It’s the same conversation every time we debate frequency of Holy Communion in our congregations. Pastor, when we have communion every week, it’s not “special” anymore. It’s just a thing we do every time we gather. I don’t want to give up that “special” part.
This perspective makes the Eucharist all about what I experience as a consumer. That’s not surprising, Consuming as a one-way transaction defines how we contemporary people view life, and how we regard other people.
I am both fascinated by and disgusted with the response on the part of many people to the withdrawal of gymnast Simone Biles from Olympic events for reasons of personal health. The outcry on the part of some has been, to my mind, inhuman.
Biles has been described and treated as a commodity to be consumed by a voracious and insatiable pack of sports fans. The sense of entitlement espoused by these folks is astonishing. They communicate a sense of ownership over Biles’ body that sounds like equal parts plantation mentality and meat market.
In their howling disappointment, many have verbally chewed Biles up and spit her out in their disgusted disappointment. This is another installment of the ownership narrative that goes back through Colin Kaepernick to Tommy Smith and John Carlos in 1968. When we regard something or someone as bought and paid for, we expect to get our money’s worth.
There is no mutuality here – only avarice. It shall not be so among us Christians, at least if we’re paying attention to the text in front of us.
“In the body of Christ, your pain is my pain, and my stuff is available able to be communicated to you in your need,” William Cavanaugh asserts, echoing Thomas Aquinas. “In the consumption of the Eucharist, we cease to be merely ‘the other’ to each other. In the Eucharist,” he declares, “Christ is gift, giver, and recipient; we are simultaneously fed and become food for others” (Kindle Locations 622-624).
Our text, therefore, is not an invitation to engage in Reformation debates about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. That would be a distraction. His presence in the meal means that our mutual life is about real life, not about some academic theological debate.
A conversation about Simone Biles as a human being rather than as a commercial commodity is more faithful to this text than the Reformation debate would be.
Remember, the whole dialogue and discourse are anchored in the real hunger and real feeding of a multitude. When we loosen that anchor, as we too often do, then we start drifting toward abstract irrelevancy. If our textual reflections do not lead us to the real needs of real people, then we’re off course.
“If we are identified with Christ, who identifies himself with the suffering of all,” Cavanaugh writes, “then what is called for is more than just charity. The very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ,” he declares (Kindle Locations 620-621).
This is the crux of our text. How do we live as those who now abide in the One who abides in us?
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as the true Passover Lamb, who was sacrificed for the life of the world. In the Hebrew scriptures, people who made the sacrifice to God would typically eat the meat of the sacrifice (except often for some of the internal stuff that was reserved for God).
This was a chance to dine with God, to participate in a meal with God, to partake of the very life of God and to be taken up into God’s life. Sacrifice was about reconciliation and renewal far more that it was about regret and repentance. The language of participation makes much more sense in John 6 than does any sense of “payment.”
The Son of Man will give to the hungry the food that endures for eternal life (6:27). The one who eats “this bread” will live forever. This bread is Jesus’ flesh which is given for the purpose that the cosmos will have life (6:51). The punch line is in 6:56 – “The one who munches on my flesh and drinks my blood continues to remain in me and I in that one” (my translation).
Eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Jesus, the Messiah, produces a mutual indwelling, a participation in the life of God which comes to us in and through the Son of Man come down from heaven.
Luther notes that in the Lord’s Supper, we receive the benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation. My experience and that of many western Christians has been focused solely on the first of those three benefits over the years. The Bread of Life Discourse moves us to focus more on the second and third benefits – life and salvation.
We are called and invited to be filled with the Abundant Life of Christ and to participate in salvation in the here and now.
Yes, it is a very good thing to be freed from the powers of sin, death, and the Devil, through the weekly working of the Eucharist. It is an even better thing to be filled with the very life of Christ for the sake of the world.
As Jesus notes, his flesh is real food, and his blood is real drink. Filled with him, we are equipped and empowered to be the Body of Christ for the life of the world. We can be recipients of, participants in, and partners in the Body of Christ for the sake of the salvation of the cosmos.
As Cavanaugh notes in his book, we are not only consumers of this meal. We are “being consumed.”
Hylen and O’Day argue that the Gospel of John moves the eucharistic reflection away from “the night in which he was betrayed” in order to integrate Eucharistic piety fully into the life of Jesus, into the daily life of the Christian assembly, and into the moment-by-moment life of the individual Jesus follower.
“The discourse in John 6 is the place where institution of the Eucharist is lodged,” they suggest, “because for John, all of Jesus’ life ‘institutes’ the sacrament of the Eucharist, not one particular event at the end of Jesus’ life” (Kindle Location 1671).
Participation in the Eucharist, therefore, does not happen in order to make a few days special. Rather, the Eucharist is the sign that every day is special in the Reign of God. The disjunction between the Sacrament and “normal” life does not exist for Jesus followers.
This fits, of course, with the Johannine emphasis on the Incarnation as the “event” of salvation. The Good News is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It is the life, death, resurrection, and ascension – all together and of one piece – that makes up the Good News that the Messiah, the Son of God is Jesus. What the Word brings is abundant life in the here and now. Thus, the verbs in the Gospel according to John tend to be in the present tense rather than past or future.
“By moving the theological presentation of the Eucharist into the story of the life of Jesus,” O’Day and Hylen write, “John suggests that participation in the flesh and blood, bread and wine, belongs to all the days of Christian life, not just ‘special’” days, because it embodies the possibilities of new life with Christ. The Eucharist is a meal of celebration,” they conclude, “of sharing in the abundant presence of God in the world” (Kindle Location 1679, my emphasis).
What made it “special” was not the infrequency of the sharing. Instead, what made it special was the content of the meal – the living presence of the Lord Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. The product of that presence was partnership in the Gospel and a life lived consonant with that partnership.
So, it is in the Gospel of John. We dare not lose sight, this far into the Bread of Life Discourse, of the fact that we began with real human hunger and real human eating and drinking.
If participation in the Sacrament does not result in real feeding of those in need, something is wrong. If participation in the Sacrament does not produce a hungering and thirsting for righteousness, something is wrong. If participation in the Sacrament does not yield a passion for being One Body of Christ in the world, something is wrong.
Perhaps Jesus’ listeners begin to notice and think through the kinds of demands that would be placed upon them if they accept what they are seeing and hearing. We will spend the next section of the Discourse on the resistance to and rejection of what Jesus is saying. Even some of the disciples will fall away, leaving only a remnant of the faithful.
What makes the Sacrament “not special” is not frequent observance but rather the unwillingness to allow the Sacrament to shape us for lives of authentic discipleship. This is likely going to be too hard for many consumer-oriented Christians to stomach (sorry, I just can’t help myself). Will we run from the Table or toward it?
Our answer is what makes the Eucharist “special” in our lives…or not.