Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Real Presence: What Jesus Really Said

The Gospel readings for the past three Sundays have been drawn from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, which is Jesus’ teaching on his body and blood, the Eucharist. This Gospel reflection continues both today and next Sunday.

Last week the Gospel ended with Jesus’ hearers murmuring and grumbling because this son of Joseph of Nazareth kept referring to himself as “l
iving 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. “ flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” John even emphasizes at the end of the passage: “This he 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:

1) There’s no way that you and I can be truly spiritually alive unless we eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood. The flip side
of that is that when you and I do this, we have “
eternal life” and Jesus will raise us up “at the last day”.

2) Jesus’ flesh is really food and his blood is really drink. As he says: “ flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

3) When you and I eat his body and drink his blood we experience a state of complete “communion”, that is, a common union, “a union together with” Jesus: you and I “abide”, are oned, in Jesus and Jesus in you and me. In fact, to stress how real and close that union is, Jesus parallels it to the relationship he has with God the Father.

4) The principle out of which and by which you and I are able to live is the eating of Jesus’ body and the drinking of his blood. The being at-one with Jesus is based on his clear statement: “ the one who eats me will live because of me.

5) What Jesus proclaims here regarding his body and blood is consistent and identical with our Christian tradition: with what Jesus proclaims to his Apostles and, through them, to us, the Church: “ they were eating, [Jesus] took bread...and said, ‘Take, this is my body.’ And he took a cup...And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant...Do this in remembrance of me.’

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:

1) In 1597 the great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, published Book V of his The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, in which he depicts Jesus speaking thus of the Eucharist: “‘...this hallowed food, through concurrence of divine power, is in verity and truth unto faithful receivers instrumentally a cause of that mystical participation, whereby, as I make Myself wholly theirs, so I give them in hand an actual possession of all such saving grace as My sacrificed Body can yield, and as their souls do presently need, this is to them and in them My Body.’”

2) On September 12, 1801 the Bishops, clergy and laity of the Episcopal Church in the United States, two years after ratifying the Book of Common Prayer, issued the 39 Articles of Religion. Article XXVIII, “Of the Lord’s Supper”, states: “The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves...but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death; insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ...

3) The Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission, known as ARCIC, issued a statement of common Eucharistic understanding in 1971 which says, in part: “...When this offering is met by faith, a life-giving encounter results. Through faith Christ’s presence...becomes no longer just a presence for the believer, but also a presence with him. Thus, in considering the mystery of the eucharistic presence, we must recognize both the sacramental sign of Christ’s presence and the personal relationship between Christ and the faithful which arises from that presence...The elements are not mere signs; Christ’s body and blood become really present and are really order that, receiving them, believers may be united in communion with Christ the Lord.

4) Finally, the Lima Statement, on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry in 1982, is an ecumenical witness to this common tradition: “...The eucharist is essentially the sacrament of the gift which God makes to us in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit...In the eucharistic meal, in the eating and drinking of the bread and wine, Christ grants communion with himself...

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.

When I first became an Episcopalian at St. Ann’s, Stockton, in 1977, after being a life-long Roman Catholic, I fretted quite a bit over the theology of the Eucharist. There was one quotation, however, which I read in the late, great Rev. Massey Shephard’s book, The Worship of the Church, which finally put my mind at rest. I’ve used it constantly through my 27 years as an Episcopal priest; it was first spoken by Queen Elizabeth I, and, for me, puts this incredible mystery of the HOW of the Eucharist into a rather simple perspective:

Christ was the Word that spake it.
He took the bread and brake it.
And what His word did make it,
That I believe, and take it.

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