When We Can’t Take and Eat and Drink
Jesus says to his gathered disciples as he offers them bread:
“Take, eat, this is my body.”
And as he hands them the cup of wine he says:
“Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
This is a very familiar reading, but a particularly poignant one for us just at the moment. For it describes what we cannot do now. These verses describe the moments in Jesus last supper with his disciples that establishes something that followers of Jesus have done ever since. They set up for us the practice of taking bread and a cup and calling to mind what Jesus does for us. But the scene also reminds us of what makes the communion service so powerfully symbolic. Its reminder of what Jesus does for us is built into a reminder of all the family and friendly gatherings we have ever taken part in. Jesus takes our gatherings and our shared meals and uses them to remind us of himself. It calls to mind the communities we are part of, as families and church. Communities that are built on closeness, in every sense of that word. And this is something which can’t happen for us now.
The reading pictures a scene for us of Jesus and his closest companions gathered together. They sit down at a table with one another. And they share a meal. As it happens it was the last meal they were going to share with one another like this. And perhaps at least some of them were already realising this. And during this meal Jesus shows them in an acted parable the way in which he gives himself to and for them and the way in which they will be bound together as a community. This is such a powerful moment that the church has done it ever since. There is an unbroken chain between that evening and us. A repeated sequence of gathering, taking bread and cup and remembering, which joins them with us and every Christian who has ever lived. A chain, a sequence, which has for now been temporarily interrupted.
But more than that, those ordinary family and communal occasions, the meals and the times together, which the communion service builds on, have also been taken from us for the time being. No wonder these present days are so uncomfortable for us.
Time was when we used to tell ourselves something about our practice of communion. We said: “we honour the rite by its infrequency.” We said we made it special by not doing it as often as some traditions within the church do. That actually was always untrue. It was a fib we told ourselves, to justify the fact that we couldn’t hold communion services more often. But it turns out that Methodists do value communion. Some years ago church-goers of all denominations were surveyed about what they valued in their tradition’s practices. It came as a surprise to some, but Methodists valued what we call the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper more highly even than Roman Catholics value what they call the Mass. We certainly wouldn’t think of ourselves as “sacramental” people. But perhaps communion does what cannot be put into words. It reminds us of what we treasure most, closeness to Jesus and closeness with one another.
We joke that if Methodists ever do anything together it has to involve a cup of tea and a piece of cake afterwards. In reality this is merely an extension of what we are valuing in our communion service. We may not think of ourselves as sacramental people, but our real sacrament is food and sociability. And this is what we are prevented from experiencing now Perhaps not holding communion so often did in a rather backhanded way make us value it more. We created a situation of repeated absence, making our hearts grow fonder. So perhaps when we are able to gather a share again it will be all the more precious and meaningful.
Perhaps also, this time of deprivation will bring into clearer focus what sharing bread and cup means, what it is they symbolise. Not gathering, not sharing, perhaps points us to something that is easy to overlook. Christianity is the most “materialist” of all religions. Of all religions it is most concerned with life as it actually lived in human bodies in a world made of matter. The gospel is not a philosophical truth that can be known apart from its embodiment. Christianity has to be seen, and even touched, to be believed. What we are being forcefully reminded of just now is the sheer physicality of what being a Christian is. Knowing how to be a Christian comes from us being physically present to one another, in shared practices like eating and drinking together. The very things which Jesus’ actions at the the last supper point us to. And which the communion service seeks to remind us of, in a quite physical and material way.
Bread and Cup express for us, in symbolic fashion, our broader sacramental experience, of food and sociability. Jesus took a loaf of bread and after blessing it he broke it and gave it to the disciples. Bread we recognise is a stand-in for all food. We call it the “staff of life.” It represents everything that sustains us. And sharing food together is one of the foundations of community. The word “companion” means literally, someone who we share bread with. The people we eat with are our companions. The sum of our companions is our community. But Jesus in his action points us to a very specific community, one which he is forming around himself. He says:
“Take, eat, this is my body.”
Sometimes we have struggled to grasp what Jesus is saying here. Which perhaps why performing his action works so much better than talking about it. He tells his followers that it will he who feeds and sustains them, in the way that bread does. We do sometimes use the metaphor of eating about our faith. We talk about what “feeds” our faith. That may be all kinds of things. But Jesus intends that by sharing bread, both symbolically at communion, and practically in actual meals together, we should remember that the source and sustenance of our life is him. And the context in which his words are spoken given them particular significance. Jesus says these things on the very last night before he is crucified. We cannot fail to understand that when he gives the bread, he is pointing those who receive it to him giving himself utterly on the cross. He is telling us that he dies to give us life.
After sharing bread with his disciples Jesus also took the cup, and said:
“Drink from it all of you, for this is the blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
A little later in the evening, in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays alone. There he pleads with his Father:
“If it is possible let this cup pass from me.”
And a little earlier in his ministry he had challenged James and John:
“Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”
The “cup” is a well established metaphor for suffering. Jesus’ invitation to his disciple is always this stark. Put another way he says:
“Take up your cross and follow me.”
Jesus says: Come with me and die! He offers his followers a cup of suffering and invites them to drink from it. To be a follower of Jesus is to put our bodies in harm’s way. Christianity is concerned with life as it actually lived in human bodies in a world made of matter. Jesus suffered because he lived the life God intends for all human beings. But the world extracts a price on people who live like that. And the price extracted from Jesus and many others who have followed him has been death. And for every Christian, whose faith is genuine, it comes at some cost.
But it is a shared cup. It is perhaps to be regretted that for historical reasons Methodists no longer share in a single cup at communion. Since once more this is a symbol of community. The life which Jesus invites us into is not one we can live on our own. The cost of discipleship is a shared burden. We live in a community where an injury to one is an injury to all. Which returns us to our problem. Because we can’t gather at the moment this has become difficult for us to symbolise and to see.
The challenge of the present moment is that Christianity is a shared endeavour. Discipleship is collective and communal. The current circumstances have taken from us many of the ways we both symbolise this, and put this into practice. What we do still have are Jesus’ words spoken to his disciples at the most difficult and most decisive moment of his life. Words which draw us into a recognition of what he does for us, and what he creates amongst us. We are a people who are sustained by him, and who share his suffering with him and with one another. So that when we can gather once more, as we surely shall, we will be able to experience the symbols of life and community that he has given us, with greater joy and greater clarity.