In my first year studying for ordination, I was required to be part of a group of seminarians that traveled from one church to another, Sunday by Sunday, to worship with Christians across denominational lines. We went to AME and Lutheran and Presbyterian services, among others. We worshipped in the suburbs and in the city, in tiny congregations and very large ones, with different styles of preaching and different styles of music and different styles of community.
It was a wonderful way to get to know more about the people of God. I’d had my own range of experiences before I entered seminary but I knew little about what it was like to be part of, say, a small suburban Lutheran church. And, having been raised Roman Catholic, I was unprepared for the experience of receiving Holy Communion without much regard for denominational differences. I had moved as far as the Episcopal Church but I wasn’t really in the habit of identifying as Protestant the way people in these churches did. I don’t think I had taken “Protestant Communion,” if it’s possible to use that description.
And so on one particular Sunday morning, I was unprepared for the arrival of an usher with a small tray of plastic cups, each containing a bit of grape juice, and a bowl of tiny white cubes that could have been Wonder Bread for all I know. I took my little cup and my little square of bread in silence. Silence filled the church. My mind got busy, not without a few judgments. “This,” I thought, “just looks like a little snack that your mom would give you after school.” And then as the silence deepened, and we all drank the juice and ate the bread at the same time—a whole church full of people in communion—it started to dawn on me. This was just like a little snack that your mom would give you after school. It was just ordinary. It was the bread of heaven, and it was just ordinary.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted to communicate in an incense-filled church with divine music and heavily-jeweled liturgical vessels. All of that speaks to me of the presence of Jesus. All of what we do here feels like a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to me and I give thanks every day for the tradition in which I live and pray and serve.
But I hope I never forget the Sunday in which that little snack was also a foretaste of heaven, because that was a Sunday in which Jesus fed me with himself, looking just like plain old American bread and juice. And it was a Sunday in which I could acknowledge that eternal life had begun for me, as perhaps it began for you, in what seemed like an ordinary world of snacks and television and homework, in the love of my family, with our dogs and cats and cousins, in such quiet and peace as I was unquestionably privileged to experience.
We hear in the Gospel of John once again this week, as we have for the past couple of weeks, that Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven, the manna that God provides for the people of Israel, the daily bread. And now this week we hear a bit more about how he is the bread of life, not only because he sustains us day by day but because the life he feeds in us is eternal life, a deathless life. And for me that eternal life started as plainly as Wonder Bread and grape juice.
And so as we gather to receive the bread of life here in this church, I’ve got my eye on the ordinary and the divine at the same time. And I’m thinking that’s how Jesus wants us to be, as we ponder and experience eternal life. If Jesus is really bread for us, then we have to reconsider what it means to eat his flesh and drink his blood. “Bread of eternal life” can sound like something we have to keep eating until we are all stocked up, until we’ve reached some kind of magic threshold, after which we enter into the life after this life, to enjoy uncounted days of bliss.
But that doesn’t seem to be exactly the way Jesus works. Yes, we are talking about a life that extends beyond death, but yes we are also talking about life right now, ordinary daily life, redolent with the eternal. When we eat this bread and drink this cup we are seeing our own world in its connection to the ongoing, radiant, life of Jesus. We are in his time, as well as our own. The life we live in him is a daily life and an endless life. And so everything that we are, everything that we do, has the potential to speak of God’s never-ending love. The world we build here for ourselves and for each other has the potential to be the local outpost of everlasting life. A colony of heaven, if you will.
This week, meditating on Jesus’s repeated insistence that he is the bread of eternal life, let’s envision for a moment a world in which the ordinary—cats and dogs and cousins, neighborhoods and parents and children—are lifted up and acknowledged as part of God’s divine being. Let us hold this ordinary world close: its institutions, its mistakes, its preoccupations. Newspapers and books, orchestras and choirs, schools, churches, gay parades, food cupboards, all races and genders. Every home and every homeless person, sanctified and consecrated so that love and charity might reign. So that homelessness might be converted into security and belonging and abundance. So that hostility might be converted into right relationship and equality and justice and friendship. No system of government, no family, can be a perfect model of everlasting love, but let us see and feel them transfigured today: elections, weddings, debates both domestic and civic. All the ordinary bread of the world in which we live. Let the bread be consecrated. Let our lives be eternal. Like Wonder Bread and grape juice, the flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
What a beautiful blessing to this world, to be consecrated for the eternal life of the Son of God. Yes we will keep working, earning, voting, and going to school, but in all of that busyness we will not neglect to come here and take the daily bread in our hands, and give thanks to God that all things are shot through with the life of Jesus the Christ. We will train our children to receive it with open hands and open hearts. We will receive it on our deathbeds. We will share this bread daily, and from its overflow will come renewed institutions, renewed human dignity, deeper reserves of love and racial reconciliation. Joy will not be confined to experiences we label “spiritual.” It will pour out in abundance over all things, and from within all things. From a renewed earth.
This is our calling as children of God. To eat the flesh and blood of our savior. To live in the radiant overflow of God’s divine charity. The charity that inspired all of creation, all things that are. Our past, our future, and—urgently—our present day. This is the daily bread we consume, and this is the day we live: one eternal day of blessing and forgiveness, of renewal and strength, of charity and love.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
19 September 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia