19th Sunday – Keys to the Eucharist: Transformation

1 Kings 19:4-8, John 6:41-51

We meet Elijah today, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. We meet him at his weakest moment in the Scriptures. Exhausted and broken, he wants to die. I have had enough. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors. I don’t know if anyone else is feeling like this, at the end of the school year! It would be hard to believe from this passage, that Elijah has just had his greatest victory: he has just won the battle of his life. Like a runner preparing for the Olympics, this battle has been years in the making. For years, Israel has been under the spell of Baal, the storm God of the Canaanites. This has been sustained by Jezebel, the foreign queen and Lady Macbeth of the Scriptures. Elijah has a day-long ‘prophetic showdown’ with the 450 prophets of Baal, in front of the community of Israel. While Baal is silent before the cries of his prophets, the God of Elijah answers with fire. The people’s hearts are won, and Elijah believes he has finally destroyed this evil in the land. Except that it was not to be. Jezebel, the head of the snake, remains and she vows to kill Elijah, just like he has, her prophets. Prophets were God’s seers. Maybe he was too worn out in the battle to see clearly, but now, he sees that the battle is not yet over. And Elijah crashes. His life-achievement has been as unsuccessful in convicting Israel, as has his predecessors.

All our work, our achievements, even the work we do for God, will fail to fulfil us. It is only the vision of God that will satisfy us because we were created for God himself. But we need to be transformed fully into the image in which we were created to stand before the glory of God. God responds to Elijah in a strange way. He sends an angel with food. Bread, which has been baked on live coals (not ‘scones’ on ‘hot stones’, as some unfortunate translations put it). We meet these live coals in Isaiah 6. In the presence of God, as Isaiah sees his own wretchedness, an angel with a fiery coal from God’s altar, touches his lips. It is the flaming love of the Spirit which purifies him. Elijah receives bread that has been fashioned in this same fire. As he consumes it, he is strengthened supernaturally, to walk 40 days and nights to come before the Presence. Forty, in the Scriptures can denote a generation or a lifetime (Ps 95:10); it can denote a period testing and transformation, such as Israel undergo in the wilderness. This journey is not optional for Elijah, as is not for us. It is the journey of a lifetime, where we will be transformed, one way or another. C.S. Lewis used to say, that if we were to see ourselves at the judgment, we would either be tempted to fall down and worship – our souls so glorious we would think it was God – or we would be horrified by the hideous creature we have become. But this transformation happens over a lifetime. And to walk this journey, Elijah needs this bread. Only then can he stand before God, he can see God and live. In other words, this food was not a quick fix like the KitKat variety (have a break, have a KitKat). God wasn’t interested in fixing Elijah’s problem, as much as changing Elijah.

We see this again in the gospels. The crowds have seen Jesus to be a wonderworker, providing miraculous bread. Maybe he could be the expected Messiah? He could defeat the Romans and rescue them from their misery. But Jesus offers them something they neither expected nor for which they were prepared. He began by telling them not to work for food that perishes. Now, he offers them the food of eternal life. He is the bread that has come from heaven which they will have to eat to be saved. This is doubly offensive to the Jews. They know where he is from, his home – yet he claims to be from heaven. And even more, to eat flesh and drink blood is cannibalism. We don’t need to be first-century Jews to find this unpalatable. This was an abomination, in the Scriptures. Yet, Jesus does not explain further. Often when the disciples misunderstood his metaphors, he would explain it to them, such as where they think he is talking about real bread when he mentioned the ‘leaven’ of Herod (Mk 8:15). But here, there is no further explanation. It is, as they have understood. 

But wouldn’t Jesus be violating Scripture in giving us his flesh to eat? Far from it. Cannibalism is to do with consuming the dead flesh of a fellow being. On the other hand, we constantly feed, live off the life of other human beings. For adults this is metaphorical – we need the love, the encouragement, support – in short, the life – of other beings, close to us. But for babies, this is literal. They live off the life of the mother, in the womb and outside. What is alive is necessary to live. In the Eucharist, it is the Risen Jesus who comes to commune with us. It is only in and through his life that we can have life in ourselves. All our work and achievements can never merit for us the vision of God. We need God to give us his life. This comes to us in a very physical form – like bread – because we are bodies and not angels. But it is bread that comes from the live coals of the burning love of heaven. This is love which is complete, not partial. God doesn’t hold back anything of himself from us. And in turn, he asks for the same. A complete gift of self.

We have been looking at reasons, why the Eucharist is not more fruitful in our lives. This gospel would suggest, our willingness to change makes a difference. It would be easier if we could live off a contract: we did our work and God did his, but we keep him at a distance. To fix our problems so we can continue – and we would be happy to pay his dues. But the satisfaction would last no longer than Elijah’s victory over Baal. What Jesus gives, like he did the Jews, is infinitely different to a KitKat. The Bread of Life invites us to be transformed, to let go of our life into Jesus’ hands. That can be scary. But God waits and enters as much as we let him. As we give ourselves more to him, we find a life that is real, a life which never dies. Today, invite Jesus once again into your life. Maybe, make a prayer of surrender – Lord, I want to give you more of my life than I have before. Free me of my fears. Please come, reign in me.’. Amen.  

(I promise I have not been sponsored by KitKat or anyone else for that matter!)

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