Proper 12 / Year B
So I spent this week in deep thought, pondering a question: Why did Jesus feed five thousand people in the wilderness? Before I disclose the definitive answer, what do you think? Why did he feed them? Now, don’t overthink this! After all of my scholarly investigations and meditative musings here is what I have discerned… Jesus fed them because they were hungry!
And, as we will see over the next four Sundays, the assigned Lectionary readings will direct our attention to the Eucharistic roots of Jesus’ actions in this story. Taking, blessing, breaking, and distributing are the essential elements of the Eucharistic liturgy. So if Jesus gives literal food to people because they are hungry, we might want to ask why he gives Eucharistic food. If we don’t overthink the question we just might conclude Jesus gives us Eucharistic food because we need it. We cannot go through life without experiencing spiritual pangs of hunger. Our souls will starve without what Jesus freely offers.
I attended my first service of Holy Eucharist at an Episcopal Church 39 years ago this month. What I remember most about it was walking down the long center aisle, passing through the chancel flanked on either side by the singing choir, approaching the altar rail, and kneeling. I was just a boy out of college, but sensed how the president of the biggest bank in town had to do just what I did in order to receive communion. We were all in this together as equals before God; each of us having to assume a posture of humility before the Lord in order to receive.
Maybe it was Presbyterian background with its Puritanical leanings, but it didn’t take long for the ‘celebration’ of Holy Eucharist to become for me a severe, penitential experience. Sunday worship became a time dutifully to rehearse the litany of my sins and shortcomings from the previous week; always promising with all my might to be a better person, only to go through the same litany the following Sunday, and then the Sunday after that, and after that, and… well you get the idea. Evangelicals hold there is nothing we can do to merit our salvation because we are hopelessly lost in sin. Grace, they ‘say’, comes only as God’s gift. Even though I held to this doctrine in my head, it didn’t stop me from acting as if I had to merit being worthy to receive communion. And when I didn’t and when I couldn’t, participating in the Eucharist beat me down. Rather than life-giving and life-affirming, it morphed into a destructive spiritual exercise.
It took several years and far too many experiences to tell in a single sermon how this changed for me; how I began to recognize Jesus offers me the holy food and drink not because I deserve it, but because I need it; how I came to embrace the notion this moment is not something I earn and it is not something I deserve, rather it is something God offers to me as a sure and certain sign of God’s unfailing love for me. I am still working to be a better person, but now I do so knowing I am deeply and completely loved for who I am, just as I am. Now I experience the road of sanctification as a pilgrimage of wonder and grace, not as a forced march I am bound to fail.
When my marriage ended 19 years ago I learned something else about the Eucharist. I began to attend a Saturday evening service at an Episcopal Church near where I lived and for the first time since going to seminary was able to be a worshipper rather than a worship leader. This is when the Eucharist became a part of my ‘daily bread’ – what I needed in order to survive the day. Why did Jesus offer the Eucharistic food to me? Because I desperately needed it in a way I had not needed it before or since.
I have told you before about the Eucharistic service I attended at the General Convention in Salt Lake City. It was a massive event with thousands of people in attendance. Volunteer ushers outfitted with red vests roamed the hall’s floor to assist and direct us. I was preoccupied throughout the service with some personal things and I struggled to be present to the moment. The time came for our section and my row to make our way to our communion ‘station’, which I did. After receiving communion I returned to my seat, which happened to be on the aisle. With my head bowed and eyes closed I was trying to pray, but still distracted. Then an usher came up from behind me, leaned down next to my ear, and said, “Did you get communion?” “I did,” I said in response. There was something about the person’s voice that sounded so personal and intimate; it was not a whisper, but I was certain no one else heard it. “Did you get communion?” A second or two passed before I opened my eyes and turned around to look at the person and when I did no one was there. There was no usher to be found anywhere near me.
“Did you get communion?” I had received communion, but, preoccupied with my problems as I was, I did not get communion. I had gone through the motions, but had missed the meaning. Most every Sunday since, after I commune myself I ask the question, “Did you get communion?” Do you realize God loves you not because you have always been successful and not because you have the perfect family and not because you have never made a mistake and not because you are free of regrets and not because you are not haunted by personal demons and not because your belief in every Christian doctrine is rock-solid. God loves you because God loves you… and there is nothing you can do about it!
Why did Jesus feed the 5000? Because they were hungry. Why does Jesus feed us with the Sacrament of his Body and Blood? Because we need it. It is just that simple. God feeds us because God loves us.