I was planning to blog about knitting and sermons for a while. As you will be able to see by the fact that I’ve only blogged once in the last two months (before today), I’m kind of behind in my blogging. Life, it seems, gets rather busy at this time of year. My feet don’t feel like they’ve touched the ground in a while, and it will still be a few months yet before they really do.
Despite feet not touching the ground, Jen and Sarah came to my trial service and this is the sermon from then. I think this is the one but I’m not the most imaginative or sensible when it comes to filenames so who knows…
Readings – Proverbs 9: 1 – 6, John 6: 51 – 58
Communion! Bread rolls and grape juice or port and wafers. Communion! That’s what sprung to mind the first, and every, time I read through today’s Gospel reading! It’s something familiar to Christians throughout the world, continues in a legacy started by the first Christians and follows a commandment from Jesus. While different churches have their different approaches and different styles, sharing bread and wine together is what many people, even outside the church, associate with Christianity. Communion is something very special to me and I have been fortunate to share in many different celebrations. From everyone sharing their lunch together at a Christian festival like the one I’m going to next weekend, or joining half a dozen elderly nuns and a priest in a convent to an integral part of a friends wedding or on a normal communion service on a Sunday morning, it is always a special experience. I was intrigued to know what, if any, insight could be gained from the readings. How could Proverbs bring understanding to a practice that hadn’t even started, and why is John’s account so different from his fellow Gospel writers? What challenges can we take from the experience and what reassurance, and how can we share this with others?
Proverbs may not seem the first place to turn but it presents many interesting ideas worth exploring when considering communion. We hear of the host preparing a feast and inviting guests – something that echoes the Gospel reading but we’ll come back to that later. The host, Wisdom is a female representation of the Holy Spirit and the poet tells us that:
“She (Wisdom) prepared her meat and mixed her wine.”
as the New International Version translates the verse. This verse is later followed by the invite to the guests saying:
“Come, eat the food and drink the wine mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of understanding.”
The Spirit, in the form of Wisdom, has made a feast for all who want to gain in life and knowledge to join. I think it’s fair to say that most, if not all of us, want to live in the ways of understanding and life – and that invite still applies to us! The Spirit invites all of us, from the beginning of time, to share in the feast and that legacy will be passed on to a new generation by us. Through sharing with each other, and with the spirit we will grow and be nourished by it. As we become more familiar with the Spirit we can begin to understand the role it plays in our own understanding and life. It is our ongoing connection to God, and the gift given to us by Jesus to help us.
To come to Wisdom’s table requires us to admit our shortcomings – we will will always be unable to truly comprehend the nature of God. It also requires us to look at what we are being asked to share in – the feast itself. Wisdom has prepared meat and mixed wine. This is where the echo with the Gospel gets a little louder. It is the same flesh and wine we are invited to consume by Jesus. The Holy Spirit is inviting us to eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood. This is the feast prepared by Wisdom and talked about in Proverbs. By sharing in the feast we are entitled to taste the delights she has to offer. We learn more about ourselves and the nature of God through this relationship. It is through the involvement of the Spirit that the feast becomes more than the sum of its parts – it becomes Communion with God.
It is this communion with God that John is talking about. His account of Jesus’ commandment to us is markedly different from those of the other Gospel writers. When Matthew, Mark and Luke offer the Last Supper as the setting, it is worth noting that John does no such thing. John doesn’t actually mention the last supper at all – not in relation to this or any other story in the whole of his Gospel! He emphasises different aspects of Jesus’ commandment and they can add to our understanding but we need to explore why John writes so differently.
The earliest Christians generally came from the regions where Jesus conducted his ministry and were primarily Jewish by background and culture. As the early Christian movement grew, it spread into new areas and reached people of different backgrounds. John, it is believed, was writing from Ephesus in modern-day Turkey around 70 years after the death of Jesus. The community he was living in was so different from those that Jesus visited. The culture, language, religion and lifestyle were completely different and he needed to find a way of getting his message across. He wasn’t writing for people who were seated in Jewish traditions, he was trying to write for everyone. There is nobody who is excluded by the Good News and John tried to write for as many people as possible. As such he wrote with explanations of Jewish tradition for those unfamiliar with it, but also with ideas and images familiar to people from other backgrounds. It is with that in mind that we return to the reading we heard earlier.
John’s exploration of Jesus’ commandment is firmly set in traditions outside Judaism. Many religions of the time held the belief that you could achieve communion with a God by eating some of a sacrifice offered by a priest. The priest would offer the sacrifice and after everything else had been sorted, the believer would be given back a portion of the meat. It was believed that the sacrificed meat was transformed into the God. By eating the flesh, the believer was bringing the God into themselves and would become one with them. The consumption of any food, including meat, is a very intimate process. The food is taken in, absorbed, and becomes part of us. You are bringing something from the outside into you. If it is good, it will feed and sustain you. It will lead to growth and keep you going. The meat from the sacrifice nourished the person not only physically but also spiritually and emotionally – just as communion can and does for us.
By explaining Jesus’ instructions in the way he did, John is giving people an understanding of the importance of Jesus. He is emphasising the Divinity of Christ. It says to the readers of the time, This man is God. By sharing in the feast, we are sharing with a man, but a man who is equally God and equally human. For us, he is our living sacrifice!
John makes it even clearer when he reports Jesus saying:
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Just as the living father sent me and I live because of the father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
By eating the bread of life, the flesh of Jesus, he is with and in us and each of us is in him. That’s what communion is for us. A celebration of the eternal link between Jesus and each of us. But how is it that the bread and wine that we share become the spiritual foods spoken about by John, or hold the promise mentioned earlier by the poet in Proverbs? The answer is in the involvement of the Holy Spirit. If we were to carry on reading from where we left off in John’s Gospel we would come to a passage about the importance of the Spirit. Jesus talks about the role of Wisdom, the Holy Spirit, when he says:
“The words I have spoken to you bring God’s life-giving spirit.”
This refers back to the promise spoken about in Proverbs where Wisdom offers the guests a way to life. The Spirit is transformative. There are many accounts in the new testament of the work of the Spirit and the way it brings life. We are invited to receive guidance for our lives from the spirit, and it is the source of the gifts God gives to share life with those around us. When we share in communion the Spirit is with us and there is a transformation here too. The bread and wine are changed through the Holy Spirit to bring the blessings of life and understanding promised by Jesus and to which we were invited by Wisdom. In the moment of joining in communion we are united with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and by this union we are transformed. We may not always be aware of it but we will have been nourished. Through this small action on our part, we bring Jesus into our bodies and into our lives. Is is with us in all that we are all that we do. Sometimes that knowledge can be really unsettling but that is a good thing. We can be reassured and know that Jesus is alongside us and we are never alone. This is also where the challenge comes.
Jesus is with us in all that we say and all that we do, which means he is with us every time things go well, but also when things go badly. With that in mind, we should try our hardest to be faithful on all occasions. Through the guidance of the Spirit and the teachings of Jesus we can learn how best to act in each situation. We know that we are growing in life and understanding but how are we dealing with that responsibility? Wisdom tells us to leave foolishness behind as we feast and we need to live that out in our daily lives. Jesus tells us that he is the bread for the life world, but we know of so many parts of the world where life is restricted. With the transformative Spirit, we can take this challenge and embrace it. We can each play a part, however small, in the lives of those around us. Whether it’s making a cup of tea, doing a night of babysitting, volunteering for a project or something entirely different we can share with those our lives touch. Maybe our actions will be as small as the pieces of bread we eat, or as short lived as the taste in our mouths but through the Spirit of God they may be changed into something amazing. When we share in or remember the sacrament of Holy Communion, may we feel encouraged to use our lives to share understanding and life with the people we meet.