“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said 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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 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. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’”
May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (+). Amen.
My son is just getting to the age where he is asking us about God and Jesus. (I won’t say his name as he’ll probably come running to me from the back!)
Well, anyway, the other day he asked me “Daddy, why can’t we see Jesus?”. Hmm. I paused. I answered rather slowly, and in all honesty not very well. It involved something about Jesus being alive but in a different way from us. It probably involved mumbling about Heaven. As I said, it wasn’t a very good answer.
It’s a good question, though, isn’t it? Why can’t we see Jesus?
This set me thinking. Why can’t we see Jesus? What does it even mean to know Jesus? How, in Christian parlance, can we have a relationship with Jesus?
I know what it means to have a relationship with my family and friends, but I can see them, hear them, touch them. How can I have a relationship with Jesus without those senses of sight, sound or touch?
People will give all sorts of answers to that question. Well, you can pray they say. Yes, but half the time I’m doing that I feel like I’m just lost in my own thoughts wondering what on earth I’m doing sitting or kneeling there…
OK, they say, you can read the Bible. I can read the Bible, OK. But more than half of the Bible doesn’t even talk about Jesus: it happened before He was born. Even reading the New Testament might help me know about Jesus, but will it help me actually know Him? Reading a book is not the same as having a relationship with someone.
Of course, both these things – prayer, reading the Bible – are important. But I’d like to suggest something else as well that helps us to know Jesus and to enter into a relationship with Him.
It is something we will do later in this service. After the creed and the prayers and the peace we will come to our time of Holy Communion. Barry will take the bread and wine in his hands and ask God to bless them. He will do that using the words of Jesus recounted in St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we heard this morning: “this is my body” “this is my blood”. We will eat the bread and drink the wine.
This is what we call Holy Communion. We do it every Sunday morning, and sometimes on weekdays too. But today is a particular day in the church’s calendar where we focus on giving thanks to God that we are able to share in this. Today is the day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion, or Corpus Christi…meaning Body of Christ.
Wait a minute, though, why are we thanking God for this? What is there to thank for? Surely the bread that we eat and the wine that we drink are just that: bread and wine.
Certainly the bread looks like bread and tastes like bread. The wine looks like wine and tastes like wine.
But it is the testimony of the Christian Church since its very earliest days that when we receive the bread and wine at Holy Communion something more is going on. In some way Jesus is especially present at that moment. The bread is in some way His body. The wine, His blood.
We are somehow able to take our spiritual nourishment from Christ Himself. We satisfy our deepest hungers with the bread, His Body. We quench our strongest thirst with the wine, His Blood.
Through this, the Gospel reading tells us, we abide in Jesus, and Jesus abides in us. Holy Communion is a time when we can be unified with Christ, when we can be particularly close to Him. We eat the bread and wine together, and we are drawn together as a community. Communion: community. That great image of the Church in the New Testament is that of Christ’s body, with Christ as the head. We are nourished with Christ’s body, and that enables us to become His body the Church, doing His work on earth.
Many volumes have been written about exactly what happens to the bread and wine. Much argument has ensued. How exactly is Jesus present? Is it physically? Is it spiritually? Is it only happening in our minds? It is difficult, and ultimately unsatisfying to me, to try to construct a detailed explanation of what is going on. A far more helpful image for me is found in today’s Collect: the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion are “sacred mysteries”. Something happens to the bread and wine to make them Holy, to make them Holy to the point that we say they are for us the Body and Blood of Christ. But we do not know exactly what is happening. It is beyond our understanding, or somehow hidden from us. We leave that to God. I’m happy with that.
Talk of the Body and Blood of Christ must inevitably lead us to recall the manner of His death. His Body whipped and scourged and nailed to a rough cross and left there until He died. His side pierced by the Centurion’s spear letting His blood pour onto the earth.
When Jesus teaches us to share bread and wine together and to do this in remembrance of Him, I don’t think He meant just think about the good times in His life – the stable, the star and the manger, the gold, frankincense and myrrh, all that water turned into wine – what a party!, wow, those loaves and fishes miraculously feeding a crowd. No…I think He meant all of it, including how it ended. Especially how it ended.
Perhaps that is why we should be thankful. We have access to this wonderful sacrament, we can know Jesus deeply and personally by a simple sharing of bread and wine. But that came at a cost, the cost of Jesus’s own life – His Body broken on the Cross, his Blood flowing from his side. As often as we do this, we proclaim His death.
This is not a time for sadness, though. At least not sadness alone. It is supposed to be a day of Thanksgiving. That is what we mean when we talk of Holy Communion as the Eucharist: it simply means the thanksgiving. Jesus, though He died, was not bound by death. Jesus raised to life broke forever the power of death, and opened up for us the hope that death is not the end.
It is traditional in some churches for everyone during Holy Communion to have some particular intention in mind, some particular cause or person that they want to bring before God in this most Holy time when we are permitted to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
I feel the tragic events in West London at Grenfell Tower have been conspicuous by their absence from my words today. The scale, the enormity, that much tragedy and sadness were just too much for me to process into anything like a coherent sermon. My own thoughts and prayers when receiving Holy Communion today will most certainly be for the souls of those tragically killed, for comfort and healing to those who mourn them, and for those who survived and now despair as to where they go from here.
From our final hymn:
Sweet Sacrament of rest,
ark from the ocean’s roar,
within thy shelter blest
soon may we reach the shore;
save us, for still the tempest raves,
save, lest we sink beneath the waves:
sweet Sacrament of rest.
Sweet Sacrament of rest.