Here’s my sermon for this week.
It was so much easier in the old days, when I was a child, when the bread man still came to the back door with his basket. The bread came straight from his bakery, freshly baked, and he delivered it door to door in his van. Because, like milk, it was delivered so nobody bothered buying it at the shop. Deciding what kind of bread to buy was easy. He sold white steamed or Hovis brown. That was it. Not even a choice between sliced or unsliced. If you wanted a sliced loaf you used a bread knife!
Some time ago – as some of you know because you have bought my bread Church sales – we got a bread maker. It can make 105 different loaves of bread. And as for deciding what to buy at the supermarket – I checked Tesco online yesterday and they were advertising 164 different kinds of loaves of bread. That’s ordinary bread. Not rolls, not garlic bread – just bread. Sometimes you feel that you can just have too much bread. And as a preacher I have to say that it feels as though there has been far too much bread in our gospel readings recently. It began three Sundays ago with Saint John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, continuing the following Sunday with Jesus talking about being the bread of life. You may recall that I opted to preach on St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians instead. Then – if we hadn’t taken time out and kept the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady last week – it would have been Jesus talking about being the bread of life again. More bread this week, as Jesus talks about being the living bread come down from heaven. And then, just in case you haven’t had enough bread it is back on the menu again next week – yet more about Jesus being the bread come down from heaven.
So here we are – week four of five weeks of bread – and what are we to make of Jesus’ shocking – and still shocking to many – words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. For when Jesus said that he was the living bread – when he told his followers that to be united to him they must eat his flesh and drink his blood – they were shocked by the cannibalistic overtones of his words. Who wouldn’t be?
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.
It’s bad enough for many that he is saying that eating the living bread will allow people to live for ever – but what is this bread. His flesh? What on earth is he talking about. This is ridiculous – how can he give them his flesh to eat? And as if that’s not bad enough he then goes on to cause real scandal by insisting that his followers must not only eat his flesh but also drink his blood. That could not be ignored. What could Jesus mean by such abhorrent words?
Later in this chapter we’re told by the writer of the gospel that Jesus caused such offence that many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him (v. 66). An interesting thought – Jesus doesn’t compromise his teaching in order to keep followers. He tells it as it is and if you cannot accept it he is prepared to lose you. And so he uses language that he knows will cause offence and result in some who have been following him turning away. Even today the words of consecration in the communion service can cause offence to new Christians because of their cannibalistic overtones, and there are some who refuse to receive communion because they are so revolted by the thought of eating flesh and drinking blood.
So what did Jesus mean by his insistent words? Jesus had just fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish, and over the next day or two used this act to teach the people about his relationship with God, and their relationship with Jesus. Jesus was dealing with hungry people. Earlier in the chapter, he reportedly remarked that people were following him not because they were looking for signs that he was divine, but because they ate their fill of the loaves. For hungry people, the most important issue in life is food. Jesus took the opportunity to draw a parallel between his feeding of the five thousand and God’s gift of manna to the wandering Israelites in the wilderness around a millennium earlier, but Jesus goes even further. He explains that he does not merely give once, but that, he will always be there for them through the simple act of them taking him into their own bodies, and that once within them, he will constantly nourish them.
The Gospel of John was the last to be written, some sixty years or so after the Christian Church started, so John’s Gospel is a reflection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and on the sacraments of the Church. Matthew, Mark and Luke all have Jesus instituting Holy Communion at the Last Supper. There, Jesus takes bread and wine and says, “This is my body; this is my blood. Do this to remember me.” The writer of John’s Gospel does not include this in his version of the Last Supper, but instead uses the occasion of the feeding of the five thousand to reflect that people can experience Jesus through absorbing his body and his blood.
Over the centuries, there have been many different ways of viewing the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Some have believed that once the bread and wine physically become the body and blood of Jesus, though still looking like bread and wine – transubstantiation. Others have believed that bread and wine is purely symbolic, that in some way at communion the last supper is re-enacted, but that nothing at all happens to the bread and wine. And there have been many interpretations between those two extremes. The view of the Church of England has always been that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus – but that we can have no way of knowing exactly how, only that when the bread and wine are consecrated something happens and that Jesus is now present in the bread and wine. This is known as consubstatiation or real presence, and it is why the Book of Common Prayer and the Canons of the Church require us to treat the consecrated bread and wine with all reverence. This has always been the case in our Church. When Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne after the Catholic Queen Mary, and the English Prayer Book was reintroduced, reformers wanted to remove all reference in the communion service to the bread and wine being the body and blood of Jesus. The Queen would not allow it and she is reported to have said when questioned about the presence of Christ in the sacrament:
‘Twas God the word that spake it,
he took the bread and brake it,
and what the word did make it,
that I believe, and take it.
And so the words at the administration of communion in the Book of Common Prayer – ‘the body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee … the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for thee …’ had to stay because the Queen wouldn’t allow them to be removed. And we still tell you, today, when giving you communion, that what you are receiving is the body of Christ and the blood of Christ – made so at the consecration. Not something that represents it or something that reminds you of it – but that this is what it is – the body of Christ and the blood of Christ. And because this is so, this is why anything remaining on the altar must be consumed before we finish the service, rather than being thrown away or put back in a cupboard to be used next week.
Whatever our belief is as to what actually happens with the elements of bread and wine, we can all know that whenever we receive consecrated bread and wine we receive Jesus himself to dwell within us. Nothing is more important to our bodies than food, and nothing is more important to our souls than the nourishment provided by Jesus. And this is why our main service on a Sunday is a communion service, so that we may receive Jesus week by week for the strengthening of our souls as we live out this life in expectation of the next.
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.