Through the lens of the last supper, the Church has interpreted Jesus’ long dialogue in John 6 as proof of his presence in the Holy Meal, the Holy Communion. This in turn has led many clergy including me down the path of trying to explain it. But I’m not going to do that- how do you explain a mystery? Rather using our Gospel reading as a guide, I want to explore with you the current debate going on in the church about whether The Eucharist is the Church’s meal or Jesus’ meal.
Largely in Christian history it has been the Church’s meal; that is to say that it has insisted that there are certain requirements for participation; some kind of initiation ie. baptism, and instruction; the idea is that participation in the Lord’s Supper is serious business to be taken seriously and approached reverently. St. Paul famously wrote, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.
When I decided to join the Episcopal Church I learned that I couldn’t receive communion until I was confirmed by a Bishop, even though I had been receiving communion in the Catholic Church for years. This was confusing. Perhaps some of you have similar stories. To this very day denominations have their own criteria for who is able to participate in Communion. EC its Trinitarian baptism.
The trend in Churches across the board today however is to offer what is called open communion. This is Jesus’ meal. It is felt that in an era when many people who walk through the door of the church have not grown up in the church and most likely have not been baptized do not need to be excluded from this important part of the liturgy. People will not feel welcomed if they are denied participation in this important part of the service.
And I have to say the scripture gives much credence to this view; Jesus did not make the five thousand sit down on the grass and give them a lecture so that they understood the connection between eating the meal and what he meant when he said I am the bread of life. It almost seems that if Jesus hadn’t fed the large crowd, he wouldn’t have much to say; his concern clearly is less with getting his hearers to understand as getting them to eat.
But there is another side to what Jesus is saying. Listen to the words again. “Very truly I tell you he says, 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.”(6:53-54).The words flesh and blood of course point to the cross, where Jesus’ flesh will be broken and his blood will be spilled. Jesus therefore associates the separation of his flesh and blood in his violent death on the cross as the moment when he will give his whole self for the life of the world.
As we partake in the holy meal, we participate in the promise Jesus fulfilled on the cross. Jesus promises to nourish the world with the gift of himself in the bread and wine. He promises to nourish our faith, forgive sin and empowers us to be witnesses of Christ in that world out there.
Welcoming and participating is fine, Jesus’ meal, I get it but do we not also have the necessity-obligation to share with the uninitiated, the promises Jesus makes. What this means for them. It doesn’t have to be in a boring class explaining the meaning of Communion but it needs to be communicated in and through our preaching and our witness of the faith to those walking through the doors for the first time. How sad if all people come away with is a little ceremony toward the end of the liturgy! Stretch legs and get something to eat and drink.
If in bygone days we leaned too far in the direction of understanding before being invited to eat, perhaps today we lean too far with eating without proclaiming Jesus’ promise and inviting people into relationship with Him. There is certainly more going on at the altar than eating and drinking the bread and wine. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” this is certainly good news, the best news possible and when people come to communion they need to know that. Amen.