We talk about “a sacramental” perspective on life. A sacrament, by definition, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (BCP 292). This definition is rooted in the principle that the things we see point us to things we can’t see. The creation is a sign that points us to the creator. Jesus, the Son of God, is the sign that reveals the invisible Father. The bread and wine which become the body and blood are the visible manifestation of Jesus.
The church is sacramental. The Bible calls us “the Body of Christ”—the same language that is used of the Sacrament. Each Christian is a sign of the presence of Jesus in the world. Jesus’ standard of judgment will be, “Inasmuch as ye did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). This means that our interaction with each other always has a deeper meaning and larger implications.
Fallen humanity is not able to see the sacramental meaning of life. Fallen humanity sees the creation as just a physical reality and life in this mortal body, in this world as the ultimate thing. This is what the Bible calls living according to the “flesh.”
In today’s gospel, large crowds were following Jesus. St. John tells us that they were attracted by “the miracles that he did on them that were diseased.” The word for miracles means literally, “signs.” This reflects their sacramental character. When Jesus turned water into wine, healed the sick and created bread, these actions were signs that revealed that Jesus is the Son of God, “by whom all things were made.”
St. John tells us that the crowd did not understand the signs. They followed Jesus because they saw him as a source of free food and health care. They would make him their ruler and he would free them from all the afflictions of life. They lacked sacramental vision—the ability to see the larger truths towards which the signs pointed.
In the section of John 6 immediately after the gospel, Jesus tried to escape from the crowd. When the people finally caught up with him, Jesus, essentially, picked a fight with them. He said, “You seek me not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled; Labor not for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures unto eternal life” (6:27).
The feeding of the multitudes hearkens back to the Old Testament, where God fed Israel with manna in the wilderness. Here Jesus did the same thing. He led the people away to a deserted place in order to feed them with miracle food. Jesus explained, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate 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” (John 6:48-50).
God gave the people of Israel miraculous food in the wilderness to sustain their physical bodies. But they all died anyway. Jesus would give himself as a kind of food that imparts and sustains eternal life, life that will never die. This is the meaning of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus. It is food that sustains the eternal life that was given to us in baptism. As Jesus said, “Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life and I will raise him up at the Last Day” (John 6:54).
Sacramental food is not merely “spiritual” as opposed to physical food. The Sacrament is what God intended all food to be. Man was created as union of matter and Spirit. God always gave man food for both. God gave man sacramental food in the beginning, the fruit of the Tree of Life. This food was intended to sustain man in his union with God. Through sin, man partook of the creation without regard to God’s will, with ingratitude for the life God had given. Man’s union with God was severed. Man came to live on a merely physical level. Man lost his sacramental vision. He began to pursue only the food that perishes.
By his life and death, Jesus restored us to the union with God that we lost through sin. We no longer live merely “in the flesh.” We live in bodies, but we also live in the Spirit in union with God. Our lives are now sustained by the Bread of Life. The Bread of Life is the same food as the fruit of the Tree of Life. After the first sin, man was forbidden to eat this food (Genesis 3:24). Now, in Christ, this food is accessible to us. We may eat and live.
The feeding of the multitudes reveals the pattern of life for God’s New Creation. Jesus took the loaves and offered them back to God in Thanksgiving. God multiplied the loaves so that they were sufficient to meet the need. This was man’s original priestly vocation; to take the creation that God had given and offer it back to God in thanksgiving. All that man offers to God in thanksgiving is given back to man to use with God’s blessing.
Sin is ingratitude. When we sin we say to God, “I will do as I please with the gifts you have given me.” When we sin, we partake of the creation without regard to God’s will, without regard to the deeper meaning of created things and without giving thanks. Our non-Eucharistic partaking lacks the blessing and presence of God. We use the creation wrongly because we are blind to the sacramental meaning of created things. Our lives become disordered and discontented because we live only in the flesh. We are cut off from eternal life. This is the pattern of life from which Christ has saved us.
We exercise the priestly vocation to which we have been restored in Christ when we gather around the altar each week. We offer bread and wine to God. Like the loaves in the feeding, the bread and the wine represent the creation and our participation in it. We offer the creation back to God in thanksgiving. We offer ourselves, our souls and bodies to God in Christ and through Christ. The miracle of consecration that occurs is two-fold; ordinary food that perishes becomes the bread from heaven that we may eat thereof and not die; and ordinary mortal people become the body of Christ.
The pattern of the Eucharist is the pattern for life. We are called, as St. Paul says, to give thanks in everything (Ephesians 5:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:18). We give thanks for the eternal life that God has given us by obeying the commandments; by honoring the image of Christ in other people; by using our gifts in service to the kingdom. As all of life is offered to God in this manner, Christ becomes present in all things to sustain us and bring his order out of our chaos.
We are able to live new lives in God’s kingdom because our sacramental vision has been restored through baptism and faith. We were blind, but now we see. Now, we understand the signs. Now, we labor for the food that endures unto eternal life.