Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships. Last Saturday, Ann and I celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary. It’s not a round number, so it’s not particularly noteworthy, I guess. And it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the marriages of many of you, but still – 28 years is 28 years, as my wife likes to say. Especially as the fall wedding season gets underway, and I meet with couples about to take the plunge, I feel especially grateful for the love of God that I’ve seen come to life in our marriage.
A couple of weeks before our anniversary, Ann and I made the trek to Springfield for what’s become an annual family gathering at the church where my sisters and I grew up, Christ Episcopal. We began these gatherings several years ago to celebrate my parents’ 60th anniversary. This year – in fact, just a few days ago – they celebrated 66 years of marriage. I can’t even imagine what that’s like, but I can imagine what underlies it. It’s love, of course; but by that, I don’t mean a feeling. I mean a decision – a decision to live out a commitment to something beyond themselves, day in and day out.
One of the things we always highlight in premarital counseling is what the theologians like to call the covenantal aspect of the sacrament of marriage. At its core, here’s what I think that means: Marriage is more than a contract, more than an agreement by two parties that benefits each one. If I make a contract with someone to replace my driveway, I get a new driveway and the contractor gets my money. If the terms are met, both parties win. And the contract is there to ensure it, naming the parties’ obligations and protecting the interests of each.
Where a contract focuses on terms, a covenant focuses on a relationship, with each party pledging commitment to it. And honoring that deep commitment to the relationship is what keeps the parties together through the tough times. After all, as every married person knows, spouses always end up falling short; and if marriage were a contract, any sane person would simply note that the terms were broken and make a new agreement with someone else. But in deep relationships, the commitment overrides the terms. In fact, the commitment takes on a life of its own, forming you as the marriage goes on, shaping you into someone who gives yourself away rather than someone who meets obligations. Ultimately, that commitment makes you into someone with the capacity to work a miracle – to live out the impossible vow to love another person with “all that I am and all that I have” and thereby be an outward and visible sign of God’s unconditional love. Through that mutual commitment, the couple loves each other into submission – not submission to each other’s will but submission to God’s purposes for them.
So, whether it’s been 66 years, or 28 years, or whatever, an anniversary is a moment to remember the sacramental nature of that covenant, making it real and tangible in a way it can’t be every day. On an anniversary, we bring the marriage covenant into active and living memory; and in doing so, we bring it to life anew.
So, you may wonder what all that has to do with our readings today. Well, to me, the kind of deep relationship people enter into in marriage – that’s the kind of relationship that Jesus is asking us to make with God. You might think of what Jesus has to say today as a divine proposal.
The Gospel reading today picks up where we left off last week, with Jesus trying to explain to the crowd what it means for him to be the “bread of life.” He reminds them that, centuries ago, God gave the people of Israel manna to eat in the wilderness. It kept them going as they journeyed to the Promised Land, but that was as far as their deliverance went. Now, Jesus says, there’s a new promise, a new covenant of relationship between God and humanity. And he is its sign. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51) And the crowd’s probably thinking, “OK, great – the rabbi is talking about spiritual nourishment.” The symbolism of the bread begins to make sense.
But then, Jesus takes it up a notch and confuses the crowd again. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever,” he says, “and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh…. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (6:51,55) Ick. Did he really say that? Eat his flesh? Yes, and not just that: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. … Whoever eats me will live because of me.” (6:53,57). No wonder some of his followers started walking away afterwards. There’s a pretty significant “yuck factor” to what Jesus has to say.
The people listening to him don’t get it because they can’t fathom the terms of God’s proposal. This “bread of life” won’t just keep us alive as we wander from one day to the next. This bread is literally God in the flesh; and through Jesus’ body and blood, God is offering us God’s own life, eternal life – right here, right now, and forever. “Just as I live because of the Father,” Jesus explains, “so whoever eats me will live because of me” (6:57). It’s so straightforward we think it must be more confusing than it seems. He can’t really mean what he’s saying, right? Well, yes. Eat my flesh and drink my blood – take my life into your own life – and I’ll empower you with eternal life.
OK. There’s God’s part of this covenant. What’s our part? What are the vows we’re asked to make in this eternal relationship? As the crowd asks Jesus earlier in John’s gospel, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (John 6:28).
I think what God asks of us is both much simpler, and much more demanding, than we’d expect. Again, it’s less like a business contract and more like a marriage covenant. Our part of the commitment is to match Jesus’ commitment to us. “[B]elieve in him whom [God] has sent” (6:29). That’s it. There’s no specific to-do list, no contract to check for compliance. Instead, Jesus says, remember what you’ve seen the Father doing through me, and commit yourself to it. Remember, and believe.
That’s a lot easier said than done, in the midst of life that distracts us with constant input and overwhelms us with impossible expectations. When all I can see is everything I have to do, how can I remember my covenant with God and actively believe in Jesus? We need concrete reminders. We need signs to help us remember who and where we are. It’s why the crowd asks Jesus, “What sign are you going to give us then, that we may see it and believe you?” (John 6:30). Now, the irony is that, 24 hours earlier, the same crowd had watched him feed thousands of people with five loaves and two fish. What more do you need? But that was then; this is now. That day, they were full; but now they’re hungry again. And when you’re hungry, in whatever sense, it’s hard to remember and believe.
That’s why we’re here today. That’s why we’re here every Sunday. That’s why we do basically the same thing here every week. It’s what Eucharist is all about: Remember, and believe.
Go back to what you heard in Confirmation class or newcomers’ class. What happens in Eucharist is called anamnesis in Greek, and it means living memory. It means remembering, but with flesh and bones on it. It means bringing a past reality into the present reality as a foretaste of a future reality. It means making Jesus present in your hands and on your lips, bringing you the power of divine life in the here and now. It means making eternal life tangible so we can remember and believe.
And from that memory and belief will come the “works of God,” in the sense we’d typically understand that. Filled with the bread of life, we become the conduits through which eternal life flows. As Jesus gives himself to bring life to us, so we give ourselves to bring life to each other and to the world. Nourished with the body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ – bread for a hungry world.
Every Sunday, we gather to celebrate the anniversary of a marriage – the marriage of heaven and earth, the marriage of Christ and his Church, the marriage of God with each one of us. So, consider every celebration of Eucharist an opportunity to renew your vows, a chance to remember and believe. And then, in the power of that memory, recommit yourself as a partner with God in the project of loving the world into submission.