1 Cor 11:23-33; Luke 24:13-33a
1st Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 07.06.15
If I was to walk down Earlsdon high street miming as though I was playing a flute, people may rightly look at me and stare, but I would be unlikely to cause a stronger reaction.
When a certain Paul Gascoigne was playing for Rangers football club in the late 1990s, he did a similar thing, and almost caused a full scale riot in a football stadium. Why? Because the action was a hugely provocative symbol, reminding the largely Catholic crowd of Protestant marches with flute players celebrating victories over Irish catholics over 300 years before.
Symbols are incredibly powerful things. They can sum up in one little action a whole way of life, a whole history, a whole way of believing.
There are few if any symbols that have the power to match the bread and wine, that we will be thinking about today, and participating in later.
Communion has been for the last 2,000 years the way that the church has expressed, sustained and developed its common life together. It lies at the very heart of our worship and is central to our experience of God.
Over the next five weeks we will be looking to grow in our understanding and experience of this remarkable gift that Christ has given to us.
But first, it may be worth saying something about terms.
What we are talking about is most commonly called in the Anglican church – holy communion. Its a term that reminds us that in the bread and wine we are in a very special way communing with Christ and one another.
We also use the word “eucharist”, and our service books use the term “Eucharistic prayer”. Eucharist means thanksgiving and comes from our epistle reading – “when Jesus had given thanks, he broke the bread and said “this is my body””. It reminds us that communion is a time of giving thanks to God for his forgiveness and love shown to us in Jesus.
Other churches use different terms – the Lord’s Supper, a term that Paul uses just before the start of our reading – a term that gives a very real connection with Jesus’ supper with his disciples. We are, as it were, re-living those events.
Other churches use the term “the breaking of bread”, which is what the early church in the book of Acts called it. Its a reminder that this symbol, this sacrament, has been followed since the birth of the church.
And Catholic churches use the term “the Mass” – not a biblical term but one from the Latin term used in services for the dismissal – a reminder that receiving bread and wine is not just for our benefit – we are sent out to serve and love a world in need.
Whatever term we will use – and I will tend to use the word communion as this is the one we are probably most familiar with – the importance is to recognise the centrality of this act to our lives.
From the earliest times, Christians were in no doubt as to its importance and significance. Matthew, Mark and Luke all refer to how Jesus “took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying: “Take and eat, this is my body”, and how he did likewise with the cup: “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many.” Luke records Jesus’ words: “Do this in remembrance of me” – the only command that Christ gives us in terms of our worship – and the New Testament church clearly took this seriously. We can see from our epistle reading, that the church in Corinth had already only a few years later, taken Jesus’ actions and words and made them a central part of their worshipping life together.
Communion wasn’t just a reminder of the Last Supper however. If it was, maybe we would only be doing it once a year at Passover. It reminds us too of other meals where Jesus broke bread – the feeding of the 4,000 and 5,000 – times when Jesus again “took bread, gave thanks, and broke it”, where he speaks of being “the bread of life”. It reminds us too of the road to Emmaus, where those two disciples, their hearts having been warmed by hearing the Word explained to them by the stranger on the road, have their eyes opened to seeing Jesus for who he really is, through the breaking of the bread.
This was an act the early Christians did weekly, possibly daily, as they met together.
And as they did so, they experienced the presence of Christ, and they received his grace in a uniquely powerful way.
This meal of bread and wine works at a number of levels.
For one thing it links in to the meal of bread and wine that reaches back to the distant past of Passover and reaches forward to the anticipated feast in heaven. More about that next week.
Then, at another level, it acts as an incredibly powerful reminder of the last supper and Jesus’ act of sacrifice on the cross. As the bread is broken, as the wine is poured out, we reflect again on that amazing act of Christ in giving us his life that we might be forgiven and live.
We use lots of symbols to help us remember. A poppy wreath reminds us of the poppies that grew in the first world war battlefields, and thus helps us once more to remind ourselves of the horrors of war and the sacrifice of those who died in them.
The bread and wine act as an even more powerful reminder, for in eating bread and drinking wine we enter back into the scene. In fact, the symbols are so powerful, it is almost as if we are re-living the story – we are experiencing Christ with us.
When receiving the bread and wine today, if you don’t often do it, imagine yourself back into those moments at the Last Supper when Jesus gave the bread and wine. Appreciate again the depth of his sacrifice, the vastness of his love, that led him to die for us.
Then, there is another level of understanding communion too. Jesus did not just say “Do this in remembrance of me”, he said “This is my body”. In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses remarkably physical language: “I am the living bread… this bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world… Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…”
Mountains of ink, centuries of discussion have gone into debating what this fully means, but what it seems to imply at the very least is that when we take the bread and wine we are participating in something very special.
Let me share with you an explanation that I have found really helpful.
What is this? (A £10 note) At one level it is just a piece of paper. But although physically it is just a piece of paper, it is not how we would describe it. We would say its a £10 note. When we look at a £10 note we don’t see what it is made of – paper – we see its value, its worth.
Or another example. What is this? (A few splurges of paint on a piece of paper) But if I was to tell you that it was my child’s first ever picture, its value to me changes. Its still splurges of paint, but that’s not what it really is. Its value and meaning is what counts, not its physical composition.
The same can be said of the bread and wine at communion. Their value, their meaning changes. We invest them with a significance, an importance so great, that these are now to us Christ’s body and blood, that like with the £10 note, or my child’s picture, it is no longer their physical composition that describes what they are, it is their meaning. They are for us Christ’s body and blood.
In receiving communion today we experience Christ’s presence in a unique and powerful way.
Much more could be said, but to finish this week, I just wanted to say this. In communion, Christ is present with us, wanting to commune with us. But his presence needs to be encountered to be experienced.
You may know what it is like to be in a crowded place, or at a party, and feel isolated and alone. You may try to make eye contact with someone or start a conversation, but if you are ignored there is no real relationship, no encounter.
In communion, Christ reaches out to us. He seeks to make eye contact, to gain our attention, to speak to us, but if we will not listen, if we look the other way, we will not experience his presence.
As we prepare to receive communion, it is for us to reach out to receive his presence, and meet him who is reaching out to us.
If our eyes are to be opened just as those disciples in that room in Emmaus were, let us welcome Jesus into the room of our hearts that we may encounter him at the breaking of the bread.