In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The BBC recently had a series about Indian railways, featuring the Calcutta station which gets as many passengers in a day as travel on the whole of the British Railway network. India’s railways are busy. So busy, Indians 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. He finds himself in conversation with a Hindu, who is very suspicious of this Christian. The Hindu can’t understand Christianity, for he’s heard that Christians are 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 to those of us who are Christians, so much part and parcel of Christian life, which 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 our Bible tell us that St Paul wrote:
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.
When Jesus talks about himself as the bread of life, he is using picture language- it’s an analogy, a sort of parable- something familiar standing in for something mysterious, beyond words. 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.
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.
Yet everyone has a spiritual life, even those who claim not to be religious. But we all have a relationship to God- for we are all God’s creatures, and God wants all of us to know God’s love and power in our lives. Even if we do not believe in God, God believes in us! 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. The emptiness, the moral and spiritual vacuum which modern people try to pretend isn’t there, and which they try to fill with materialism and hedonism- is caused the lack of the knowledge of God. Jesus claims that he has the means to fill the hole. Because Jesus himself is the Word of God. God didn’t sent a holy book to tell us what God is like. God sent a human being- Jesus is God’s message to humanity in human form. Jesus 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 Communion 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.
This sacrament also takes us back to a particular time and place in the life of Jesus. 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 people 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. It 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. Mark the Gospel writer tells the story:
While they were eating, Jesus took a piece of bread, gave a prayer of thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. “Take it,” he said, “this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks to God, and handed it to them; and they all drank from it. Jesus said, “This is my blood which is poured out for many, my blood which seals God’s covenant. I tell you, I will never again drink this wine until the day I drink the new wine in the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 14.22-25)
As Jesus broke the Passover bread, he said it represented his body. The disciples wouldn’t understand this language about his broken body- until tomorrow, when they would see his broken body hanging on a Roman cross.
And as Jesus shared the Passover a cup of wine with his friends, he said the wine now 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, in the days after his death, more and more of the disciples came to know that Jesus was no longer dead. They shared the message with others- he is not dead, he is risen. More and more people came to believe that Jesus had conquered death. And so 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.
In the Christian tradition to which we belong, the Reformed tradition, we celebrate just two sacraments- baptism and communion. As you saw earlier, at baptism we used water to speak of what God in Christ has done for us. Now we will move from font to table and celebrate communion. We baptised little Joey as a sign that God’s grace and love is for everyone. In the same way, when we share bread and in a few minutes, everyone will be invited. For regardless of our faith, or lack of faith, we are all loved by the God of Jesus Christ. Regardless of how good we think we are, or how bad, Jesus himself invites us to his table now. That’s why we sometimes call it ‘The Lord’s Supper’. This is Jesus’ meal, and he invites us. We can accept or reject the invitation- it’s up to us. But Jesus invites us any way, to meet him at his table, to share the bread and wine he offers us, the food he offers for our tired and empty souls.
A sacrament is a sign. It’s- if you like- a visual aid. The sacraments have been called ‘a visible word’- for the water in baptism and the bread and wine of communion are signs which speak deeper than words of the love and grace of God.
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, he invites 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.
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. As we share this feast, we know that one day we 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 will reign fully on earth at last.
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 its heart 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. You are all invited- not by me, but by Jesus!
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, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo