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.

1 comment:

  1. Nice job Rick! Your summary/comment about Peter at the end is great. "I only found a cross with my name on it". What a powerful statement.

    Keep it up brother!