Holy Communion & The Bread of Life, sermon by Rev Rory Redmaine
I am going to begin today with some general comments on the purpose and style of St John’s gospel.
I will then speak briefly about the claim of Jesus to be The Bread of Life.
And lastly I will spend some time reflecting on that claim in the context of Holy Communion
First then, St John’s gospel is NOT a biography of Jesus.
It is rather the ultimate work of evangelism whose purpose is that we “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing (we) may have
life in his name.”. (Jn 20:31) - you’ve heard me say that much before.
Rather than recite a whole raft of miracles, John carefully selects six of the miracles of Jesus and names them as signs; signs that reveal the nature of Jesus as the Son of God.
On other occasions Jesus uses a different literary device –one which would have set bells jangling uncomfortably in the ears of his Jewish hearers.
They would vividly remember the story of Moses meeting God at the burning bush, where God identified Himself as “Yahweh” - that is in Hebrew “I am”.
When, in the third century before Jesus, the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek, this passage accurately translated the Hebrew ‘Yahweh’ as èγώ èίμί - I am.
On seven occasions Jesus would use this metaphor to describe himself - “I am ... the light of the world”, “I am ... the good shepherd”, and so on.
Imagine the impact such a self-description would have had on his Jewish hears!
Who is this upstart who uses the divine self-revelation, èγώ èίμί to describe himself?
No wonder they crucified him!
Now, on three occasions Jesus combined one of the six signs with one of the seven èãþ èὶìὶclaims. The first time he combined a sign with an èγώ èίμὶ claim was in John chapter 6 which we are hearing read in the current series of 5 Sundays.
The sign in this instance was the feeding of the 5000, recounted at the beginning of the chapter; and the associated èγώ èίμί -claim was “I am the Bread of life”, which we heard as the first words of today’s gospel.
Let’s turn now to this claim of Jesus to be The Bread of Life.
To get the full impertinence of what Jesus was saying it might be helpful to try to hear it in the ears of faithful Jews of his day.
With your Jewish hearing aids turned up listen again to these last five verses of today’s gospel:
“Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bead that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 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.”, (Jn 6:47ff).
This would indeed have been preposterous in the ears of a first century Jew. Dissing the manna in the wilderness like that! Claiming that Jesus is the very life of the world!
Had C S Lewis been a first century Jew he might have offered the same commentary on the claims of Jesus as he did indeed offer 2 millennia later:
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse…. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.”
What I am trying to suggest here is that familiarity has bred contempt for many a modern Christian.
“Jesus is the bread of life”. Yeh, yeh. How nice.
It’s not nice.
It’s earth shattering.
The Son of God, God incarnate, has given his flesh for the life of the world - for you and me.
Are you going to call him a lunatic on a level with the one who calls himself a poached egg, or are you going to fall at his feet and call him Lord and God?
I come now to reflect on what we are doing when we receive Holy Communion.
At the end of the gospel reading we heard Jesus say, “the Bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”, (Jn 6:21).
Now John’s gospel has no account of the institution of Communion at the last supper.
It is generally thought that the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus’ dissertation on Himself as the Bread of Life, is John’s equivalent of the institution of Communion at the Last Supper and reported in Mathew, Mark and Luke’s gospels.
And it’s easy to see how John’s portrayal of Jesus as saying, “the Bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”, gives us what I would call a very ‘catholic’ - small ‘c’ - view of Communion.
In this catholic view Communion is not just a jolly community get-together; it’s not even something we do to remember Jesus’ death and resurrection.
It is, rather, the receiving of the Flesh and Blood of Jesus as a means to eternal life.
(I should note here that if this seems like magic to you, then rest assured, I will in the near future find an opportunity to speak about the Roman Catholic understanding of Trans-substantiation - the turning of the communion bread into the flesh of Jesus; and the equivalent Anglican understanding of Con-substantiation - the adding of the flesh of Jesus to the bread of Communion.)
But for the moment what I am trying to convey to you is that our weekly act of receiving Communion is not a trivial thing to be done routinely and without thought or preparation.
It is rather a very holy activity in which we receive grace for daily living - daily living as the first steps on that way which is eternal life, in the present and for the eternal future.
So, let me encourage you to approach your weekly Communion with prayerful preparation and come with a carefully considered intention - maybe a heartfelt thankfulness for some special blessing of recent days, or perhaps with a prayer for a particular need for yourself or someone else.
Come, believing that this grace you are receiving is contained in nothing less than the Flesh and Blood of Jesus.
“Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,
Praise him all creatures here below,
Praise him above, ye heav’nly host,
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”