This Teaching is Difficult – Lectionary 08/22/2021

John 6: 56-69

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. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Sermon Text

 This week concludes our time looking at the tables which God has set for us. Where we began, we come to once again. The communion table is God’s ultimate sacramental gift to us. A sacrament is usually defined as, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” which was instituted by Christ.[1] The United Methodist Church believes there are two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Whereas baptism is a washing we only experience once in life, the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, is something which we celebrate again and again. The bread we break, the juice we drink, represents to us more than just a meal. This is something which Christ began at his Last Supper before his passion, and which we faithfully continue until we gather once again to “feast at Christ’s heavenly banquet.”[2]

There has been, across all of Christian history, few teachings less clearly articulated or more hotly contested, than Holy Communion. The many wars and schisms of the Church are often rooted in a variety of problems, but inevitably tied in with all the political and doctrinal disputes are questions about what this meal means to those who eat it. It should be no surprise to us that we read Jesus’s first hints about eucharistic theology in the words, “eat my flesh and drink my blood,” that people immediately respond with the greatest possible understatement by saying, “This teaching is difficult.” The foundational rite of our church is found in this cup and this plate, and we should feel strongly about what it means to us, and the mystery it reveals, but we must also acknowledge there is something unknowable to it.

What I hope to do today is to explain history, but also to lay out why we have talked for so long about tables and how God gives us strength, wisdom, sustenance, and even just good things. More than that, by looking at the progression of Eucharistic theology, I hope we can establish what the basic belief of all Christians is about communion, and what we specifically as United Methodists hold to be true about it. While we will certainly continue conversations about communion beyond this one, truthfully, in two weeks, today is meant to give us the background we need for any future conversations. Today we look at this central aspect of our faith, we seek to know what is absolutely true about it, what is a matter of contention, and what we cannot even entertain.

The first celebration of Communion is recorded in the Gospels, where Jesus breaks bread and blesses wine as part of a celebration of Passover. The Church kept this ritual close to heart, celebrating it at least once more in the presence of Christ on the road to Emmaus. Paul lays out two separate meals that the church celebrated in its early days throughout his letters. The first was the Αγαπη (Agape,) and the second was the Ευχαριστιας (Eucharistias.) The Agape, or love feast, was a celebration of the community. Here people shared food, kinda like a potlcuk, and cared for the poor in so doing. The Eucharist was the thanksgiving offered to God for all good gifts, but especially Christ’s salvific work on the cross. These two rituals eventually combined to form “Communion,” as we know it today. Orthodox churches, it should be said, still have a basket of bread apart from Communion to serve as an αγαπη.

The first celebrations of the eucharist were overseen by apostles and elders. The prayer of Thanksgiving which was offered is recorded in the Didache, an early instruction manual of the Church, is short and direct, and goes as follows.

Lifting Cup. “We give you thanks, Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant, to you be the Glory forever.”

Lifting Bread. “We give you thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant; to you be the glory forever. Just as this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and then was gathered together and made one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.”[3]

This prayer, obviously different from our modern Great Thanksgiving, would adapt regionally and corporately across the next ten centuries. Eventually, this became the Latin mass as we know it in the West and the Great Liturgy as it is practiced in the Orthodox Church. The center of worship was always in the offering of the Eucharist, as it should be, but that centrality bred a certain worry in the West. For a variety of reasons, Communion became shut off to lower castes of people. First only the bread was given, and not the wine, and then many places stopped giving either to those outside the priesthood, instead simply having people look at the elements and engage in “ocular” communion. While some ministers faithfully administered the sacrament, these concerns naturally led to change.

We in the Protestant Church often cast Martin Luther as the first to see the problems which Western Christianity had developed. Yet, plenty of his Catholic peers had begun to name the many problems the Church was facing. These would be settled, after Luther left, in the Council of Trent, which solidified Catholic doctrine and practice in response to Luther’s reformation. Luther, by formally separating from the Church, initiated the second great schism of the Church, the first being between East and West. Luther took the seven sacraments widely accepted by the church and pared them down to two, baptism and communion. Likewise, he mandated Communion be given fully to all people, not just priests. The Catholic Church would mandate the same, universally, later on.

More than just ensuring Communion was available fully to all, Luther rebelled against an idea that was relatively new in the Church (about 400 years old.) The Church had always believed that Christ was somehow present in Communion, after all Jesus did say, “This is my body… this is my blood.” Yet, in explaining how this was true, the works of Aristotle were brought in and, over time, transubstantiation was born. This took Aristotle’s claim that everything had two aspects – its substance, what it was, and its accidents, what we sensed about it – and applied them to communion. To explain those two concepts further, the art you might accidentally sit on at an art museum, though it looks and feels and acts like a bench, is still art even if it seems otherwise (as the security guards will quickly make known.)

Transubstantiation holds that, in the moment a priest said the words, “Hoc est corpus,” the bread changed in substance to be the body of Christ while staying accidentally bread. It was Jesus, on the cross, that we ate, but it tasted, smelled, and looked like bread. Luther refuted this explanation but believed its core claim. We ate Christ in the Eucharist, but to explain how was to try and explain a miracle. For that reason, Luther preached consubstantiation, the idea Christ was present in this meal, but that we could never truly know how.

Ulrich Zwingli, father of the anabaptist (re-baptizing,) movement that would someday become the Mennonite, Amish, and by a few permutations Baptist movements, not only preached that adult baptisms were the only valid baptisms, but that communion was not an act of God. Zwingli founded memorialism as eucharistic theology. Communion was a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, but did nothing other than remind us what Christ did and fulfill Christ’s command to observe the supper. John Calvin, meanwhile, founded the “Reformed,” tradition, and was a precursor to presbyterian and puritan movements. He taught a middle position between Luther and Zwingli. To Calvin, by eating communion we were spiritually present with Christ, but the bread and juice remained simply that, a means to remember the work of the Spirit.

We fast forward two hundred years or so and look at the foundation of our modern United Methodist Church. John Wesley, an Anglican priest is managing a religious revival taking part on two continents. Philip Otterbein has begun a congregation in Baltimore, Maryland which will be called “the Brethren.” Both write in a world torn between Catholic and Protestant, Puritan and Anglican, Calvinist and Arminian, and increasingly, American and European. As with all aspects of their theology, the two thinkers had to write in a way that honored the truth of all these movements, while still holding to their own convictions. Their writings on communion were no different.

Otterbein is sadly not widely documented. This building was built as a United Brethren congregation, a number of people here were baptized into the Brethren, and as such the roots of this congregation must be traced to Otterbein. While I could not find many statements from Otterbein himself, I found an article that spelled out his eucharistic theology through the materials he used in his church.[4] Otterbein was a reformed thinker, and so he followed Calvin’s belief that communion was a spiritual meal where we engaged with God and drew strength from the Holy Spirit, yet the elements were physically unchanged. Otterbein pioneered the idea of “Open Communion,” allowing any baptized Christian from any church to participate, as long as they were prepared to do so ahead of time and covenanted to be part of the community. To take communion in the Brethren was to commit oneself to the community, to eat the body of Christ and to become the body of Christ together.

John Wesley is much more extensively recorded, and his beliefs are too. Wesley talked about Communion in a way that was not offensive to those who leaned toward consubstantion, but that was not shut off to more Calvinist ideas either. To Wesley, to eat the bread and drink the wine is to physically eat just those things, but to spiritually eat and drink God’s grace, and in so doing to spiritually have eaten the body and blood of Christ on the cross. It should be said that Charles Wesley, the hymn writer and brother of John, leaned more explicitly to the bread and cup being transformed into the body of Christ somehow, but John I think too held that something happened to the bread and wine, just not anything he was willing to tie down to a definite description. Even today, when pressed Methodists usually describe Communion as a “Holy Mystery,” containing the “Real Presence,” of Christ, because we acknowledge it is better to say “I do not know,” than to be wrong about some things.

The next three centuries bring us to today. Our liturgy for communion was written in 1969 with the ecumenical movement and our 1968 merger in mind. It is largely a recounting of the book of Romans, with the words of institution from Luke, and the occasional prayers being at the minister’s discretion. Whereas Wesley celebrated communion at every gathering, it was not uncommon in the Brethren or any protestant group to celebrate only occasionally. This was in part because ministers were over large areas and could only be in some places sometimes. Perhaps on the other side of the Pandemic, we can strive toward a more constant celebration of communion.

I hope you are still with me. Occasionally, I do launch into historical survey sermons, but who can blame me when my undergraduate degree focused on, “historical theology.” In the brief time we have on Sunday, I can only cover so much, but I hope we learned something, and I hope that from here we can have more discussions about this table and what it means to us. More than any theory, I hope we can understand that this table, meant to bring us together, is more often than not a source of separation in the Church. The first-time people leave Jesus’s ministry is in John 6, and it is over the idea of what this meal could possibly mean.

“This teaching is difficult,” but it is important. I talk as long as I have about it, because I think we don’t acknowledge that fact enough. I have had countless conversations with people who tell me they don’t care how communion is done or who does it, and that breaks my heart. Not because I want to shut out those who think or do differently, but because this central ritual of our faith has become a formality to many of us. We eat bread and drink juice because we always have, or we like the moment it gives us to think of Jesus, but we do not see anything more than that behind it. People have fought and died over a ritual we see as simply checking a monthly box.

It seems a shame not to offer communion now, after talking about it for so long, but over the next two weeks I hope we can really think about what this table means. Here we acknowledge we are all sinners, and no one can pretend to be better than any other. Here we submit to Christ, nor to any other leader, and say he is savior and Lord. Here we remember that our salvation was costly, but that God expects only love from us in return. This love transforms us, but in such a way that we and those around us thrive as much as we sacrifice. Christ is really with us when we celebrate communion, however it happens, it’s just the truth. Its not just a memorial meal, it is Christ with us, somehow God comes to dinner.

“Christ our Lord invites to this table all who earnestly repent of their sins and seek to live in peace with one another.” The opening line to our Eucharistic liturgy makes clear why we cannot take this for granted. This is a gift of God that we too often take unworthily as something we “just do.” Let us take time to see the glory of this meal, that as this bread and cup somehow become Christ, we too can become like Christ. Here we rehearse our salvation, and here we are transformed. May God prepare our hearts and humble our spirits, as we wait to gather and feast once again. – Amen.

[1] John Wesley. “Means of Grace,” II.1

[2]  The United Methodist Church’s  Service of Word and Table I

[3] Didache 9

[4] Kenneth E. Rowe. “Otterbein’s Eucharistic Faith and Practice” in Methodist History. 49:4 (July 2011)

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