I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
Edmond J. Dunn tells this story: "It was an early October evening in a university town in the late 1950's. I was a graduate student and was participating in the late-afternoon eucharistic liturgy in the Quonset hut that served as the campus chapel. The chapel overlooked a Quonset village left over from World War II days that the university now used as housing for married graduate students. Often these young families would make their way to the chapel to participate in the daily Supper of the Lord, bringing their toddlers with them.
"As the words of institution were pronounced and the presider raised the holy bread for people to see--a time when things get very quiet and parents especially want their children to be attentive--the voice of a two-year-old pierced the silence with a questioning 'Dat Jesus?' Then, as the parent tried to assure the child that indeed it was Jesus but one should be quiet, the little one burst out again, affirming the parent's suggestion, 'Dat's Jesus!' Finally, caught up with the attention of the moment, the two-year-old exclaimed with an unrestrained exuberance, 'Da-a-a-a-t's Je-e-e-sus!!'
"All of a sudden it dawned on me that the child understood the mystery as well as I did; or perhaps said better the other way. I understood this mystery I was participating in little more than the child whose parent was whispering, 'Be still, Jesus is coming.'" (Homily Service, Vol. 33, No. 5, p. 28)
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven," says Jesus, then and now. "Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
This bread is central to our life together. The bread that we take, bless, break, and give to one another in this amazing meal we share each Sunday is food indeed, strong food, life-giving food, bread that not only sustains, but saves and gifts those who receive it with "life everlasting." This bread may be unleavened, pressed and stamped into wafers, or it may be fresh bread, hot and fragrant from the oven, with the aroma filling the sanctuary itself, welcoming, inviting the hungry into our midst. Regardless of how it looks, tastes, or smells, this bread is the vehicle that brings Christ into the very midst of our lives. It is a true feast.
The Catechism in The Book of Common Prayer has an interesting section on "The Holy Eucharist." It says, "The Holy Eucharist is called the Lord's Supper, and Holy Communion; it is also known as the Divine Liturgy, the Mass, and the Great Offering." It continues: "The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life."
So what do we mean by eternal life, life everlasting? The Catechism tells us, "By everlasting life, we mean a new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other." Do you hear anything about "pie in the sky when you die" in that definition? No, it says "a new existence," which certainly could include the time after our death, but it isn't limited to a post-mortal time frame. It speaks more of a state of being than a particular time or place.
Think of this: a new existence in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other. Can you imagine fully knowing and loving another person, let alone fully knowing and loving God? We know so little of who God is in this life, the old existence. We try to expand our thinking about God, but we can't know God in the divine totality--just in bits and snatches, in stories and in prayer, in music and in nature, in church and in the family and in the workplace. Partial experience of God is all we have now, but through the grace of the living bread that came down from heaven, we are promised this new existence, and we can begin to live into that new existence today. The gift has been given. The choice is ours.
So, we make the choice to come to the table. We make it over and over, week after week, but how often do we think about the implications of this meal? The Catechism continues with the question, "What is required of us when we come to the Eucharist?" and answers, "It is required that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people."
Aha! The essence of both our Psalm for today, the 34th, and the lesson from St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians: God has done great things for you, and now you are to respond by allowing God to change your life. Words to the wise. The two lists are remarkably alike, filled with behaviors we would like to embody, but so often we fall short. Listen, from Psalm 34:
You must do these things to enjoy life and have many happy days.
You must not say evil things, and you must not tell lies.
Stop doing evil and do good.
Look for peace and work for it.(New Century Version)
And the heartening promise: "God is close to the brokenhearted and God saves those whose spirits have been crushed."
Paul follows in the same spirit, admonishing the Christians in Ephesus to stop telling lies and tell the truth, to stop stealing and start working; he tells them not to act out of anger and not to say harmful things. As a matter of fact, he characterizes the post-eucharistic Christian as one who is not bitter or angry or mad, who never shouts angrily or says things to hurt others, but who says what people need to hear--words to help them become stronger. "Never do evil," he says. "Be kind and loving to each other, and forgive each other just as God forgave you in Christ." (NCV)
It sounds like a good life, but how can we be so good? How can we turn away from all these things and respond with this true discipleship, this truly new direction to our lives? We can't do it alone. Nor can most of the people we look at admiringly, people whom we assume are able to exemplify this kind of life simply by the strength of their personalities. This quandary brings us full circle--back to the table, back to the living bread that came down from heaven. It is only God who is able to embody these virtuous behaviors without help, but we are, as Paul reminds us, "God's beloved children," and help is at our fingertips, if we will just ask.
What keeps us from asking? Habit, perhaps. We know the old way of being so well; it's as comfortable as our old bedroom slippers. Pride, frequently. Self-sufficiency is seen as a virtue in our society--but as a sin by the Lord. We are not meant to be self-sufficient; we are meant to turn to one another and to God for help. Fear? Certainly. Even a man who is shivering in the bleak winter streets with a thin, worn, inadequate blanket is reluctant to give it up for no more than a promise of warmth. But that's what God asks us to do--to come to this table with our "old existence" loosened from our hearts, offering it up as we receive the Body of the Promised One who is also the Promise fulfilled.
Life will be different. That's a promise!
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.