Friday, 5 February 2016

What communion means.

Luke 22.14-23

We have now moved from the left to the right hand side of the church of St Apollinare Nuovo. We are not going to look at all of the 13 mosaics on this side, but as we prepare to remember the events of the first Good Friday and Easter, we will look at some of these mosaics which focus on Jesus' journey to the cross

There is an immediate difference between the mosaics on the left and on the right: The Jesus on the left is beardless and the Jesus on the right has a beard. There is a debate about why! Most seem to say that beards were a mark of maturity - or a mark of grief. It is the mature Jesus who goes to the cross.

There is also a different style. The mosaics on the left hand side of the church are simple, quite iconic, usually showing Jesus with one subject and one disciple. The mosaics on the right are more complex. There are multiple figures.
And today we are going to look at this image: Jesus is reclining at the table, together with his 12 disciples. Four of them are looking at Jesus (the white haired one we can identify as Peter), and seven of them are looking, in a very accusing way, at Judas.

This particular mosaic comes from the early C6th and is one of the first illustrations of the last supper (although there are some C3rd illustrations in the catacombs).

What is odd to us is that it shows a meal at which there is not bread and wine, but bread and fish.

The real last supper would have been a passover meal: with bread and wine, and lamb and herbs. Not a fish in sight!

So what is going on here?

Is this a collapsing of the last supper and the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes - bringing the two stories together in one picture?

That would not be surprising. There are connections.

1. In John's gospel, Jesus feeds the crowd with the loaves and fishes. He then immediately claims that the bread he has provided is not the real bread that people need. He is that bread.

2. Jesus takes the loaves and the fish, he gives thanks to God for them, he breaks them and he shares them. And that is what he does at the last supper: he takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it (Luke 22.19)

So we will look in more detail at our passage, Luke 22.14-23

Is there anything that struck you as odd about the description of the last supper in Luke?

Jesus takes the cup twice, probably once at the beginning and once at the end. But in our communion service we only take the cup once.

This is the Passover meal that Jesus is eating with his followers. There would probably have been not 3 but 4 liturgical refillings of the cup.

The Passover is the annual meal when the Jewish people gather together and remember how God rescued them from slavery in Egypt and brought them to the place where they could worship God freely.

Jesus now transforms that meal. The central theme is the same. It’s about God’s great mercy and deliverance. But for us, when we gather together to eat bread and drink wine, it becomes a celebration of how God rescued us not from literal slavery, but from the slavery of sin and death. He rescued us so that he could be our God and that we, together, could be his people.

So three things about this meal, as told by Luke.

1. This is the meal that gives us hope

Jesus says to the disciples, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer: for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God’. Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes’ (Luke 22.15-18)

Jesus has longed to eat this particular Passover with his disciples. ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you’. And that is the case even though he knows what will come after. He knows he has to go through dreadful pain and death. But he is eager to eat this Passover because he knows that it points forward to something amazing: to that time when, because of his death, he will eat together with his people in the Kingdom of God.

I guess it is like a top class athlete about to run a major race in front of a TV audience of multi-millions. They know they can win and they will win. They also know that to win, they will need to give everything, to almost literally kill themselves. But they are tense with excitement for what comes after the suffering.

Jesus went to the cross out of obedience to his Father. He went to the cross out of love for you and me. But Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross, with its shame and pain, for the joy that was set before him.

And so, when we eat the bread and drink the wine, we remember that one day we will eat this meal in its fullness in the Kingdom of God. I like to think of it as the hors d’oevre, the taster for that heavenly banquet. Here we may have a tiny piece of bread and an even smaller sip of wine – there we will dine in abundance in the glory of the kingdom.

This is the meal that gives us hope because it tells us that the kingdom is coming.

2. This is the meal that reminds us of Jesus


Jesus takes a loaf of bread .. saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’. (Luke 22.19)

We eat the bread and drink the wine to remember Jesus.

· We remember this command. Communion is not an optional extra for Christians. Jesus has commanded us to do this.

· We remember that Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life’.

We think that the fluffy stuff we make in a bread maker is real bread. That is because we think the real world is what we can see and smell and taste.

Jesus said, ‘I am the true, the real bread. The world that you think is so real is actually just a shadow world. The fluffy stuff is just shadow bread. If you feed on me, if you take my words deep into you, if you allow me to come deep into you – I am the real bread’.

· We remember that just as the loaf is taken, given thanks for (the Greek word for that is eucharisteo – from which we get the word that is used in many churches for the communion service, eucharist), broken and shared, so Jesus was broken and shared on the cross. He gave his body for us, so that we can live. He took our sins onto, into himself, and he dealt with them. He died for our forgiveness.

And as for the words, ‘This is my body’: far be it for me to resolve 1000 plus years of debate. Traditionally Roman Catholics are said to argue that this means that the bread literally becomes the body of Christ. But that is not actually the teaching of the fathers of the Church. They lived at a time when there was a philosophy which said that what something was on the outside is not what it necessarily is on the inside.

So what people like Aquinas meant when they said the bread becomes the body of Christ can be explained a bit like this:

My wedding ring. What is it? It is a gold ring. Yes, that is what it is on the outside, but it is more than that. What is it really? It is a symbol of my marriage. It reminds me of the one who gave it to me; it reminds me of my marriage; it tells others of my marriage. It stands for my marriage. What is it? You could say it is my marriage.

Or if you have a beloved teddy bear. What is it? A stuffed rag. Yes it is. But it is actually far more than that. It has a name. It is your companion and your comfort.

So the bread and wine.

What is it? It is bread and wine. Yes, that is what it is on the outside.

But what really is it? It reminds me of Jesus, of the Jesus who loves me and whose body was broken for me. It tells others of Jesus. It stands for Jesus.

What is it? For the person who has faith, who puts their trust in Jesus, who receives the bread and the wine, it is Jesus. We receive Jesus.

I like to put it like this. When we receive the bread and wine through our mouth, by faith – through our head or our heart – we receive Jesus.

This is the meal which reminds us of Jesus

3. This is the meal that celebrates our new relationship with God and our new relationship with God’s people.

With the final cup, Jesus says, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’ (Luke 22.20)

The old covenant was based on a promise of God.

It was the promise that God would be the God of the people of Abraham and that they would be his people. It was a covenant that was sealed by the blood of a sacrificed animal. It was a bit messy. The animal was sacrificed and the blood was thrown over the people (Exodus 24.8 cf Heb 9.19-22). And if you wanted to be part of that covenant you allowed the blood to go over you, to cover you.

Jesus here is making a new covenant. It does not end the old covenant. God never goes back on his promises. But it extends that promise so that it now includes not only the descendants of Abraham, but all people. It is the promise that God makes that he will be the God of all people and that they can be his people. And this new covenant is sealed not with the blood of an animal, but with the blood of Jesus. And people do not need to allow that blood to be thrown over them, but they do need to be willing to receive the cup which Jesus gives.

So when we drink the cup we celebrate the promise of God that he is our heavenly Father and we are his people. We celebrate the fact that those we eat and drink with in this meal are our brothers and sisters. And we recognise that it is Jesus’ death on the cross which has made all this possible.

In the early church, the believers would gather together not just to eat a small piece of bread and drink a shared cup of wine. They would have a meal together. They would be family together. Masters and slaves, mothers and sons, soldiers and shopkeepers. All the believers in a town (and at first there would not be many) would gather together, and they would eat together. It even had a name, the ‘agape’, ‘love-feast’. And then, probably at the end of the meal, they would share bread and drink wine specifically remembering the words of Jesus.

It was how they lived out the reality that they were members of this new covenant, this new promise of God, that he would be their Father and they would be his children

The mosaic from Ravenna probably is a depiction not of the sort of communion service that we have in church, but of one of those special meals. So there may well have been fish.

And when they ate, and when we eat, we eat the meal which gives us hope, which centres us on Jesus and which celebrates our life together as the family of God.

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