Pentecost – Proper 15
Proverbs 9: 1-6; Psalm 3: 9-14; Ephesians 5: 15 – 20; John 6: 51- 58
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
In order to be a priest in the Episcopal Church one of the things you need to do is attend a seminary, where you spend three years working on a Master’s Degree. Once you receive the degree, it’s somewhat tempting to think you know everything you need to know about being a priest, until you actually start doing it, and you realize you know less and less as each day goes by.
One of the things that happens in seminary is seminarians (that’s what you call the students) spend time working in local Episcopal churches in something called “field work.” The idea of field work is that you learn the nuts and bolts of church life and get a sense of what it is like to actually work in one. At the seminary I attended, we weren’t assigned a church, but were rather instructed to go out and interview at different places. Immediately this process of interviewing for church placement created a sense of unwelcome competition in our class, as people started out interviewing for the “sexy churches” – the big parishes, like the National Cathedral - places with lots of money, lots of stained glass, big buildings, all that stuff. I had absolutely zero interest in competing with classmates over who got assigned to which church, however big it was. So I intentionally sought out a church no one in my class was interested in interviewing. And I found it!
Upon arriving for my interview with the rector, it was obvious why no one was interested in this particular church– it wasn’t grand, the architecture was modern, but in a bad late 1960’s modern church architecture sort of way. The church building itself wasn’t particularly attractive – lots of dark brown brick, fluorescent lighting, no stained glass, hardly any windows. It was like walking into a DPS or Social Security office, except those are classier joints compared to this church. But when I saw it I knew it was perfect. And it was. I spent two years at that parish and fell in love with it. It was a quirky, kind of weird place, but what really interested me about it was that it was the most racially diverse Episcopal church I had visited in all my time at the seminary. The church had parishioners from many different parts of Africa, including Eritrea and Angola. The people were warm and friendly, and that church reminded me that church isn’t about a building. It’s not about putting on fancy clothes and pretending to be someone your really not. Church is about people coming together, as we are, in one of the few places in the world where all are equal.
One Sunday morning the Rector had me help with communion, and she gave me a paten, or the plate, upon which the consecrated hosts (wafers) are placed. I had never served bread to people before at the rail, so this was a new thing for me, and one of the first people I gave the host to was an elderly woman who lived across the street from the church in an Episcopal assisted living home. She had a PhD, and at one time was an established university professor. Her body and mind had been ravaged by Alzheimer’s, and so her cognitive abilities were arguably now less than they were in the past.
This meant that the filter that we have in our brains that keep us from saying the things we know we probably shouldn’t - she didn’t have. It was gone. Which made conversations with her wonderful because you always knew where you stood with her, and she always told you exactly what she was thinking. There was never any guess work. I grabbed the wafer from the paten and placed it into her hand and said the words “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven…” She looked at the host carefully as she held it in her hand, and then looked up to me, and asked the most wonderful question that caught me completely off guard. “Are you sure it is?” I had no idea how to respond, so I said “yeah I’m pretty sure.”
Her question has never left me, though. As we hear Jesus say this morning that he is the living bread from heaven, many of us wonder what exactly that really means. I often about what it is we do here on Sunday morning. We take bread and wine, bless them, and then share them with this audacious claim that they are somehow part of Jesus, or connected to Jesus in a way we can’t fully explain or even comprehend, and that we receive them freely.
Was that bread in her hand the living bread of heaven, the body of Christ? The definitive Episcopal answer is – perhaps. In the Rite I Eucharist, the priest is instructed to say these words when administering communion: “The Body of our Lord Jesus 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.” That sentence is an intentional paradox – because first it calls the bread “the body of Christ,” but then later goes onto say that it is a “remembrance that Christ died for us.” Well, which is it? Is it the actual physical body of Christ or is it a memorial, a reminder that God continually feeds us? Does it matter?
People have argued this question for centuries, each side quoting the Bible and their tradition against the other. The prayer book, in its wisdom offers a third way: let it be both. For those who believe it is the real presence of Jesus, it is the real presence. For others for whom the idea of the real presence of Jesus in bread seems conspicuous, let it be a memorial, a remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Whatever the bread I placed in that woman’s hand was or wasn’t – it is more than any of us can comprehend. Episcopal priest Suzanne Guthrie says: “the Eucharistic host, so small, so pale, a mere wafer of lightness, contains the universe. A worshipper becomes One with the universe, consuming this wonder within the body, a mystery angels dare not look upon.”
It is the living bread of heaven. It is a mystery. It is a reminder that Jesus always freely offers himself to us, never imposing, never forcing. And when we place our hand out to receive this holy mystery, we ask God, “are you sure?” AMEN.