord;
Could I dare live and not requite
Such love? - then death were meet reward:
I cannot live unless to prove
Some love for such unmeasured love.
My hope and prayer is that tonight we will encounter afresh this perfect love in the celebration of the Mass and that we will hear the Lord’s encouragement to receive him in the Eucharist as often as possible.
‘My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’, says the Lord,
‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them.’ John 6:55-56
On the Thursday after Trinity Sunday the Church of England keeps the ‘Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion’ and this is the solemnity we celebrate transferred to today under the more common name of Corpus Christi.
Churches in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England tend to stand out a little bit more than the others during this feast; but while it would be easy to think that this is all down to the solemnity of our liturgy, or the ancient customs that we observe today, the thing that make churches like ours to stand out is, in fact, the faith and devotion that should inspire our celebration. In other words, what should motivates us to pull out all the stops for this feast is the fact that today we make the point to reaffirm our belief in the most precious of all the gifts we have ever received from the Lord Jesus; the gift of his own very self – body, blood, soul, and divinity – under the simple and very ordinary forms of bread and wine. Faith in what is called the “Real Presence” of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is what makes us stand out today from others Christian communities where the Eucharist is considered a disposable add-on to the faith.
But in today’s gospel we hear how a number people at the time of Jesus were already uncomfortable and sceptic about this teaching, and how some of them were even scandalised by it, and because of it they stopped following the Lord.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they said (John 6:52). A legitimate question from non-believers that prompted Jesus to affirm many times how his own body and blood are true nourishment from those who receive them, and the principal means of union with him. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them’ (John 6: 56), say Jesus, and the Lord’s own word, should be enough for us.
Again, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that, although we cannot see him face to face in this present age, he is always going to be with us. And the Church has come to interpret his words to be a promise that the Lord is indeed always with us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in the consecrated elements of Holy Communion.
In the Blessed Sacrament, in the Host we place on the altar after Mass Jesus truly dwells with us; his silent and unassuming presence brings comfort and healing to those who approach him; his humble self-giving to us under the appearance of Bread teaches us to give ourselves for others… A traditional hymn says, ‘Thou art here, we ask not how’ and yes, although we cannot fully contemplate or express this mystery, I do hope that those who took part in the 40 Hours of Prayer two weeks ago, managed to experience what it means to spend time in the presence of the Lord Jesus, the Prince of Peace, in the Blessed Sacrament.
The past weeks have borne witness to a considerable number of needless tragedies culminating with the harrowing disaster of Grenfell Tower in the last few days. Confronted by these events, where it seems that it always the poor or innocent people to pay the highest price, it would be easy to despair, to lose heart, or worse, to let sorrow fester into violent anger. But as we sit in this place we should remind ourselves of the words of a beautiful hymn about the Eucharist,
Sweet Sacrament of rest,
ark from the ocean's roar,
within thy shelter blest
soon may we reach the shore;
save us, for still the tempest raves,
save, lest we sink beneath the waves:
sweet Sacrament of rest.
Here, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, is the very place where the Lord wants us to be so that by feeding on him and adoring his presence among us, we may go out and be strengthened to work in diffusing anger, striving for justice, begging for mercy, fostering love, and bring the life and peace of this Sacrament to a suffering world.
Lord Jesus Christ, we worship you living among us
in the sacrament of your Body and Blood.
May we offer to our Father in heaven
a solemn pledge of undivided love.
May we offer our brothers and sisters
a life poured out in loving service of your kingdom
where you live with the Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
on God, for ever and ever. Amen.