Recently I posted a couple of times on the eucharist (here and there) and promised to post on Brant Pitre's book on Jesus and the Last Supper which remains a sin of omission.
Below I post today's sermon, focused mostly on the gospel passage, John 6 and the bread of life. I don't normally post sermons I have preached. That is mostly because I write them on the back of envelopes. The sermon below is unusual: I actually typed it out on my laptop. I think the sermon below is worth a post, on two grounds.
1. While not directly citing Brant Pitre, my reading of his book is definitely influential on what I say below. I am - of course - responsible for what is written below; Pitre is not responsible for the sermon.
2. I was struck, while preparing the sermon, by the neat way in which 6:41-43 illustrates how the bread of communion can be simultaneously the body of Christ. Your feedback [bad pun] will be gratefully received. I am sure what I write below is entirely unoriginal, but it is a new-to-me insight from this passage.
Ephesians 4:25-5:2 and John 6:35, 41-51:
If we want to live we need to eat the bread of life.
How often should we have communion?
That simple question has had varied answers through Christian history.
From once or twice a year to quarterly to monthly to weekly to daily.
The New Testament, which faithfully reports to us that Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me”, doesn’t actually say how often we should do this.
Indeed the NT, perhaps to the surprise of Christians who put a lot of emphasis on regular communion, devotes very few words to the subject of “holy communion”.
But among those words are the words we find in John 6 as we read from this chapter over five Sundays – this is week three – if you have lost track.
John 6 – bread from heaven
Five Sundays on the bread, someone once complained.
But what bread it is to spend five Sundays on – the bread from heaven, the bread of life, the bread that gives eternal life.
Eat this bread, Jesus says, and you will never be hungry again.
Now we know, when someone talks like that, but our stomach tells us we are hungry, that this is not the bread we buy at the supermarket or cook in our bread makers.
What is this bread from heaven? Is it metaphorical – bread as a metaphor for spiritual union with Christ?
To be sure, there is an element of metaphor.
What counts is the life of Christ in us and our lives lived in union with Christ. We live this life 24/7, whether we share in communion that day or not.
Yet what Jesus says is very specific about eating him – eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
His flesh is the living bread, his blood is true drink. Jesus says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (53).
It has been impossible for the church not to join this teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum with the later Last Supper –
the supper in which Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples; shared a cup of wine in the same way.
So, alongside the element of metaphor is an element of material reality.
To eat bread given thanks for, broken and shared among followers of Christ, is to eat the body of Christ.
To drink wine given thanks for, shared around followers of Christ, is to drink the blood of Christ.
The bread from heaven is that bread which we eat together in communion.
And whoever eats of this bread will live forever.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (56)
At times in our Anglican history we have had long seasons in which communion was (and in some parishes still is) an optional extra (10 am Mattins and 11.15 am Holy Communion for those who stayed).
I don’t think that approach is faithful to John 6 and its connection to what Jesus did at the Last Supper and commanded us to continue doing in remembrance of his death.
If we want to live, really live, to live the life of Christ in the world, we need to meet, to break bread and to eat it and to share the cup and to drink it.
Thus the spiritual life of Christ comes to us through the material reality of bread and wine:
in this way we eat Christ’s body – his crucified, risen and ascended body – and we drink Christ’s blood – in which the life of Christ comes to us,
the life which was given up for the sake of the world.
As the last words of our Ephesian reading puts it, urging us to love with the same love Christ has for the world,
“live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (5:2)
John 6 – bread from heaven = Jesus, son of Joseph (6:41-43)
We may wonder – as many Christians have wondered – how bread and wine from the earth can convey the heavenly body and blood of Christ.
Fascinatingly there is a strong clue in our gospel reading today.
Jesus says he is the bread come down from heaven.
The Jews who hear this complain: this man is no bread from heaven, this is Jesus the son of Joseph. We know his Mum and Dad.
As readers we know that Jesus is both.
He is the bread come down from heaven:
he is Son of Man and Son of God, come to us from the Father, descended to us from eternal, heavenly intimacy with God his Father.
He is Jesus, son of Joseph.
An ordinary and very material/physical human being.
Same as you and me.
Simultaneously, Jesus is heavenly and earthly, divine and human.
No scientist could have done a blood test and found Jesus to be from heaven.
No theologian, hearing the witness of the Jews who were Jesus’ audience that day, could have denied Jesus to be from earth.
The bread we eat today and the wine we drink cannot be taken to a lab at the university and be found to be the heavenly body and blood of Christ.
And no matter what we believe about the body and blood of Christ which we partake at communion, it is simultaneously bread and wine.
John 6 – the wrap up
If we want to live we need to eat the bread of life.
We should not be vague about this and think of Jesus being all metaphorical.
We can be concrete, specific:
we should come – as we have done today – to communion – to eat the bread of life
– to be nourished and strengthened by Christ through the bread and the wine of communion.
And how often?
I am going to answer that question with another question ...
Can we ever have too much of Christ?