Eucharist in the Wilderness

Sermon for Sunday, August 16, 2015
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
John 6:51-58

Manna From Heaven- Unknown Artist

John’s Gospel is so very different from the other three.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, for example, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem only once; in John, Jesus visits Jerusalem three times.   In Matthew, Mark and Luke they’re called “miracles;” in John, they’re “signs.”  In Matthew, Marks and Luke’s Jesus tends to speak in short bursts; In John, Jesus speaks in long discourses.

One of the curious differences in John is John’s placement of language about the Eucharistic.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper.  In John, Jesus teaches about the Eucharist during the feeding of the 5,000, from which this morning’s gospel lesson is taken.

Because John’s gospel is so different than the others, John has the potential to teach us a lot, for he comes to the same story or the same teaching but from a different angle.  John’s unusual and unique placement of the Eucharist within the feeding of the 5,000 tells us several things about the Eucharist:

  • Notice how the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ teaching about the Bread of Life takes place in the wilderness. The placement of Eucharist in the wilderness allows John to John connect the Eucharist to manna in the desert (from the Exodus).  The Eucharist can then be the Bread of Life which, unless we eat it, we will starve and die and have no life in us.
  • Notice how John couches the Eucharist, not in the context of a chosen few, but in the context of a multitude. In placing the Eucharist within a multitude, I think John is trying to show that Eucharist bears, not just on a few, but on many; even though there may only be a few receiving Eucharist here this morning, yet our reception of it has meaning for many more.  As we say each Sunday in the words of institution:  “This is my blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
  • I think John placed his teaching on Eucharist alongside on of Jesus’ miracles (“signs”) in order to make more explicit the connection between the loaves and fishes and the bread and the wine. If Jesus could make a few loaves and fishes feed 5,000, why couldn’t he just as easily make the bread his body and the wine his blood?
  • In placing Jesus’ teaching on Eucharist within the context of the feeding of the 5,000, I think John also wants to draw a connection between the Eucharist and Jesus miracle: just as Jesus made five loaves and two fishes into a meal for many, so can bread and wine really become Jesus’ body and blood.  And what we do here every Sunday – making Jesus physically present to us – is just as amazing and miraculous as was Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000.

The complexity of John’s language and the rich symbols he references – Israel in the wilderness, how the Eucharist can feed a multitude and not just a few, how the bread and wine really do communicate to us something substantive about Jesus’ very self – remind us of the powerful symbol of the bread and wine and our prayers over them here every Sunday.  The bread and wine, in the context of the prayers that we pray, in the context of the Scriptures we hear, can become for us all these things we need:  bread in the wilderness, forgiveness for us and for many, Jesus’ presence with us, and so forth.

And… because John is so attuned to symbols and because he is such a careful writer, it is not just John chapter 6 that enriches the symbols of bread and wine, but it’s also other chapters; chapter 2, for example, the changing of water into wine, and chapter 15, the “I am the vine” passage.  And also the very last chapter of John, chapter 21.

In the last chapter of John’s Gospel is another feeding story, the story in which Jesus serves the disciples breakfast on the beach.  You may recall that in that story Jesus tells Peter to “Feed my sheep.”  But remember the question Jesus asked Peter just before He told him to feed His sheep? à   “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  Of all the things that these symbols of bread and wine tell us, perhaps first and foremost is that our receiving them says that, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”   I hope as we receive the Eucharist this morning, we will keep in mind as best we can all that this meal does for us:  it is bread in the wilderness, it is forgiveness for us and for many, it is Jesus presence among us.  And it is a sign of God’s unconditional, continuous and abiding love for us, and a sign that we are responding to that love.

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