Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 30 September 2012: Year B,
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
In India, people don’t just ride in trains- they ride on top of them, too. There is a scene in the film Ghandi in which a Christian missionary, a friend of Ghandi’s, is- unusually for a Westerner- riding on top of a train. So he finds himself in conversation with a Hindu, who is very suspicious of this Christian. He can’t understand Christianity, for are not Christians the people who eat their God?
The missionary was surprised to be accused of cannibalism, as most Christians would be. Perhaps that’s because Communion services are so familiar, so much part and parcel of Christian life, that we don’t often stop to think about how it looks to outsiders. For the Hindu in the film took things literally. Perhaps he had heard the sort of words used at Christian services: ‘Take, eat. This is my body, broken for you. This cup is the new covenant, sealed by my blood. The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you.’ And did not to St Paul tell the Corinthians:
The cup we use in the Lord’s Supper and for which we give thanks to God: when we drink from it, we are sharing in the blood of Christ. And the bread we break: when we eat it, we are sharing in the body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:16)
The Christian missionary had been brought up with this sort of language- he was familiar with it since childhood. It took a Hindu on top of an Indian train to make him realise that this was really very strange language.
Jesus had the same problem- some of his followers, like the Hindu on top of the train- took his words literally. John’s Gospel says he told his followers in the synagogue at Capernaum,
‘I am telling you the truth: if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in yourselves. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them to life on the last day. For my flesh is the real food; my blood is the real drink.’ (John 6.53-55)
It’s perhaps no wonder that when they heard these words, some of Jesus followers said, ‘This teaching is too hard’ (John 6.59) and turned back.
But when Jesus talks about himself as the bread of life, he is using picture language. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus spoke of himself to be ‘the bread of life’. Without bread, without food and drink, we cannot live. Our bodies need nourishment, we need to be fed. And so God answers our prayer- ‘give us this day our daily bread’- and we are fed and have enough to allow our bodies to continue to function. Jesus is saying- you also need nourishment for your souls. Just as you have physical bread to nourish your bodies, so you need spiritual food for your souls. And I’m the one who offers you that- food for your souls.
If Jesus was around today, we’d be very impressed if he fed 5,000 people at one sitting. But if he then went on to say that we needed spiritual nourishment, we’d wonder what he was on about. For we live in a society in which the material is everything. We measure people’s worth by what they earn, how much money they have in the bank, what kind of car they drive. And we neglect the spiritual side of life.
Everyone has a spiritual life, even those who claim not to be religious. But we all have a relationship to God- we are all God’s creatures, and God wants all of us to know God’s love and power in our lives. Left unnourished, the spiritual side of our lives is either a great big gnawing hole- or it gets filled with superstition, fear, guilt and dread.
The hole which most people- even apparently successful and confident people- detect in their lives- is a God-shaped hole. And Jesus’ claim was that he had the means to fill the hole. Because he is the Word of God- God’s message to humanity in human form- he is the one who can be food and drink for our spirits. If you want life- a full life, a life in which your spiritual life is fed as well- you need Jesus, the bread of life. If Jesus is your friend, he’ll supply you with the food and drink you need for your soul.
And that is what the language and ritual of the Lord’s Supper is all about. The bread and wine speaks to us- in a way which is deeper that words- of what Jesus means for us- that he is food and drink for our souls. And this service also takes us back to a particular time and place in the life of Jesus.
In one of the oldest writings of the New Testament- the first letter to the Corinthians, which was written even before the Gospels were written- the Apostle Paul writes about the sacrament. He’s writing to a group of Christians who are already familiar with the sacrament- it’s obvious from the context that it’s already part of the Christian life for believers to come together and to celebrate what was already called ‘The Lord’s Supper’. From a very early stage of the church’s life, believer worshipped by gathering together, praying, singing hymns and psalms, reading the Bible and telling the stories about Jesus. And, they would eat and drink. Unfortunately, the eating and drinking was getting out of hand at Corinth. So Paul reminds them of what they are supposed to be doing. He tells them that the eating and drinking is a re-enactment of something Jesus did. He writes:
For I received from the Lord the teaching that I passed on to you: that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took a piece of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in memory of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup and said, ‘This cup is God’s new covenant, sealed with my blood. Whenever you drink it, do so in memory of me.’ This means that every time you eat this bread and drink from this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11.23-26)
Paul’s referring to a tradition handed down by the very first Christians. They remembered that one of the last things Jesus did with his disciples was to sit down and eat a meal with them. We know from the Gospels that Jesus liked nothing better than the fellowship of a dinner table. Some of the most memorable incidents in the Gospels take place around meal tables. Jesus invited himself back to Zacchaeus the tax-collectors for a meal. Once, as he sat at a table, an immoral woman poured expensive perfume over his feet. He spoke about the Kingdom of God being like a great feast, to which everyone, but especially the poor and the outcasts of society, would be invited. He incurred the anger of the religious leaders for sharing a table with those they considered sinners.
But this last meal- ‘on the night he was betrayed’- was charged with significance. For a start, it was no ordinary daily meal. This was the special meal the Jews called Passover- the annual gathering around the family table to remember how God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. And as Jesus’ new family- he and his disciples- gathered in an upstairs room, they would be aware of a gathering storm. In these last few days, Jesus had come into open conflict with his enemies in the religious establishment. The disciples must have sensed that something was sinister was afoot. One of them, indeed, had already decided to betray him for thirty pieces of silver.
And in this moment of deepest crisis and tragedy, Jesus took the old Passover meal and made something new of it. As he broke bread, he said it represented his body. The disciples wouldn’t understand- until tomorrow, when they would see his broken body hanging on a Roman cross. And Jesus had them all share a cup of wine with him- wine which he said represented his blood. And he said that they would never drink wine with them again, until the promised feast of the Kingdom of God became a reality. And the disciples wouldn’t have understood that, until tomorrow, when they would see his blood flow from his broken body on that Roman cross.
And perhaps they never really understood until suddenly they knew that he was not dead at all. And after that, it became a compulsion- whenever Christians met, that last supper in that upstairs room would be remembered, and re-enacted. And his words?- they reminded them of his cross, and his death- but also his resurrection and the promise that one day God would heal all the brokenness and bind up all the bloody wounds. And when they said these words, and remembered these things, and prayed for the Kingdom, it was as if he was there again- the host of the meal, present with them to bless and strengthen and speak anew to them.
A sacrament is a sign. It’s- if you like- a visual aid. The sacraments have been called ‘a visible word’1. Gathering together to eat and drink around our Lord’s table, we are reminded that Jesus often shared in meals with his friends- and he calls us his friends. And when Jesus is the host, there are invited not just the religious or the good, but sinners and outcasts as well. And when we see the bread broken, we remember the Jesus’ body was broken for us. We see the wine poured and remember that the blood of Christ was shed for us. When we eat and drink the bread and the wine, we are reminded that Jesus Christ is food and drink for our souls: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life’, says Jesus. And at this table we do not just remember a dead hero, but our living Lord. For Jesus is here with us, risen to die no more.
And so this sacrament is absolutely central to the Christian life. It speaks- in a way which transcends mere words- of the deep things of the Gospel of Christ. These material things- ordinary bread, ordinary wine- are transformed into a means by which our spirits are nourished, as they remind us of what Christ has done for us, and what Christ means for us.
But if the bread and wine are material thing which speak to us of spiritual things- so also the fact that Christ asks us to remember him with these material things reminds us that the Christian is not solely to live in a spiritual world. As Christ came into our material world, so we as Christians are to live in God’s world. And as Christ gives us his body and blood in the bread and wine, so we too are to give of ourselves, generously, in the service of the world. The bread and wine are fundamental to our Christian life- we cannot do without them. And food and drink is fundamental to our material life- we cannot live without them. Perhaps, then, it’s good that we celebrate this sacrament between last Sunday’s Harvest Thanksgiving, and this coming week when we will be witnessing for justice in the world; between a Sunday when we gave generously to the Highland Foodbank, and a week when we will be campaiging about taxes, and walking in solidarity with poor farmers. For we cannot, in conscience, take this bread and wine, if we are not willing to commit ourselves to striving for justice who worry where their next meal is coming from. For after we have gathered at this table, we will be scattered again, to live the life of the Gospel out there in the world for which Christ died. For the symbol of this table points us to the hope that one day one day we- and all whom Christ loves- will sit at table and drink new wine with Jesus in the Kingdom, when all will be well, every tear will be wiped from every eye, and God’s will reign of justice and peace will last forever.
All these things, and more, are what Christians think about when they celebrate the Lord’s Supper. So many words can be used to describe and explain what is going on here. But at the heart of this Sacrament is the Word- Jesus Christ, the Word of God who came to us as a human being, and who is present with us now as we share the simple elements of bread and wine at his table. Let us receive him with joy!
Ascription of Praise
To the only God, who alone is all-wise,
be glory through Jesus Christ for ever! Amen!
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo