1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 6:48-58
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today we come to the end of our series looking at the liturgy, as we look again at the meaning of communion. The events of Holy Week that we will immerse ourselves in over the next few days make this a fitting theme. On Maundy Thursday we will remember the Last Supper, of which communion reminds us so vividly; and on Good Friday, we will recall Christ’s crucifixion, his sacrifice that sets the world free, and that we recall in the words of the Eucharistic prayer.
Last week we thought about how communion takes us back to remembering those key events of the past; and how it takes us forward, to anticipating the coming of Christ’s kingdom and the heavenly feast. And this week, we will think about how we experience Christ’s presence in communion in the here and now.
But before we immerse ourselves in that, it may be worth saying something about terms. I have used so far the term “communion” to describe the act that we do each week. And in the anglican church that is what it is most commonly called – holy communion. Its a term that reminds us that in the bread and wine we are in a very special way communing with Christ and with one another.
We also use the word “eucharist”, and our service books use the term “Eucharistic prayer”. Eucharist means thanksgiving in Greek and comes from our epistle reading – “when Jesus had given thanks, he broke the bread and said “this is my body””. It reminds us that communion is a time of giving thanks to God for his forgiveness and love shown to us in Jesus.
Other churches use different terms – the Lord’s Supper, a term that Paul uses just before the start of our reading – a term that gives a very real connection with Jesus’ supper with his disciples on that first Maundy Thursday. We are, as it were, re-living those events.
Other churches use the term “the breaking of bread” (a term also used in our service books), which is what the early church in the book of Acts called it. Its a reminder that this symbol, this sacrament, has been followed since the birth of the church.
And Catholic churches use the term “the Mass” – not a biblical term but one from the Latin term used in services for the dismissal – when we say “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” – a reminder that receiving bread and wine is not just for our benefit – we are sent out to serve and love a world in need.
Whatever term we will use – and I tend to use the word communion as this is the one we are probably most familiar with – the importance is to recognise the centrality of this act to our lives.
From the earliest times, Christians were in no doubt as to its importance and significance. Matthew, Mark and Luke all refer to how Jesus “took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying: “Take and eat, this is my body”, and how he did likewise with the cup: “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many.” Luke records Jesus’ words: “Do this in remembrance of me” – the only command that Christ gives us in terms of our worship – and the New Testament church clearly took this seriously. We can see from our epistle reading, that the church in Corinth had already only a few years later, taken Jesus’ actions and words and made them a central part of their worshipping life together.
Communion wasn’t just a reminder of the Last Supper and the Passover meal however. If it was, maybe we would only be doing it once a year on Maundy Thursday. It reminds us too of other meals where Jesus broke bread – the feeding of the 4,000 and 5,000 – times when Jesus again “took bread, gave thanks, and broke it”, where he speaks of being “the bread of life” as we heard in John’s Gospel. It reminds us too of the road to Emmaus, where those two disciples, their hearts having been warmed by hearing the Word explained to them by the stranger on the road, have their eyes opened to seeing the risen Jesus for who he really is, through the breaking of the bread.
This was an act the early Christians did weekly, possibly daily, as they met together. And as they did so, they experienced the presence of Christ, and they received his grace in a uniquely powerful way.
This meal of bread and wine works at a number of levels.
For one thing, as we saw last week, it links in to the meal of bread and wine that reaches back to the distant past of Passover and reaches forward to the anticipated feast in heaven.
Then, at another level, it acts as an incredibly powerful reminder of the last supper and Jesus’ act of sacrifice on the cross. As we will pray later, “Father, we remember all that Jesus did and plead with confidence his sacrifice made once for all upon the cross.” We are reminding ourselves that Jesus takes the role of the sacrificial lamb, that he takes the sin of the world upon himself, that we might have life. As the bread is broken, as the wine is poured out, we reflect again on that amazing act of Christ in giving us his life that we might be forgiven and live.
Then, there is another level of understanding or experiencing communion. For many people, communion is a place of deep and profound encounter with God – something that goes beyond just our rational faculties, to touch something deep within us. People have often described it to me as the point at which they feel “most centred, most at one with God” in their week. A place where we experience the nearness and love of Christ. At one level it is right to acknowledge that this is a mystery beyond our understanding. But it may be helpful to think just a little more about this – what is this mystery.
Jesus did not just say about communion, “Do this in remembrance of me”; he said “This is my body”. In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses remarkably physical language: “I am the living bread… this bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world… Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…”
Oceans of ink, centuries of discussion, have gone into debating what this fully means, some arguing that the language is purely symbolic, others that the bread and wine literally change into Jesus’ body and blood (what became known as transubstantiation), but what everyone agrees with is that when we take the bread and wine we are participating in something very special.
Let me share with you an explanation that I have found really helpful.
What is this? (A £10 note) At one level it is just a piece of paper. But although physically it is just a piece of paper, it is not how we would describe it. We would say its a £10 note. When we look at a £10 note we don’t see what it is made of – paper – we see its value, its worth.
Or another example. What is this? (A few splurges of paint on a piece of paper) But if I was to tell you that it was my child’s first ever picture, its value to me changes. Its still splurges of paint, but that’s not what it really is. Its value and meaning is what counts, not its physical composition.
The same can be said of the bread and wine at communion. Their value, their meaning changes. We invest them with a significance, an importance so great, that these are now to us Christ’s body and blood, that like with the £10 note, or my child’s picture, it is no longer their physical composition that describes what they are, it is their meaning. As we will pray in just a few minutes time: “Send your Holy Spirit, that broken bread and wine outpoured may be for us the body and blood of your dear Son.”
In receiving communion today we experience Christ’s presence in a unique and powerful way.
Much more could be said, but to finish, I just wanted to say this. In communion, Christ is present with us, wanting to commune with us. But his presence needs to be encountered to be experienced.
You may know what it is like to be in a crowded place, or at a party, and feel isolated and alone. You may try to make eye contact with someone or start a conversation, but if you are ignored there is no real relationship, no encounter.
Christ longs for relationship, for connection, for communion with us. The events of Holy Week – the Last Supper, his crucifixion, his resurrection – all point us to the extraordinary lengths he is willing to go to do so. As we receive communion today, Christ reaches out to us. He seeks to make eye contact as it were, to gain our attention, to speak to us, but if we will not listen, if we look the other way, we will not experience his presence.
As we prepare to receive communion, as we begin Holy Week, it is for us to reach out to receive his presence, and meet him who is reaching out to us.