All Saints Margaret Street | Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 15 September 2013

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 15 September 2013

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses


John 6 – The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

And, we might add, Christians have been disputing the meaning of this passage among themselves ever since.

Our passage from John 6, part of the Bread of Life discourse which follows on from the Feeding of the 5,000, has been one of the most hotly contested in the interpretation of the Gospel.

In this passage Jesus speaks of himself as ‘the Bread of Life,’ but how are we to understand this language?  Does it mean that Jesus, known in this Gospel as the Word, is “bread’ in the sense of words and ideas?  To be consumed in the sense of Archbishop Cranmer’s Advent Collect “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest?”  Or does it mean the Jesus is bread which must be physically eaten?  Is this passage, in the one gospel which does not record the institution of the Eucharist, about the Sacrament?

If you know even a little about church history, you will understand that this was an argument at the time of the Reformation, and has been ever since; a dispute in which Word has been pitted against Sacrament.

However, things are not quite that straightforward.  If we go back to the Fathers of the early Church, which Anglicans tend to do when seeking to interpret Scripture, we do not find unanimity. Those Fathers associated with the great Egyptian city of Alexandria, a very Greek city, tend towards the words and ideas interpretation. Jesus and his words reveal God to us and we must accept that revelation if we are to have life.  Other Eastern Fathers, associated more with the other great centres of Christianity, Antioch and Jerusalem, tend to what we would now call a “sacramental” understanding.  If we seek enlightenment in the west, we find that St. Augustine, the great Doctor of the Western Church, holds both to be true.

Even at the time of the Reformation, there were some surprising differences of opinion.  The Counter-Reformation Cardinal Cajetan, held to the spiritual view rather than the sacramental and the Council of Trent tended that way because it was nervous of accepting that we must drink Christ’s blood in order to have eternal life, because that seemed to support the Protestant demand for the restoration of Communion in both kinds rather than only one.  Both sides in the Reformation came to take up and defend positions simply because they were the opposite of what the other said.

On the Reformation side, the great dispute was between Martin Luther, whom most people have heard of, and another reformer, whom most people haven’t – Huldrich Zwingli of Zurich.  Zwingli would not have approved of this church – he would have whitewashed the walls, smashed the statues, pulled out the organ and sacked the choir.  Although he was an accomplished musician, he banned music from worship because it would distract people from the Word of God, by which he meant the written word, and rather a lot of words spoken by him and other ministers. He was a man in love with words and ideas – the result of the new humanist scholarship with its rediscovery of classical learning- and believed, following disciples of Plato, that matter could do no more than symbolize the spiritual. 

His proof text for this was those words from the second part of our passage tonight:  “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless.  

And so, he came to a minimalistic Eucharistic doctrine in which the elements are merely a memorial of the death of Jesus, but are not seen as communicating his presence and life here and now.  This was too much for Luther who, at a meeting called the Colloquy of Marburg, concluded his debate against Zwingli by thumping the table and saying, “Hoc est corpus meum: this is my body.” 

We can see from much of this that a good deal of the argument reflects people’s prior positions.

This is true also of much of the German biblical scholarship of the 19th and 20th centuries, culminating in the work of Rudolf Bultmann – famous for his efforts to “demythologise” the Gospel and his claim that it is impossible for those who use electricity to believe in miracles.

Bultmann was a deeply anti-sacramental German protestant. He admitted that there was an undeniably Eucharistic element in our passage, although only the second part, but argued that this must have been a latter addition to correct an original and true anti-sacramental gospel.  As it was an addition, it could be discarded as a manifestation of what was called “primitive Catholicism” – which was a bad thing!

But let’s go back to St. Augustine who held both views together and look with other Biblical scholars – Anglican and Catholic as well as Protestant – who come to a similar conclusion.

It is undeniably true that John reflects a trend in the Old Testament to see the Law of God as food, as bread to be eaten. So, among the prophets, Amos says, “Behold the days are coming when I shall send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing of the word of the Lord.”

And Isaiah, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labour for that which does not satisfy?”

The opening of the Bread of Life discourse echoes passages in the Wisdom literature.  Jesus is like Wisdom who is Proverbs (9.50) “has built her house, she has set up her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her maids to call from the highest places in the town, ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’ To him who is without sense she says, Come, eat of my bread; drink of the wine I have mixed.’”  And he – like Wisdom in Ecclesiasticus – promising the man who fears the Lord that she “will feed him with the bread of understanding, and give him the water of wisdom to drink.”

But there are other echoes of the Old Testament which link the passage with the background to the Eucharist. John tells us that it was near to Passover time, the feast of Unleavened Bread and the Paschal Lamb, which in the other gospels Jesus takes and re-applies to himself: he is the Passover Lamb and he is the Living Bread from heaven, the true Manna.  In all the accounts of the miraculous feedings, there are echoes and fore-shadowings of the Eucharist. And in the discourse in John, Jesus words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood clearly relate to it.

If we look again at those words, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless,” but do so in the context of the Gospel which begins with the Word made flesh, it is clear that it is not saying that all “flesh is useless” but only that which is without the Spirit. Jesus in the flesh is filled with the Spirit of God. It is the Spirit of God which motivates and empowers his saving self-giving to the Father – his ascension, his lifting up on the cross and in the resurrection; and our being raised up with him. The Gospel of the Word made Flesh stands over against religion just as ideas or special knowledge. It speaks of a truth which is communicated, yes in words, but above all in a life; a life shared with us, a life poured out and shared, a life shared with us still.

That same Spirit in the Eucharist, and in the other sacraments, takes the physical and uses it as the means of communicating not just knowledge of God, in terms of information or ideas, but reality, relationship, communion, abiding. The Eucharist is the means by which Christ shares his risen life with us and incorporates us into that life. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” 

Perhaps one of our problems in the western Church has been an inadequate understanding of the role of the Spirit in the Sacraments – signified by the lack of an epiclesis – an invocation of the Holy Spirit on gifts and people in the Eucharistic Prayer until recently. 

Does any of this matter? Is it anything more than a dispute among argumentative theologians or biblical scholars with time on their hands? Do we need to concern ourselves with it only to defend our own traditions and practices? 

Well, Zwingli is not some far-off figure of interest only to historians.  He has many disciples in the Church today, including many who have never heard of him. A good many of them are in our own Church of England.  Evangelical and Charismatic Christians are by and large Zwinglian when it comes to the Eucharist; as proper Lutherans and Calvinists will tell you. And, if it is only a bare memorial, then why bother celebrating it?  They will tell us that celebrating the Eucharist gets in the way of evangelism” “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”

At one level, they are very successful, so perhaps they are right, and why should we worry?  Well, enthusiasm wanes with time, and understandings of God based on ideas and emotions become bleached out and desiccated: a religion only of rationalism or moralism; a religion whose love has grown cold; a religion without grace, without the presence of the God who came to share his eternal life with us.