Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’
Then the people began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 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 bread 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.’
The people then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
In the URC, as in many other Reformed churches, we have a variety of patterns of Holy Communion. Some of our churches celebrate each week, some each month, some each quarter. However often we celebrate we recognise the centrality of this Sacrament where the Holy Spirit gathers us up into God’s presence, the sacrifice of Calvary is shown forth, and we are nourished by the Lord’s own self. Through the simple things of bread and wine we are fed from God’s own table where all are welcome.
This particular act of worship unites us with Christians through time and space. In previous ages much ink, and blood, was spilt in trying to understand the nature of the meal we share. Like Jesus’ first hearers, Christians would fight about the meaning of his words – does he really feed us His body and blood? In our own generation these disputes lessened as we come to realise that mysteries must be experienced not explained.
We are seated at God’s table with the apostles, prophets and martyrs of old, with believers through every stage of the Church’s development and with fellow Christians now – whether they worship in grand Cathedrals or in secret cell groups afraid of the authorities. Here, at this table, Luther and Calvin make peace, Augustine and Aquinas chew the cud, Paul and Theresa of Liseaux discuss women’s ordination, Fanny Crosbie and Hildegard of Bingen find a song to sing, and Orthodox Patriarchs learn from Reformed women pastors. Here we remind ourselves of our unity – not just with those we love and like, but with those we dislike intensely and have profound disagreements with.
In an ever more fractured world, this simple meal, dating back to the Last Supper (somewhere else where a divided group were fed by the Lord’s own hand) is a sign to the world of the power of love to find a way through division and conflict.
Lord Jesus, we thank You that, through bread and wine, we are drawn into Your presence, fed by Your own hand and sent for service. Help us to welcome more to Your table, to set aside our petty divisions and model, in this meal, the type of world You dream of. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston works with four churches in and around Glasgow.