“Jesus said, ‘I am the the living bread that came down from heaven.’” John 6:51
August 12, 2018
Over these past few Sundays, we have been winding our way through the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, listening to Jesus teach about bread and how God feeds us when we least expect it. We have heard Jesus remind his disciples of God’s faithfulness in feeding manna to the Hebrew people during their forty-year wandering in the wilderness. We have watched Jesus feed five thousand from just a few loaves of bread, creating abundance where before there was only scarcity. And last week we heard Elijah’s famished cries of desperation answered by an angel who offers him bread when he was at his weakest.
But as we listen to Jesus this morning, we hear something new. We hear that the bread we really crave is not the bread that keeps our bodies going, for that is a bread that will not endure, just as our bodies will not endure. No, our deepest hunger is not that our bellies might be filled with the bread of this world, but that our hunger for meaning, purpose, and a deep connection with God might be fed by a lasting bread. And when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” he is promising just this.
Jesus’ words today are both simple and utterly mysterious at the same time. He says: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” Whereas the bread of the Passover seder is a mere symbol of past deliverance, the bread of life is something else. No mere marker of a distant past, the bread of life that is Jesus sustains us in the here and now and carries us forward into an uncertain future. Jesus is promising his disciples that he will be present to them anytime they share this bread in his name. And so, following the example he set at the Last Supper, at the center of Christian worship is Holy Communion, one of the great sacraments of the Church.
During the Reformation, of course, wars were fought over just how ordinary bread and wine can invoke Christ’s presence. The Church of Rome believed that the bread and wine of the Mass literally become the actual body and blood of Christ in the Eucharistic meal at the point of consecration by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Reformers disputed that, believing Christ to be present, but not physically so. And if you want to read about transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and the many other theories of Eucharistic theology, I have some books I can lend you.
Suffice it to say that it is a sad commentary on our brokenness as God’s people that, rather than merely accepting with deep gratitude Christ’s presence in this holy meal, instead we killed each other over how it happens, each side more interested in being right than in being grateful. It should be enough, I think, for us merely to accept in faith and thanksgiving that somehow in this bread and wine the risen Christ is with us, near us, a part of us, and we a part of him.
The great Methodist preacher Will Willimon tells a story about when he began his teaching career at Duke Divinity School and was invited to teach the introductory course on Eucharistic practice. To prepare, Willimon visited a renowned Anglican liturgical scholar at Yale, somebody who knew a thing or two about the Holy Communion.
“I’ve got to teach the Eucharist to Methodists,” Willimon explained, “and most of them have little experience with the sacraments. What should I do to excite future pastors about their future role in celebrating the Last Supper with their people?”
The Anglican professor replied, “I would teach a cooking class.” “What?!,” said Willimon incredulously.
“Until your students experience the joy of setting a good table, they’ll never know what Jesus was doing in the Upper Room,” he explained. “And,” the Anglican scholar added, “I would also teach bartending,”
“But we’re Methodists!” Willimon countered, “not ‘whiskey-palians.’”
“Pity,” the Anglican scholar replied. “Perhaps Jesus was wrong, but I think until your students learn how to mix a good drink, they aren’t going to get vast portions of the Gospel of John. Will, have you ever noticed what happens to people when they get a bit tipsy?” the Anglican asked.
“It depends on the people,” Willimon replied.
“Right!” the Anglican exclaimed. “Some people get boisterous and want to take on the world, others get mellow and want to put their arms around everybody and sing, and still others get sentimental and start telling heartfelt stories from the past. Isn’t this pretty much what Jesus wants to happen in church on a Sunday?”
The Anglican’s advice may have been tongue-in-cheek, but it in fact points us to a deep truth. The Eucharist is about God’s relentless hospitality and extravagant welcome. Rowan Williams puts it this way: “To share in the Holy Communion means to live as people who know that they are always beloved guests – that they have been welcomed by God himself. . . .[By inviting us to his table,] Jesus Christ is telling us that he wants our company.”
Think about it: in every culture since the beginning of time, people bond and really get to know one another over a meal. Food makes community and draws people together. We throw dinner parties to celebrate the joys of life; families are formed at the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables; there is no happier occasion than a wedding banquet; and then, when someone dies, we bring a casserole to those who mourn, knowing that a simple offering of food will say more about our love for them than any words can. All of life happens around food.
And so, the very last time Jesus is with his friends, he eats with them. With a loaf in one hand and a cup of wine in the other, Christ identifies his broken body and his spilt blood with the meal his friends are about to share, and he reminds them that he is the true bread. And then he says, “After I am gone, do this in remembrance of me.” Not “believe this.” But “do this.”
For this reason, we are a people of word and sacrament in equal measure. Every Sunday we hear God’s word proclaimed in Scripture and preached in the pulpit. And that is one crucial way of coming to know God, by understanding His story, and how we are a part of that story. But sometimes words are not enough, when only gathering together around the table, and prayerfully sharing a meal will do. The Lord’s Supper is something we touch and taste; it is an act of memory, solidarity, and hope that we don’t think about so much as experience with our senses. It reminds us of our common past, sitting at table with Jesus and his disciples, just as it points us ahead to the promise of the heavenly banquet that awaits us in the future.
Occasionally I hear people say that they are reluctant to take communion because they don’t feel worthy enough to receive Christ’s presence. But what I tell them is this: The Lord’s table is not a reward for good behavior, but a place for sinners to find forgiveness and grace. We take Holy Communion not because we are doing well, but because we are doing badly. Jesus wants us to bring our troubled marriage, our cancer diagnosis, our worries about our children, our loneliness, our grief, all of our brokenness, to the altar rail; and there, he will take all these things upon himself, and give us in return the food and drink we need for the rest of our journey.
Sometimes I also hear people whisper that we really should not be giving young children communion because they don’t understand what they are doing. Well guess what…none of us knows what we’re doing. Christ’s presence in this holy meal, how he becomes a part of us and we a part of him, it’s all mystery. We offer communion to children because we want them to know and feel that they, too, are beloved guests of Jesus, always wanted at his table, and fed by him just like a mother feeds her children.
Ordinarily, when we gather for Eucharist, we use manufactured communion wafers, rather tasteless and nondescript pieces of bread. Like many other churches, we do so not because there is anything special about these wafers, but honestly, because it is easier, more convenient, and neater to use these pre-made wafers. But I have to say, sometimes it doesn’t quite seem like the real thing, the real bread that Jesus broke on the altar with his disciples. So, for this one service at least, when it is the bread of life that is the focus of our worship, I thought we ought to celebrate the occasion by eating some real bread, baked from my own hands, according to a recipe handed down by the monks of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge.
My prayer this morning is that you might experience the Eucharist in a new way, and that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, this bread will become for you the very bread of life; that as you approach the rail you will accept Christ’s invitation to cast all of your pain, worries, regrets and fears upon him; that you will again feel yourself to be a wanted and beloved guest at Christ’s table; and that you will walk away knowing that you are forgiven, and healed, and empowered to go about the important work of helping Christ mend this fractured world of ours. Amen.