Sermon for 3 August ’08
Remember the Enid Blyton books? As a boy I used to read the Famous Five books while looking out of the lounge room window at a cold, dismal, grey, wet, windy, miserable Yorkshire summer day, wishing I could join the Five in the perpetual sunshine on one of their smashing picnics, which always had thick-cut ham and turkey sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, with simply super currant buns with thick freshly-churned butter and strawberry jam, and lashings and absolute lashings of ginger beer.
It very nearly didn’t happen that day when Jesus was surrounded by well over 5000 hungry people. There was nothing, not even a sausage, let alone lashings of ginger beer. Yet the people were fed, when five loaves and two fish fed the multitude.
In our series on worship, we’ve talked about gathering for worship, coming together to be the Church here and now; we’ve talked about hearing and responding to the Word of God. Now, we come to the meal we usually call Holy Communion or the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In other places, you’d hear it simply called the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist, the Liturgy, or the Mass.
It doesn’t look much like a Famous Five picnic; I forgot to ask the communion stewards to prepare ginger beer for today. Perhaps it’s more like the Feeding of the Multitude, where there were five loaves and a couple of fish. Certainly, that’s what Matthew wants us to think. We’ll see how he does that soon.
Firstly: why Holy Communion at this point of the service? We’ve gathered together. We’ve heard the good news, and responded. Now we come to the altar table. Soon, we’ll go.
We do this because it’s the way it grew in the early years of the Christian era. Christians met for a service of readings and proclamation and prayer; then they broke the bread and shared the wine. Then, they were dismissed.
But I wonder: do we do anything else in this kind of order? What about when we go to someone’s place of a meal, or go to a restaurant with friends? What do we do?
- We gather—we greet one another, we shake hands, we hug or kiss as appropriate.
- We have conversation—we catch up on the news, we share our concerns, we talk about the things that are important to us. We make plans together.
- We eat and drink together—that’s the heart of the whole thing.
- We go—we shake hands, hug or kiss as appropriate, and make promises to see one another again.
It’s a natural enough way of doing things; and it’s the same order as a service of worship.
So, we’ve gathered, we’ve heard the news, and now it’s time to eat. It’s a funny meal though, barely enough to satisfy a sparrow. A bit like five loaves and two fish among a multitude.
I said that Matthew gets us to think of Holy Communion in this story. How does he do that? Look again at verse 19:
Jesus ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
And look at Matthew 26.26:
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’
When the people Matthew was writing for first heard that, they would have immediately associated it with the Lord’s Supper. And really, so should we!
Look at it. Jesus orders them to sit. The Greek word is ‘to recline’, and suggests a special or formal occasion—more formal than a picnic with currant buns dripping with butter, and lashings of ginger beer! This suggests a particular meal, a special meal.
And then Jesus takes the bread, blesses God for it, breaks it and gives it to the others. Matthew uses just these same words when he tells the story of the Last Supper.
When Jesus feeds the people in the wilderness with just a little bit of food, they take up twelve baskets of leftovers. The feeding just goes on and on and on. This eucharistic meal goes even further. It is inexhaustible, there’s far more than twelve baskets left over. Jesus feeds us here with his very self, with just a piece of bread and a bit of wine, and this meal has no end and no limits.
So, the Feeding of the Multitude is a foretaste of the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Mass, the Breaking of Bread.
But there’s more.
Immediately before this wilderness feast, we read of another feast, held at Herod’s palace. Herod’s stepdaughter danced for the invited guests, and Herod was so please he told her he would give her anything she asked for. When she asked for the head of John the Baptist, he was too proud and insecure to say no. So John’s head was brought into this feast on a platter.
The wilderness feast stands in stark contrast to Herod’s, and it is no accident that they have been put next to each other in the gospels. Herod feeds his guests to enhance his prestige; Jesus feeds whoever is there because of his compassion. If the feeding of the 5000 prefigures the Eucharist, then we must be sure that ours shows the compassion of Christ. Whoever comes may receive the sacrament of Christ’s broken body, his outpoured blood.
So we have to ask ourselves: how can we speak of compassion in this meal if we don’t feed the world’s hungry? When people starve, while the price of food escalates around the world, how can we be blind to our abundance in a world of need? Even as we receive food of eternal life, the Eucharist asks us this question, every time we receive it: where is our compassion?
I often miss that we don’t share the Eucharist every week. The Church of the Book of Acts seems to have shared the Lord’s Supper even more often than that. And reformers like Wesley and Calvin wanted their followers to celebrate Communion each week.
I think that this Meal brings a dimension of the Christian life to us that doesn’t come any other way. As St Paul said, ‘We who are many are one, for we all share in the one bread.’ Jesus comes to us in bread and wine in a different way from his coming to us in the word. And remember—even if someone doesn’t understand the sermon, Jesus is here for them in this Meal.
I mean, I eat every day, in order to satisfy a physical hunger. It doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of food to eat every day. Yet my spiritual hunger for this Meal is often unsatisfied. I find sometimes that coming to Church when there is no Communion is like going to someone’s place for the evening but having nothing to eat or drink. Sometimes, it’s like stumbling across the Famous Five when they’ve just had the last of the ginger beer.
But today, we will take, bless, break and give this sacrament. We will receive the body and blood of our Lord in our hearts with thanksgiving, with eucharist! Let’s sing in praise to the One who has brought us this indescribable gift: Hallelujah! sing to Jesus…