A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison for
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, August 1st 2021
Chapter six of John’s Gospel commences with Jesus feeding five thousand people. Then, after an aside about Jesus walking on water, it’s back to eating and drinking for the rest of the chapter. Jesus has a conversation with people who are looking for a sign from him that will make them believe in him: ‘what sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?’ (6:30) They would like a re-run of the occasion when God fed Israelites in the wilderness with bread – manna – from heaven.
Jesus tells them that they should not be looking about them for ‘the bread of God … which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’ (6:33) when he is standing there before them. Jesus himself is the sign of God’s provision for the world: ‘I am the bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (6:35) By time you get to the end of chapter six, some thirty-five verses after tonight’s reading ends, Jesus has been talking about how those who follow him must eat his flesh and drink his blood: ‘unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.’ (6:53)
That’s strong stuff. So difficult were Jesus’s words that John tells us, ‘because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went around with him.’ (6:66)
John’s Gospel contains no description of the meal that Jesus shared with his closest followers on the night of his arrest, prior to his execution on the cross. It does tell us that during the meal Jesus, got up from the table … and began to wash the disciples’ feet.’ (13:4, 5) But of bread and wine, linked to body and blood, as in Matthew, Mark and Luke, to say nothing of 1 Corinthians, from which we hear later, John contains not a word. Perhaps John felt he had already covered all of that in this chapter of his Gospel, where Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, preceded by ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (6:35)
If eighteen months ago you had asked me what I thought about the idea of online communion I think I would have been a bit sceptical. Could something so material really transfer from the physical to the online world? To my surprise, for me, it does. I know that it does for some others as well. They have told me that this is the case. So I thought it would be good to ponder Jesus’s declaration that he is the bread of life for us, and how that relates to Holy Communion, whether shared in the same physical setting or online.
I would like us to think about communion in three ways: first, God making God’s self present to us; second, as being united with each other; and third, as food for life’s journey.
So, first, God makes God’s self present to us. There’s been a lot of ink spilt in arguments over how and to what extent God is present in a communion service. Ironically, in centuries past, there has even been blood spilt over such disputes. In churches in our tradition there is a tendency to run as far away as possible from any idea that God might be present in the bread and wine at communion. I’m not suggesting that that in some crude way the bread and wine at communion literally become Jesus’s flesh and blood. All the same, though, if this is just a memorial of at the Last Supper then communion becomes something that is all about the past, not about the present and the future. Here in John’s Gospel Jesus is very clear that he is the bread of life. That makes me want to look again at the bread we eat and the wine we drink.
We recognise that God is present in creation. Bread and wine are material elements of that creation. Therefore, God must in some way be present in the bread and wine at communion. We are eating and drinking something in which God is present, and connecting that with Jesus, who describes himself as ‘the bread of life.’ There is some sense, surely, in which Jesus becomes present to us as we eat bread and drink wine – eat his flesh and drink his blood – and as we remember his life, death and resurrection, which occurred some two thousand years ago.
So Holy Communion is about communing with God: God makes God’s self present to us. And I wonder if this is an especial strength of communion online: a people who were wary about connecting communion with God’s presence in the bread and wine are more encouraged to do so because the second aspect of communion is less apparent in the online world; that it unites us with each other.
As I was telling someone earlier today, I try to avoid the word ‘virtual’ when talking about the online world. I do not talk about have a ‘virtual’ church service or ‘virtual communion’ service. I talk about online services. ‘Virtual’ suggests something that is not quite the real thing. I don’t believe this service is a virtual form of the worship we would have in our church building. It is a different but equally real form of worship.
That said, the second aspect of Holy Communion is communing with our fellow members of the Church, and I think that this is where being physically present in the same room wins out over an online gathering. That may just show that I’m so twentieth century, but there is something about being in the same physical space together for a shared physical activity that one cannot achieve in an online setting. We cannot share the same bread, or the same wine online. We do not hand out the bread or serve the wine.
Then, third, as well as uniting us with God, as well as uniting us with each other, Holy Communion, sustains us for the journey. It’s no coincidence that the conversations that Jesus has in chapter six involve groups of people who are on a journey. The first group is Jewish people in Old Testament times, fleeing from a life of slavery in Egypt, heading for a new land, but journeying through a wilderness, in need of food and drink. When Jesus fed the five thousand with bread in the mountains of Galilee people will have remembered God feeding the Israelites with manna in the wilderness: ‘our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness; as it is written he gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ (6:31)
The second group of travellers were also Jewish. They were Jesus’s disciples, following him around the Galilean landscape. They were the ones that Jesus confronted with strong words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Just as Israel depended upon the God who had identified himself as ‘I am’ to Moses, so these disciples depended upon Jesus, who declared ‘I am the bread of life,’ for their journey. And that was true both when Jesus was with them upon earth and then when they carried on their journey as the Church which produced the written Gospels, including this one from John.
We depend upon God, upon Jesus, for strength to carry on our journey in life. When we gather, either in the same physical location or online, to remember Jesus through shared actions – eating and drinking – we remember who it is that we follow. We remember who it is that provides bread and wine through creation. We become more aware of God who has been made know to us in Jesus Christ. One questions for future days is how often as a church we should meet to receive that sustenance for life’s ongoing journey.
Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ That’s true for us, when in sharing communion we are united with God, our Creator and Saviour; when we are united with each other in sharing; when we receive food for life’s journey.