requiring that we reverence one another as the body of Christ
(Feast of Corpus Christi)
Do we Christians really believe that we are eating Jesus’ flesh and that we are drinking his blood? That would indeed sound like cannibalism. I don’t know if you ever had someone questioning you in this way. But in some discussions with people coming from outside of the Christian faith, from nonbelievers, from outsiders this question might arise.
I did grow up with a sense of the Real Presence at the heart of my faith. Our Christian language of eating flesh and drinking blood had never even hinted at cannibalism to me. But on hearing the question in a discussion, I realized that - from the outsider's point of view – the question was an obvious one and deserved an answer.
Even before I studied theology, I came up with something like this – maybe in easier words: “As Christians, we don't think of ourselves as consuming a dead body. The Eucharist is the way the risen Christ makes himself sacramentally available to us. Through this physical sign we encounter the risen Lord really present under the appearances of bread and wine.” I still think that was a pretty good answer.
But now, when I had to prepare this sermon about today’s gospel, I realize that there is even more to the eating and drinking language in today’s passage. Our chapter of John 6 is called the “eucharistic discourse”.
This chapter entails an important Jewish tradition that still goes largely unnoticed in current teaching and preaching. Anyone looking for the Eucharist in the Gospel according to John will find out the following: in John’s gospel there is no mention of Jesus' words linking the bread and cup with his Body and Blood. In John’s rendition of the Last Supper this does not appear. In that scene the evangelist has chosen to focus entirely on the fact that Jesus is washing the feet of disciples. John has chosen another place to elaborate the meaning of eucharistic eating and drinking, not the last supper. It is the discourse in the Capernaum synagogue - just after the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the water.
So the background for today’s scene is the miracle of bread in the wilderness and Jesus’ own discourse about himself being greater than manna. This sets the stage: the primary background here is the biblical tradition of Moses with his people in the desert.Moses leads his people to the “God-given manna” in the desert. As Christians, we need to realize that the bread and wine is the presence of the same Lord who died for us.
Such references evoke a Jewish tradition well known to the original audience of this Gospel. This Jewish tradition is little known to today's readers, little known to us. It is the tradition that understood manna as a symbol of God's gift of the Torah to his people. The God given Manna is compared to the Torah, to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Have a look at the text of Deuteronomy we just heard: today’s first Reading takes us to the origin of that tradition: “[God] therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna … in order to show you that not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut 8:3)
God’s word was in the Torah, the Torah was like manna feeding the people, keeping the people alive… A bit difficult to understand, I admit.
The human spirit hungers for the wisdom of how to live according to the will of God, The human spirit hungers for knowing what to believe and how to act in ways that find peace with God. The Torah, seen as the rule for a good life before God, is God's self-revelation of God's self and of God’s will. The Torah is therefore truly bread in the wilderness, in the desert. So now we know about this traditional association of manna with the Word of God in the Torah.
On this background, it is powerful, then, to say that Jesus is the true bread from heaven. Now it is Jesus—the eternal Word made flesh—who is the full revelation of divine communication to the world – no longer only the Torah. To know Jesus, and to receive him as sent by the Father, is to receive the fullness of God's wisdom. Jesus is the true manna from heaven. Once this is accepted, that Jesus is the true manna from heaven, then this Sunday's Gospel joins such an understanding with the Church’s practice of Eucharist.
It is especially in our celebration of the Eucharist that we encounter Jesus as God's wisdom made flesh for us. As we read further in the Gospel according to John, we learn this: to accept Jesus as sent by the Father to serve us means that we are to wash one another's feet, that we are to lay down our lives for one another.
In the second reading, we heard Paul writing to the Corinthians. Paul has his own way of speaking of the eucharistic body – but his way of speaking of the eucharistic body points in the same direction. First Paul asserts that the community is sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ —sharing in the one loaf—this makes us one body he writes (1 Cor 10:17). A chapter later, (1 Cor 11:29), Paul says it is absolutely crucial that we “know with which body we are dealing.”
Here, the context makes it clear that Paul means “body” in two senses: (1) the first meaning of “body” is that need to discern that the bread and wine is the presence of the same Lord who died for us; (2) and the second meaning is that we need to discern that the community of those who share in this worship of Christ’s body are themselves one body, one body requiring that we reverence one another as the body of Christ and attend to one another's needs.
This is the message of today’s feast, the solemnity of the body and blood of Christ: We are one body requiring that we reverence one another as the body of Christ and attend to one another's needs.
Cf https://liturgy.slu.edu/BodyBloodA061420/theword_hamm.html (P. Hamm sj)