The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Kings.
The Book of Kings is one of the historical books of the Bible, meaning that it provides details regarding real people and real events, giving us a glimpse of the events and circumstances that shaped Israelite identity and culture. This identity and culture are significant to the Church because it helps us to understand the Lord Jesus, for in Christ, God chooses to become an Israelite and embeds himself in that identity and that culture. But, also, because the Church is a new kind of Israel and we look to the great historical books, indeed all of the Old Testament help us to understand the Church’s identity and culture. Neither the Lord Jesus or the Church are realities that we simply make up for ourselves, projecting upon them our willful desire so as to make them into whatever serves our ego driven needs and purposes. We don’t make the Lord Jesus or the Church, we receive both from the Lord himself, and they are what the Lord wills for them to be.
Now, our scripture from the Book of Kings presents the prophet Elijah, one of the greatest of the Israelite prophets. Elijah was a wonderworker who not only spoke the Lord’s word of truth, but also performed mighty and miraculous deeds. He said and did things that demonstrated that God was not only interested in the Israelites, but that he had had it with their corrupt politics, willfulness, and idolatry. Elijah did not flatter the Israelites with spiritualized niceties, but told the truth, and for that he paid a high price.
Specifically, he took on the political establishment, King Ahab and his wife Queen Jezebel, who were hell bent on leading the Israelites down a path of moral corruption and rebellion against the Lord God. And of course, the wicked king and queen acted, forcing Elijah to flee into the wilderness. And that’s where we find Elijah today.
Elijah is bereft, despondent that his mission is going nowhere and his efforts are a work of futility. He sees no positive effect. Even the great signs and wonders he performs, impressive as they are, do not provoke conversion. And in that moment of his despair, the Lord God intervenes, sending him food and drink, a sign of the Lord’s favor and encouragement.
This sign of favor and encouragement is meant as what is called a foreshadowing- that is a sign from the past that indicates something that will have significance in the future. The food and drink given by God through the hand of an angel to the prophet Elijah foreshadows the gift of the Eucharist, the food and drink of our Holy Communion.
The life of faith, the way of Christian discipleship is understood by many as merely a comfort and a crutch, and it is not untrue that faith in Christ comforts and supports us in times of distress and trial, but when we reduce Christian faith to this we lose its plot, forgetting that Christian discipleship is always about a mission and that mission will enact a cost, and because of that cost, there will be suffering, even, as it was for the prophet Elijah, moments of desolation, even doubt.
What God in Christ gives to us in those moments is an invitation to receive from him the food and drink of the Blessed Sacrament, which is not, as too many Christians think, merely a nice symbol of community, but it is the Lord’s own divine life given to us so that we can be sustained in our mission- a mission that if accepted will be very much like that of Elijah’s telling the truth, even when it is unpopular to do so, even when it conflicts with the times in which we live, even when it gets us on the wrong side of cultural elites, even when there is a personal cost. The mission of the Church is not about doing what we want, but what Christ wants and letting him take us where he wants us to go.
The Eucharist is food and drink for the mission.
In the Church’s second scripture for today, the Apostle Paul writes to the Church in Ephesus, reminding the Christians there that the way in which they behave, particularly towards one another, is not insignificant. The Christian way of life engenders specific values, ways of acting, and if we do not live in a way that is in accord with what Christ wants, the Church will falter, fail, and fall.
Primary for the Christian is the hard work of compassion and forgiveness, giving to others what often times they need the most, but do not deserve. This is, perhaps, the hardest, and most necessary, work of being a disciple.
Compassion for the Christian is not simply giving to others what they want, but what they need and it’s easy to pay lip service to the value of forgiveness until somebody hurts us. The Christian way is not an easy way. But it is always God’s way, revealed in Christ, and without God’s way, we are lost.
In his Gospel, the Lord Jesus presents the revelation of his Eucharist, the mystery and meaning of the gift of Holy Communion.
The Eucharist is not just a symbol of Christ or a metaphor for community values or an expression of our ethnic identity. All these ideas are just ways of evading the demand that the Eucharist places upon us, ways of trying make Eucharist more palatable to our desire for a religion that is easy and safe.
What the Eucharist is is the life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself, given to us as his gift, given to us to sustain us in our mission, a mission that is anything but merely easy and safe.
Refusal of the Eucharist is also a refusal a Christ, and today’s Gospel makes this connection- those who reject the Eucharist inevitably find themselves rejecting Christ for the Eucharist and Christ are one and the same.
The refusal of some is because they think they can create for themselves a kind of Eucharist, the reduction of the Eucharist to a symbol of the community or cultural artifact is the first step in this direction. But this is just manna in the desert, Christ’s reference to realities that may satisfy us in the short term, but ultimately will betray us. There is but one real presence, one real Eucharist, one Holy Communion, and that is the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus, given to us as food and drink.
Most Catholics no longer receive the Eucharist and this should disturb the faithful deeply. Many have abandoned Christ in the Blessed Sacrament because of an experience of dissonance between what Catholics profess to believe and how we behave. Others have abandoned Christ in the Blessed Sacrament because while seeking an invitation to salvation they have perceived that the Church offers not an invitation, but threats. For some the way towards the Blessed Sacrament is so wrought with policies and procedures and politics that they simply give up and go elsewhere. Others still, come to the Church with questions and face Christians within the Church who are so ignorant or befuddled that it leaves the impression that we have lost our minds. And perhaps most tragically, many come to the Church seeking a relationship with God in Christ and discover that many of us know neither God or Christ and even if we claim we do, we present ourselves as embarrassed to speak about them.
But for most, Christ in the Blessed Sacrament has been abandoned because they have settled for the manna of secularism, preferring worldly experiences and attainments, the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and honors to the Lord who asks that we give up these things for a higher purpose. For these the Eucharist has become unnecessary, after all, doesn’t secularism promise us that in terms of religion or spirituality, we are just making things up as we go along?
For the Christian who is here, for whom the Eucharist is accepted as a gift, none of this can simply be accepted. Our mission is to go out as Elijah did and meet the challenge head on, whatever the cost may be. Because you see, the Eucharist is not given to us to lull us into complacency, but to sustain us for mission. The mission is, as Christ commanded, to make disciples, to draw people into the Church, to offer to them the gifts of Christ that we ourselves enjoy.
If this isn’t happening, then we are as unfaithful in our reception of Christ in the Eucharist as those who have refused to receive him at all.