Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first book of Kings we see the prophet Elisha at the end of his rope. He was in the wilderness, under a tree, when he said: “Lord, I have had enough. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” He then went to sleep and when he awoke he found bread and water. An angel then told him to eat and drink. Once he had done this he was able to walk for 40 days and 40 nights. John’s Gospel recounts those who complained about Jesus claiming to be the bread that came down from heaven as they knew him as the son of Joseph. Jesus then scolded them and told them to stop complaining. He told them that nobody could come to him without being drawn by the Father. He then told them that he is the living bread and anyone “who eats this bread will live for ever.”
So what does it take to be saved? What do we need to do to ensure our place in heaven? Well, the problem with Scripture isn’t that it doesn’t give enough answers but that it gives too many.
We read in the 25th chapter of Matthew that we must feed the poor, welcome the stranger, etc. John 3:3 says we need to be born again. Romans 10:9-10 claims that we need to believe in Jesus and repent of our sins while Ephesians 2:8 requires only faith. There’s more, but you get the point.
On top of all this today’s Gospel tells us that anyone who eats the living bread will live for ever and we generally assume this means anyone who consumes the Eucharist will be saved.
So which is it? This should surprise nobody but different Christian faiths look to different passages. There’s an old joke about a man who dies and goes to heaven where St. Peter showed him around while pointing to different groups. He explained that the Methodists are here, the Baptists are over there, and the Lutherans are over there. Peter then told the man that they are going over to a group a distance from the others but he needed to keep his voice down. “Over there are the Catholics. They think they are the only ones here.”
Conversely I grew up as a Catholic in Baptist country. When I was in high school one of my classmates, on learning I was Catholic, told me that since I was going to hell. I told her I understood it was a dry heat.
All kidding aside many of us grew up being taught that Eucharist “punched out ticket” to heaven and those who didn’t receive couldn’t be saved. But if we look closely at John, it never says this. “Anyone who eats this bread will live forever” doesn’t go on to say that “Nobody who does not eat this bread will not live forever.”
I maintain that we can believe that Eucharist is necessary for the salvation of the world without believing that only those individuals who receive will be saved.
As Catholics we have always felt uncomfortable with the concept of an individual relationship with Jesus and the idea that Jesus is my “personal Lord and Savior.” Instead we have gone out as missionaries but we’ve also set up schools, hospitals and the like, not just for ourselves but for everyone.
I once heard a story about Dr. Martin Luther King. I have no idea if it’s true and I haven’t been able to find anything to corroborate or refute it (if you know, please tell me). When he was shot in Memphis his followers called for an ambulance. The largest hospital in Memphis was Baptist Memorial but he had previously left instructions that if anything happened to him he should be taken to a Catholic hospital (St. Joseph). Presumably he was afraid that given his work in civil rights he would be refused care at Baptist Memorial. He wasn’t given last rights of Eucharist simply because he wasn’t Catholic but I doubt anyone there that night doubted his salvation.
Shifting gears let’s look to the world of science for further understanding. Today we find ourselves in the 2nd year of living with COVID 19 and the debate over vaccinations. No matter how we feel about the politics of vaccinations we all recognize that there are some people who simply cannot be vaccinated because of other health issues.
But those of us who can be vaccinated can protect those who cannot. We talk about something called “herd immunity” that recognizes that if enough of us are vaccinated we can protect those who aren’t. In caring for ourselves we can care for others.
I don’t want to take this analogy too far but perhaps who do share Eucharist can affect the world in such a way that the whole world can be saved. This doesn’t make us better, or closer to God but instead allows us the opportunity to participate in the salvation of the entire world.
Imagine what that would look like. If reception of the Eucharist among some of us transforms the world so that all are saved, we can look at everyone with new eyes. The Jewish family next door is saved. Our friend who professes atheism because he grew up in a family that used religion as an abusive manipulation will find healing. The person in the next cubicle who never believed faith had anything to do with him will discover what we knew all along. The child in a faraway land who died from malnutrition without ever learning about God will consume his fill.
There are always those who look to salvation as something limited to himself and those he chooses. But let’s face it: if salvation includes all those who God chooses, it’s a better place.
Let’s think about this next time we receive Eucharist.