I was preaching at our Church's monthly Communion service; our minister had asked me to share the service with her.
“If anyone loves me,” said Jesus, “he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.”
You remember that this passage comes from John’s Gospel, at the Last Supper; it’s where Jesus is summing it all up for the disciples before the crucifixion. “In my Father’s house are many mansions” and so on. If you had the lectionary reading last week, as we did in Shropshire, it was the passage about the commandment to love one another, from the same section. This bit sort-of carries on from there. “If anyone loves me, they will obey my teaching.”
In our Gospel reading, Jesus makes it pretty clear that being a Christian isn’t just about believing, it’s also about obeying. We need to take Jesus’ teaching on board, and allow our faith to make a difference in our lives. It’s not just a mental assent to a set of propositions, it’s about a whole new way of living. We know that, of course, but half the time we forget it and, if you’re anything like me, when you remember, you instantly start thinking you must be a terrible Christian!
But look at it again, for a minute: “If anyone loves me, they will obey my teaching!” Not “They ought to”, or “They must”, but “They will!” It will happen more or less automatically as long as we love Jesus. It’s not about a legalistic list of dos and don’ts; it’s about a relationship with the living God. “They will obey my commands.” Not because we have to, not even because we love Jesus, but because it’s a cause and effect type of relationship. We don’t need to feel guilty, we just need to let go and let God. As Jesus goes on to say:
“My Father will love him – or her – and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
That’s a pretty extraordinary statement, when you come to think of it. To make their home with us? Really? Actually, it’s a bit terrifying – are we, am I, are you living as though this is true? Is it true for us? Yikes....
And then Jesus goes on to say not to worry if his disciples don’t remember all this, as when the Holy Spirit comes, He will teach it all to us, and remind us of all of Jesus’ teachings.
And then he concludes “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
I have been thinking about this passage in the context of Holy Communion, which we are celebrating today. In the other Gospels, Jesus takes the normal Jewish Friday-evening ritual of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing the bread and the wine, that every Jewish family did, and still does, on a Friday evening, and made it into something different, something special. The bread becomes, in some way, his body, the wine becomes his blood. And we are told to “Do this in remembrance of me”.
Now, as I’m sure you realise, there are as many different ways of looking at Holy Communion as there are Christians! What happens when we take, bless, break and share the bread and the wine, as we are about to do, is what they call a mystery. That’s a jargon-word of course, it doesn’t mean anything to do with Midsomer Murders or Lewis; what it means is that no matter how deeply you go into it, no matter how deeply you understand it, because it is of God, there will always, always be more that you don’t understand. And that’s as it should be! We won’t understand the things of God until we are in Heaven with God, and quite probably not even then.
I was taught, as a very small girl, that Holy Communion is a sacrament. And that a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. In other words, we do something – in this case taking, blessing, breaking and sharing the bread and wine – and God does something, too.
For some people, it is a time quite simply of remembrance. We use the Lord’s Supper to remember what Jesus did for us on the Cross. For others, it’s the great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist, where we not only remember what Jesus did, but give thanks for it. Or again, it might be, quite simply, a time of special communion with Jesus – whether that is through the actual bread and wine in some way, or because the service is very focussed. And then there are people for whom it is a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross – not repeating it, but re-enacting it.
And, of course, because it is a mystery, everybody is probably right, and nobody probably has the whole truth about it. And that’s okay. And our views will, quite probably, change as we continue on our Christian journey, with one aspect taking priority and then another, and that’s quite normal, too.
But whatever the Eucharist means to us, one very good reason to make our Communions is because Jesus said to: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Christians have differed widely about what Jesus actually meant when he said “This is my body, this is my blood”, but we are all united that he said to do it anyway!
“If anyone loves me, they will obey my teaching!”
And this is one of the ways in which we do obey Jesus’ teaching, by making our Communions. Whether we do this daily, weekly, monthly, or even less often, almost all Christians, except Quakers, make their Communions regularly. It is one of the great uniting things – Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians have very different views of the sacrament, but we all celebrate it regularly, one way or another.
And of course, in our Gospel reading, Jesus reminded us that “the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” And in the great prayer of Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic prayer, one of the things is praying for the Holy Spirit to come. “Pour out your Holy Spirit, that these gifts of bread and wine may be for us the body and blood of Christ,” or words to that effect. There’s a technical term for that part of the prayer, by the way; it’s called the epiclesis. Just fancy that!
But the point is, it echoes back. The Holy Spirit, Jesus said, will teach us all things and remind us of everything that Jesus said; we pray, in our Communion prayer, for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
For me, right now, as you may have gathered, the service is all about a special moment of communion with Jesus. A time of forgiveness, a time of healing, a time of empowerment, of refilling with the Holy Spirit, of – well, of Jesus, if you like. But, of course, there are times when it feels as though one is just going through the motions. Perhaps you didn’t come to church in a great mood, or the service has been uninspiring, or you’re uncomfortable or in pain or something, or just one of those days when you simply can’t concentrate. We all have them. You know what it’s like as well as I do.
The thing is, I think this passage helps to show us that it doesn’t really matter. We come to Communion, if all else fails, because Jesus told us to do so. He never actually promised we’d get anything out of it, even though quite often we do. He just said, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For his first followers, this was a normal and natural part of their Friday night rituals; whatever Jesus may or may not have meant by “This is my body, this is my blood,” passing the cup and the plate around was what they did.
For us, it is a Sunday morning ritual. But still, we do this in remembrance of him. We do it because he told us to.
Of course, there are plenty of other things that Jesus told us to do; in the context, he may well have been referring to the so-called “new commandment”, to love one another. And we know from elsewhere, from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, exactly what sort of people we are going to be, which can be summarised as people who treat other people with the greatest possible respect for who they are. No matter who they are. But nevertheless, by making our Communion we are doing as he commanded us.
But what does it do? Does it actually change anything? I said earlier that it was a Sacrament, and that implies that God does do something. Yes, we make our Communions frequently, although perhaps now that we’re wholly Methodist not quite as often as we’d like. And I don’t suppose, most of the time, that we feel any different.
I suspect, though, that we’d soon notice if we didn’t take Communion as regularly as possible. It is one of what Wesley calls the “Means of Grace”, which include prayer and reading the Scriptures and fellowship, as well as Communion. It is a place where we come into contact with God, and those places are vitally necessary to us. Without them, we are apart from Jesus, and you remember that he said “Without me, you can do nothing!”
And, as we come to make our Communion, let’s remember, too, the last thing Jesus said in this particular passage: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Amen.
Alsace Trip, 7 April
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