Last week the Gospel ended with Jesus’ hearers murmuring and grumbling because this son of Joseph of Nazareth kept referring to himself as “living bread” sent from heaven. He even had the audacity to compare himself to the manna with which God had sustained their forbearers in the Exodus! Jesus went on to make a statement which totally “blew” their minds: “...and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Today’s reading (John 6:51-58) opens with not just murmuring and grumbling, but with a wild and wide-open disputation among themselves over the question: HOW?? “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” On the face of it, Jesus seems to be advocating cannibalism.
Note two things here: 1) This whole conversation in John 6 between Jesus and the Jewish crowd has been about bread and living bread. But only in last week’s passage (vv. 49-51) was there finally any reference to “eating”, and the Greek word which John uses for that is phago, the usual term for satisfying the basic need for hunger. 2) Surprisingly, when the Jews argue about Jesus’ literal language regarding his flesh as bread, Jesus neither hastens to clarify that by using euphemisms, nor does he in any way back away from the discussion. Instead, Jesus presses his point further with the most clear, realistic language: so precise and spelled-out that it’s almost like a definition. “...my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” John even emphasizes at the end of the passage: “This he said...as he taught...”
Not only is Jesus specific in identifying his body as food and his blood as drink, but John translates Jesus’ reference to “eating” here, not with the general Greek word, phago = to eat, but with the amazingly crude, but terribly descriptive and realistic word, trogo = to gnaw on/munch.
As we think about today’s Gospel passage, several key Eucharistic teachings emerge:
of that is that when you and I do this, we have “eternal life” and Jesus will raise us up “at the last day”.
Jesus’ teaching in Scripture and in the Episcopal Church’s tradition regarding the real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is unquestioned. An interesting historical note, however, is that Thomas Cranmer, who devised the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, actually did not accept the real Presence. He denied it because he believed that Christ took his natural body with him in the Ascension, that Christ is currently present in heaven, and that if he is seated at the Father’s right hand in heaven, according to the Creeds, then he can’t be present in the Eucharist. A body can be in only one place at one time. Cranmer felt that, at most, Christ was present and received only “spiritually”. He later acted on his conviction, without the Church’s authority, it seems, when he authored the famous “Black Rubric” which was added to the first revision of the Prayer Book in 1552 (NOTE: The Prayer Book was revised only 3 years after its appearance!!) Cranmer was theologically in error. His Black Rubric was removed from the 1559 version of the Prayer Book, reinserted into the 1662 revision, but with a change in wording clearly not denying the real presence.
The Church’s teaching has traditionally been that, at the Ascension, Jesus‘ body, the vehicle of his humanity, was glorified and transformed above all local limitations, so that the Incarnate Lord is everywhere present in his humanity as well as in his divinity. It’s not the natural body which is physically, materially, naturally, spatially, and locally present in the Eucharist, but Christ’s glorified body.
There is ample witness -- Anglican, Episcopal, and ecumenical -- throughout the ages to the teaching of the real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist:
Most Christians, as well as Episcopalians, today agree on the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Most of their differences and problems involve explaining HOW Jesus is present, the precise mode of presence. There have been countless theories and speculations -- ranging from transubstantiation, to consubstantiation, to memorialism, to transignification, transessentiation, and transfinalization -- all about the HOW of the real Presence for centuries, and we certainly don’t need to rehash them, nor to ridicule them. All of these theories are well-intentioned, if sometimes misguided, attempts to grapple with this fascinating and central mystery of our faith. The mystery of the Eucharist can never be fully grasped by human intelligence, for it is a mystery involving the living God.
What we affirm in faith is that “bread for this life becomes the bread of eternal life”, and that wine which gladdens our human hearts becomes the wine of endless joy. Christ, to be sure, is really present in the Eucharist, but also in many other ways: in the word of God, proclaimed and received; in our assembly as the Church, gathered to worship in prayer and song; and in the ministers who serve at God’s table in their various roles.
Eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood is how we, the mystical body of Christ, grow into the oneness which Gods wills for us. The ultimate change intended by God in the Eucharist is the transformation of us human beings into the true likeness of Jesus.