A Sermon from Sherborne
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist, preached at Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 19 August 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
From this morning’s Gospel, the words of Jesus: ‘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.’[John 6:51]
The Lectionary, that carefully constructed table of Lessons for every day of the Christian year, takes five Sundays once every three years to take us through the sixth chapter of St John’s Gospel. The chapter begins with the feeding of the Five Thousand – the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. It continues with Jesus’ teaching about himself as the Bread of Life. Father Hugh preached about that last week. It ends with Jesus’ prefiguring of the Eucharist: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them – and the hostile reaction of many of his followers to those extraordinary – and, to Jewish ears – heretical, words.
Yet the Eucharist, prefigured not just in words but in reality at the Last Supper – was to become the central act of Christian worship, and so in the Church of England it remains. There is still a rubric in the Book of Common Prayer, today more honoured in the breach than in the observance, which declares, quite uncompromisingly, ‘And note, that every Parishioner shall communicate at the least three times in the year, of which Easter to be one.’ We Anglicans tend not to go in for what our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters call ‘Holy Days of Obligation’, but we do have one, and that is Easter Day, when to make your communion is part of your sacred duty as a member of the Church.
But is that just a hangover from the centralising days of the Tudor monarchy, or does it go back to medieval times, or even earlier? When did the first Easter Communion take place? Well, the answer is that the first Easter Communion, or something remarkably like it, took place at a little village called Emmaus on the day of our Lord’s resurrection, when he shared an evening meal with two of his followers and ‘was known to them in the breaking of bread.’ Those two people, perhaps the first congregation at an Easter Communion, were two obscure, unknown disciples – just ordinary Christians like ourselves. The place was a humble village home. There it was that Jesus ‘took bread and said the blessing, broke the bread and offered it to them.’ [Luke 24:30], and in the breaking of the bread their eyes were opened and they knew the risen Lord.
To Jesus, bread was always an important symbol. He knew that without bread people go hungry, and to feed the hungry was important to him. Five loaves and two small fish were the material, so to speak, of that dramatic miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, and one of the most moving of his resurrection appearances was that fish picnic on the shore of Lake Tiberias. Fish and bread again, and the tired and hungry fishermen fed. To Jesus there was no great divide between physical hunger and spiritual hunger, which is why I so often quote the Russian Orthodox theologian Nicholas Berdyaev, who said ‘Bread for myself is a material problem; bread for other people is a spiritual problem.’ Feeding the hungry in the Sudan, in so many drought-stricken or war-torn parts of the world and even in our own land and our own town, is for the Christian a spiritual matter, a spiritual duty.
And so it was that, when he came to write his Gospel, the Apostle John remembered how Jesus used to refer to himself as the ‘Bread of Life’. John himself is the only Gospel writer to give us no account of the Last Supper on that first Maundy Thursday, but that is perhaps because for John the whole of Jesus’ life and the whole of his teaching was a demonstration of the truth that he is indeed the Bread of Life. It is Jesus Christ who sustains us spiritually, and without him our souls starve. Look around at all the well-fed people you know, well-housed and well-clothed. Can you not see their starving, emaciated souls? For them, if they did but know it, Jesus is the Bread of Life. And so it was hardly surprising when in the Upper Room, as the other three Evangelists recall, Jesus took bread and gave it to his disciples with the words ‘Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ The wafer of bread you receive this morning symbolises Christ’s gift of himself to you, Christ the Bread of Life. The bread speaks of the living Lord, just as it did on that first Easter Day at Emmaus.
It must have been a memorable experience for those two disciples. There in the breaking of the bread they met with the Lord. They were conscious of his living presence and power. The doubts that had haunted their minds before were now dissolved. Their faith was restored. They knew without a shadow of doubt that Jesus was alive and that he had triumphed over evil and over death. And that assurance is ours today if we understand aright what it is we are doing here in this Eucharist. Here Jesus is alive for us. Here his presence is real for us. Here we can feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. Here we can know him in the breaking of the bread.
A good few years ago at the Abbey Primary School’s harvest festival service, one of the children read a poem about bread. I liked it so much that I wrote it down, and here it is:
Be gentle when you touch bread.
Let it not lie uncared for, unwanted:
So often bread is taken for granted.
There is much beauty in bread:
Beauty of sun and soil,
Beauty of patient toil.
Wind and rain have caressed it.
Christ often blessed it.
Be gentle when you touch bread.
All bread is a symbol, not least of God’s goodness and God’s care for us. He feeds us today as he fed the Israelites in the wilderness with the manna from heaven. It grieves him when his children do not share their bread, when millions starve whilst others eat to excess. Bread is too precious to be hoarded; it is too precious not to be shared. And when it comes to Christ the living bread, we learn that those two disciples at Emmaus rose from table conscious of a new purpose, charged with a sense of mission. Christ was alive! This was now their burning conviction, and they could not keep it to themselves. Late though it was, they immediately hurried back to Jerusalem to share their experience with the apostles. After worship comes witness. The bread of life must be shared.