“Whoever eats me will live because of me” No wonder some of the crowd around Jesus were revolted by the imagery he used. Immediately after this passage many of his followers leave him – it all just seems too strange for them. To many it still seems strange. Whenever I talk to children about the Eucharist, there are some who just say “yuck – if the bread and wine are meant to be the body and blood of Jesus, isn’t that cannibalism?”
The meaning of Communion – what is happening when we share bread and wine – has been a contentious issue in the church for many centuries, coming to a head at the Reformation. It was one of the issues which split the church. However we understand it though, it certainly isn’t meant to be cannibalism – Jesus wasn’t anticipating his audience in this passage to start chewing on his leg as he stood there before him, to put it crudely… He was talking about sharing his whole life, his mission, his outlook, his ministry. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” What he is surely intending his hearers to understand is that you can’t get closer to something than to eat it. We are what we eat, as the saying goes. It is the way in which we take into ourselves something which will become part of our own flesh, our own life. We speak of “taking in” a new idea or some news – good or bad. We know that for something to make a difference to us, it has to become part of us from the inside out. That’s why Jesus uses this image of “eating and drinking” him. “Following me is not about what goes on in your head,” he is saying. It’s about what goes on in your body as well as soul, your guts as well as your brain. It isn’t something that can be done academically, theoretically, with cool intellectual detachment, and the imagery of eating and drinking underlines that.
That is one of the reasons why Holy Communion can feel so powerful. It reminds us of God’s desire to be involved in the whole of our lives, at the deepest level, the level that is beyond words, beyond understanding. That’s why, for many people, receiving bread and wine can feel like such an intimate thing, so basic, and so personal too. Sometimes we might let others do our thinking for us, but no one can do our eating for us. It doesn’t surprise me that people often have strong opinions about whether and how they receive communion, and can feel quite vulnerable as they take it. Those who administer it are very aware of the fact that something very profound is often happening for people here at the communion rail.
Different branches of the church have different traditions about how the bread and wine are shared, or perhaps share it in different ways at different services. They might come up and kneel or stand at a communion rail. They might receive it sitting in the pew. They might pass bread and wine to each other. Each has its merits and is right in some situations for some people. Some ways make us more aware of being part of a community as we receive; some put more emphasis on our own personal encounter with God. Some ways will remind us that this is a gift of grace, something we simply receive. At other moments, though, the act of coming forward, reaching out, will help us to see the ways in which we need to actively open our hands to God.
The variety of ways of taking communion remind us that “taking in” Christ is something that happens in many different ways too. We take him in as individuals, through our private encounters with God in prayer, Bible study and reflection on our own lives. We take him in in our encounters with one another and with those around us, meeting him in friends and strangers, reminded that they too are God’s gift to us and we to them.
So tonight, what will this act of receiving communion mean to you? In a way, what happens to the bread and wine of communion doesn’t really matter. It will always be a mystery anyway. What does matter is what is happening to us as we receive it. So today, as we prepare to open our hands for the bread of the Eucharist, let us ask ourselves how we are feeding on the life of God in the rest of our lives, so that our hungers can be satisfied and we can grow strong in his service and the service of others. Amen