Jesus Christ, bread of heaven, as we are consumed by your loving redemption, feed us now and evermore. Amen.
Do you ever do your grocery shopping online? Many people do these days, although I must say I had a bad experience when we were first living at St Paul's Cathedral and online shopping was the new thing. I clicked on what I though was a box of mushrooms, and when the delivery arrived, there was a single mushroom wrapped in a cling film bag. My neighbour, Huw, the organist, had the opposite experience - his wife ordered some bananas, and instead of receiving a dozen bananas, they received a dozen bunches of bananas. Suffice it to say he was very generous around the place and after a couple of days we were all banana-ed out! It can all be a bit overwhelming!
Try, for example, typing in the word ‘bread’ into a supermarket website search engine. When I did I was offered a choice of 100 kinds of bread. White, brown, wholemeal, gluten free, sliced, unsliced, half-baked - the choice is extensive. Such is the choice and the plethora of possibilities. In Jesus' day there was much less variety: there were two basic kinds of bread, barley bread and whiter wheat-based bread. Barley bread was the bread of the people, it was coarse, often very hard, but cheaper and more readily available than softer white bread. You might remember from the story of the feeding of the 5000, which we heard in recent weeks, that Andrew tells Jesus that there is a boy with ‘five barley loaves’ (John 6:9). Barley bread was the kind of bread that the people who followed Jesus ate. The bread echoed their lives, hard and common. Wheat bread was for the rich. So when Jesus says ‘I am the bread of life’, we should think of coarse barley bread, not of nice sliced white from a supermarket online delivery van.
Now then, notwithstanding the fact that the nights are drawing in, and it'll soon be Christmas… in St Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, we are told three times that Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem (Luke 2:7, 12, 16). 30 of us will be in Bethlehem in a couple of weeks’ time. The manger helps us notice that Christ, the Son of God, is sent as food for the world, making his first appearance in human form, in a food trough in a town. Christ is born and cradled on a bovine dinner plate. And ‘Bethlehem’, literally means ‘house of bread’. This is often overlooked.
But when we encounter Jesus describing himself as ‘the bread of life’ in John's gospel, we should remember this. Here is the idea that Christ comes as spiritual nourishment for a world that has been starved of salvation. Christ is born into a dark world of sin, and offers himself not only as a sacrifice for sin, but as metaphorical food. Once we realise this, we can see that the metaphor continues throughout the gospel, from birth in a manger through various miracles and sayings, right up to the final, Eucharistic Passover meal at which Jesus declares ‘this is my body, given for you’. Then, as the story continues into the light of resurrection, we meet travellers on the road to Emmaus, to whom Jesus is revealed to his travelling companions ‘in the breaking of bread’ (Luke 24:35) and finally we see Peter, reconciled at a breakfast with Christ on a beach. These are all stories which those of us going to Israel will walk and talk through when we go in 2 weeks' time.
Generally, Christians see the passion of Christ and the eucharist as both pointing towards and recalling for us the suffering of Christ, through which he redeemed and saved the world. Theologians speak of ‘penal substitution’, and ‘atonement’, such that Christ is seen as ‘taking our place’, ‘bearing our sins’, and ‘paying the price’. Some people find this doctrine unhelpful, because it hints at a vengeful God, who has to punish somebody, and so punishes his own son instead of us. God is not satisfied, it might seem, without blood, pain and sacrifice. We find this doctrine - called ‘atonement’ expressed in old hymns like ‘There is a green hill far away’, where we sing ‘there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin’, or in modern classics like ‘In Christ Alone’, where we sing, ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’. It’s a doctrine articulated best by St Anselm a thousand years ago, and it still lies at the heart of the English speaking psyche, because of hymnody.
But this is but one dimension of the vast victory that Christ won on the Cross, for us and our salvation. And it is not something that he simply did and for which we just say ‘yes’ and ‘thank you’. We are involved in his offering of himself, we need to take it into ourselves, own it, ingest it almost. And that is where the idea of Christ as ‘food’ can be helpful. That is why we find it embedded into New Testament Scripture, sometimes so deep that we hardly notice it. The eucharist is not just a remembering, nor re-enactment as some believe, but it is a consuming. We consume bread and wine in a symbolic meal, and in doing so, we are consumed into the faith of Jesus, who not only died for us, but lives for us as the bread of life, now and into eternity. There is a sense when we eat the bread of life, the body of Christ, that it is in fact the bread that eats us. By consuming the body of Christ we become the body of Christ, the community of the faithful.
I’m reminded of a famous prayer of St Theresa of Ávila, who was born 500 years ago this year. She wrote:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Christ is the bread of life, but we are the body of Christ - his presence in the world, the waiters at the world's table, bringing the food of God from the manger to the Road to Emmaus.
And this is something we do together. We make our personal communion with God, we receive bread and wine, and we no doubt have all kinds of ideas about what is going on when we do so. But communion is not an individual thing. Priests are not allowed to celebrate communion for themselves. Enshrined in Canon Law and the traditions of all churches is the idea that God’s people must gather around the Lord’s table to share in the body and blood of Christ, as he told us. So if you don't turn up - I go home.
In communion we receive Christ, but we do so together - it is the original, authentic form of companionship. In companionship we eat bread together - that’s what the word means, and whatever we are thinking, or even believing when we do, the fact is we are doing it together, and we are doing it ‘in remembrance of me’, as Christ himself put it, when he took bread - the bread of life - himself - and broke it for us. The bread of life and the broken body on the cross are one and the same, and this is a theme woven into the New Testament from Bethlehem to Golgotha.
So all of our companionship - found in families, in marriage, in friendship, is located in and emergent from the companionship with have with and in Christ when we break his bread - the bread of God - together. The Eucharist nourishes us - when all around is change and decay, it changes not. It is always the same: the first communion and the Requiem are the same, within and across traditions. For they all locate themselves in that first Christian Passover meal, and on each and every occasion point us back to that, and forwards to the heavenly banquet when we shall sit and dine with the Lord himself at the holy table in heaven - the eternal wedding banquet, where fifty years is but the twinkling of an eye, and a hundred varieties of bread is a nonsense. For there is only one bread - one body - one God and Father of us all, and one Jesus Christ our Lord, in whom we - all of us - are one.
To him be all honour and glory now and forever, Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 02/08/15