Proper 14 (19)
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
12 August 2018
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
John 6:35, 41-51
Three out of four Gospels tell of the institution of the Lord’s Supper on the night before Jesus’ arrest. And Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians is the oldest report we have. John, however, does not tell us of the Lord’s Supper, only of Jesus modelling love and service in the washing of the feet of his disciples, so that they would do likewise.
John, the Evangelist who sees the things Jesus does as signs of much more, uses the occasion of the feeding of the 5000 to tell us that Jesus is the Bread of Life. The sixth chapter of his gospel is his way of telling about the Lord’s Supper. And in John signs are not mere symbols but signify what is real.
And so we can say that the feeding of the 5000 is inclusive, it is not for the few but for all (all are welcome), and as the masses were fed by God’s providing, so God’s people old and new live out of God’s abundance (though Jesus makes a distinction between the manna the ancestors ate and himself as the living bread come down from heaven).
This fits the understanding of the Eucharist I grew up with, the meal we receive transforms us and makes us new. Jesus is truly present in, with, and among the elements of bread and wine. It is more than a cracker we eat and a sip we receive, but it is the living God who comes to us in this meal. It also makes it clear that there is nothing morbid about it. Blood in Jewish understanding is sacred as it contains the life of a person (perhaps that is why in English we can say lifeblood), the body of Jesus is God’s self-giving, yet it is not only the body we receive but also the body into which we are formed as the body of Christ. It is for this reason we pray at the end of the meal, “By your Spirit strengthen us to serve all in need and to give ourselves away as bread for the hungry …” or “May your Word take flesh in us, that we may be your holy people, revealing your glory made known to us in Jesus Christ …”
On my holiday I went to three different churches. On my first week I went to St. Joe’s as Archbishop Miller was installing the new priests of the parish. Lutherans and Catholics share the belief in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the altar but because of semantics and politics I was not able to receive the sacrament but went forward for a blessing.
Last week I went to Redeemer where, 24 years ago, I was ordained and where Calla happened to be playing, as she sometimes does.
And the week in between I went to Grandview Calvary Baptist Church in East Van.
Grandview Calvary Baptist is not your average Baptist church. They are very involved in their community, they use a liturgy (on the Sunday I attended this was a modified liturgy from the Iona Community in Scotland), and looking at their liturgy booklet it appears that they celebrate communion every Sunday. When they announced the meal and that all were welcome they spoke of it being a meal of remembrance.
And I briefly thought about whether I should participate since we believe that Jesus is truly present as the living bread from heaven, in, with, and among the elements of bread and wine. It is a remembrance but it is more than that. And I thought of other times when I worshipped in a context where the sacrament was understood differently, most notably at ecumenical functions with a majority of Anabaptist and Charismatic Christians in Abbotsford. There the attempt to celebrate Holy Communion together, despite our differences, only made our divisions more obvious. Pretending a problem does not exist usually only highlights the problem.
But this was different. This was not an ecumenical event. It was the body of Christ that had gathered for worship and I am part of that body, even though I was a Lutheran among Baptists. Participating in the meal was not going to make a public statement, and I decided I could because the Lord’s Supper is the Lord’s, not Luther’s or Zwingli’s or any of the four popes during Luther’s career.
Now, I do think it is a problem to suggest that the meal of the altar was only a meal of remembrance, and to pull apart body and soul, as Calvin would state: That the soul of the faithful receiving the bread and the wine would be lifted up to heaven where (as the body was fed on earth) the soul would be fed spiritually with Christ’s spiritual body and blood.
This is a problem because it tears apart the incarnation. God came into the flesh. God became human and the fullness of God dwelled in Jesus. We believe in the God who makes the common holy, who restores our humanity, who comes to us in the flesh, into our lives, our communities, and the world.
This is why Luther vehemently opposed an understanding of Holy Communion as only an act of remembrance.
When I contemplated the invitation to the Lord’s table, I did not only remember that the meal we celebrate is the Lord’s meal, no matter how much our own understanding may lack, I also thought of something I had not thought before.
I wondered if that old fight of the 16th century was misplaced today. Not because – in a world in which we no longer represent the dominant culture – Christians have come to seek each other. But I wondered whether we have paid too much attention to the body we receive as individuals and this at the expense of paying attention to the body we become: God taking flesh in us that we may become bread for the hungry. The body here is not only the sacrament we receive as individuals gathered around the table, but the body we become as Christ gathers us around his table, and as we learn to welcome to the table as God welcomes.
Of course, Luther’s argument that Christ is truly present is still valid for bread and wine, it is by no means diminished. But perhaps a new discovery can be made and perhaps there is less of an obstacle here: That the act of celebrating the meal, the act of breaking bread together, of sharing the cup, and welcoming to the Lord’s table all who seek the Lord transforms us into the body of Christ, not just me and you, but the church.
The world needs that transformation, the world needs the church, a church that is visible and present because God is present. It is the transformation God offers and makes possible.