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Margaret Gunness

What is Holy Eucharist and why is it so significant?

Do Christians really believe they are eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ when they receive Communion?

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"Give us this day our daily bread..."

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Daily Devotions


August 20, 2000
The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost

Eating and Drinking?
The Rev. Margaret B. Gunness

Gospel: Matthew 10:24-39

Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

I must say that this is not a very pleasant text—or an easy one to preach on. Whenever it's my turn to preach, I go to the lectionary schedule ahead of time, somewhat as a school girl goes to find out her next assignment. And I surely found that this particular assignment is enough to make the heart sink.

I also can't help but wonder what the person new to the Church or coming here to learn about Christianity for the first time—what on earth must that person think? You must be ready to turn and say "Let's get out of here!" But take heart. You're in good company. Even the disciples who were with Jesus when he said this turned to one another and said, "This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?" I was amused to discover several years ago that the word translated as hard is the same word that means stale—this is hard, stale bread to swallow!"

So, with that introduction, it is my task today to try to make sense of this of this almost offensive saying for us, so we can more clearly hear the word of God in it and understand better the reality of what Jesus has done for us. So first let me share some of my own musings with you.

There are two in particular.

First of all, as I was pondering this scripture, I couldn't help but be mindful of the fact that there are three basic elements necessary for the support of human life: air to breathe, water to drink and food to nourish us. When you stop to think of it, during his life here on earth, Jesus referred to all three of these elements in order to give expression both to the unique nature of his presence with us and to the unique nurture that he longs to provide for us.
For example, Jesus breathed on the disciples and said to them,

Receive the Holy Spirit. —John 20:22

His breath, the physical air that he breathed on them, was the palpable, sensual symbol of the invisible, impalpable Spirit of God. Remember this on some still, hot day when a sudden cooling breeze comes upon you, and you feel its refreshment and its balm. Or remember it, as I once did, when I was climbing a mountain peak in Montana and it seemed so hot and still, until we reached the top and there was a strong wind blowing, and from that high peak we could look down on an eagle gliding and playing with the currents of the wind. Remember it in these very sensual, physical ways and in each of them look for the palpable presence of God.

Or secondly, in another part of the Gospel, Jesus asks for a drink of water from a Samaritan woman at a well. And when she questions him, he says to her,

Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. —John 4:13-14)

Here Jesus is using water—actual, physical water—to address and fill a spiritual thirst. Scripture is full of such expressions of the holiness of water, which is both physically and spiritually so essential for life itself.

And finally, even earlier in this discourse in the Gospel of John, Jesus says,

I am the bread of life; [those] who come to me shall not hunger..." —John 6:35

Again and again, Jesus makes the claim that he himself is indeed all of these three basic elements necessary for human life, and in them, he is a very real, sensual, physical part of our lives, not someone to be spiritualized or turned into a symbol or some kind of impersonal, idealized memory or creation of our imagination. We do him and our faith a great disservice if we so "spiritualize" Jesus that we fail to remember that he was flesh and blood, that he was God incarnate.

(Now let me add that I'm aware that the fourth basic element of the universe is the earth itself. And in that regard, it's significant to notice that Jesus, as God Incarnate, came to live on the earth as a part of humankind. And that it was through this living on the earth that he offered himself as the breath of life, the bread of life and living water.)

But then second, another way of helping us to understand this particular passage is to look at the scriptural context in which it appears. This sixth chapter of John's Gospel begins with the story of Jesus' feeding people, feeding the multitudes with five barley loaves and two fish. And incidentally this is the only miracle that is recorded in all four Gospels. And here again, he is dealing with human hunger, with both the physical and the spiritual needs of the people. But when it became clear that the people had misunderstood what he was doing for them, he turned and tried to teach them, saying,

I am the bread of life...the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live for ever...

Immediately we can see his use of physical things to express the deep truths of his spiritual nurture of God's people. Air, water and food—all are human necessities, and in Jesus, all are God's gifts given so freely to you and to me.

So the Gospel lesson read this morning, though at first glance it may seem offensive, is actually a deeply spiritual and eucharistic statement: "Take. Eat. This is my body; this is my blood." But it's also more than that. Out of God's boundless love for us, God chose to become incarnate. God chose to give us a human being to come and live among us as one of us in order to make God known. In Jesus, the Christ, God indeed became flesh and blood.

And in the sacrament of Eucharist an extraordinary thing happens. The bread we receive becomes more than bread, and the wine poured out becomes more than wine. Through the mysterious power of faith they become Christ for us in a way that's every bit as real as the wheat and the grape from which they come—just like the midday sun, which is a located reality in space, becomes heat and light which have no substance or location, or just like the notes written out in lines on a page, become music whose only substance is in our hearing.

As we eat the bread and drink the wine of Eucharist, Christ himself becomes a part of us. His body becomes a part of our bodies, his blood a part of our blood. But another thing happens as well: We also become a part of Christ. We also are mysteriously drawn into the wholeness, into the holiness of Christ, there to become a part of the Spirit of Christ and to participate in that dynamic movement of love which flows so abundantly in the godhead of Father, Son and Spirit.

This is the invitation and the blessing of Eucharist. This is where a new unity between God and God's people is born, a new belonging, a new creation. And all of this is what you and I are offered today. So come, let us eat and drink of the very essence of Christ, and in receiving this sacrament of bread and wine, let us become a part of Christ, for such is the gift that is offered.


Copyright ©2002 The Rev. Margaret Gunness
Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN

Gospel Reading: John 6:53-59
So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 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. NRSV (New Revised Standard Version)


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