Sermon for Cotham
Trinity 11: 12 Aug 2018
Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8
Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2
John 6: 35,41- 51
This is the third of the Sundays when we read John chapter 6. That’s the chapter which starts with the feeding of the multitude, the five thousand. Much of the chapter is a meditation on what Jesus meant when, at the last supper, he blessed the bread and said this is my body. John never actually report what Jesus said there – he assumes that we know. And the meditation is John’s meditation written as though it was spoken by Jesus himself.
The feeding of the multitude was clearly one of the stories most loved and used by the first followers of Jesus. I say that because it appears no less than six times in the gospels. I take it that the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand are versions of the same story. John links it to the continuing group meals where the early disciples met with each other. They did it when Jesus was alive and they went on doing it. And John’s meditation is around the continued link with Jesus
As Martin Gainsborough pointed out two weeks ago the story of the feeding of the multitude is about the abundance of God. That’s a familiar theme in the bible with links to the manna which fed the Israelites in the desert after they escaped from Egypt and to the theme of the Messianic Banquet. The great feast which which was expected when the Messiah came. A theme much loved by Jesus – it’s the background to many of his stories. So all these associations are saying that the Eucharist can be thought of as the messianic banquet. And in it we find God’s abundant gift of love.
Over the years the shared group meal aspect of the Eucharist has got hidden in the ritual we use. It is there still – but you have to look hard to find it.
This change happened partly because the emphasis shifted away from the shared meal which symbolises the meeting of Christians with each other and with Christ. It shifted to the bread and wine consumed at the shared meal. And even that has become ritualized into what is effectively a small taste of each. So we talk about making my communion and can see it primarily about what Jesus does for me.
So I’m going to look at what John may have had in mind when he was reflecting on what Jesus meant when he said that the bread was his body. Jesus was talking symbolically when he said the bread represented his body. Later when people had difficulty recognizing the power of symbolism some tried to find a way of understanding it literally. And the doctrine of transubstantiation developed.
A doctrine which depends on a philosophy which says that the essence of something – what it really is – is not necessarily what it looks like. It’s a way of thinking that allows you to say It looks like bread but its essence has changed so it is no longer really bread – it’s the body of Christ. That’s how this way of thinking works. I don’t think it’s a valid way of thinking and I do think it misses the point that when symbols work, they are like metaphors and some poetry, they are powerfully effective in changing how we feel and see things.
So let me try imagining something of what might have been in Jesus’ mind at that last supper. Imagining it as if he thought and spoke in modern English! He knew what was probably going to happen. He had a sense of what his going would do to his group of disciples. And he knew how important their regular meeting for meals was for keeping them together.
So I imagine he could have been saying “When I am no longer with you physically I want you to go on eating together as we have always done. I will be there still. Think of me as the bread and the wine that you share. Like the bread and the wine I will be part of you – as the bread and the wine that you consume becomes a part of you. I will be the essence of your shared meal and you can draw on my strength.
He’s using the physical symbol of the food as a symbol of how closely he will remain with them. A symbol of how he will continue to give them love and strength. A spiritual strength that will enable them to be as it were his body.
So he was thinking of his continuing presence in them. And in a sense of how they would become his body – as individuals and as a group.
Now I want to give you an example of what can happen. It’s the story told by Sara Miles about what happened to her when her journalist’s curiosity took her into a church in San Francisco. She’d walked past it many times but never been inside. She’s had been brought up as an atheist and knew very little about Jesus or Christianity.
The church was an unusual sort of Anglican church. We would recognize it as inclusive like we say we are. But the worship would make what we do look static and formulaic with everybody much more involved with the action. And they used real bread made in turn by different members of the congregation.
So there’s Sara getting caught up in what was going on but at the same time not having a clue what it was all about. So when she heard the invitation to come and share the bread and wine – that is what she did. Writing about it some years later she said:
I still can’t explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced. I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening – I was eating a piece of bread – and what I heard someone else say was happening – the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ” a patently untrue or at best metaphorical statement and what I knew was happening – God named “Christ” or “Jesus” was real, and in my mouth – utterly short circuited my ability to do anything but cry.
Almost all that paragraph is one sentence reflecting both her confusion and the intensity of her experience. It’s always hard to find words to describe an intense mystical experience. I guess it was difficult to catch on to what she was saying so in a minute I am going to read it again. That’s where the sermon will end but there will be a sort of appendix to it. When we get to the invitation to communion I am going to replace the words in the book with words used at Iona.
So going back to what Sara wrote: I still can’t explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced. I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening – I was eating a piece of bread – and what I heard someone else say was happening – the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ” a patently untrue or at best metaphorical statement and what I knew was happening – God named “Christ” or “Jesus” was real, and in my mouth – utterly short circuited my ability to do anything but cry.
The table of bread and wine is now made ready. It is the table of the company of Jesus, and all who love him. It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world, with whom Jesus identified himself. It is the table of communion with the earth, in which Christ became incarnate. So come to this table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time; you who have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have failed; come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.