Sunday, 26 August 2012
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury
We just heard one of the most dramatic passages in the Gospels, namely, we heard how a large number of Jesus’s followers abandoned Him. They had heard His teaching and said, “this is intolerable”(Jn 6:61) and “after this, many of His disciples left Him and stopped going with Him”(Jn 6:67).
So, what was this teaching, this “doctrine”(Jn 6:60), that caused this reaction?
We reach today the conclusion of our 5 week series of readings from John 6 on the Eucharist, and the teaching that these disciples found so objectionable was precisely His teaching on the Eucharist. So, let us recall what He had said,
He had said, repeatedly in this chapter alone, not only they He would give them His “flesh” (four times)(6:51,53,55,56) to eat but that UNLESS they ate it they would not have “life”(6:53) but that if they did they would have “eternal life”(three times)(6:50,51,54).
And, we can imagine, if they found these words objectionable they would have been even more horrified when finally at the Last Supper, the first Mass, He said, “This is My Body... This is the chalice of My Blood”(Lk 22:19).
And we know this was all a reference to the Eucharist because of his references to Himself as “THE Bread” (eight times)(6:35,48,50,51,51,51,58,58) “of life”.
Now, the simple point I wish to focus on today is the truth of what He said.
Because, as we know, many people claim that the Eucharist is just symbolic. And, as we know, sadly, even among Christians, this is the pivotal point where the Protestant churches separated from the historical Faith of Christianity held by the Catholic Church. Such people say things like, “Jesus said ‘I am the door’(Jn 10:9) but no-one claims that doors get changed into Jesus”. Well, such arguments miss several points, let me note two.
First, the claim that this is all symbolic misses the fact that Jesus was making a GRAND claim at this point, a claim beyond just claiming to be the “door”, a point that His hearers recognised as significant even if they dis-believed Him. And the obviousness of this is rammed home by the simple repetition and length with which He refers to Himself as “THE bread” and as His “flesh” being that which we must eat.
And, to come back to the Gospel text of today, we need to grasp the HUGE significance of the crowds of Jesus’s disciples who turned away and stopped following Him because of His teaching on this point: He didn’t say to the people walking away, “No! Wait! I was just speaking metaphorically and in symbols, I didn’t mean it literally”.
He didn’t say that. He let them walk away. Because He meant what He had said. This is not just about symbols. It’s about Him coming to us in the Eucharist, under the APPEARANCE of bread but as the reality of being His “flesh”, His Body and Blood, His Soul and Divinity (Council of Trent: DS 1640; 1651, cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1413)
Second, the claim that this is all symbolic avoids the fact that all of Christianity up to the time of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation held that this was not just symbolic. None of the Protestant Reformers were able to turn to early Christian writers who argued their cause because none of the Early Church did.
Let me give an example from the early saints, what are called “Church Fathers”: St Augustine said that the bread was changed such that we should “adore” it –adoration being that which we give to God alone. He said, “No one should receive the Eucharist unless he first adores it”. You adore God. You do not adore a symbol.
So, to wrap this up, where does this leave us?
It leaves us with a “hard teaching”(Jn 6:6). I believe it with my whole heart, but I know it is a hard teaching. I know that it goes counter to everything else in my normal living: normally I trust my senses, and if it looks like bread I say it is bread. Here, I am supposed to say it is not.
I have a choice, believe my senses, or believe what the Lord Jesus tells me, “this IS My Body”. The very nature of Faith means to accept what God has said BECAUSE God has said, not because it is an easy teaching, but rather despite the fact it is a hard teaching, to accept it because God has said it. Because otherwise, where else do we turn? As St Peter said in that text today, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that You are the Holy One of God”(Jn 6:68-69).