In the early years of the Christian Church there were all sorts of wild rumours floating around about what those mysterious Christians got up to in secret. One of the more persistent rumours was that they were cannibals. “Haven’t you heard? When they get together they eat someone’s body and drink his blood!” If we find that a ridiculous rumour, that’s because we’ve had two thousand years to get used to the idea! If you were hearing it for the first time – “Eat my body…drink my blood” – you’d be freaked out.
So what does it mean, this special meal that Jesus gave us? I suspect that very few of us could clearly explain what we believe about it and what we experience as we share in it. Many Christian teachers have tried to find ways to help us grasp it. One that has been a big help to me was something I read years ago in a little book by a theologian called Griffith Thomas. He said that it’s helpful if we think of the different directions we’re looking in as we share Holy Communion together. There are five of them.
First, we’re looking backwards – back in time, that is – to the Cross. Paul says:
‘For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me”. In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me”. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
So Holy Communion is all about Jesus’ death; we ‘proclaim his death until he comes’.
Why do we need this reminder? Because the Cross of Jesus is where we see most clearly the amazing love and grace of God. The Cross is where human rebellion against God reaches its lowest point: God comes among us himself, as one of us, in the person of his Son, speaking nothing but truth and sharing nothing but love. But, as John’s Gospel says, ‘people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil’ (John 3:19). So we reject God, we condemn him and whip him and nail him up on a cross to die.
But what’s God’s response? Not judgement or vengeance, but forgiveness. ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing’. On the Cross Jesus demonstrates most clearly what has always been God’s character, even though human ideas have sometimes obscured it: grace, mercy, forgiveness. We have a God who loves his enemies, and that’s the heart of the Christian Gospel. So we need this regular reminder – this dramatic reenactment at the Lord’s Table as the bread is broken and the wine poured out – so that we don’t forget the way Christ’s body was broken and his blood poured out to embody the love of God for the whole world.
We had a parishioner here once at St. Margaret’s who used to look at the cross whenever he received communion. It was very vivid to me. I would place the bread in his hands – ‘The Body of Christ, broken for you’ – and he would say ‘Amen’, and then look up at the Cross while he was eating the bread. I’ve never forgotten that.
So first of all, we’re looking backwards. Second, we’re looking forwards, to the coming of the Kingdom of God. In Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus gives his disciples the bread and wine at the Last Supper, he says, “I tell you, I will never again drink from this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).
The idea of the kingdom of God as a great feast was very common in the time of Jesus, and it often appears in his parables. He says the kingdom is like a wedding banquet that we’re all invited to – and the invitation list is wider than we often think. He says, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).
Obviously we’re speaking in symbolic language here – when you think of the millions of saints who have gone before us, it’s hard for me to imagine a banquet table big enough to seat them all! But this small gathering tonight, this little taste of bread and sip of wine, is a foretaste of the fellowship we’ll share with all God’s people when his kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. So we’re not just looking back to the Cross – we’re also looking forward to the future, when God heals the world of evil and sin and we’re all joined together around his table as members of his family.
Third, we’re looking upwards, to Jesus, asking for his daily help. We’re asking him not just to be far away from us at the Father’s right hand, but also close to us – as close as the food we eat.
For two thousand years Christians have debated exactly what Jesus meant at the last supper when he said ‘This is my Body, broken for you’, and ‘This is my blood, shed for you’. Some have taken a very literalistic interpretation: the physical form of this bread and wine is changed ito the physical form of the body and blood of Jesus. Others have seen it as being symbolic – just as we need to receive our food and eat it, so we need to receive from Jesus the benefits of forgiveness he has poured out on us at the Cross.
For myself, I stick to the words of Jesus in John 6:35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never been hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. In other words, Jesus is as essential to my life with God as food is essential to my physical life. Just as food sustains me, so the presence of Jesus sustains me. If I’m feeling a deep spiritual hunger and thirst, then I need to come to him and believe in him.
Receiving communion together is one of the ways we ‘come’ to him and ‘believe’ in him. We come with empty hands and hold them out in faith; we receive the bread and wine, looking to Jesus; we eat and drink, and through these simple bodily acts our union with Jesus is strengthened. He lives in us by his Spirit, and his life in us becomes more real and vivid as we share his sacrament.
Personally, there are two prayers I find really helpful just before I receive communion. One is a traditional Roman Catholic prayer: ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and I will be made whole’. The other is a line from an old hymn I’ve known since I was a child: ‘O come to my heart, Lord Jesus – there is room in my heart for thee’. I use these prayers almost every time I receive communion.
So we’re looking back to the Cross and the love of God poured out on us there. We’re looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God where we will all be invited into the heavenly banquet hall. We’re looking up to Jesus, asking him to come into our hearts and lives and satisfy our spiritual hunger. Fourthly, we’re looking around us at the family of God gathered around the Lord’s Table.
We don’t eat this meal alone. We always eat it with others. This is not just about ‘me’ receiving ‘my’ communion; this is about our unity with others. Paul puts it simply and beautifully in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17:
‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’.
We can see the lovely symbolism here: the Corinthian Christians meeting for the Eucharist in their little house church – small enough that one loaf of bread and one cup of wine is big enough. One loaf is broken and shared – one cup is passed around – and they who are many are one Body.
Which is why the reality of unity is so important. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that if we’re coming to give our gift to God at the altar and suddenly remember a quarrel we’re having, we need to go first and be reconciled to our sister or brother, and only then come back and offer our gift. The early church applied this to the Eucharist too. The sharing of the peace was not just an empty symbol for them; it was a time to go to the person we had something against and make up with them, before coming to the Table with them.
I remember years ago, in a small church, noticing that a man who always came up for communion had not come up that Sunday. I went to him after the service and said, “Is everything okay?” He replied, “I had a fight with my wife before I came to church today, and I just knew I wasn’t in a fit state to receive communion – I have to go home and apologize to her”. That man really ‘got’ the idea of Holy Communion as a call to reconciliation with one another.
So – back to the Cross and the love of God poured out on us there – forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God – up to Jesus, asking him to come into our hearts and lives and satisfy our spiritual hunger – around us at the family of God gathered around the Lord’s Table. Fifth and last, we’re looking into our hearts before we come, preparing ourselves for this sacred feast.
In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul talks about how the Corinthians weren’t taking the Lord’s Supper seriously. In those days it wasn’t a service like we do now – it was more of a pot luck supper, with prayers and teachings attached. But some of them were coming early and eating all the food, some of them were getting drunk, others were going hungry. What’s this about, he asks? And then he says, ‘Examine yourselves, and only eat then of the bread and drink of the cup’ (1 Corinthians 11:28).
So it’s good for us to have a time of preparation each week before we come to communion. Maybe we can get up a little earlier on Sunday and spend some time in prayer. Are there sins I particularly need to repent of and ask God’s forgiveness for? Are there people I need to call and apologize to – bad relationships to put right? Are there people I’m refusing to forgive?
When the Book of Common Prayer invites people to confess their sins before communion, it says it like this:
‘Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort…’
So the two issues that are flagged here are repentance and reconciliation.
I’m not saying we have to be good and holy and perfect before we can come to communion – of course not. If that were true, none of us could come! The BAS says, ‘God welcomes sinners and invites us to his table’. But, as someone once said, ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there!’ This meal together is meant to strengthen us and teach us to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways. And so we prepare ourselves by repenting of our sins and being reconciled with God and with our neighbour.
So – let’s walk around this one last time! We look back to the Cross and the love of God poured out on us there – forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God – up to Jesus, asking him to come into our hearts and lives and satisfy our spiritual hunger – around us at the family of God gathered around the Lord’s Table – and into our hearts before we come, preparing ourselves for this sacred feast.
As the altar guild are preparing the water for the footwashing, let’s take a few minutes of silence to think about which if these five ‘looks’ speaks most clearly to us tonight, and what we can do to live into it more fully.