Abide in me
Throughout August we have been have been working our way through chapter 6 of John’s gospel and today we get to the end with Jesus declaring that ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.’
And given that we’ve talked quite a lot over the last few weeks about bread, and given Jesus’ words about eating his body and blood, and given what we’re about to do at this altar, I want to talk today about the communion - what’s going on when we gather round and open our hands to receive bread and wine, having remembered and retold the story of the last supper.
And I’m going to do that by looking at four names given to, what we call the communion; they are The Last Supper, the Holy Communion, the Eucharist and The Mass. Each of these names is used by different traditions within the churches and each can help us understand a different depth of the never-ending depths of what is happening when we eat and drink bread and wine; the body and blood of Jesus.
The first name given to this meal is the most straightforward; the Last Supper. This reminds us that we are joining in the remembering, the retelling, in fact the re-enactment, of an event - the last supper that Jesus shared with his friends. And in fact, because the original Last Supper took place on the Passover festival, in doing so, we are also joining the remembering of the remembering of an event - the Passover, when Moses led the people of God through the Red Sea.
And so at the Last Supper - at this table - we are entering that story; and it’s a story of transformation. The transformation from slavery to freedom, the story of chaos being renewed, the story of death and resurrection As Jesus breaks bread and pours out wine, just before he dies, he is retelling the ancient Jewish story of transformation and inviting us to live the story as well. Come, says Jesus, be part of this - be people of transformation, be people committed to transforming the world, be Passover People.
And calling it the Last Supper also reminds us that we are talking about something very basic - a meal time, a supper, real food. It reminds us that Jesus didn’t come to whisk us away from this messy world to a perfect heaven somewhere else - he came to restore this world, this earth which is made up of real stuff - bread, tables, wine, people, bodies. Elsewhere Jesus taught us to pray ‘Give us today our daily bread’ - and this is it. Real bread to feed real, empty stomachs. Christianity is a very realistic faith that lives in the real world of real stuff - with all its beauty and all its troubles. And when we open our hands to receive the bread and wine, God affirms again that this real world is the one that he created, that he loves and that he is committed to transforming.
The Last Supper says, join this story of transformation; let God transform you, so that you can go and transform the world.
The second name that’s used is the Eucharist. If you’ve been to Greece recently you’ll know where that word comes from - it’s from the Greek ‘ephristo’ which means ‘thank-you’. This is a Thanksgiving. And this title comes from the gospel accounts of the last supper which all say ‘when Jesus had given thanks….’
And calling it ‘Eucharist’, ‘thanksgiving’, reminds us that this is a gift. It reminds us that this meal isn’t ours, it is God’s - this is the Lord’s table and we are invited as guests to gather round and to receive what Jesus longs to share with us; his presence, his mercy, his transformation. One person has written that at the Eucharist we hear again that ‘Jesus wants our company’ - he wants us; you, me. He wants us to have supper with him. He wants to give us the gift of his presence.
And so there is nothing we have to achieve or do to earn an invite here - all we have to do is to respond. Rowan Williams says, ‘we take communion not because we are doing well, but because we are doing badly. Not because we have arrived but because we are travelling. Not because we are right, but because we are confused and wrong. Not because we are divine, but because we’re human. Not because we are full, but because we’re hungry.’ All we can do is to turn up with empty hands and a longing heart, and say ‘yes please Lord’ and then ‘thank you’.
Last Supper, Eucharist and then Holy Communion. Communion reminds us that this is a matter of ‘community’. We receive together. If Jesus wants my company, then he also wants yours. In the gospels it is very striking how Jesus went about building community by sharing meals, and often with unlikely (and unliked) people; in Luke’s gospel he meets a tax collector called Zaccheus, who has climbed a tree to get a view of Jesus, because he’s too short to see over the heads of the crowd. And Jesus calls up to Zaccheus - ‘come down quick, I’m staying at your house today’ and he does, and Zaccheus’ life is changed, and the people watching can’t believe it because Zaccheus and his mates are hated tax collectors and sinners - but Jesus wants to eat with them and to build community with them.
And so, as we kneel to receive, we do so alongside others that Jesus has called. There is a radical equality in this invitation; rich and poor, faithful and faithless, young and old - we are all given an equal invitation. And that’s one of the things that sets church apart from other organisations or groups. We aren’t here because we all like each other, or all agree on a political view, or all share a particular interest; we are all here because we are all invited to be part of Jesus’ community. And that means that church should be free from cliques of any sort; from in groups and out groups - and we always need to work at that, making sure that everyone feels welcome, everyone is at home.
But there’s more to this community thing. If the Holy Communion reminds us, here today, that we are a community gathered around Jesus, it also reminds us that we are part of a much bigger community; the shared community of heaven and earth.
At the very heart of the communion prayer we say or sing ‘Holy, holy, holy. God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.’ These are words taken from Isaiah 6 when the prophet is given a glimpse of heaven, where he sees the Lord sitting on a throne, surrounded by angels who sing those words; ‘holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.’ That’s what’s being sung in heaven, and when we say those words we join in. Heaven and earth become one. This meal is a foretaste of what is to come - but brought into the present. Holy Communion then calls us to be a community of radical equality and a community in which the future hope of heaven is brought right here into the present.
And one more name. It’s the name that the Catholic church uses - The Mass. The word comes from the last words of the traditional Latin service - Ite Missa est, which means ‘Go, it has been sent’ or perhaps in easier English ‘Go, you are sent’. I love that. It reminds us that, personal as receiving communion can be; wonderful as it is to be part of this community, and powerful as it is to be connected to heaven, everything we do here is about being sent - everything we do here is to equip us to live well out there. Go, you are sent. This communion is food for the journey, it is inspiration to shine as a light, it is power to stand up for justice and mercy, it is the boldness to share Jesus Christ with a neighbour. Go, you are sent.
Jesus said ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.’
In a few minutes, we will do just that - we will eat his flesh and drink his blood. And we trust therefore that we will abide in him:
That we will abide in his story of transformation
That we will abide in the gift of his presence
That we will abide in his community, earthly and heavenly
That we will abide in his power as we are sent to do his work.
Read Luke 22:7-23. What strikes you? What surprises you?
Which of the 4 names for communion is most helpful to your faith at the moment? Has that changed over time?
Read John 6:56-69. What does the word ‘abide’ mean in this passage? What does it mean that Jesus ‘abides’ in the Father and the Father in Him? What does it mean that Jesus ‘abides’ in those who eat his flesh and drink his blood?
What do you need to do differently as a result of what you have read/heard in the sermon?
What does receiving communion mean to you?