The best sermon on the Eucharist I’ve heard in a very long time. From a Methodist, no less.
This is how Joe Rawls, our Facebook friend, commented a recent sermon of the Rev. Dr. Gregory S. Neal, ordained minister of the United Methodist Church from Texas. Indeed, we have to admit that Greg managed once again to present the difficult topic of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist in a way everybody can understand. We would like to thank Rev. Neal once again for making the transcript available to us and the permission to reproduce and translate the sermon. The film attached to the post contains not only the sermon but also the Holy Communion celebrated in Northgate United Methodist Church where Rev. Greg Neal ministers as senior pastor. Because the sermon and the liturgy are inseparble in this case, we attached also the liturgy’s transcript.
Okay, Jesus, this is really hard stuff. Firstly, it’s hard because Jesus is making one of the biggest, most powerful “I am”
statements. The “I am” passages are particularly important in Jesus’ ministry because they are affirmations of his own divinity. In these passages – and there are 7 of them in John’s Gospel – Jesus is making statements about himself, about his nature, about his divinity, about how we are to understand and look to him.
“I am the bread of life.”
“I am the light of the world.”
“I am the gate.”
“I am the good shepherd”
“I am the resurrection and the life.”
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
“I am the true vine.”
Each one of these is difficult, for each is an affirmation that sets Jesus apart from and above normal human beings. Each affirmation is one that places Jesus in equality with God. Each affirmation proclaims about him “I am the I AM.” God’s name is “I AM.” The name Yahweh means “I am” “I exist” “I be.” And when Jesus says: “I am the Resurrection and the life;” “I am the vine;” “ I am the bread of heaven … the bread of life” he is affirming that he is equal with God; that he is God. That he is our source of strength; that he is the way we are called to live; that he is the one we are called to follow; that he is the one through whom we are called to enter into eternity; that he is
our savior and our Lord, our master, our God, and our King. In each one of the “I am” statements Jesus is making an affirmation about himself that we cannot afford to miss: an affirmation of his nature as God. And the “I am” statement today – “I am the bread of life” – is the one that rings to us powerfully across the centuries, throughout the history of the church, because it speaks to the very understanding that the Church has always had with regard to Holy Communion.
Now, when the Jews first heard this they were upset. “How can [Jesus] tell us that he’s the bread that came down from heaven! After all, we’ve known his parents! We’ve known him since he was a little boy, walking the streets of Nazareth, picking his nose! We’ve known this guy … Jesus! How can he say that he is the bread that came down from heaven! We know about the bread that came down from heaven! That’s the manna in the wilderness! That’s God’s gift! How can he say this about himself?”
And Jesus doesn’t make it any easier. Jesus in John 6 continues:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (6:51)
“Whoa … wait a minute now, Jesus! It’s one thing to talk metaphorically about yourself as the bread that came down out of heaven. We can understand that, we can get our brains around that; the Rabbis have been teaching that way for a long time now! We can understand this idea: you’re saying that you’re God’s gift to us, like the Manna from heaven, and if we will just listen to you everything will be all right. Right?” “No,” Jesus says. “No.”
The bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (6:51)
Whoa! Wait a minute, now, the Torah is very clear: you don’t eat pork, you don’t eat meat with blood in it, and you don’t eat your neighbor. Right? No, Jesus can’t be serious! He can’t be meaning this. He can’t be expecting us to understand this as being anything more than just a metaphor or a symbol.
So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. (6:53)
Bluuuah. Come on Jesus. You’ve read the Torah! You know you’re not supposed to eat meat with blood in it … much less drink anybody’s blood! Are you a vampire now?
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. (6:53)
Oh, come on Jesus, you’re speaking metaphorically. You’re speaking symbolically. We’re not supposed to take you seriously. We can’t take this literally, can we?
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” (6:54)
Come on, Jesus, you’re digging a hole for yourself! You can’t get out of this with metaphor. You’ve said it literally: “Very truly I tell you.” It can’t get any worse than that. Can it?
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father; whoever eats me will live because of me.” (6:57)
Huh? You want us to eat you??
“This is the bread that came down from heaven.” (6:58)
I can see Jesus standing there in front of the Jews: he’s preaching this message, and he’s pointing to himself:
“This is the bread that came down from heaven. Not like the bread that your ancestors ate, and they died.” (6:58a)
The manna that descended from heaven during the exodus out of Egypt … they ate that manna. That was God’s gracious gift of nourishment to them. They ate this manna, this “what is it” bread … they ate it and they still died. Jesus is saying: “I’m not like that gift of manna. I’m not like that gift from heaven. I’m the true bread that comes down from heaven. The one who eats this bread” pointing to himself “will live forever. The one who eats this bread will live forever.” Hmmmmm.
Even the Disciples said: “This teaching is difficult.” (6:60b) Yep, it is. It’s a hard one. It’s not just an “I am” statement. It’s an “I am nutso” statement! Did Jesus mean this literally? How do we understand this?
There’ve been two frames of thought here, basically. There’s the general Protestant position that you hear from Baptists and Church of Christ and other Protestant groups that view this as metaphor, as allusion, as symbolic, not as literal proclamations of Jesus that you’re to eat or receive him into yourself through eating of the bread and drinking of the cup in Holy Communion. Their understanding is one of memorial representation: you eat and drink in remembrance of me. You do it because Jesus told you to do it. You do it out of an order: Eat this bread and drink this cup. And, really, there’s nothing going on here but a symbolic act, in which we remember Jesus and we thank God for Jesus, but other than that there’s nothing going on at the table but obedience to the command of Jesus to do this in remembrance of me.
That point of view, that attitude, that understanding came about – was invented by the church – during the Protestant
Reformation by a reformer named “Zwingli.” He came up with this idea just a few century’s ago, and it took root within certain portions of Protestantism.
The alternate and predominate point of view that comes from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Episcopalian, some Presbyterian, and Methodist thinking, is that Jesus said what he meant and meant what he said, and that when we eat and when we drink of the bread and the cup of Holy Communion … when we come to the table of the Lord and drink from the cup and eat the bread, some way some how in a miracle that goes beyond our comprehension, some way some how in an act of God’s grace that we cannot understand, that we cannot get our brains around, and nevertheless we know is true by experience, some way some how God’s real presence in Jesus Christ comes to dwell within us.
Now the Roman Catholic Church has devised an understanding of this process: They call it Tranasubstantiation. In Transubstantiation the substance of the bread and the wine has been changed – transformed – into the body and blood of Jesus. The elements may still look and smell and taste just like bread and wine – their externals remain unchanged – but, internally, their substance has become the body and the blood of Christ.
Our Lutheran brothers and sisters have a slightly different understanding, called Consubstantiation: with the substance of the bread and the wine comes the substance of the body and the blood of Jesus.
Methodists and Anglicans simply say: “We don’t know. We don’t know how Jesus comes to us through the bread and the wine. We don’t know how his body and his blood are communicated to us at the table of the lord. We don’t understand how the Holy Spirit makes Jesus really present to us in the Sacrament. We do not comprehend the method and the mechanism by which Jesus is really present in the bread and in the wine, but we believe it nevertheless because we experience it when we come to the table of the Lord … Jesus is really here, really present, and when we eat and drink with faith Jesus is in our lives anew and afresh, nourishing us, empowering us, enabling us for mission and ministry, transforming us into his hands and his feat, his eyes and his ears and his lips, so that we can go out and proclaim the good news of Jesus in word and in deed to a broken and hurting world. We don’t understand it. We can’t comprehend it. But by experience, by scripture, and by the tradition of the church, we know that it’s true. We know that at the table of the Lord, in a mysterious way we cannot comprehend, Jesus is present, really and truly among us.
The Articles of Religion ([Anglican Article XXVIII; Methodist Article XVIII]) say that when we eat the bread and drink the cup after a heavenly and spiritual manner we are eating and drinking the Lord’s body and blood. And Jesus himself says something about that here in John chapter 6, verse 63, where it says:
“It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” (6:63)
The Real Presence depends not about our understanding, nor is it about gross physicality; rather, it’s all about the Spirit. The Real Presence of Jesus is the work of the Holy Spirit; it’s all about spiritual things, and it’s in a spiritual manner that, when we eat and drink, Jesus becomes really present to us. It’s not symbol. It’s not Transignification. It’s not a symbolic act or a metaphorical act. It is a spiritual act in which we eat and drink, by faith, and Jesus Christ is formed anew and afresh in our hearts.
When we come to the table of the lord we are nourished by his grace, we are empowered by his love, we are enabled by his presence to be the body of Christ for a broken and hurting world. We say that in the prayer of consecration. In the Great Thanksgiving, today, I will pray:
“Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.’
That comes right out of the Great Thanksgiving, World and Table II in your Hymnals. It’s part of the consecration for the elements, and it means what it says, too.
We, my brothers and sisters, come to the Table of the Lord having heard the Word proclaimed about Jesus being the bread of life – the bread of heaven – and that we are called to eat and drink and receive his presence into us anew and afresh. We are called to come to the table of the lord and partake of and experience, anew, the presence of Jesus, allowing Jesus to change us, to mold us, to transform us, and to set us free to live as the body of Christ, to serve those we meet, and to witness to the “I am” … to the bread of heaven … to the Good Shepherd … to the true vine … to the way, the truth, and the life … Jesus Christ our Lord.
Come to the Table of the Lord Today. Receive the Blessed Sacrament. Allow Jesus to change you and transform you anew. And then go out those doors to proclaim the Good News to all that Jesus Christ is here to save.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Confession of Sin (from 880 in the UM Hymnal):
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name. Amen.
[All pray in silence]
Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen!
The Great Thanksgiving:
Word and Table II, The United Methodist Hymnal
Responsive Arrangement by Dr. Gregory S. Neal
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth. Before the mountains were brought forth, or you had formed the earth, from everlasting to everlasting, you alone are God.
You created light out of darkness and brought forth life on the earth! You formed us in your image and breathed into us the breath of life. When we turned away, and our love failed, your love remained steadfast. You delivered us from captivity, made
covenant to be our sovereign God, and spoke to us through your
And so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory,
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
Holy are you, and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ. By the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection you gave birth to your Church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death, and made with us a new covenant by water and the spirit. On the night in which he gave himself up for us, our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread gave it to his disciples, and said: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Likewise, when the supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said: “Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:
Christ has died;
Christ is risen;
Christ will come again.
Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.
Through your Son Jesus Christ, with your Holy Spirit in your Holy Church, all honor and glory is yours, Almighty God, now and forever.