Sermon 11. The Eucharistic Presence Seasons - Easter

"This is the Bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof and not die." John vi. 50.

[Note] {136} THE quarter of the year from Ash-Wednesday to Trinity Sunday may fittingly be called the Sacramental Season, as the Season preceding it is the Season of grace; and as we are specially called in the Christmas Season to sincerity of purpose, so now we are called to faith. God does good to those who are good and true of heart; and He reveals His mysteries to the believing. The earnest heart is the good ground in which faith takes root, and the truths of the Gospel are like the dew, the sunshine, and the soft rain, which make that heavenly seed to grow.

The text speaks of the greatest and highest of all the Sacramental mysteries, which faith has been vouchsafed, that of Holy Communion. Christ, who died and rose again for us, is in it spiritually present, in the fulness of His death and of His resurrection. We call His presence in this Holy Sacrament a {137} spiritual presence, not as if "spiritual" were but a name or mode of speech, and He were really absent, but by way of expressing that He who is present there can neither be seen nor heard; that He cannot be approached or ascertained by any of the senses; that He is not present in place, that He is not present carnally, though He is really present. And how this is, of course is a mystery. All that we know or need know is that He is given to us, and that in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

Now, with reference to the text and the chapter from which it is taken, I begin by observing, what at first sight one would think no one could doubt, that this chapter of St. John does treat of the Lord's Supper, and is, in fact, a comment upon the account of it, given by the other three Evangelists. We know it is St. John's way to supply what his brethren omit, and that especially in matters of doctrine; and in like manner to omit what they record. Hence, while all three give an account of the institution of Holy Communion at the last Supper, St. John omits it; and, because they omit to enlarge upon the great gift contained in it, he enters upon it. This, I say, is his rule: thus, for instance, St. Matthew and St. Mark give an account of the accusation brought against our Lord at His trial, that He had said He could destroy and build again the Temple of God in three days. They do not inform us when He so said; accordingly, St. John supplies the omission; and, while he passes over the charge at the time of His trial, he relates in his second chapter the circumstances some years before out of which it was framed. The {138} Jews had come to Him and asked Him for a sign; then said He, referring in His mind to His resurrection which was to be, "Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up;" meaning by Temple His own body, and by His raising it up His resurrection, after He had been put to death.

Again; St. Matthew and St. Mark also give an account of His instituting the Sacrament of Baptism. Christ instituted it on His ascending on high, but He did not explain the meaning and value of Baptism, at least there is no record of His doing so in St. Matthew and St. Mark. But St. John, while He omits mention of the institution of that Sacrament after the Resurrection, does teach us its doctrinal meaning, by means of a previous discourse of our Lord's with Nicodemus on the subject, a discourse which he alone of the Evangelists introduces. And in like manner, I say, in the chapter before us he explains as a doctrine, what the other Evangelists deliver as an ordinance. And, further, it is remarkable that in our Lord's discourse with Nicodemus, no express mention is made of Baptism, though Baptism is evidently the subject of that discourse. Our Lord speaks of being born "of water and the Spirit;" He does not say, "of Baptism and the Spirit," yet none of us can doubt that Baptism is meant. In like manner, in the passage before us, He does not say definitely that bread and wine are His Body and Blood; but He speaks only of bread, and, again, of His flesh and blood; words, however, which as evidently refer to the Sacrament of His Supper, as His discourse to Nicodemus refers to Baptism, in spite {139} of His not naming Baptism in express words. Of course it would be very unreasonable to say that when He spoke of "water and the Spirit," He did not allude to Baptism; and it is as unreasonable, surely, to say that in the chapter before us He does not refer to His Holy Supper.

The bearing, then, of our Lord's sacred words would seem to be as follows, if one may venture to investigate it. At Capernaum, in the chapter now before us, He solemnly declares to His Apostles that none shall live for ever, but such as eat and drink His flesh and blood; and then afterwards. just before He was crucified, as related in the other three Gospels, He points out to them the way in which this mystery of grace was to be fulfilled in them. He assigns the consecrated Bread as that Body of which He had spoken, and the consecrated Wine as His Blood; and in partaking of the Bread and the Cup, they were partakers of His Body and Blood.

It is remarkable, too, considering that our Lord's institution of His Supper took place just before His betrayal by Judas, and that Judas had just partaken of it, that in the discourse before us He alludes to Judas. "Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?" as if He had before His mind, in His divine prescience, what was to take place when He instituted the Sacrament formally. Observe, too, at the time of that last Supper, He recurs to the idea of choosing them. "I speak not of you all; I know whom I have chosen." [John xiii. 18.]

When, then, Christ used the words of the text and of {140} other parts of the chapter containing it, He was describing prospectively that gift, which, in due season, the consecrated bread and wine were to convey to His Church for ever. Speaking with reference to what was to be, He says, "I am that Bread of Life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the Bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof and not die. I am the Living Bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this Bread he shall live for ever: and the Bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."

In corroboration I would observe, that our Lord had been just then working the miracle of the loaves, in which He had actually blessed and broken the Bread; upon this, He goes on to say as follows, "I have wrought a miracle on the bread and fed you, but the time shall come when I will give you the true Eucharistic Bread, which is not like these perishable barley loaves, but such, that by it you shall live for ever, for it is My flesh." When, then, before He was taken away, He did take bread, and blessed, and brake, using just the same action as He had used in the instance of the miracle of the loaves, and even called it His body, how could the Apostles doubt that by that significant action He intended to recall to their minds His discourse recorded in the sixth chapter of St. John, and that they were to recognize in that action the interpretation of His discourse? He had said He would give them a bread which should be His flesh and should have life, and surely they recollected this well. Who among us, had he been present, would not under {141} such circumstances, have recognized in His institution of His Supper the fulfilment of that previous promise? Surely, then, we cannot doubt that this announcement in St. John does look on towards, and is accomplished in, the consecrated Bread and Wine of Holy Communion.

If this be so, it requires no proof at all how great is the gift in that Sacrament. If this chapter does allude to it, then the very words "Flesh and Blood" show it. Nor do they show it at all the less, if we do not know what they precisely mean; for on the face of the matter they evidently mean something very high, so high that therefore we cannot comprehend it.

Nothing can show more clearly how high the blessing is, than to observe that the Church's tendency has been, not to detract from its marvellousness, but to increase it. The Church has never thought little of the gift; so far from it, we know that one very large portion of Christendom holds more than we hold. That belief, which goes beyond ours, shows how great the gift is really. I allude to the doctrine of what is called Transubstantiation, which we do not admit; or that the bread and wine cease to be, and that Christ's sacred Body and Blood are directly seen, touched, and handled, under the appearances of Bread and Wine. This our Church considers there is no ground for saying, and our Lord's own words contain marvel enough, even without adding any thing to them by way of explanation. Let us, then, now consider them in themselves, apart from additions which came afterwards.

He says, then, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. {142} Whoso eateth My Flesh and drinketh My Blood, hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My Flesh is meat indeed, and My Blood is drink indeed."

1. About these words I observe, first, that they evidently declare on the face of them some very great mystery. How can they be otherwise taken? If they do not, they must be a figurative way of declaring something which is not mysterious, but plain and intelligible. But is it conceivable that He who is the Truth and Love itself, should have used difficult words when plain words would do? Why should He have used words, the sole effect of which, in that case, would be to perplex, to startle us needlessly? Does His mercy delight in creating difficulties? Does He put stumbling-blocks in our way without cause? Does He excite hopes, and then disappoint them? It is possible; He may have some deep purpose in so doing: but which is more likely, that His meaning is beyond us, or His words beyond His meaning? All who read such awful words as those in question will be led by the first impression of them, either with the disciples to go back, as at a hard saying, or with St. Peter to welcome what is promised: they will be excited in one way or the other, with incredulous surprise or with believing hope? And are the feelings of these opposite witnesses, discordant indeed, yet all of them deep, after all unfounded? Are they to go for nothing? Are they no token of our Saviour's real meaning? This desire, and again this aversion, so naturally raised, are they without a real object, and the mere consequence of a general mistake {143} on all hands, of what Christ meant as imagery, for literal truth? Surely this is very improbable.

2. Next, consider our Lord's allusion to the Manna. Persons there are who explain our eating Christ's flesh and blood, as merely meaning our receiving a pledge of the effects of the passion of His Body and Blood; that is, in other words, of the favour of Almighty God: but how can Christ's giving us His Body and Blood mean merely His giving us a pledge of His favour? Surely these awful words are far too clear and precise to be thus carelessly treated. Christ, as I have said, surely would not use such definite terms, did He intend to convey an idea so far removed from their meaning and so easy of expression in simple language. Now it increases the force of this consideration to observe that the manna, to which He compares His gift, was not a figure of speech, but a something definite and particular, really given, really received. The manna was not simply health, or life, or God's favour, but a certain something which caused health, continued life, and betokened God's favour. The manna was a gift external to the Israelites, and external also to God's own judgment of them and resolve concerning them, a gift created by Him and partaken by His people. And Christ, in like manner, says, that He Himself is to us the true Manna, the true Bread that came down from heaven; not like that manna which could not save its partakers from death, but a life-imparting manna. What therefore the manna was in the wilderness, that surely is the spiritual manna in the Christian Church; the manna in the wilderness was a real gift, taken and eaten; so is the manna in the Church. It is {144} not God's mercy, or favour, or imputation; it is not a state of grace, or the promise of eternal life, or the privileges of the Gospel, or the new covenant; it is not, much less, the doctrine of the Gospel, or faith in that doctrine; but it is what our Lord says it is, the gift of His own precious Body and Blood, really given, taken, and eaten as the manna might be (though in a way unknown), at a certain particular time, and a certain particular spot; namely, as I have already made it evident, at the time and spot when and where the Holy Communion is celebrated.

3. Next, I observe, that our Lord reproves the multitude, for not dwelling on the miracle of the loaves as a miracle, but only as a means of gaining food for the body. Now observe, this is contrary to what He elsewhere says, with a view of discountenancing the Jews' desire after signs and wonders. It would seem then as if there must be something peculiar and singular in what He is here setting before them. He generally represses their desire for signs, but here He stimulates it. He finds fault here, because they did not dwell upon the miracle. "Ye seek Me," He says, "not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves and were filled." Now supposing the Eucharistic Gift is a special Sign, the Sign which He meant to give them for ever of His Divine power, this will account for the difference between His conduct on this occasion and on others, it being as unbelieving to overlook signs when given, as to ask for them when withheld. It will account for His bidding them marvel, when about to promise them Bread from heaven. They were but imitating {145} their ancestors in the wilderness. Their ancestors, on the seventh day, went out to gather manna in spite of Moses' telling them they would not find it. What was this but to look for mere food, and to forget that it was miraculously given, and as such immediately dependent on the Giver? Let me ask, is their conduct in this age very different, who come to the Lord's Table without awe, admiration, hope; without that assemblage of feelings which the expectation of so transcendent a marvel should raise in us? Let us fear, lest a real, though invisible work of power being vouchsafed to us, greater far than that of the loaves, which related only to this life's sustenance, we lose the benefit of it by disbelieving it. This reflection is strengthened by finding that St. Paul expressly warns the Corinthians of the great peril of "not discerning the Lord's Body."

4. In what has been said, it has been implied that the miracle of the Loaves was a type of Holy Communion; this it is all but declared to be in the chapter before us, and much follows from it. For let it be considered, if the type be a miracle, which it is, how great must the fulfilment be, unless the shadow be greater than the reality? unless indeed we are willing to argue in the spirit of those who deny the Atonement, on the ground that though the Jewish Priests were types of Christ, the Antitype need not be a Priest Himself. Moreover, the incomprehensible nature of the miracle of the loaves is a kind of protection of the mystery of the Eucharist against objections with which men are wont to assail it; as, for instance, that it is impossible. For to speak of five thousand persons being fed with five {146} loaves, may be speciously represented to be almost a contradiction in terms. How could it be? did the substance of the bread grow? or was it the same bread here and there and every where, for this man and for that, at one and the same time? Or was it created in the shape of bread, in that ultimate condition into which the grain is reduced by the labour of man, and this created again and again out of nothing, till the whole five thousand were satisfied. What, in short, is meant by multiplying the loaves? As to Christ's other miracles, they are, it may be said, intelligible though supernatural. We do not know how a blind man's eyes are opened, or the dead raised; but we know what is meant by saying that the blind saw, or the dead arose: but what is meant by saying that the loaves fed five thousand persons? Such then is the objection which may be brought against the miracle of the loaves; and let it be observed, it is just such as this which is urged against the mystery of Christ's Presence in Holy Communion. If the marvellousness of the miracle of the loaves is no real objection to its truth, neither is the marvellousness of the Eucharistic presence any real difficulty in our believing that gift.

And as if still more closely to connect this Holy Sacrament with the miracle of the Loaves, and to make the latter interpret the former, our Lord, as I have observed, wrought the miracle of the loaves by means of the same outward acts, which He observed in the mystery of His Supper, and which His Apostles have carefully recorded as the appointed means of consecrating it. St. John says, He took the loaves, and {147} when He had given thanks, He distributed to the disciples." Compare this with St. Luke's account of the institution of the Lord's Supper. "He took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them." Again, a fuller account of the consecration of the loaves is given by the other Evangelists thus:—"He ... took the five loaves and the two fishes," says St. Matthew, "and looking up to heaven, He blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to His disciples." And what, on the other hand, is told us by the same Evangelist, in his account of the institution of the Holy Communion? "Jesus took bread and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples." Again, in the second miracle of the seven loaves, He observed the same form:—"He look the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks and brake them, and gave to His disciples." And the form is the same in the account of our Lord's celebration of the Sacrament after His resurrection:—"As He sat at meat with them, He took bread and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them." And of St. Paul we read, "he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all, and when he had broken it, he began to eat." [John vi. 11. Luke xxii. 19. Matt. xiv. 19. Matt. xxvi. 26. Matt. xv. 36. Luke xxiv. 30. Acts xxvii. 35.]

One cannot doubt, then, that the taking bread, blessing or giving thanks, and breaking is a necessary form in the Lord's Supper, since it is so much insisted on in these narratives; and it evidently betokens something extraordinary,—else why should it be insisted on?—and what that is, the miracle of the Loaves {148} tells us. For there the same form is observed, and there it was Christ's outward instrument in working a great "work of God." The feeding then of the multitude with the loaves, interprets the Lord's Supper; and as the one is a supernatural work, so is the other also.

5. One more observation I will make besides. At first sight, an objection may be brought against what has been said from a circumstance, which, when examined, will be found rather to tell the other way. The Jews objected to our Lord, that He had said what was incredible, when He spoke of giving us His flesh. They "strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us His flesh to eat?" Our Saviour in answer, instead of retracting what He had said, spoke still more strongly—"Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you." But when they still murmured at it, and said, "This is a hard saying, who can hear it?"—then He did in appearance withdraw His words. He said, "It is the Spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing." It would take us too long to enter now into the meaning of this declaration; but let us, for argument's sake, allow that He seems in them to qualify the wonderful words He had used at first; what follows from such an admission? This:—that our Lord acted according to His usual course on other occasions when persons refused His gracious announcements, not urging and insisting on them, but as if withdrawing them, and thus in one sense aiding those persons even in rejecting what they ought to have accepted without hesitation. This rule {149} of God's dealings with unbelief, we find most fully exemplified in the instance of Pharaoh, whose heart God hardened because he himself hardened it. And so in this very chapter, as if in allusion to some such great law, He says, "Murmur not among yourselves; No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him;" as if He said, "It is by a Divine gift that ye believe; beware, lest by objections you provoke God to take from you His aid, His preventing and enlightening grace." And then, after they had complained, He did in consequence withdraw from them that gracious light which He had given, and spoke the words in question about the flesh and spirit, which would seem to carnal minds to unsay, or explain away, what He had said. But observe, He adds, "There are some of you that believe not ... Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto Me, except it were given unto Him of My Father."

All this is parallel, let it be observed, to His dealings with the Jews in the tenth chapter of the same Gospel. He there declares, "I and My Father are One." The Jews, instead of embracing, stumble at the truth, and accuse Him of blasphemy, as if He being a man made Himself God. This was their inference from His words, and a correct inference, just as in the other case they rightly understood Him to promise that He would give us His flesh to eat. But when they, instead of embracing the truth which they had correctly inferred, instead of humbling themselves before the Mystery, repel it from them, He does not force it upon them. He does not tell them, that it is a {150} correct conclusion which they had drawn, but He recedes (as it were) and explains away His words. He asks them whether the rulers and prophets spoken of in the Old Testament were not called gods figuratively; if so, much more might He call Himself God, and the Son of God, being the Christ. He does not tell them that He is God, though He is; but He argues with them as if He admitted as true the ground of their objection. In judgment, He reduces His creed to names and figures. As then He is really God, though He seemed on one occasion to say that He was but called so figuratively, so He gives us verily and indeed His Body and Blood in Holy Communion, though, on another occasion, after saying so, He seemingly went on to explain those words merely into a strong saying; and as none but heretics take advantage of His apparent denial that He is God, so none but they ought to make use of His apparent denial that He vouchsafes to us His flesh, and that the Holy Communion is a high and heavenly means of giving it.

Such reflections as the foregoing lead us to this conclusion,—to understand that it is our duty to make much of Christ's miracles of love; and instead of denying or feeling cold towards them, to desire to possess our hearts with them. There is indeed a mere carnal curiosity,—a high-minded, irreverent prying into things sacred; but there is also a holy and devout curiosity which all who love God will in their measure feel. The former is exemplified in the instance of the men of Bethshemesh, when they looked into the ark; the latter in the case of the Holy Angels, who (as St. Peter tells {151} us) "desire to look into" the grace of God in the Gospel. Under the Gospel surely there are wonders performed, such as "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man." Let us feel interest and awful expectation at the news of them; let us put ourselves in the way of them; let us wait upon God day by day for the treasures of grace, which are hid in Christ, which are great beyond words or thought.

Above all, let us pray Him to draw us to Him, and to give us faith. When we feel that His mysteries are too severe for us, and occasion us to doubt, let us earnestly wait on Him for the gift of humility and love. Those who love and who are humble will apprehend them;—carnal minds do not seek them, and proud minds are offended at them;—but while love desires them, humility sustains them. Let us pray Him then to give us such a real and living insight into the blessed doctrine of the Incarnation of the Son of God, of His birth of a Virgin, His atoning death, and resurrection, that we may desire that the Holy Communion may be the effectual type of that gracious Economy. No one realizes the Mystery of the Incarnation but must feel disposed towards that of Holy Communion. Let us pray Him to give us an earnest longing after Him—a thirst for His presence—an anxiety to find Him—a joy on hearing that He is to be found, even now, under the veil of sensible things,—and a good hope that we shall find Him there. Blessed indeed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed. They have their reward in believing; they enjoy the contemplation of a mysterious blessing, which does not even enter into the thoughts {152} of other men; and while they are more blessed than others, in the gift vouchsafed to them, they have the additional privilege of knowing that they are vouchsafed it.

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