Proper 14b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
They began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?”
Two great mysteries confront us today. The first is in the Gospel of John, concerning Jesus Christ and who he claims to be — and is. And the second, like unto it, and alluded to in the Gospel passage, concerns the bread that we break and share in the Holy Eucharist, how it becomes — and is — the Body of Christ, the bread from heaven, given for us.
The problem for us, as for the people who surrounded Jesus and pressed him for answers, is that things are not always as they seem. We’ve all heard stories, or perhaps even had the experience, of mistaken identity. Perhaps the most cautionary tale is that of the man at a cocktail party chatting with a stranger and commenting about a woman across the room. “Will you look at the outfit that woman has on! I guess there aren’t any mirrors in her house... heh heh heh. Some people just don’t know how to dress, I guess.” At which point the other man finally says, “That would be my wife you’re talking about.” Oops!
The people in our Gospel passage are in a somewhat different position, in that they think they know just who Jesus is, but they’ve allowed what they know to limit what they think could be. It is because they know he is the son of Joseph that they think it is impossible for him to be “the bread of life” or “the bread that came down from heaven.” Like Nicodemus, about whom we spoke some weeks back, these folks can’t seem to understand the difference between earthly birth and heavenly birth — the difference between being born as a son of Joseph and being born from above — from heaven. The earthly part — they’re sure about that. But this heavenly bit — that makes no sense to them, because their minds are fixed on what seems to be rather than upon what is; on what Jesus seems to be, rather than upon who he is.
I’m reminded of the story of the Bishop who was asked about believing that the bread of the Holy Eucharist was the Body of Christ. Referring to those dry, flat little rounds of communion hosts, he said, “I have no trouble at all believing it is the Body of Christ; I do have some difficulty believing it is bread!” Of course, for most of us it isn’t ordinary bread, because for us bread is not a thin round wafer but a larger piece, fluffy and cut from a larger loaf, something with a crust. The bread we use in the Holy Communion is not like ordinary bread in any sense of the word.
The problem for the people confronting Jesus is the reverse. The problem for them is that he does not seem to be extraordinary at all. He is all too ordinary for them to see him as anything else. He seems to be just a very ordinary man, a son of the Joseph, whose father and mother they know. But who Jesus is — that is another reality, another matter entirely. They can not easily believe that while he is a man of flesh and blood, flesh and blood as real as any of them, he is also the Son of God come down from heaven for the life of the world. Nothing visible about him, nothing they can know on the basis of the five senses, or of knowing his family, can help them to see that he is on a mission from God: to be the salvation of the world that God loved so much that he sent his Son into it for that very reason, so that they might believe in him and believing hin hm might be saved and have everlasting life. And Jesus puts this truth into the language of bread, which nourishes our earthly life, promising that he is heavenly bread that nourishes unto eternal life. And the bread that he will give for the life of the world is his flesh.
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Which brings us to that second mystery to which I alluded before: the bread we break and share week by week here at this altar. A skeptic or an unbeliever might well say, taking a leaf from that bishop, “It is only bread — a little different from the kind I use to make a sandwich — more like a cracker, flour and water rolled thin and baked crisp.” Bread is bread, the objective observer might well observe — and so it seems to those who stop short of belief, abiding only in what they can see with the eye of the flesh.
But to the eye of faith, the bread is not just what it seems to be. It looks to the earthly eye the same before as after it is prayed over and blessed and consecrated — there is no visible difference between the bread that is carried forward and set upon the altar, and the bread that is broken and placed into your hands as you receive Communion; it looks just the same, just ordinary though slightly unusual bread.
But just as Jesus looked the same as any other ordinary man, and yet was deeply different, so too the consecrated bread of the Holy Eucharist may look no different from how it looked before — but it is profoundly changed. The fact is that many important and substantive changes take place in the world without any apparent external change in appearances. Some things continue to seem to be just what they look like, even while being deeply changed inside, transformed inside.
This is especially true of the sacraments and rites of the church. Even though they make a real and profound change in people, the change is, as Jesus would say, “from above” or “heavenly” — it is not visible to the earthly eye. Baptism, for example, we believe to make an important change in the life of every child who is baptized: we believe that baptism transforms us from a merely earthly life into participation in a heavenly life, through our union with the death and resurrection of Christ himself. The water washes our foreheads, which are sealed with holy oil, but the only difference is the moisture and the scent of balsam that comes from that holy anointing oil. But the inward change — what cannot be seen — is the renewed life of the Holy Spirit, of God himself now adopting the one baptized as a member of his holy family, the Body of Christ, the church. I can assure you that I’ve baptized many a child — and will baptize two more today! — and believe me, they all look more or less the same after as before the baptism — just a little damp. But oh, my friends, I know that they are changed, profoundly changed, deeply changed by the action of God upon them, a change visible only to the eye of faith.
The same is true of the Bread and Wine of the Holy Eucharist — they still appear to be Bread and Wine, and yet have become the Body and Blood of Christ. Our Lord and our God is truly present, as Martin Luther said, “in, with and under” those outward forms of bread and wine. And if some skeptic sitting next to you in church some day should nudge you and say, “Look at that bread the priest is holding up there. Why it’s hardly even worth calling ‘bread’ it’s so dry and thin and almost tasteless,” don’t be at all shy to say to that skeptic, “That’s the Body of Christ you are talking about my friend.”
Jesus comes to us in this humble form of Bread and Wine as he came in the humble form of flesh and blood: the flesh and blood of a man whose family the villagers thought they knew. Some rejected him in that humility and humanity because they thought they knew better. They thought they knew him for who he was — and yet how deeply they erred in their misunderstanding. He came from God, from heaven above, as bread come down for the life of the world, as one who loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Let us give thanks for that offering and sacrifice, and celebrate the feast he has committed to us, and instructed us to do, until the great day comes when sacraments shall cease, and we behold him as he is, in his glory and in his majesty, even Jesus Christ our Lord.