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The Eucharistic Way in a Non-Eucharistic World: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, August 1, 2021:
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Last week we heard that after Jesus fed the crowd “they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” It might seem odd that Jesus doesn’t want to take advantage of of the situation, and grow his base. But remember in this Gospel, Jesus deals in irony and the unexpected. In his last night with his followers it’s he who gets down on the ground to wash their feet. He redefines leadership. From the cross he doesn’t scream out, as the other evangelists describe it. Instead, a confident “It is finished” comes from his lips. He redefines victory. And here in this story he ensures that the limited, competitive, violent assumptions around kingship don’t cloud the understanding of the crowd. Imagine how different history in this land would have been if the Church had kept more critical distance between its understanding of itself and kingship and empire. And had done some important work around redefining evangelism, mission, and what becoming Christian entails in a different culture.

The crowds don’t get it. “You’re here because you ate your fill of the loaves,” Jesus challenges. Yet even though they don’t get it, they ask a question that Jesus can work with. Seeing that he mysteriously disappeared from them the previous night, and appeared on the other side of the lake, they ask “Teacher, how’d you get here?” And Jesus responds that he is the one sent by God; he gives — he is — bread which has come down from heaven.” A roundabout way of answering their question of how he crossed the lake under their noses.

The crowd asks surface level questions, but Jesus responds in a deep, if cryptic, way. He connects himself with bread; a bread that is even more lasting than the bread that fed their ancestors on the way from Egypt to the promised land. In the other Gospels Jesus, too, will connect himself with bread: the bread of what we now call the Eucharist, or Communion.

And isn’t it interesting that after the crucifixion and resurrection what is it that Jesus does, again and again? He shows up and eats with his friends and followers. In the locked room, at Emmaus, on the beach: again and again, he eats; a sign that the one who was known in his life for eating — being invited, inviting others, inviting the uninvited — he shows that even after his death, he is known for breaking down barriers between people and God. Whether with arms open, inviting someone to the table, or arms open, embracing the world from the cross, that’s what Jesus is all about. And that’s what we’re aligning ourselves with, and claiming for ourselves and our world, when we follow his way, remember his death, and break bread as church.

There was a fairly well-known late 20th century Church of England priest and writer, Kenneth Leech. He said that “the Eucharistic action is the pattern of all Christian action…” We offer our stuff and our efforts to be used in a good, holy way. And we recognize that this will involve, as he puts it, “brokenness of body and spirit.” And ultimately, this Eucharistic life “is marked not by competition and egocentricity but by co-operation” and getting over ourselves. So no wonder Jesus refused to be made king; he wasn’t interested in the entering that sort of competition.

So the Jesus we hear today challenges the crowd, and challenges us, to be changed by the bread that has come down from heaven and gives life to the world. Our action of reverencing the elemental things of life — bread, wine, and water — we’re challenging the world non-Eucharistic world with our Eucharistic values. Kenneth Leech points out that we share the Eucharist in an unsharing world. We share it in a materialistic society that ravages the planet. We save our communion bread for the sick and shut-in, in a world where bread is regularly thrown away. We share the Eucharist in a polluted world. “It is in this wasteful and waste-producing environment that we gather to celebrate the sacrament of shared resources and outpoured life.”

So as we prepare, we hope, to be able to gather again with the Eucharist at our centre, someday soon, we have some time to think about how Jesus offers a challenging and subversive way of life. It might seem a big claim; even an impossibility. But we, like the crowds, are used to looking for kings and quick fixes. Jesus — in his ministry, with his death, and after his death — points us to the table. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Amen.

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Kenneth Leech material from True Prayer, p. 110.