For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Today we continue the preaching of John's "Bread of Life Discourse" and it may seem like we are beating home a point you already know. Perhaps by now you're more than a little tired of it. But as I said last week, it's important to do this every so often because anything we do over and over again can become routine and can cause us to become lax. We are receiving the great gift of our Savior's own body and blood, and we should always treat that as an unbelievably valuable treasure. So today I thought I'd share with you a little of the reason that preaching on the Eucharist is so important for me personally. I don't like to make my homilies about me, but I'm doing this because maybe you've had a similar experience, or maybe it's something your teenage, college-age, or young adult children are going through right now.
A few years before I went to seminary, some of my friends would sometimes go to Willow Creek Community Church, the evangelical mega church in South Barrington. They liked the church and were very fired up about it, and eventually talked me into going with them. I enjoyed it and found that the preaching was excellent, and so I went back many times with them. I still went to my home parish on the weekends, but during the week I would worship with my friends at Willow Creek. My friends eventually severed their ties with my home parish and went to Willow Creek exclusively. They were hoping I would do the same, and I considered it very seriously. The preaching was good – better than at my parish – and I think that's because the preaching mostly supported the spiritual life I was already living. I had discussions with my parents about leaving the church, and those went about like you think they would, but I continued to pray about my decision.
The answer I got from my prayer is that mostly God wanted me to make my own decision, but that when I came to a decision, God wanted me to commit to it and live it fully. And so I began to look at the membership materials from Willow Creek and thought I would probably join them. One Wednesday I went and they were celebrating their once-monthly so-called "communion service." The speaker, an ex-Catholic, talked about the forgiveness of sins and how, growing up in our Church, he had to go to weekly confession and the priest forgave his sins, or at least said he forgave them. It was a strong message against our sacrament. Then they passed the bread and wine, which after prayer, remained only bread and wine, mere symbols of the Eucharist. Listening to all that, I was struck to the core of my being. I knew then and there I could never be a member of Willow Creek or any other church than the Catholic Church, because there was no way I could live a spiritual life without the benefit of the Sacraments. I honored my promise to God to commit to my decision once I made it, and well, here I am today.
The point, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is that the words we say are not mere words; they are so much more powerful than that. And the sacraments we celebrate are not mere symbols of Christ and his love for us; they are the real body and blood of Christ, the real presence of our Savior; the real experience of grace. Jesus makes it very clear that is flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. That thought repelled a lot of those who heard him say it at the time, as we will hear next week, and maybe it frightens some of those who hear it today. But for we who believe, and for we who are Catholics, there is no better news. The experience of the Eucharist is such an intimate experience and so precious to us because we're not getting second-rate symbols, we're getting the real body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ! And it is His own body and blood that nourishes us and strengthens us and enlivens us so that we can become the presence of Christ in our world, reaching out to those in need in our homes and in our communities. The consequence of not coming to partake of the Eucharist is very dire, as Jesus tells us today:
Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.
That's pretty direct language, and I don't think we can misunderstand its implication for us. Jesus is not talking about just the mere death of our bodies, but the infinitely more serious death of our souls. Nothing can take the place of receiving the body and blood of Christ. Only those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life, and will be raised on the last day. It doesn't matter what kind of preaching you're getting somewhere else. If you're not being filled with the body and blood of Christ, nothing on earth can fill up that emptiness.
Looking at today's Liturgy of the Word as a whole, the implications for the preacher are humbling. Hopefully what we're providing is part of the rich table of Wisdom that we hear about today. It's much like what one of my professors in seminary told us, "If you're going to stand there and take up ten or fifteen minutes of the People of God's time, you better darn well make sure you have something to say." And my homiletics professor once said that at the end of our homilies, we should be able to say "The Word of the Lord." When we preach, it's not about us, it's about what the Lord wants to speak to all of us here. The words we speak must be meaty, rich and spicy, and not bland platitudes that nobody will ever notice.
And there is much on which to be fed in our Church's teaching. Indeed the rich table of Wisdom that comes to us from the Church is a long and Spirit-filled tradition. We have at our disposal the great words of Sacred Scripture, the teachings of the early Church fathers, the great Tradition of the Church which comes out of a lived history over 2 millennia old, and the Magesterium, the official teaching of the Church. Many churches base their official teachings on the words of Scripture alone, which sounds nice until you look at it more closely. Because everyone has to interpret Scripture, and there has to be some kind of teaching that guides how you do that. We start out knowing that Scripture alone is not enough. Indeed, if there were no Church teaching, there would be no Scriptures, because it's the Church that put the book that we call the Bible together in the first place. Our Scriptures, Tradition and Magisterial teachings all work together to give us guidance and focus our efforts on living the Truth. This is that wonderful Wisdom banquet that our first reading talks about this morning.
St. Paul tells us that we must not live as foolish persons but as wise, and that we must not continue in ignorance but try to understand what is the will of the Lord. I thought of this line this week as I read about the protesters that were here, at our parish, to demonstrate at the funeral of a young man who gave his life in service to our country. This wasn't some random group, friends, it was a church, or at least a so-called church, whose leader preaches that this kind of abominable behavior is not only okay to do but is actually the will of God. Can you imagine such a thing? Do you see what kind of foolishness we run the risk of falling into when we stray from the truth and fill our ears with only the things we want to hear? This is exactly the kind of thing St. Paul was preaching that we should avoid, and it obviously didn't go away with the Ephesian community. We must constantly be on our guard and always dine at the table of Wisdom, and e
ven more than that, never to fail to dine at the table of the Lord.
Because if we dine at the table of Wisdom, we will know the things of God. These are the things we really need to know, not the banal temptations of drunkenness and debauchery which the world dangles before our eyes in so many ways every day. And if we dine at the table of the Lord, we will be caught up in the life of God, we will have eternal life, and we will be raised up on the last day to live with God forever. That's the goal of our spiritual lives, brothers and sisters in Christ, and let nothing distract us from it. I found that I could not live without the Sacraments, and I am guessing you know that too. Let us all celebrate those Sacraments with reverence and joy, and treat them as the indescribable and precious gift that they are to us. Let us always speak of our love for the Eucharist in our conversations with others, so that they too might come to dine at the rich table of God and be caught up in all its fullness. Let us all taste and see the goodness of the Lord.