A sermon preached on August 12, 2018, Proper 14 for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston NY. You can read the scriptures for the day by clicking here.
When Jesus talks about being the bread of life, what is he talking about? It might be helpful to talk about what is life-giving, what is sustenance. On today’s cover, 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer gives us a very simple, yet powerful image of sustenance in The Milkmaid.
A bare room with only subtle decoration at the bottom of the wall. A narrow table under a window where daylight spills through. A few baskets hanging on the walls, ready to be used. A woman, a kitchen servant, dressed simply, is intently pouring milk into an earthenware vessel. And bread overflows the basket that sits on the table. The scene, although spare, has a sense of abundance to it. It feels inviting, life-giving.
You may have noticed I have begun using a new invitation for Eucharist over the past few months: Behold who you are. Become what you receive.
But it’s not really new. It’s a revival of one of the oldest invitations to Eucharist in the church. It comes from St. Augustine, from one of his sermons written about Eucharist. St Augustine of Hippo was a bishop in North Africa and the originator a problematic doctrine called Original Sin, which stated that human nature is inherently sinful. At least, that’s how many people read it and how the church has used it to keep people, especially women, oppressed.
However, I read something a little different. I don’t think Augustine really had such a dim view of humanity. I think he loved people very much. But I also think he understood just how lost we can become when we focus too much on the bread of the world instead of the bread of life.
In other words, when we spend our efforts trying to live up to the world’s standards… trying to live by our own self-will becoming the gods of our own lives, trying to get it all together and feeling shame for when we lose control of things, trying to manage everyone and everybody… because we think that is what will save us.
We learn from a very young age just how much of a risk it is to be vulnerable and so we stop doing it. We keep vigilant and alert as we try to navigate the dangerous world and we seek to control rather than surrender, try to know rather than to ask. So before long, we’ve forgotten how to open our heart, how to be our authentic self. We forget how to stop managing the world and just let ourselves be, surrendered to God’s Will.
Yet, every week we’re called back: “Lift up your hearts…” the invitation is offered before we begin. And we respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.”
And as we say the Lord’s prayer before we partake we offer, “Your will be done… on earth as it is in heaven…”
The Table of Reconciliation is one of healing, you see. For us.
To receive love so that we may become more loving.
To receive mercy so that we may become more merciful.
To receive grace so that we may become more grace-filled.
To open us up to receive what we are: the bread of life broken open for the world God has made. To become Love incarnate.
Jesus said: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” He says: “I am the living bread. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
We think that the bread of the world, this manna, will save us… this striving that we do. But it is the bread of life that is more nourishing because the bread of life is about love – about receiving love and giving love. It is about becoming Love.
In his sermon that I mentioned earlier, Augustine says:
What you see on God’s altar… is simply bread and a cup – this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ’s body, the cup is Christ’s blood. Faith can grasp the fundamentals quickly, succinctly, yet it hungers for a fuller account of the matter… My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit…
So now, 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.
When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.”
Therefore, behold who you are; become what you receive…
(St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 272)
What we receive at this Table is mercy.
What we receive at this Table is hope.
What we receive at this Table is true freedom.
What we receive at this Table is Love.
In order that we may become: mercy, hope, freedom, love. That we may become compassion.
We are reconciled to God in coming to the Table with our hearts lifted and open, ready to surrender our worldly fears and desires so that we might fully receive, might fully become what God would have us become – the Body of Christ, divine Love incarnate.
I was reading the Big Book this week on my Sabbath day. The Big Book is another term for the Alcoholics Anonymous book, first published in 1935. And, although there are some dated ways of saying things, the spiritual wisdom in that book remains unparalleled.
One line struck me in particular: “The first requirement is that we be convinced that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success.”
The wisdom in the realization that our worldly attempts, our anxiety, our insistence on seeking the worldly bread… whatever that looks like for us… our worldly attempts are often a thin veil for our fear, the fear that we aren’t enough, that something is wrong with us, that something is missing.
But nothing is further from the truth.
We are whole, beautiful, exquisite, beloved creations of God… just as we are.
God made creation and called it good. God called us good!
When we give up the striving and the certainty and come to rest in our vulnerable, seemingly imperfect selves, we find such an abundance of love… that it overflows. Just as the bread in that basket overflows in Vermeer’s painting.
I don’t know if I’ve ever told this story but my conversion experience was not about converting to Christianity. It was about converting to God’s Love.
I was at a workshop with about 30 other people and we had been sharing and reflecting with such love and vulnerability that at the end, I experienced this moment of total freedom from self-judgment. And when all that self-judgment was gone, in its absence, my only experience was of God’s Love filling me up. So much so that it overflowed in tears that would not stop flowing.
Vermeer didn’t paint a scene with lots of finery and decoration, with meats and fish on a table filled with fancy plates and beautiful glassware. He gave us a scene of simplicity that, because we have all we need… because we are all we need… it is already abundant.
The bread of the world keeps us striving for more. But the bread of life… in that we will never be hungry, never be thirsty.
In finally coming to rest in our own belovedness, we are able to live more compassionately as Paul implores in his letter to the Ephesian church:
“Do not let your anger stew so it will fester into resentment and revenge. Encourage those who struggle to share with others. Only say what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. Find ways of living without bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted. Forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, [our offertory sentence each week] and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 4:25-5:2, paraphrased)
May we open our hearts. May we rest in God’s Will.
May we become mercy, hope, and freedom.
In St. Augustine’s words: Behold who you are. Become what you receive.