Friday, June 24, 2011

Bread and Wine, Body and Blood: The Mystery of Holy Communion

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”52 The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?”53 Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.

54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.57 Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” John 6:51–58 (NAB) 

Today is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ; we commemorate the third of the great mysteries of the Church—in addition to the nature of God as One but in 3 persons in the Trinity, in addition to the incarnation of Christ, the Word becoming flesh, today we recognize and are thankful for the real and living presence of Christ in whom we can partake at each Mass.

The Catholic Church teaches that when a priest repeats the words of Christ at the Last Supper over bread and wine that these become truly the Body and Blood of the Lord, even though the appearance of the bread and wine remain.

St. Therese of Lisieux, the little flower, said “Receive Communion often, very often...there you have the sole remedy, if you want to be cured. Jesus has not put this attraction in your heart for nothing...”

What is “this attraction” that God has placed within our hearts? What is this hunger for something that satisfies, and not just fills?

We as Catholics are able to say to Jesus at the end of John’s gospel today, “Yes, I do eat the flesh of the Son of Man. Yes, I do drink his blood! Yes, I do have eternal life; I do expect to be raised at the last day!”

For a long time in my life, I could not say such things. As a minister of Christ in a Protestant Church, I preached that bread and wine were a symbol, a representation, a memory. And while I loved Christ, preached his cross—even wrote a best-selling book called The Anatomy of Calvary, when it came to John 6, I was ignoring some plain, powerful, and pointed truths of Jesus—that unless I ate his flesh, and drank his blood, I did not have life. The question to me—and the question to you today—is if this command to eat and drink Christ is so important, so significant—when in my life have I done this? Am I certain I have? If you don’t know the answer to that question, I do not want you walking out today without getting it straight from God’s Word.

In John 6:54 we read “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”

The word used for “eating” here is the Greek word “trogo” - “eat his flesh” Up until this point: Jesus uses the word “ethio” which means eating in general. But here he deliberately switches, and John catches this important truth. The word used here is trogo: literally “to gnaw, chew” a word that wouldn't be used in a figurative sense.
His words are clear, and the choice is brutal in its consequence—if you do this, you have life; if you do not, you don’t.

And how can someone like me, who is a preacher, still not have life? How can someone who is a disciple still not be saved? How can someone who walked with Jesus so far and so long be ultimately cut off from the very source of life? Well, if we keep reading in John’s Gospel, at the end of Chapter 6, verses 60-69, we can find out how it can happen.

“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?  . . . Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”(the NIV says “do you want to leave too?”) Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

There is an emphasis on literalism in these words of John’s Gospel (however we may choose to understand it, Jesus’ initial audience certainly took them that way—and that’s why many of them left).

Jesus words about consuming his flesh, and drinking his blood separated the real disciples from the casual believers and followers that day. And his words in John 6 continue to do that today. And we Catholics should not apologize for Jesus words—we should praise God for them!

For me, I can’t tell you how many times I read John 6 and knew there was something more than what I was teaching. I started reading the scriptures deeply on this subject—the gospels, the epistles. I also looked at the early disciples of the apostles, the Church Fathers like John Chrysostom, and Cyprian of Carthage, and Augustine. I could find no disagreement between their writings and what Jesus said in John 6—the time when the Church obeyed this command in John 6, when it ate the flesh of Christ and drank his blood was in the Holy Communion, when a presbyter (later called a priest) prayed and blessed bread and wine, and by the power of God it was transubstantiated—keeping its outward form but changing its substance—into the very Body and Blood of Christ. Whatever else might be said, the early Church took John 6 literally. There is no record from the early centuries that implies Christians doubted this constant and consistent Catholic interpretation. There exists no document in which the literal interpretation is opposed and only the metaphorical accepted. And the church has been powerfully, sacredly consistent on that for centuries. You have to go more than a thousand years into church history before anyone voiced doubts about the words of Jesus here in John 6, or whether Christ was present in body and blood in the bread and wine.

That’s why in today’s bulletin there is a special two-page study guide to help you study these things out. In there you will find excerpts from each Gospel, from St. Paul’s writings, chronologically arranged, so you can see this powerful recurring thread of teaching. We’ve also provided citations from Ignatius, and Justin Martyr, and St. John Chrysostom, and Origen—showing clearly the unbroken line of teaching that stretches for centuries about these profound truths. Jesus did not only come to this earth in the flesh—the incarnation—but by the prayers and actions of our priest today—of Father
Andrzej in a few minutes—we will have him, consume him, and be consumed by him, in Holy Communion. We’ve also included selections from the Catholic Church’s organized theology, the Catechism, that can help you in further investigation. Finally, there are some helpful books if you want to study further deeper, more reflectively.

My brothers and sisters, this is huge. This is epic in significance. Finally, for this and a few other things that we’ll talk about someday, I resigned as a pastor, quit my profession, to become his possession. It was scary, but I can tell you one thing—life is never more precious when you step out on faith!

That’s what you find here at the end of John 6 . . . it wasn’t the unbelievers who deserted Jesus at his words—it was the disciples, the believers . . . “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Surveys show that there are a significant number of Catholics who have problems with this teaching. I want to urge you with all that is within me this day to sort this out in your heart. Study it, pray about it, reflect upon it. Let’s talk, let’s study together. We cannot convince a lost and dying world about where real food is if we are not convinced ourselves. We cannot convince our children about the bread of life if we ourselves are conflicted about its value.

That’s why I love Jesus and Peter here in John 6. The disciples are leaving because of this—and Jesus is unmoved. “Wait a minute, I was kidding! I got carried away; got a bit too metaphorical. It was a figure of speech!”

Does Jesus speak this way?


“Do you want to leave too?” It’s not that Christ rejoiced when anyone left his side—and I am not asking you to do that today—but it’s a far more honest response to leave than to sit there on the fence about this. For God’s sake—for your soul’s sake—get this right!

And I love Peter here almost as much.

“Lord, to whom shall we go?” You have to get to that place in your life today—and the way may be difficult and steep. But sooner or later, you get sold out.

—I have consumed what this world dishes out for life, and it has left me empty!

—I have eaten at the table of materialism, and it does not satisfy!

—I have listened to the voices of religious relativism, of watered-down popular, feel-good gospel, of get-rich, gimmie more, jive religion, of nice buildings and cool PowerPoint’s and slick singing, but when I came to Jesus, I did not find any of this—I found only a cross with my name on it. And he said, "feed on me, me alone."

We have consumed all of what this world says is worth consuming—we are even called “consumers”—and it leaves us consistently occupied but invariably empty.

And he beacons to us today with the very Bread of Life! Bring me that Higher Love!

Lord, there is just no place left to go! You have the words of eternal life!

May Christ guide you today, until you stand here today, and joyously celebrate his wonderful, real presence in your life.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pentecost Sunday 2011: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.21 (Jesus) said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit.
23 Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
                                                                                           John 20:19–23 (NAB)

Let’s listen again to the words of Jesus 'Peace be with you " and “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you”, for they are a message as timely in our lives today as they were when Jesus first spoke them, for they speak to a need in our lives as pronounced today as it was on that first resurrection evening.

The scene is electric with anticipation. These remaining disciples had locked themselves into this room, and the scripture explains ‘For fear of the Jews.’ In spite of the rumor of Jesus’ resurrection, these disciples still feared that they too would be crucified.
Imagine what was on their hearts that evening. Doubt, fear, flickers of faith and hope, but probably more than anything else, a lot of disappointment and guilt. Each had proclaimed an unswerving loyalty to Jesus; each had failed miserably. A servant girl had been Peter's undoing; others had fled when the arresting party approached Gethsemane. They could not even remain awake to pray with Jesus! You could not paint a bleaker portrait of failure if you tried.

Such an atmosphere makes the words of Jesus all the more powerful, as he speaks to the need of the hour. He will give them His peace; he will breathe on them the promised Holy Spirit; He will commission them to be sent in a way that was similar to Christ. Jesus gives his peace to those who are most in need of it. Instead of condemnation for their failures, they are forgiven and formed with a new mission. A new start, a new name, a new mission; what encouragement by Jesus!

Jesus' first words to them were words of love and forgiveness- ‘Peace be with you!" They were the prime need of the hour. The second words? “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” In other words, “I have a mission for you.” We read of the power and conviction of these apostles in our first reading today. They would not change their minds, they would not be ashamed, and they would not change the subject. And they turned the world upside down in one generation.

What about us? There are many Christians—and even entire churches—who sit today in "upper rooms" of doubt and discouragement, not locked out by anyone else, but locked in from the inside, for fear of confronting their disappointments or failures. Or perhaps it’s never ever stepping out and trusting God and deciding to be a serious Christian instead of a social believer, a cafeteria Catholic. Maybe we have had great dreams and hopes, only to see them dashed by failure, by opposition, or by sin from within.

Or perhaps, we are ashamed of our church. The clergy scandals, the guilt, the shame we feel when someone starts attacking the thousands—the millions of good priests and the good works and the overwhelmingly ethical foundation of our church—but we are ashamed. We have no words to speak.

And Jesus comes to us in our Upper Rooms today. We again need to listen, to hear the words of Jesus.

"Peace be with you! As the Father sent me, I am sending you.”

These are not words of only comfort without responsibility, for Jesus immediately links his peace with the Father's mission: ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. "Neither are Jesus' words dull and onerous duty without inner comfort and peace. The two—peace and mission—are inseparable. To claim inner spiritual peace without living and sharing that peace with others is only selfishness; to get all involved in church activities and miss the genuine peace of Christ is to invite spiritual bankruptcy. Christ’s peace and His mission are both necessary and inseparable.

For each of these disciples, Christ’s peace and His commissioning—being send out as the Father had sent out Christ—meant a radical reorienting of life, of purpose, of mission, and of sacrifice.

Another thing about these 11 that we can relate to—there were some changes in their group, as they sat in the Upper Room. Jesus was no longer there. They had to forge new relationships, they had to step out, they had to rely on the Holy Spirit—same with us….maybe our favorite priest from a few years ago is not here. Maybe our favorite deacon is gone. Maybe the singing is different, maybe things have changed……what am I going to do? Complain, be afraid, hold back—imagine these guys…."well, when Jesus was here he would have paved the parking lot this way…"
Like the apostles, we have to take what we have learned from Jesus, from that priest, from that deacon, and do the very best thing that would make them proud—put it into practice in a new situation.

And God will be with us. He will transform us, He will strengthen us, He will come to journey with us. He will not leave us embarrassed; He will not leave us unashamed. We will partake of his heavenly manna in the Sacrament in a few minutes; He will give us strength for the journey. And we will never be the same…

One of my favorite characters from the world of literature is Don Quixote de La Mancha, a character born in the imagination of the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes. I especially like the Broadway adaptation of this powerful story, The Man of La Mancha. You probably know the story. 

Don Quixote goes off in search of adventure and encounters a woman named Aldonza who is a prostitute. Don Quixote approaches this woman and respectfully calls her “My Lady.” But when Aldonza hears his greeting, she sarcastically responds by saying, “Me a lady? I was born in a ditch by a mother who left me there, naked and cold and too hungry to cry. I never blamed her. I am sure that she left, hoping that I would have the good sense to die. I am no lady. I am only Aldonza.” However, undaunted by her bitter reply, the Man of La Mancha insists, “Your name is not Aldonza. I give you a new name. You are my lady. And I give you the name Dulcinea.” The name Dulcinea is a name that means something sweet and good, essentially everything that Aldonza was not.

Later in the story, the Man of La Mancha again encounters Aldonza immediately after she has been raped in a barn. When Don Quixote approaches and addresses her as “My Lady,” she screams at him, “Don’t call me a lady! Won’t you look at me! I am only a common prostitute reeking with sweat. A thing men use and forget! I am not a lady. I am Aldonza. I am nothing, nothing at all!” And then, as she runs away, the Man of La Mancha calls out to her twice, “My Lady!” And then he calls out the new name he has given her, “Dulcinea!”

At the conclusion of the play, when the Man of La Mancha is on his death bed, a beautiful woman approaches and kneels at his bedside. Don Quixote looks at her and asks, “Who are you?” The woman then stands and announces, “My name, sir, is Dulcinea!” Finally, at the conclusion of the story, the woman named Aldonza who was so filled with self-hate becomes the unashamed Dulcinea, the kind of person that the Man of La Mancha always envisioned she could become.

I don't know about you, but for a long time in my life, I lived on a steady diet of guilt and condemnation. A great deal of "God is perfect, and you're not!" Not that I quibbled about the difference, but the constant stream of teaching and preaching had just worn down the self-worth and the self-image that God created inside me--at least in my own eyes. Through my own sins and failures, I had convinced myself that I was Aldonza--someone who was not good for much, and certainly not good enough for God.

I am ashamed to admit it, but I heard this message, I absorbed this message, I lived this message, and I even preached this message to (or at) others--a steady diet of "Aldonza, Aldonza."

But Christ came to me, too.

Maybe not in a vision, but certainly through these verses in John's Gospel. Like the apostles, I needed His peace, His forgiveness, His grace, His presence, and yes, His mission. He no longer called me just a man, just another walking breathing pulp of protoplasm on this planet. He called me His child, His loved one, His forgiven one, and a collaborator with His Holy Spirit in a mission as large as the earth and as timeless as eternity. 

He called me "Dulcinea."

And that's what He calls each of us this morning. 

 “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you”….Lord, help us to be sent out on this Pentecost, transformed into your followers with the power of your transforming love.” Amen.