Jesus said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.”
Well, lets get this sermon off to a good start with a couple of jokes about communion:
Did you hear about the business that is marketing new low-fat communion bread? They call it, “I Can’t Believe Its Not Jesus!”
The new rector of a lethargic congregation announced he intended to replace communion wine with prune juice. When a warden asked why the change, the priest replied, “If the Holy Spirit won’t move this parish… the prune juice will!”
A seminarian was giving a children’s sermon and wanted focus on the meaning of the Eucharist. “The Bible,” she said, “talks about Holy Communion as being a ‘joyful feast’. ‘Joyful’ means happy”, she said. “And a ‘feast’ is a meal. So when we celebrate the Eucharist we are having a happy meal. Now, who can tell me what goes into a happy meal?” A little boy’s hand shot up, “A cheeseburger, fries, soft drink, and toy surprise.”
Today’s gospel reading picks up just after last Sunday’s reading where Jesus feed 5,000 people with five leaves of bread and two fish. Jesus and his disciples leave that place and travel by boat to another spot along the Sea of Galilee. In the morning, the people realize Jesus is gone and set off to find him. Today’s reading is the beginning of the conversation Jesus has with them once they locate where he is.
One thing is clear from the outset. While Jesus and the crowd are talking about the same thing – bread – they are talking about it in two completely different ways. The people are interested in bread as food whereas Jesus is focused on bread as spiritual nourishment.
If you recall last week’s reading, Jesus leaves the multitude when he perceives they want to make him king for feeding them. King is a very different role from messiah, isn’t it! At a surface level, the sign of the feeding is just that – a meal – but there is so much more depth to it than just that. Jesus wants to help the multitude explore the depths, but how? How can he do it? He challenges them to think about food that perishes and about food that does not. He points to the bread he gave them to eat and then proclaims that he is the Bread of Life.
This tension between the surface aspects of the faith and the depths is ever present. I encountered it yet again at the closing Eucharist of General Convention in Salt Lake City. Several thousand people attended the service. Ninety loaves of bread and a case and a half of wine were consecrated. When it came time to receive communion over a hundred Eucharistic ministers fanned out around the cavernous space. Each section of people was directed to one station or another.
On this particular day I was sitting at the end of a row of chairs, about three rows from the end of a section. People in the fifteen rows or so ahead of me went forward to receive communion – one row after another – and then returned to their seats. When it was my turn I went forward – along with the other people in my row – and received first the bread and then the wine. I returned to my place, allowed the others to file in, and then took my end seat.
I had a lot on my mind as I sat there. I was thinking about my travel arrangements and hoping I would not encounter any delays with my flight. I was thinking about the work that awaited me back in Suffolk – e-mails pile up and my yard turned into a jungle. At a deeper level, I was thinking about people I had hurt and people who had hurt me. I fretted if I would ever know what peace and reconciliation look like. All told, I was in a dreary mood as I offered up a prayer of ‘gratitude’ for the communion I had just received.
Just then a hand from behind me touched my shoulder and a volunteer in a red smock leaned over to say something in my ear. I only caught the briefest of glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye. She was about seventy and her voice had a beautiful, soothing, melodic quality to it. She said only four words to me: “Did you get communion?” And I responded with two words: “I did.” With that, the encounter was over. It didn’t last but a second or two. I never even turned to see her face.
After no more than another second passed I began to wonder why she asked me that question. The process of receiving communion was not complicated – one row follows another. She didn’t check with the person sitting behind me or behind that person, nor did she approach anyone sitting in front of me. Only me.
Did I get communion? I took the word “get” to mean “receive”, as in did I go forward to a communion station and receive the bread and the wine? I had. But, as I sat there in my fretful state it occurred to me there was a deeper level to “getting” communion. Did I get that Jesus’ very Self had entered my life in a nourishing and life giving way? Did I get that I am deeply loved by the One who created me, died for me, and redeemed me? Did I get the peace that passes all understanding? Did I understand that communion is a sign of all of this and more made real by receiving the bread and the wine? Well, as I sat there in my brooding mood, I realized my unequivocal answer should have been, “No, I did not get (as in understand) communion.”
This whole process unfolded in no more than five seconds. I wondered again who this woman was and why she singled out me. Her voice had been so beautiful and pure. I turned around and looked for her, and even though there were several volunteers wearing red smocks, none appeared to be right for the woman I saw only out of the corner of my eye. Where did she come from? Where did she go? I don’t know, but even as I stand here in this pulpit, I can hear her voice as clear as I heard it in that moment: “Did you get communion?”
A month has passed since that service. I can’t begin to tell you the hours I have spent thinking about, meditating on, and praying over that question.
I have been pondering the nature of faith. Some people have faith in every word the bible says. They believe in a literal six days of creation, ark and flood, parting of the Red Sea, reluctant prophet being swallowed by a whale, and so on. Their mantra is “The bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” That is one kind of faith.
Then there are those who have faith God is watching over them. Wasn’t it Stonewall Jackson who sat on his mount in the face of withering fire because there was nothing he could do to avoid the bullet ordained to strike him and no bullet not ordained by God would come near him? Now that is a different kind of faith from believing every word of the bible. It is a faith that trusts God no matter what.
There is still another kind of faith. It is the faith that believes what God says: before you were born I knew you, you are special, you are forgiven, you are loved. It is the faith that responds the way Zacchaeus did when he scrambled down from the tree and hosted a meal for Jesus. It is the faith exhibited by the woman caught in adultery who, once her accusers slinked away, put her hand in Jesus’, stood up, and walked in newness of life. It is the faith of Paul who was struck blind in his self-righteousness so that he might see the world through the eyes of grace. It is the faith that dispels brooding, dreary fretfulness.
I suspect that this is the deepest, most foundational, and most important level of bread that Jesus wants to give to us. And I can say, based on my own experience and on the things that many, many good and godly people have shared with me, it is the level of faith where most of us struggle most of the time. It is the bread we need, the bread we crave, and the bread that endures. But most of the time it is a hunger so deep – and often so painful – that it becomes easier to work only for the bread that perishes – the toys and tastes and other temptations that provide a temporary way to ease the aching. At least perishable bread soothes the craving for the time being. But the hunger still remains until we “get” that Jesus is the Bread of Life.
At what level do you “get” communion? Does it have more depth for you beyond coming to the rail and receiving bread and wine? Beyond being a process, beyond being an obligation, even beyond being an act of devotion, do you “get” communion?