Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sunday before Advent

Jeremiah 23:5-8
John 6:11-14

It may seem bold to say this: Miracles look perfectly natural to the eye, even though the rational mind perceives the impossibility of what is happening. When I saw the miracles of a deformed shoulder straightened instantly, and of my mother's spine healed within seconds, these miracles looked like a work of nature. They did not appear as something spectacular, the way Charlton Heston and Cecil B. DeMille teamed up to make the parting of the Red Sea into a cinema-graphic production. It is more akin to seeing a tulip bulb open; that is, a sight wonderful, to behold, but not in appearance like magic tricks. Miracles are clearly not a mere work of nature, and by the "laws" that scientists know, they are manifestly impossible, even when they are manifest. This is because the same Artist and the same brush strokes are evident both in nature by creation, and in miracles by extraordinary intervention. It is the same God, and the same, if I may use the word, style.

Today's Gospel tells of a miracle by which Jesus fed thousands of people by multiplying a meal so small that it was next to nothing. This was no problem for God, who made the entire universe out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Jesus fed the thousands of hungry people using the same power he had as the Word, the Logos, through whom all things were made, and without whom was not anything made that was made. More significant than the miracle, from his perspective, was the lesson he would later teach from it. Before we look at that lesson, let us draw out one more fact. Here Jesus provided the material needs of the people, just as he promises that our needs will be met if we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. How easily we may forget that God is the Provider of all things, even if it is only by forgetting that everything exists due to the first miracle, creation itself, creation out of nothing, creation by his word. It is not simply nature at work that grows wheat; the wheat grows because of the miracle of creation; and people who fail to believe in miracles ultimately cannot explain how anything came to be. Even the "Big Bang" is not a theory of origin, but of process, how the universe was like an egg that hatched in an explosion. If so, where did the essential elements of that "egg" come from? The origin of the universe and of all creation was a miracle, for it came from nothing, and it was made by the word of God. God provides for us, and we should not think that it is a challenge for him to provide, even to make what we need if it is nowhere to be found.

But the lesson, the lesson we are given in the sixth chapter of John, where today's Gospel is found, is that this bread that Jesus multiplied represents himself, the true food we need.

"And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst."(v.35)

"Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever." (vs.53-58)

To the ancient Church in St. John's day, reading these words for the first time, it was obvious that the Lord himself had interpreted their meaning on a later occasion: "The Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me."(I Cor.11:23-25)

Nonetheless, we must not think that feeding on Christ is merely the mechanical act of eating this bread and drinking this cup, and nothing more. In the 17th chapter of John, the third verse, we read these words: "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." And, in the same words of warning, where St. Paul tells of the danger of partaking of the Communion in an unworthy manner, without (as our liturgy puts it) "hearty repentance and true faith," we see him affirming the reality of Christ in this sacrament. And, that is why even the words of warning are words of hope. The same passage that tells us of Christ's promise to those who eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, also reveals that Jesus taught that the benefits are only to those who believe in him (v.40)

We come here today to feed on the living Christ through the sacrament of his body and blood, and so receive his life to save us from sin and death. Modern people have cut out of our Prayer of Humble Access a little phrase that confuses them, "Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us." They reason that the body cannot be sinful, since it is only a machine without volition. I understand that. But, the very fact that death is, as taught in the Law of Moses, an unclean thing, quite justifies the words of our Anglican prayer. Really, it expresses the glorious hope of St. John's words in the Epistle. As we learn from the sixth chapter of John's Gospel: "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day (v.54)." Our sinful bodies, that is, our bodies that are subject to death, are purified and cleansed by eating this sacrament with faith and thanksgiving; our souls are washed as we receive this sacrament of his blood. I love the words from our Prayer of Humble Access, for they speak of the glorious hope that awaits us by the mercy and goodness of God in his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The glorious hope we have in Christ is certified, verified and imparted when we partake with "hearty repentance and true faith." In the words of Article XXV: The Dominical sacraments are the means "by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him." Quicken means to make alive, and so we receive the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, the One in whom is life. That is, life that gives life by the creative power of God, the power he has as the Word, the Logos. For this sacrament to be our life, instead of eating and drinking condemnation, we must live the life of knowing God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. It is not simply the mechanical act of eating and drinking (indeed, if that is all it is for you, then do not receive it). Receiving the sacrament of Christ's body and blood is to feed on the living Christ, the risen Christ, and to receive the Christ who is present among us. It must be part of the whole life of faith, and of knowing God.

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