8/23/15, Amen and I AM

Josh 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b, Eph 5:21-32, John 6:60-69

Probably most of you have heard that the American author and humorist Mark Twain once admitted, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me; it is the parts that I do understand.”  That might be how some of us feel about our journey through the 6th chapter of John this month. In it, Jesus said some things about eating his flesh and drinking his blood that we simply do not understand.  Today’s Gospel reading indicates that his disciples were having a hard time with it too. They mutter to themselves, “We can’t put up with this kind of talk!  How can anyone take it seriously?”

In the Greek New Testament, Jesus uses an intriguing word to answer the complaints of the people: skandalizei.  Scandal. The NRSV renders it, “Does this offend you?”  In our reading we hear it as “Is this a stumbling block for you?  (Does this teaching keep you from following me?)”   Maybe the disciples do not understand Jesus. On the other hand, maybe they do understand him but are unwilling to accept what they hear.  When we feel offended or encounter something that seems to be a stumbling block to our way thinking of truth, we often put up defenses. The more mature response, however, is to take this offense as an opportunity to be open to a new perspective.  This is the way we have been trying to deal with John chapter 6 as well as with other current issues of Catholic faith.

It is important for us to reflect deeply on John 6 because it is the scriptural basis for Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. It also perfectly demonstrates the perennial human problem of wrestling with religious ideas. In verse 60 the disciples complain, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” But Jesus had also introduced several other difficult teachings in this sermon. Which one was creating the biggest struggle?  He said that he came down from heaven, but the disciples know who his parents are, so he is as human as they are.  (vs. 42)  Was it his teaching about his unique intimacy with God? (vs. 45) Or were they most offended by the idea of eating his flesh?  (vs.52)  In our time, we’ve encountered other difficult Christian theologies.  The virgin birth, the atonement doctrine, the Nicene Creed: are these stumbling blocks for anyone among us? Of course.  Faith involves embracing spiritual mysteries that are literally beyond intellectual belief.

In the Old Testament reading for today Joshua, the leader of the Hebrew nation, called those ancient people of faith to the same place of decision making that Jesus invited his disciples.  “Choose this day who you will serve, but as for me and my household, we will serve God.”  Whom to follow and how to live is a personal decision. Jesus challenged his followers to make that decision.   Our Catholic catechism (1795) teaches that one’s own conscience is the ultimate authority for such a decision.  “Conscience is (the human’s) most secret core, and his/her sanctuary. There one is alone with God, whose voice echoes in one’s depths.”

The Lumen Christi community wants our language to reflect what our consciences have revealed is correct belief and practice.  So we have been asking for some time what language we should use for Eucharist.  We have learned that the words Jesus uses in John 6 about eating his flesh and drinking his blood are meant to be metaphorical, not literal.   Scholar William Countryman writes in his book The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel that the different ways Jesus speaks about his flesh in John 6 are a clear indication of the author’s own theological ambivalence toward the sacraments.  By the time John wrote this Gospel in the late 90’s, baptism and Eucharist were clearly established rites in Christian communities.  But unlike the other Gospels, John did not justify them with a story of Jesus’ baptism, nor did he include the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.  Instead, John has Jesus offer teachings that identify himself as living water (4: 14) and living bread (6: 51). “The ambiguous picture that thus emerges,” Countryman concludes, “suggests that our author saw the sacramental rites as both essential and inadequate.”   In other words, whoever wrote this Gospel put it together in such a way that allowed for unfolding understandings of baptism and Eucharist.  The evolution of Christian spirituality over time is not only allowed, but anticipated.  We, within the sanctuary of conscience, are gifted with the wisdom of the Spirit and the freedom to choose an understanding for today.

St. Augustine, in his Easter Sermon 272 urged us to “be what you see, receive what you are.”… 

I have made available copies of this entire remarkable sermon, but here are a few highlights:

“…if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: "You are the body of Christ, member for member." [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying "Amen" to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith… Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread. So too, friends, remember how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew. This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated.”

Catholic Eucharistic liturgy has taught us that when we receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we say “amen.”  It has become an automatic response.  Do we understand what we are saying?  We are not only making an intellectual statement. “I agree, this IS the body of Christ.”  We are making a personal commitment, saying “I am.”  I AM the body of Christ, the bread of life for the world.”  We are saying I AM the blood of Christ, the wine of God’s covenant of love for the world.”

So to the question of how our Eucharistic language best expresses what we believe about this sacrament.  Here’s a suggestion that might retain the tradition while allowing for personal spiritual evolution. Perhaps we can keep the traditional presentation of the elements by saying, “The body of Christ, the bread of life; the blood of Christ, the wine of the Covenant.”  To which a person is free make his or her own response: amen or I am.   When one says “Amen” one is agreeing with what the presenter has said.  When one says “I am”, one is deeply and personal identifying with the Christ spirit embodied within.  

This is a lot to take in, isn’t it?  Skandalizei?  Is it a stumbling block for you?  So many questions that Jesus leaves us to deal with!  I want to invite your consideration of and feedback on this subject so that we can make a decision on how to construct the liturgy guide that will be used during September, October and November.  You are the Body of Christ.  Let us receive what we are, let us be what we receive.  Amen and I am!

By Sandi DeMaster