Sunday 4 May 2014

Homily - Bread of Heaven

It would be an interesting exercise to study the Old Testament and find all of those passages which speak of a divine food, or the miraculous provision of nourishment. One miracle comes to mind. It is the account of the feeding of the widow of Zarepath by Elijah during a great famine. He was led by the Lord into the wilderness, to the Brook of Cherith, and the Lord provided him with a miraculous sustenance which was brought to him each day by a flock of ravens. This passage shows the same connection between being led by the Lord into the wilderness and then being fed by Him.

After some time the stream where he was camped dried up and the Lord instructed him to go to the town of Zarephath where a widow would provide for him. He approached the town in obedience and found a widow collecting sticks. She was going to make a small fire, and cook the very last cup of meal which she had in her house with a little oil, and after consuming the last of the food she was resigned to death by starvation with her son. But Elijah asked her spare a little of the meal to make him a cake as well and promised that her store of meal and oil would not run out until the rains came again and the crops were able to grow. She did as Elijah asked and it happened as he had said. Her food did not run out all through the famine and drought. God provided when there was no hope for earthly provision of nourishment.

This seems to me to also speak of the Eucharist. Here we are gathered. Many of us with great trials and difficulties which we bear patiently each day. The Christian life is not easy, nor is it comfortable. To be obedient to God requires a journey into the wilderness, and in our own ways we have all experienced this, and will expect to continue to experience it. All hope of earthly sustenance has failed us, but if we have faith and give over even the little we have to God then he promises that he himself will always nourish us, whatever the situation in which we find ourselves.

The miracles of our Lord also foreshadow the Eucharist that he would institute for our salvation. If we consider the feeding of the five thousand, one of the regular Gospel readings. We can see the links between this miracle and the sacrament in which we share. The crowd is in a deserted place. Bread and fish are received as gifts, and being offered to God they become more than they are by nature and sustain an entire crowd of people. It is so with the bread and wine we will offer to God on the altar. By our prayers, and the action of the Holy Spirit, they will become more than they are by nature and will become for us a heavenly and spiritual food.

What is the link between this offering of bread and wine, the receiving of spiritual nourishment, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who declares himself to be the bread of heaven. If we turn to the account of the Last Supper we see that our Lord models for us what we have performed as Orthodox Christians ever since. Indeed we repeat the words from 1 Corinthians which are undoubtedly the earliest form of this service as we come to the most sacred moments of this sacrament. We say,

1 Corinthians 11:23-26  For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.  After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come.

These words have been spoken on this occasion for 2000 years. What do they mean for us? It seems to me that in the first place we are not repeating the events of the Last Supper but are in a true sense entering into them. And this is not surprising since the Last Supper was not simply the gathering of a group of disciples with their teacher, but was the gathering of the disciples with their Lord and God and Saviour. What our Lord Jesus says and does has eternal consequences. The Last Supper is an event outside of time and space and is the foundation of all of our participation in the eternal Eucharist.

This passage from 1 Corinthians shows us that the early Church understood clearly that God had brought about a new relationship of men with God by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. A new testament or covenant had been sealed in his blood. Just as at the Passover a sacrifice would be made in the Temple, so they came to understood that our Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, was offering himself as the eternal sacrifice which made redundant the sacrifice of birds and animals. Indeed these earthly sacrifices were only ever pointing to the eternal sacrifice of Christ which was being offered at that Passover.

The bread which he offered his disciples was his own body. ‘This is my body’. But in offering his body he offered and offers himself. We still offer bread and wine, and we believe that by our prayers and the activity of the Holy Spirit brooding over us, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. This is no more than Christ Himself teaches. It is no more than the Church has always believed. St Irenaeus of Lyons was a disciple of St Polycarp, who was himself a disciple of St John the Evangelist. He received from St Polycarp the Apostolic Faith and speaking of the eucharist he says,

For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.

He says that the bread over which thanks have been given is the body of the Lord, and the cup His blood. He says that that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, partakes of life. This is the teaching of the early Church. It is the teaching of our own Orthodox Church to this present time.

Through the prayers of the Eucharist and the action of the Holy Spirit the bread and wine become Christ. He is present in them. God comes down and makes Himself present among us, and then allows us to consume his body and blood so that we are nourished and sustained both physically and spiritually. They are life in us and for us. Our true life. We are united both physically and spiritually with Christ. So that we might continue to dwell in Him and he in us, as was first made possible in our Baptism. Indeed if Baptism is our coming out of Egypt then the Eucharist is truly the manna from heaven sustaining our journey through the desert. But it is not a simple food, however miraculous. It is Christ Himself.

What does it mean to receive Christ into our bodies and into union with our own spirit? How can a man dare to approach the altar unless Christ Himself say, ‘Come unto me all you that are weary and heavy laded and I will give you rest’. Unless he Himself had said, ‘Take and eat, this is my body’. If Baptism is the beginning of life with Christ in the Holy Spirit, then the Eucharist is the means by which we persevere in the journey. The journey is not possible without such heavenly food, even Christ Himself. All other nourishment will fail us.

Let me urge us all to prepare ourselves properly for this great gift. As we are united with Christ we are united ever more closely with each other. This is especially the time and place when we become the Church, the body of Christ. Let us be prepared, let us flee from sin and seek holiness as far as we are able. But the strength and grace to become holy is found only in this sacrament. Therefore we must receive to become the people that we would wish to be in receiving it. To draw back because of sin, if repented of, would be a mistake. That which God has provided for our salvation must be received with faith and gratitude. Let us therefore receive with joy and hope as soon as we are able, so that we might not only receive nourishment, but our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Having become man for our sake, now he offers himself to you in the form of bread and wine. May we all be united in receiving Him, finding grace and nourishment for the service of our Lord in obedience and holiness. May the prayer of the blind man be always on our lips, ‘Lord, I am not worthy, but say the word and I shall be healed’.

To the glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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