(Eph. 5, 15-20; John 6, 51-58)
Today we come to week four of the lectionary readings from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, which contain the story of the Feeding of the 5000, and the reflections on them by the gospel writers around the theme of The Bread of Life.
This week, the emphasis changes from looking back into Jewish history, linking the feeding with the Exodus and the manna in the wilderness, to looking forward into Christian liturgy, and linking it with the Communion. As the account of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel doesn’t have a description of the institution of Holy Communion, this is where we find John’s Eucharistic theology.
A line from today’s gospel: “My flesh is true food and my blood is real drink”.
In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for ‘true’ is also the word for ‘real’ and the ‘real’ is something that our age values highly. People are prepared to pay vast sums for works of art, whose value drops dramatically if they are discovered to be copies of an original, deliberate forgeries, or the work of less famous artists. They are then judged not to be ‘real’ or ‘true’.
With food also, we are engaged in a search for the real. We have campaigns for real ale, and manufacturers advertise their food as ‘free from artificial additives and colourings’, illustrating their belief that what we want is what is natural,what is real.
This morning we have come together to celebrate Holy Communion. We will receive a wafer of unleavened bread and a sip of wine, in the belief that we are experiencing the real Presence of Christ; but how ‘real’, how ‘true’, how ‘genuine’ will that experience be?
To most people outside the church community, the answer to that question is obvious. The things we do in church have nothing to do with reality. Religion is at best an irrelevance, at worst a deliberate escape from reality, ‘the opiate of the people’ as Karl Marx called it.
But for those of us who do believe, who find that following Jesus enables us to make contact with that reality which is at the depth of our being, how can we judge if what we do, including a celebration of the Eucharist, is ‘real’ or not?
Traditionally, debates about whether a celebration of Holy Communion is valid or not have concentrated on the externals. Was the person who presided validly ordained and authorised to celebrate? Some years ago, when I belonged to a church that was shared between Anglicans and Methodists, I was distressed to learn that some Anglicans would not take communion if the rite was presided over by the Methodist minister: he was not acceptable as he was not ordained by a bishop; and of course there are still some in the Church of England who don’t believe a service presided over by a female priest is a ‘real’ communion, since women cannot (in their eyes) be ‘real’ priests.
Were the right elements used? Some of you may remember the situation a few years ago when there was a great fear of an epidemic of bird ‘flu, and churches were advised to administer elements in one kind, the bread, only. There was a lot of angry comment on this in the church press, since many believed that it was only a ‘true’ communion when they received both the bread and wine; in fact the rubrics make it clear that the whole of the Communion is contained in both elements, and is received even if you can only take one kind.
Other questions that churchgoers of different traditions tend to get worked up about are were the right words said at the right time; and were the right actions performed by the president and the communicants?
All this is really strange, because Jesus, who we believe we receive in the sacrament of Holy Communion, was a person who in his earthly life sat very light to externals. He was much more concerned with what was within, with people’s attitudes, motivations, beliefs and faith. He was constantly urging his followers to see beyond the externals, and penetrate the deeper meaning within.
So I want to suggest to you today that what makes a Eucharist real or unreal, true or untrue is not how close the externals are to what Jesus said or did, but how close these internal elements are to his practice.
The overriding characteristic of Jesus that comes across in all four gospels was how open he was to everyone. It was this that was such a stumbling block to belief in him for pious Jews. He was free with his time and his teaching; he taught people like Mary of Bethany (who really ought to have been in the kitchen, helping with the meal preparation), and the Samaritan woman at the well (who was doubly unclean), and he welcomed little children when the disciples wanted to send them away. He shared meals and accepted hospitality with notorious sinners like Levi and Zaccheus. He was free with his body, allowing himself to be touched by those whom others considered polluting, like the sinful woman who anointed him at Simon’s house, and the woman with the haemorrhage, and even Judas, who betrayed him with a kiss.
So I want to suggest that our Eucharists are ‘real’ and ‘true’ in as much as we experience in them the openness to others that Jesus showed, and are ‘unreal’ and untrue’ insofar as we use them to erect barriers – barriers between ourselves and others, between God and others, between God and ourselves.
In Acts and the Epistles, we see the first disciples having to learn this openness again and again: the truth that Jesus’ Body and Blood are available to all. Think of Peter’s meeting with Cornelius and his family, of Paul and others taking the gospel to the Gentiles, of James warning against discriminating against poorly dressed worshippers, of the Corinthians failing to treat the poorer members of the community with generosity in the agape meal.
Yet how many barriers do we present day disciples erect to prevent others sharing ‘the bread of life’ with us? Denominations bar one another from receiving; people have been, and still are barred from the communion rail because of their race, or age, or intellectual ability or marital status. People are excluded from taking certain roles within the Communion service because of gender or sexuality. Like the Corinthians and those whom James criticised, don’t we still try to ensure that those who share the communion elements with us are dressed properly, behave nicely, come from the same class as us, and hold the right theological beliefs.
We try to exclude those whose words or actions make us feel uncomfortable and disturb our peace. This is partly because the sort of openness that Jesus practised is very frightening, very disturbing. Such openness may bring us to face the death of what we have always believed was ‘real’ and true’.
It feels – and it is – dangerous. If we adopt such openness, we face the prospect that we might be, as Jesus was, broken, deserted, reviled, rejected. But Jesus’ example says that only when the ‘real bread’ on our supper table is open to all people, as his was, will our Communion be real.
And that openness includes being open to ourselves; not just to our good bits, but also to the unworthy bits that we would rather forget, and that other people didn’t know about. So often, when we come to church, we leave that part of ourselves behind, or cover it up with special clothing in the vestry. But Jesus accepted, and accepts people just as they are. He did not demand that people repent before he helped them or shared a meal with them. He received them as they were.
So if we set different standards from his, for ourselves or for others, when we come to receive him, how can we receive the ‘true bread’?.
George Herbert, the 17th century priest, pastor and poet, expressed this in his poem, called ‘Love’:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin;
But quick-eyed Love, discerning me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
‘A guest’, I answered, worthy to be here’
Love said, ’You shall be he’.
‘I the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee’
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes, but I?’
‘Truth, Lord, but I have marred them Let my shame
Go where it doth deserve’
“And know you not,’ said Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ said Love, and taste my meat.’
So I did sit, and eat.
If our Communion is to be true, and real, and if we are to feed on the true bread that comes from Heaven, then we must come accepting others, good bits and bad bits, without conditions; accepting ourselves as God made us, and committed into growing into the people God meant us to be; and accepting the character of the God who invites us to sit and his table and eat with no conditions, no masks, no restrictions.
We come with only our trust in Christ’s promise, that he is the true bread of life. When we take him into ourselves, when we are strengthened and empowered by his presence within us, when we live as he lived, then we will be satisfied, and experience eternal life.
The table is set. The host awaits us. Come let us celebrate the feast.