Eucharist Sermon - 8 August 2021

The Tenth Sunday after Trinity
1 Kings 19:4–8; Ephesians 4:25–5:2; John 6:35, 41–51
The Revd Canon Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology
'Anger Management, the Gate to Eternal Life'

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6.35, 51).

The Incarnation, eternal life, self-sacrifice, the eucharist: all of these four large topics arise in those two verses.

First, the Incarnation. More strongly than in any other, the Gospel of John identifies Jesus with God: Jesus is God in human form. So, in the famous prologue we hear every Christmas Day, we are told: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14).

Accordingly, here in this morning’s reading, Jesus identifies himself with things divine. He doesn’t merely say, “I mediate, or I relay, or I communicate the life-saving bread from heaven”; he says, “I am the living bread”. That’s why, we’re told, “The Jews began to complain about him … saying, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know. How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6.41-2).

Second, eternal life. Jesus is not only himself “the living bread”, he is the life-giving bread, bread that sustains not merely physical life, but eternal life: “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever” (John 6.51).

Third, self-sacrifice. The bread that is Jesus, the spiritual nourishment that he gives, derives from his sacrifice of himself: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6.51). The nourishment comes from the flesh that is given, given up, surrendered, sacrificed.

And then, fourth, we surely have an allusion to the eucharist: “The bread … is my flesh”.

So, putting these four topics together, we get this: Jesus incarnates or embodies the life of God, the fullness of life that transcends death; that life consists in his self-sacrifice; we participate in that divine, abundant, eternal life, by participating in the same self-sacrifice; and that is what receiving the bread and the wine in the eucharist symbolises.

But what exactly was Jesus’ self-sacrifice? What kind of self-sacrifice are we being called to participate in? What’s the kind that generates eternal life?

Here, we could go in any of several, closely allied directions. But for the sake of simplicity and clarity, I’m going to focus on the self-sacrifice that is forgiveness, guided by the second verse of our Epistle, which I’ll discuss shortly. There are at least two good reasons to focus on forgiveness as the meaning of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. First, there is that scene at the end of the Gospel according to St Luke, where Jesus, nailed to the cross, prays, “Father, forgive them: for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34).

And second, there is the Last Supper, which, as the Gospel of John makes very plain, was an act of forgiveness. For there, Jesus proceeds to break the bread of fellowship with those he knows will shortly betray him. Most obviously, there is Judas: “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me”, says Jesus. “… So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot… [and] said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do’” (John 13.21, 26, 27). But Judas wasn’t the only traitor in the room; there was also Peter, to whom Jesus says, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (13.38).

The breaking of bread is an act of fellowship. The breaking of the bread of fellowship with known betrayers is an act of forgiveness.

But how, exactly, does forgiveness involve self-sacrifice? Some think that it involves overlooking the wrong that has been done and suppressing any feelings of righteous resentment or anger. What’s sacrificed is the victim’s claim to justice.

I am sure, however, that that is a mistake. Christian feminists have long said so, refusing to accept that women who are constantly taken for-granted, presumed upon, side-lined, ignored, pushed around, and even physically or sexually abused must simply play doormat and absorb whatever comes their way. I am confident that they are right, since my own teenage experience of trying to embody the doormat ethic has shown me that it just doesn’t work: the abusive manipulation just keeps on being repeated, the manipulator learns nothing, nothing improves, and the victim becomes trapped in a depressive entanglement of wanting to trust, having trust exploited, not quite believing what’s happening, wondering if he’s to blame, and all the time having to wrestle with rising dismay and indignation.

Forgiveness cannot involve the sacrifice of the victim’s claim to justice. That claim must find expression, if there is to be any change, any improvement, any salvation. But if the claim to justice is to find expression, the injustice has to be acknowledged, not overlooked or buried. And when injustice is acknowledged, it naturally inspires anger, because anger is the appropriate response to wrong, just as admiration is the appropriate response to right. This view finds biblical corroboration in the second verse of our reading from St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, where the Apostle says, “Be angry but do not sin” (4.26). The clear implication is that there is a legitimate place for anger in Christian conduct.

Anger, however, in the hands of human sinners is a dangerous thing. This is because the indignant resentment that injustice naturally inspires easily spins out of control, so that what began as just self-defence quickly grows into unjust aggression, the victim morphs into a fresh perpetrator, and the original injustice is obscured.

Victims, too, are sinners, vulnerable to overwhelming passions of self-righteousness, rage, hatred, and vengefulness. That’s why, having given anger a certain legitimate rein, Paul is very quick to qualify it five verses later, when he enjoins the Ephesian Christians to put away “all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” (4.31). The anger that is not sinful is not bitter, or wrathful, or slanderous, or malicious. Moreover, it chooses its words very carefully (and I quote): “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (4.29).

The sacrifice properly involved in forgiveness is not the sacrifice of justice, of the truth about wrongdoing. Neither is it, therefore, the indiscriminate repression of anger.

Rather, what’s sacrificed is the intense (if momentary) satisfaction of giving anger full rein, letting it rip, loosing it to humiliate the oppressor and express devastating contempt for the traitor. Christian anger, while telling the truth about injustice, tells it to build up, not to tear down. It speaks the critical truth about what’s wrong, while aiming to aid the wrongdoer to help put things right. Its witness to justice is restrained by its intention of reconciliation.

If you want to know what Jesus sacrificed, then contemplate what it took for him, knowing what he knew, to break the bread of fellowship with the likes of Judas and Peter. Contemplate the heroic self-restraint and the love that empowered it.

That is the self-sacrifice of forgiveness that Jesus calls us to make.

That’s how we participate in Him and so enter the gate to eternal life.

And that’s at the heart of our eucharist this morning, when we remember how Jesus, “in the same night that he was betrayed, took bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take eat, this is my body which is given for you”.

Which is to say, “This is the embodiment of the love that so governs God’s righteous anger that He can look upon our sinful ignorance and arrogance, weakness and wilfulness, with the unblinking eyes of compassion”.

Thanks be to God. Amen