For many Christians around the world, receiving Holy Communion regularly is a central part of their spirituality. To be deprived of it leaves them feeling empty, hungry, distanced from Christ, bereft. And at the moment, most of us are deprived of it. The danger of COVID-19 infection has made it necessary to close churches and ban public worship gatherings. As I write this, many churches are moving their worship online, and scrambling to find ways of keeping their faith communities together.
So how do we continue to nourish our spiritual life, when we can’t physically partake of communion?
I think it might help us to remember a verse from the Book of Psalms: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.’ (Psalm 34:8)
The person who wrote that verse was not a Christian and was not in the habit of receiving Holy Communion! But he (or she) obviously had a sense of connection to Yahweh, the Lord God, and that sense of connection was food and drink for them. They were able to find spiritual nourishment, without anything resembling what we call the sacrament of Holy Communion. (True, they had the yearly Passover festival, but, it only happened once a year, and it was mainly a home-based celebration.)
So maybe it’s time for us Christians to learn from our Jewish older siblings in faith about how a relationship with God can be nurtured when it’s based on prayer, study of scripture, observance of the commandments, and rituals celebrated mainly in the home. Spending time in the Psalms and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures might be a help to us here.
But wait—there are riches in our own tradition, too. I mean the Christian tradition, but I’m specifically thinking now of a little-known piece of our Anglican heritage.
In the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, in the service for the visitation of the sick, you will find this little paragraph, written in glorious Tudor English:
‘But if a man, either by reason of extremity of sickness, or for want of warning in due time to the Curate, or for lack of company to receive with him, or by any just impediment, do not receive the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood; the Curate shall instruct him, that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and steadfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his blood for his redemption; earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore; he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the sacrament with his mouth.’
Okay, that might be a bit dense for some of my readers, so let me translate:
‘Sometimes there might be a good reason—say, because they didn’t get hold of the minister in time, or there aren’t enough people to have communion together (the BCP required at least two people to share with the priest), or because they’re just too sick to eat and drink the bread and wine—why a person can’t actually receive the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. In that situation, the minister is to tell the person that if they truly repent of their sins, and steadfastly believe that Christ died on the Cross for their forgiveness and freedom, and if they call to mind all the benefits that come to them through the Cross of Christ, and give hearty thanks to him for them—well, that’s enough. That person is spiritually eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ in such a way as too keep their soul healthy, even though they can’t receive the sacrament with their mouth.’
This is a hugely important paragraph for us today. Read it again, slowly and carefully, and notice the distinction it makes between ‘receiving the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood’ and ‘eating and drinking the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ to (our) soul’s health’. We tend to think of receiving the bread and wine of Holy Communion as if it was the same as ‘eating and drinking Christ’s Body and Blood’, but the Prayer Book tells us it’s not. Rather, when we eat and drink the bread and wine, we’re receiving the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.
What is a sacrament? Originally, the word meant an oath or a pledge; today we would probably use the word ‘promise’. A sacrament, simply put, is a promise by God to show up. When we pour water over someone in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, God promises to show up, to act in the life of the person being baptized, to wash away their sins and bring them to new birth in the Body of Christ. And when we eat and drink the bread and wine of Holy Communion, God promises to show up to feed us with the Bread of Life.
Does God need these physical actions in order to show up? Of course not. God can bring people to new birth any way he likes. God can nourish us with the bread of life any way he likes. God can’t be confined to the sacraments. His power and love are active in our lives in all kinds of different ways. He has promised to be present when we do these things. But that promise isn’t exclusionary; it doesn’t mean he can’t show up unless we do these things.
The truth is that sacraments are given to make things easy for us. They take spiritual truths and allow us to express them and embody them, using physical actions.
We actually do this all the time in our daily lives. Why do we feel the need to shake hands to seal a deal? The verbal agreement is already there; isn’t that enough? Maybe in some situations it is, but if you’re old school, somehow shaking hands to seal the deal makes it more concrete, more real. Flying a flag gives physical expression to our patriotism. Wearing a wedding ring makes our marriage vows visible and tangible. Giving someone a hug makes our love tangible.
Are these things absolutely necessary? Of course not. We can keep our promises without shaking hands on them. We can be loyal Canadians even if we don’t fly the flag of Canada outside our homes or wear it in our lapels. We can be faithful spouses even if we don’t wear wedding rings. We can love people without hugging them (as many of us are discovering right now). But somehow, using these physical signs and symbols makes it easier for us. They make our commitments tangible.
Let me give you another example of this, from the gospels. I’m thinking of the story of Jesus inviting Peter to walk on the water. Why was that necessary? Surely the important thing was that Peter had faith in his heart. But faith can be hard to visualize; when Jesus says “Have faith in me,” it’s not always easy to know how to do that. But when Jesus says, “Get out of the boat and walk to me,” we know exactly what’s called for, what faith looks like. The action makes the faith visible and tangible.
Sacraments are like that. And please understand—I’m not just saying they’re ways for us to make our faith in God visible and tangible. They are, but that’s not the most important thing about them. The most important thing about them is what God does. Sacraments make God’s promises to us—God’s commitments to us—visible and tangible.
Let me illustrate this, with special reference to the sacrament of Holy Communion.
In John chapter 6, Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. This story of the miraculous feeding is contained in all four gospels, but in John’s Gospel it has special meaning. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ miracles are called ’signs’, and each of them points to a truth about Jesus. The feeding of the five thousand isn’t just meant to satisfy the hunger of the crowd: it’s meant to teach them that Jesus is the true Bread of Life. If we want our spiritual hunger satisfied, we must come to Jesus and put our faith in him. That’s how we ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’
The rest of John chapter 6 explores this idea. In verse 51 Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”. This causes a furious argument among Jesus’ hearers; they ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v.52) Jesus’ reply seems shocking to them: “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (v.53).
Imagine the revulsion Jesus’ first hearers would have felt at what must have sounded to them very much like cannibalism. Not only does Jesus talk about eating his flesh, but drinking his blood—and in the Old Testament, people were forbidden from consuming blood, because of the ancient belief that ‘the life is in the blood’. It’s not surprising that a few verses later on we read that ‘when many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (v.60)—and some of them left Jesus altogether.
So what does it mean to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood? And why would we want to do it anyway? What are the benefits we receive from it?
In John 6.54 Jesus says ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life’. And remember: ‘Eternal life’ doesn’t just mean ‘life that goes on forever’. In a prayer to his Father in John 17:3 Jesus tells us what eternal life is: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”. So to receive eternal life is to be brought into a relationship with the living God and with his Son Jesus Christ. To put it bluntly: to know God is the only way to be fully alive.
Jesus describes this relationship in very intimate terms; he says in verse 56 “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”. To ‘abide’ somewhere means to make your home there, and so in this lovely symbolic language Jesus says to us, ‘If you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you’ll be making your home in me, and I’ll be making my home in you’. Can you imagine such a thing—to make our home in Jesus, and for Jesus to make his home in us? If you can imagine that, you’ve grasped the essence of what it means to be a Christian.
So how do we enter into that experience of being at home in Jesus, and Jesus being at home in us? Jesus is quite direct about how we get it: he says we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. But what does that mean? Lifelong churchgoers are tempted to jump right away to the bread and wine of Holy Communion, but let’s not go there too fast. Instead, let’s go back to the first mention of the bread of life in John 6, in verse 35. Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”.
You might not know that in the time of Jesus many Jewish people saw the Torah, the Old Testament Law of God, as the true manna from heaven; it was said that God fed the people with the words of his mouth. So to listen to the Law or Instruction of God, to think about it and chew on it and put it into practice in your life, was seen as a way of receiving the true spiritual bread of life.
Jesus is clearly following in this spiritual interpretation of the bread of life here. It’s actually a very bold claim he’s making: he’s claiming to be the embodiment of the ‘Torah’, or Law of God. To ‘come to him’ and ‘believe in him’ is to believe that he is who he says he is, to give ourselves to him in faith, and to put his words into practice in our daily lives.
How do we respond to that invitation to ‘come to Jesus’ and ‘believe in him’? Harold Percy has often said that if you understand the invitation Jesus is giving you, the most eloquent prayer in the world could be the one simple word, ‘Yes’. Jesus is with us today and is giving us this invitation: ‘Will you come to me and believe in me? Will you put your life in my hands and let me lead you from this day forward?’ And if your heart is responding to that call, then there’s no need to worry about getting the words right; if all you can manage is the word ‘yes’, that will do just fine. It can be a perfect expression of your faith commitment to Jesus.
We renew that commitment each week, every time we come forward to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Some of you are familiar with the old revival preachers and their practice of giving ‘altar calls’. Billy Graham made this famous; at each of his evangelistic services he would say, “Now I’m going to ask you to get up out of your seats!” and he would invite people who wanted to give their lives to Jesus to come forward to the front of his services as a public act of commitment to Christ.
To many lifelong Anglicans the thought of an altar call is a shock to the system, but in fact, if we understand what we’re doing in Holy Communion, we have an altar call every week! Jesus tells us that if we come to him and believe in him our spiritual hunger and thirst will be satisfied. We respond to that invitation; we get up out of our seats and come to the front of the church, and we hold out our empty hands and ask him to fill them. The emptiness of our hands is a symbol of the emptiness of our lives; without him we have no life, but when we come to him in faith, he gives us that life. And so we receive the bread and wine in faith, and, as the old prayer book says, we ‘feed on him in our hearts’—not our mouths, but our hearts—‘by faith with thanksgiving’.
But what about right now, when we can’t receive communion physically?
Now is the time for us to remember that this isn’t just something we do at Holy Communion on Sundays; it’s something we do every day of the week as followers of Jesus. To go back to verse 35, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. To receive Holy Communion is one way of ‘coming’ to Jesus and ‘believing in him’—a vital way, but not the only way. All week long, he is inviting us to continue to come to him and put our faith in him. In Matthew’s gospel he says to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
So we come to him and believe in him when we give our lives to him in moments of conversion. We come to him and believe in him when we pray each day, alone or with others. We come to him and believe in him when we listen to his Word and meditate on it in the Holy Scriptures. We come to him and believe in him when we turn to our neighbours in love and service. We even come to him and believe in him when we get together with fellow Christians through an Internet platform like Zoom or Facebook to study the Bible and pray!
When we do these things, we are being nourished by the love of Jesus. We are feeding on the Bread of Life. We are receiving what’s sometimes called ‘spiritual communion’—we are ‘eating and drinking the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ to our soul’s health’—although for a time we aren’t able to actually receive the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.
In the Anglican world today, we often neglect these other ways of feeding on the Bread of Life. We put a huge emphasis on the sacrament of Holy Communion, and rightly so. But perhaps this might be one good gift God wants to give us through this sacramental fast we currently find ourselves in: to teach us a new appreciation for the other ways we can taste and see that the Lord is good.
So let’s come to him, not just in Holy Communion, but in turning our hearts toward him every day, in prayer, in feeding on the Scriptures, and in putting his words and example into practice in our daily lives. Let’s put our trust in him and ask him to make himself known to us as the true Bread of life. ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’ (Psalm 34:8). That’s not just about Holy Communion; it’s about a daily walk with Christ. May we all walk with him, and find from our own experience that as we do so, the spiritual hunger in our hearts is completely satisfied by his life-giving presence.