The “Useless” Sacrament

          “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me.” Have you ever stopped to think about just how graphic and gross those words are? I’ll confess to you that I never did until just a few years ago. I was kneeling at my former parish in Winnipeg during the Prayer of Humble Access. My wife, Rachel, was sitting beside me with our youngest, Hugh (who was then 3) on her knee. “Grant us therefore gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear son and to drink his blood . . . .” That was as far as I got when from beside me I heard a slightly perplexed three year old say, “Wait a minute. Drink his blood?”

          The wonderful clarity that comes from a fresh perspective hit me that morning and has stayed with me ever since. From that perspective, I can easily see just why the first Christians were accused by their pagan neighbors of cannibalism. All this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood. If you stop and reflect on the liturgy rather than merely piously spouting it off, especially as we find it in the BCP, it really is quite, well, material. I’ll come back to that in a minute. For the moment, let’s turn to the Gospel text.

          The Gospel lessons of the last few weeks have been working through Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse in the Gospel of John. Jesus has told us that unlike the bread that was miraculously distributed in the feeding of the 5000, he is the bread that truly satisfies. And he has told us that the manna that came down from heaven was but a precursor to the bread that really came down from heaven. “I am the bread that comes down from heaven,” says Jesus. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” So far so good. We are still in the safe world of mystery and metaphor. Jesus being bread means Jesus really fulfills. If and as we come to him, our hearts’ hunger will be satisfied.

          And of course, this is true. St. Augustine grasped and expressed this powerfully when he wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts will not rest until they rest in thee.”

          But Jesus is not content to stay with the metaphor. He goes on: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Troubling little verb is the one we take for granted. “To be.” What does Jesus mean when he says, “the bread. . . is my flesh”? Both Jesus’ enemies and friends are confused. Perhaps Peter thought, “Well, it’s not too bad. We can still work with this Jesus. . . .” but his sacramental musings are cut short with more words from the Master: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life. . . . for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” There is no more room for metaphor here. No safe retreat to symbolism. Jesus’ disciples recognize it: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Because of it, they begin to abandon him.

          What are we to do with the sheer materiality of Jesus’ words here?

          As I’m sure Fr. Nussey has already told you, we are dealing here with the first of seven I am sayings in the Gospel of John that have an object. Do you remember them? I am the light of the world. I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Gate. I am the Resurrection and the life. I am the way, the truth and the life. I am the true vine. All of them highlight the uniqueness of Jesus as the one who comes from the Father, who through his person and by the Spirit, brings the Father’s life-giving presence to his people and, conversely, brings people into the life-giving presence of God. This relationship is so unique, in fact, that the only to express its intimate nature is for Jesus to take as his own, God’s very name. I am.    I am God’s life present with you. I bring God’s life to you. I bring you into God’s Life. I bring God’s life into you.

          Of them all, I am the bread is the most material. Of them all, I am the bread most closely identifies the saving and life-giving work of Jesus not simply with his person, but with the very physical, and material way in which that person comes to us: “the bread I give for the life of the world is my flesh. Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you don’t have life.” In this way, I am the bread is different from the other sayings. It is the most physical, and when expanded upon by Jesus, it becomes even more physical.

          And it is the physicality of Christ’s life that we encounter week in and week out as we come to the Table. “The Body of Christ which was given for thee preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving. The Blood of Christ which was shed for thee preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee and be thankful.” In a real way, when we come to the table, we come to eat. And that which we come to eat, to consume, to take into ourselves is the very life of Christ. His body. His blood. His human life made present by the Spirit. Such that, united to his human life, we become his Body—the Church—and as his Body, we participate in Life (capital L), the Triune God. In Christ, Deity and humanity fully subsist in one person. United to Christ, we sacramentally share in that incarnational union. United to Christ in the Spirit, we participate in God.

          I know what you’re thinking. You are thinking exactly what the disciples thought: “This is a hard teaching!”  You are thinking exactly what Hugh gave voice to in Winnipeg: “Wait a minute! Did I just hear that correctly?”           And Jesus won’t let us off the hook with a wink and a nod and saying “Well, you know I really didn’t mean that.” Instead, he asks us a question: “Does this offend you? Do you also wish to go away?”  Jesus doesn’t give us, as a former President of the USA once tried to do, a meaning of the word, “is.” He just says, This is my body. He just says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me.”

          That’s just useless, isn’t it? I mean, there’s no programme for changing the world. No strategic initiatives for church growth. No keys to discerning, amid all the cries in our world for justice, which ones are, well, truly just. We want a programme we can follow. We want a method for re-making our world. We want tools with which to build the kingdom. We want something useful. And this—all this talk about flesh and blood—is useless. It makes no sense whatsoever.

And when we try to make it make sense, well, Jesus just refuses to make it any easier for us. He just extends the invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood again, and in so doing, abide—fine our life—in him. But that’s the point. Christian worship is useless, and Christian convictions about our life in Christ are useless. Which is to say, Christian worship and conviction are not means to some greater political end. They are ends in themselves. They open up into the Kingdom of God and open us up to its presence. Whatever programmes for change or strategic initiatives or works of justice and mercy we have flow from and serve our worship. Not the other way round.

At the conference this past weekend we have spoken about the political obligations that impinge upon us as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the crucifed God and risen and ascended man. By politics, by the way, we meant “our public life in the cities in which we find ourselves.” We mean what the ancients meant when they used the word polis. How does following Jesus influence the ways and places we behave from Monday to Saturday?

And as we attempted to tease out some advice from the life and thought of Thomas Cranmer. That advice seems to me to call us to reject the extremes into which our church—church meaning our Anglican church– is increasingly being led or pushed.

On the one hand, there are those in our church who seem to think that the politics is prior to our constitution as the Body of Christ. We receive our political direction and purpose, we receive the shape of our common life from culture, from—to use Cranmer’s language—the magistrate, and it is our sole purpose to bless it. This has been the temptation of Anglicanism from the days of Henry, the temptation to become the spiritual arm of the state. In the days of Sir John A., the Church of England in Canada was the Tory party at prayer. Today the Anglican Church of Canada is more likely the NDP at prayer. But the fundamental orientation toward our world hasn’t changed. Our world makes its own decisions for its own reasons, and if it is feeling charitable towards us, it invites us to bless those decisions. Worse, the world makes its own decisions and doesn’t care a fig what we do. And to make ourselves look useful and relevant, we invite ourselves to bless those decisions. Either way, we bless them.That’s why we’re here.

On the other hand, there are elements in our church that would content themselves on preparing souls to go to heaven. It is our task, our mission, these elements might say, to preach the Gospel and serve the sacraments to rescue people out of a world that is sinful and lost and leave the world to its own devices. It is most ironic, to me at least, to find that some folks would use the world “evangelical” to describe their commitment when it simply does not resemble in anyway the evangelical activism of the Wesleys, of William Wilberforce and the Clapham sect. Having been rejected by the world, this faction has surrendered any sense of responsibility for that world and has reduced its mission to the mission of saving souls.

It seems to me that Cranmer’s example cautions against both extremes. Created by the gracious and saving Word of God and fed by the Bread of Life, the Church is never accountable to the world or the culture. We, like all good citizens, obey just laws and observe our civic obligations to the best of our abilities. But our mission—the reason we are here—is not drawn up by the magistrate. Nor is it accountable to the magistrate. Cranmer advises us—and here he is right—that both the church and the magistrate are accountable to the Word of God.

For us, that means that when the culture does right, then we do proclaim the gracious blessing of God. When the culture does not, then we, with the apostles in the book of Acts, say publicly that we must obey God more than the counsels of human beings. And Cranmer at the stake shows us plainly just how far that public speech is to go. It is to bear faithful witness to the very end.

Created by the gracious and saving Word of God and fed by the Bread of Life, the Church is accountable not to the world, but for the World. The world is God’s good creation, lost to be sure, but also being redeemed. And we are sent into the world to announce the Good News of God in word and act that God has not given up on his creation. He has not abandoned it and neither do we. Rather, we remain in it, and bear witness to the coming of the kingdom, a kingdom which will renew the entirety of creation.

This morning, we have been called by the life-giving word. In a few moments, we will be fed by life-giving bread. In both acts, the Spirit of God will unite us to Christ. The Spirit of God will tie our humanity to his humanity. And in the mystery of the incarnation, so allow us to participate in the very life of God. And having been so re-made as the Body of Christ, the People of God, we will by and in that same Spirit, be sent forth into God’s world. Not to change it with this or that programme, or to abandon it because it is beyond changing. Rather, we are sent to announce that it has been changed by Christ’s coming, is being changed by Christ’s Spirit, will forever be changed by Christ at his return. And then to live like that is true.

Leave a Reply