Scripture: John 6:35, 41-51
A few weeks ago I commented in my sermon that in pastoral ministry, there are a fair number of things one can complain about. I want to clarify that I absolutely love pastoral ministry. I can’t imagine getting the same joy out of doing anything else. For me, pastoral ministry is truly a blessing to my soul. And one of the biggest blessings comes from being invited into people’s homes. It really is a privilege to enter into the more private parts of peoples’ lives—their homes.
Most of the time, people walk me into their living room, where the best furniture usually is, and invite me to sit in the overstuffed chair or cushy couch. And while those places tend to be quite comfortable, my favorite place to sit is at the table. Or wherever they may eat.
This week I was at someone’s house and their kitchen has a bar-type counter, and we sat there and talked for nearly 90 minutes I love sitting at the table because it’s much more relaxed. I don’t know exactly what it is about sitting at a table—especially a dinner table—but it’s much more conducive to conversation. Don’t get me wrong; I’ll sit in your family room easy chair, but I’d much rather sit on your hard, wooden, dinner table chair and talk.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where the whole family sat down together at the table for supper. And from time to time, we’ll recall some of the memorable stories of some of those meals. Like the time my mother jumped up on her chair to demand our attention because she felt like she wasn’t able to get a word in edgewise. Or the time my sisters showed up to supper wearing gigantic eye-protection goggles. Or how every night my brother would come down to supper in grumpy mood because he was just waking up from a post-school nap, and it took him 15 minutes to get back to feeling normal.
I don’t recall the details of this particular meal, but one that I distinctly remember from my seminary years was the time our Sunday school class gathered together for an authentic Seder dinner. The husband of one of the class members was Jewish, and on Maundy Thursday we all brought a dish to pass and met at their home to celebrate an authentic Passover meal. I remember three things. One, we had very strict guidelines to follow for making our various dishes, because we couldn’t use any yeast. Second, the symbolic portion of the Seder dinner is not the actual dinner. There’s an actual feast as part of the meal. Which leads me to the third thing I remember. I went home absolutely stuffed!
The meal that we celebrate here every month is the Christian outgrowth of the Passover meal. What we today call Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, or what our Catholic brothers and sisters know as the Eucharist (which comes from the Greek word for “giving thanks”), is based on the Passover meal which Jesus and his disciple shared together the night before he was crucified. All four Gospel writers record this meal. Now, they didn’t record the details of meal itself. Doing so would have been silly, since their audiences all knew what was involved in the Passover meal. But there were a couple of parts of the meal the first century church found so meaningful that they made sure it was remembered by Christians for generations to come.
The first part they recorded is where Jesus gives thanks for the food, and passes around a loaf of bread and tells them, “This is my body, broken for you.” The second part occurs in the middle of the meal, when he passes around a cup of wine and tells them, “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
During the Passover ceremony, participants drink wine at four specific times. Each cup represents a different promise God made to the Israelites as part of their Exodus out of Egypt. The first is called the Cup of Sanctification, representing God’s promise to bring them out from under the burden of the Egyptian oppression.
The second is called the Cup of Blessing, representing God’s promise to free them from slavery.
The third is called the Cup of Redemption, representing God’s promise to redeem them with an outstretched arm and mighty acts of judgment.’
The fourth and last is called the Cup of Acceptance, representing God’s promise to look upon the Israelites his own beloved people.
Tradition says that when Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you,” he was referring to the third cup, the Cup of Redemption. Just as the Israelites were redeemed from their bondage to Egypt, so by his blood shed on the cross, we’re redeemed from our own bondage to the power of sin.
More than likely, when he made these esoteric references to his body and blood, connecting them to the Passover meal, they were probably confused. And it would only be later, after his crucifixion and resurrection that what he said that evening started to make sense. In fact, it was probably only after his resurrection that something else he previously said started to make sense. Earlier in his ministry he got to talking with some fellow Jews about how after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea God fed them with manna, which is believed to be a kind of flaky substance that would be left on the ground every morning after the new burned off.
Because it came from God, it was commonly called “bread from heaven.” This bread from heaven was their sustenance, and literally enabled them to live. In this conversation Jesus makes this bold proclamation: “I assure you, Moses didn’t give them bread from heaven. My Father did. And now he offers you the true bread from heaven. The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:32-33). And then he make is very clear to anyone willing to truly hear: “I am the bread of life…I am the bread of heaven….Anyone who believes in me already has eternal life. Yes, I am the bread of life! Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died. However, the bread from heaven gives eternal life to everyone who eats it. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this bread and will live forever; this bread is my flesh, offered so the world may live” (vv. 35, 41, 47-49).
And if that weren’t graphic enough, he finally puts it this way: “I assure you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. But those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life. For my flesh is the true food, and my blood is the true drink” (vv. 53-55).
Can you imagine how confused they must have been? I’m sure it made no sense to them; none whatsoever! It shouldn’t come as a surprise that after this particular teaching, many of his disciples (not the Twelve) turned away and left him.
Now, jump ahead in time to the days following his resurrection. As they reflected on what he said during the Passover meal, about the broken bread being like his body and the wine like his blood, in light of the crucifixion it made sense. And as they then remembered back to what he’d said earlier about being the bread of heaven who gives life to anyone who eats his “flesh” and drinks his “blood,” they began to make connections where they hadn’t seen them before. As bread is food for the body, so Jesus is food for the soul. As wine is drink for the body, so Jesus is drink for the soul. They realized that he wasn’t talking about eating his literal flesh and drinking his literal blood. It was symbolic. But it was symbolism that pointed at the truth. Not only is Jesus Christ the source of true and everlasting life, he IS our life!
And from there a theology around Communion began to be developed wherein today we believe that when the bread and juice is consecrated and blessed by the Holy Spirit, they become the real presence of Jesus Christ. We don’t believe they became the actual body and blood of Jesus in essence, but we do believe that in some mysterious way, they become more than just bread and juice.
When we take the bread and juice into us, they feed not only our bodies, but our souls.
Which now brings me back to where I started: the table. Contrary to what people often call this big piece of furniture behind me, it’s not an altar. The alter was what they sacrificed animals on in the Old Testament days. This is a Communion Table. The only sacrifice it represents is the sacrifice of Christ. And what I want you to know about this Communion Table is that Jesus has invited every one of us to join him at this table. Just as the Jesus and his disciples dined around the table for that Passover meal, so we are invited to join him here at this table. Every single time we celebrate Communion, Jesus issues the invitation, “Pull up a chair.” This is not a table only for the theologically learned. Or for the self-righteous. Or for adults only. Or for those who come to church all the time. Or most of the time. Or even some of the time.
This is a table for the broken, the hurting, the confused, the sinner, the nobody, the somebody, the CEO and the mailroom clerk, the doctor and the person dying of AIDS. It’s a table for you, and for me. And when we take him up on his invitation to come join him at his table, and we bring everything we have and are to it – all the good and the bad – he offers us his love. And forgiveness. And he puts his arms around us and give each one of us a big hug and says, “I love you the most, because you’re my favorite person in all the world!” And then he says the same thing to the person next to you!
When we eat the morsel of bread dipped in juice, somehow God is able to use that to feed and nourish our souls. John Wesley, the father of Methodism, called Holy Communion a means of God’s grace. Through this symbolic “meal” we receive the lifeblood for our souls. We receive Jesus, who is our life. Friend, pull up a chair. Jesus is here for you, and his table is here for you.