Eucharist Sermon - 22 August 2021

The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
1 Kings 8:22–30, 41–43; Ephesians 6:10–20; John 6:56–69
Canon Professor Carol Harrison, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity
'The Presence of God'

‘This is more than we can stand!’

A number of our Gospel readings recently have been passages in which Jesus is described as the bread of life. The problem with this morning’s reading from John’s Gospel, which comes at the end of a long discourse on this theme, is that in it, Jesus finally makes clear that he isn’t just speaking metaphorically; he means what he says - literally. He isn’t just like the bread or food we need to keep us alive, rather he states that he is that bread. This is too much for some of his followers, who, although they were confused and disconcerted by his teaching, had no doubt been listening patiently; trying their hardest to grasp what he was saying to them but finding it more and more challenging. When he finally concludes ‘My flesh is real food; my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him’, they are pushed beyond their limits and exclaim in utter exasperation: ‘This is more than we can stand! How can anyone listen to such talk?’. John observes that ‘Jesus was aware that his disciples were grumbling about it’ but his response isn’t the one we might expect: he doesn’t try to gently and calmly explain; to counter their misgivings; to come up with an analogy they can relate to. Instead he appears to reply with equal exasperation, along the lines of, ‘well if that shocks just wait until you see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before’. It comes as no surprise that John then adds: ‘From that moment many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him’.

Let’s leave these tensions and frayed tempers for a while and go back to our Old Testament Lesson. Solomon has finally completed ‘the house for the name of the Lord God of Israel’; a home for the Ark of the Covenant – and as archaeology confirms – one of the most magnificent temples in the ancient world. It is a momentous achievement, and we find him standing in front of the alter of the Lord, in the presence of the whole assembly of Israel, with hands lifted high to heaven in prayer, thanking God for fulfilling his promises to his father, David: now he has built a house in which God can dwell. But then he seems to falter; and like the disciples in John’s Gospel, Solomon exclaims in confusion, ‘But can God indeed dwell on earth? Heaven itself, the highest heaven, cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built’! ‘

In both our Old and New Testament lessons, then, human understanding is pushed to its limits: in one case to grasp how God can dwell in a temple built on earth; in the other to grasp how Jesus is not just like, but actually is, the bread of life.

To try to come to terms ourselves with what is going on here there are two things which we need to think about a bit further. The first is God’s presence and the second is prayer.

First, God’s presence. In Kings God is understood to have found a home in the temple; to dwell there; to be present there as he is in heaven; in John’s Gospel Jesus claims to be present in the food and drink which sustain not only the body in this life, but also the soul in eternal life: ‘whoever eats of this bread will live forever’. In both cases the physical, temporal, earthly building or body become dwelling places for God; places where God is present; where he can be encountered, addressed, received. In other words, in both cases our very human understanding is pushed to the limit when very human things – a building and bread – literally enshrine, contain, and make God present. The word I am reaching for is obviously ‘sacramental’. The temple and the body (indeed, the temple which is Christ’s body, the Church) become temporal, physical bearers of a spiritual reality. What both of our lessons make clear, however, is that they are not simply an image; or a way of mediating divine presence, but that they are the very place where God dwells. What Solomon, the disciples and we -as readers of these texts – are in fact struggling with is sacramentality.

When Father Richard showed us the wonderful icon of our Lady and the Christ Child depicted as Africans last week, he urged us to leave behind the legacy of the Enlightenment and of Historical Biblical Criticism, and instead of trying to explain the facts of Scripture as if they were straightforward statements of historical truths, to look to their spiritual inspiration and meaning – he was, in fact, offering us a way to resolve this struggle. He was telling us that the icon and sacred Scripture, like Solomon’s temple and like the body and blood of Christ, are sacramental; they are places where God dwells; where he is present to us – but only if we discern aright. And right discernment, I would suggest, is the discernment of faith, not of intellectual understanding; it is the practice of prayer, not of critical reason.

This is partly because the transcendent God can never be fully apprehended by human reason, but it is above all because the way in which God is present to us is one that invites – indeed demands – participation and relation, not scientific analysis.

And so I come to the second thing I suggested we need to think about a bit further: prayer. Prayer and worship are, I would suggest, the correct way to respond to God’s sacramental presence. We saw Solomon doing precisely this as he stood in the temple, in the presence of God, raising his hands towards him in praise and thanksgiving. Indeed, we might say that his question, and the fact that he falters, is no more than an awed acknowledgement that the God whom he is addressing in prayer is the transcendent God; that the God who dwells in the heights of heaven is the same God who is present to Him in His temple. This is confirmed when, having temporarily faltered, he continues his prayer ‘Hear in heaven your dwelling and, when you hear, forgive’.

Jesus’ disciples struggle rather more than Solomon to reconcile themselves to God’s presence. Some of them wander off, but when Jesus asks the twelve if also want to leave they respond with a statement of faith: ‘Your words are words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are God’s Holy One’. Again, this is, in effect, a prayer; it is not a rational statement but an expression of faith before the mysterious, sacramental presence of God in his Son, Jesus; in his words and teaching, for they are the place where God is to be found and worshipped.

No doubt all of this became much clearer to the members of the early Church following Christ’s death, when the words which God inspired were collected together in the canon of sacred Scripture; when the body and blood of Christ, the Word, was offered and received in the eucharist. In the temple, in Scripture, in the Eucharist, God is present to us in a way which defies our human understanding but inspires and demands our faith – one which, as we have seen, is a matter of response to and participation in God’s presence to us, expressed above all in prayer and worship.

This is beautifully set out in Aquinas’ ‘Tantum ergo’, which we sometimes sing as we revere the blessed sacrament of our Lord’s body and blood:

Therefore we, before him bending,
this great Sacrament revere;
types and shadows have their ending,
for the newer rite is here;
faith, our outward sense befriending,
makes our inward vision clear.

Glory let us give, and blessing
to the Father and the Son,
honour, thanks, and praise addressing,
while eternal ages run;
ever too his love confessing,
who from both with both is One. 

Canon Foot also often captures this sense of being in God’s sacramental presence when she prays after the Eucharist ‘Resting in the presence of Christ within us and all around us, let us pray’.