The heart of today’s gospel reading is a contrast. “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” In other words, your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and died, but those who eat “the bread that came down from heaven” will live forever. What is astonishing about this promise is not just the assurance of eternal life, but the fact that Jesus joins the promise of eternal life to the most mundane of human activities – eating.
I would like to look at both the promise – eternal life – and the means to achieve it – eating the bread that came down from heaven.
First, the desire for life after death seems to be fundamental to human nature. The eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume once said, "It is a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist forever,” but I am not sure that many people agree with him. Indeed, in 21st century American culture there seems to be an almost desperate need to believe that there is life after death. Suddenly there seem to be a half dozen new TV shows that deal with the idea of life after death and the possibility of communicating with the dead.
Eternal life is not an “unreasonable fancy;” it is at the very heart of the Christian faith. To divorce eternal life from the Christian faith is to render the faith anemic and puny. In today’s gospel reading Jesus reminds us that “the living Father” sent him. The gospel of Jesus Christ is about life, both here and hereafter. To accept that death has the last word is to accept that God’s power is limited, but that is not what the Bible teaches. Jesus promises that he will raise up those who are nourished by his body and blood.
It is just as true, however, that the Christian faith is about more than life after death. It is just as much about life in the here and now. Indeed, there is a continuity between life in this world and life in the next. As priest and poet John Donne put it, “… all the way to heaven is heaven… so that soul that goes to heaven meets heaven here… the true joy of a good soul in this world is the very joy of heaven…” (“Sermon LXVI” in Herschel Baker, ed., The Later Renaissance in England, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin (1975), p. 561.)
The promise that eternal life belongs to those who eat and drink Christ’s body and blood grounds us in this world. The promise of eternal life is not annexed to some elaborate ritual; we are not asked to bathe in a sacred river or to offer sacrifices or to repeat a magic formula. Instead, we are invited to a meal.
But (I imagine someone asking) can it be that simple? Can we really receive eternal life by eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table? To answer that question, first imagine how we come to the Lord’s Table. In the world of Jesus, bathing was relatively uncommon, but if one was invited to a dinner party, one bathed and anointed oneself with oil. Similarly, before we come to the Lord’s Table, we are washed in the waters of baptism. Also, to sit down at table in first century Palestine implied that the guests were at peace with the host and with one another. Jesus admonishes us to be reconciled with one another before “offering our gift at the altar.” (Matthew 5.23-24)
The 16th century Protestant Reformers condemned the mass because the consecrated bread and wine had become isolated from the other parts of the liturgy; they had become ends in themselves. However, when we properly celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, then we will have met Jesus all along the way. We will have been baptized into his death and resurrection; we will hear him speak in the voice of scripture; we will be reconciled with those we have sinned against; we will be nourished on his body and blood; and finally, we will hear him command us to go into the world to do his will.
The late 2nd century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyons called the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, “the medicine of immortality.” Jesus did not employ the metaphor of medicine, but he did promise that if we are nourished on his body and blood we will have eternal life. The meal we share with believers on earth is the heavenly banquet in earthly guise. Saints and angels gather around whenever we set the table, whether the sacrament is celebrated with all the pomp and ceremony they can muster at St. Peter’s in Rome or with loaf bread and jug wine at summer camp, because it is the earthly extension of the marriage feast of the Lamb.