Day 23: Salvation and the Eucharist
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
Of this Divine life, the body and blood of Christ furnish the necessary food or nourishment, for the strengthening and refreshing of our souls…The means of grace are therefore indispensably necessary to salvation, wherever they are had, according to Christ’s institution, and from those duly commissioned stewards, whom he has appointed to give his family their portion of meat in due season…Very strong, indeed, is our obligation to be constant communicants in the Christian sacrifice. It is bound upon us by every tie of duty, love and gratitude, as well as with regard to our own eternal interest – our advancement in grace and preparation for glory.[i]
Alexander Jolly (d. 1838), Bishop of Moray
Opening Prayer (John Donne)
O eternal and most gracious God who has made little things to signify the great and conveyed the infinite merits of your Son in the water of Baptism and in the bread and wine of your other Sacrament unto us, receive our humble thanks. We know that your good purposes work to perfect your holy will upon us. There your grace is in your measures and degrees. We know you to be infinitely good, but also find you every day, and better and better. Therefore, we beg of you our daily bread and as you have given us the bread of sorrow for many days and the bread of hope for some, make this day be the bread of possessing, in rising by that strength, which you, the God of all strength, have infused into us. O Lord, continue to be the bread of life, the spiritual bread of life in faithful assurance in you. You are the sacramental bread of life, in a worthy receiving of you. You are the more real bread of life in an everlasting union with you. We ask this through your Son and by your Spirit. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
The evil King Jehoiakim had taken the throne when Jeremiah issued this warning to the nation of Judah that they must amend their ways.[iii] They were to be faithful in their relationship with God and with one another — only then would God dwell with them and only then would they be able to stay in the land. The people were clearly overconfident. They had the temple in their midst, the very dwelling place of God. How could any enemies stand against them? They even had magic incantations to ward off evil – “the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD.” What the prophet is saying is that the Temple is useless as a magic charm. Faithfulness to the covenant is lived out, in part, by executing justice for others. Calamitous invasion could be avoided, but only if they amend their ways.
1The word of the LORD that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, 2 “Stand in the gate of the house of the LORD and there proclaim this message. Say this: ‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you in Judah who are entering into these gates to worship the LORD.’ 3‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your actions that I might dwell with you in this place. 4Do not put your trust in deceitful teachings that say, ‘These buildings are the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD.’ You simply must amend your ways and your actions. A man must execute justice between his neighbor and him. If you don’t oppress an immigrant, an orphan or a widow; if you don’t shed innocent blood in this place; if you don’t go after other gods to your own detriment, then I will dwell with you in this place in the land which I gave to your forefathers from of old and forever.’”
New Testament Lesson
Jesus is acting as a good Rabbi in this passage. The previous day, Jesus had just fed five thousand men (not including women and children). The next day, the people bizarrely ask for a sign better than the manna their forefathers ate in the wilderness. The people quote Scripture to get Jesus to do so. But, then Jesus switches the referent and the verb tense to say, No, Moses didn’t feed you (past tense). God is feeding you now (present tense). God has set his seal (his consecration) on Jesus to fulfill the hope of the OT Scriptures. On the symbolic level, the Rabbis understood “the bread from heaven” as Torah or the Law, but Jesus reinterprets it in light of his own body which he offers as a sacrifice on the cross. Thus those who partake of this food would never hunger or thirst. How could this be? John, writing within an already-existing Eucharistic community, takes this symbol to mean those who regularly partake of Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharist. Jesus’ body and blood, received in faith, transforms participants by infusing grace into them whereby they are enabled to live the Christian life.
27Do not labor for food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him has God the Father set His seal. 28Then they said to Him, “What should we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God that you believe in the one whom He sent.”
30Then they said to Him, “Well, what sign do you give us so that we might see and believe in you? What work do you do? 31Our fathers ate manna in the desert just as it stands written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32Therefore, Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which has come down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34So they said to Him, “Lord, gives us this bread always.” 35Jesus said to them, “‘I am the bread of life.’ He who comes to me will never go hungry and he who believes in me will by no means thirst anymore.”
Questions for Reflection
- God is clear in our OT passage that we are to care for orphans, immigrants and widows. Are you involved in any practices or beliefs that would directly or indirectly cause harm and subjugation to such groups?
- Jeremiah calls for the people to amend their ways in order that God might dwell with them. In what ways do you need to amend your life so that God might continue to dwell within you?
- How do you get spiritual sustenance? What forms your spiritual practice besides going to church on Sundays?
- How regularly do you participate in the Eucharist? Is this a priority for you? If not, why not?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
- S. Eliot wrote the following:
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.[iv]
Oftentimes in spiritual experiences, we aren’t sure of the meaning. We know something significant has happened, that something is different, but we don’t quite know what it all means. It is normal to feel unsure when we’ve experienced God in a deep way. What does it all mean? How should we interpret what has happened? These are normal questions and the answers usually only unfold over time.
The opposite is also true. Perhaps we participate in a service on Sunday but feel strangely unmoved by the experience. Nothing at all happened. God felt distant. How do we interpret that if he was physically present in our midst by his presence in the Sacrament?
This is the problem in our NT lesson from today. The people have just had a remarkable spiritual experience. Jesus fed probably around twenty-thousand people with a few fish and a few loaves of bread. They had never seen anything like it before. If Jesus could do that – solve their hunger problem – the Roman government would have no real power over them. They would finally be free. The people who encountered this great miracle rose up and tried to make Jesus their King. Finally, they had encountered a political figure who could do something for them that was useful.
Yet we only have to wait until the next day to observe that the great miracle wasn’t enough. The people wanted ever more miraculous events to satisfy their curiosity. When they asked what they were supposed to be doing, this is a question about interpretation. What works does God desire from His people?[v]
Jesus is unequivocal in his response, “Believe in the one whom God sent.” It is the Son of Man who has come down from heaven who is their true manna. The Eucharistic overtones are subtle in this passage, but also unmistakable. Those who feed on Jesus’ body and blood will never spiritually go hungry again. What starts in belief is nurtured and strengthened by the breaking of bread.
One of the things modernity has caused us to lose is a sacramental perspective on the world. For centuries, Christians viewed the world as a great mystery, meaning that the created order was a set of signs that pointed to its Creator. CS Lewis describes a sacramental perspective this way:
We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star. I think I begin to see what it means. In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more – something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.[vi]
In short, our most ardent desire is union with our Creator. As the Psalmist sings, “The heavens declare the glory of God/and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Ps 19.1).[vii] The entire creation signs out to God in songs of praise, seeking to participate in his goodness.[viii] When we start to see the world in these terms – as a giant symphony offering praise to God – it should change how we interact with it.
Some Christians assert that the Sacraments don’t “do” anything. This is a pity because from its earliest days the Church has insisted that the Sacraments are essential for one’s salvation. To just believe in Jesus is necessary, but not sufficient, because even demons in the Bible believe in Jesus, but not in a saving way.
Yet the Sacraments are not a set of magical amulets designed to get us into heaven. They are a set of a signs designed to point the way. They impart the help we need to travel on the long road that leads to life. This is why they’re essential.
We must not make the mistake Jeremiah was criticizing. The people thought that because they had the presence of God in their midst in the holiest place of the Temple that they were untouchable. This proved to be meaningless overconfidence in the absence of a genuine covenant relationship with God. The Eucharist is not magic. The Eucharist brings life because it enables us to join with the only one who can save us. Regular participation in the Eucharist is the very embodiment of what a personal relationship with Jesus entails because Jesus is the only one who can save us from our sin.
During Lent, attend a Morning Prayer service as often as you can. See if daily participation in the Eucharist leads to any changes in your life.
- Service to the Marginalized
Find a widow, an orphan or an immigrant and adopt her. Simply seek to serve her with no expectation of return. Advocate on her behalf. Having relationships with marginalized people is one of the best ways to live out our faith in a tangible way.
- Slow Down
Much preventable sin occurs because we are constantly in a hurry. Deliberately drive slower, ease into conversations and plan for rest in your day. See if a slower pace doesn’t make you more open to sensing the presence of God in your life.
[i] Alexander Jolly, The Christian Sacrifice in the Eucharist (Aberdeen, 1831), 193–195.
[ii] Adapted from John Donne and P. G. Stanwood, “Devotions,” in John Donne: Selections from Divine Poems, Sermons, Devotions and Prayers, ed. John Booty, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 257.
[iii] J. A. Thompson, A Book of Jeremiah, 2nd ed., New International Commentary of the OT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 274.
[iv] Quoted in Jewel Spears Brooker, Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism (Amherst: Univ of Massachusetts Press, 1996), 187.
[v] Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 262.
[vi] C. S. Lewis, Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 42.
[vii] The Book of Common Prayer, 606.
[viii] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 31.