It is an old story, this one, but one I still find myself standing still in from time to time. It came to mind in a particular way in these last days as I considered the down to earth grittiness of Jesus’ words for us this week.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…” John 6:54a
And so it was that many years ago I was called upon to resolve a conflict between a pastor and his parishioners. So far as I could tell, this is what preceded that urgent phone call:
It was an otherwise ordinary Sunday morning. The altar guild prepared the table with bread and wine. The people came together and sang the hymns and heard the Word read and proclaimed. They confessed their sins and shared the peace. The pastor stood behind the altar and spoken words many of us know by heart…
“In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread…”
He and an assistant stepped out in front of the table bearing bread and wine for the people gathered. And this is when the drama came to an unexpected head.
For you see, one among those gathered that day had some challenges. Whether those challenges were intellectual or emotional or both I have no idea. All I know is that he was a long-time member of the community and was loved and accepted by those gathered. Perhaps the pastor did not know any of this. It may be so that he had not had significant contact with him before. What I heard in a frantic Monday morning phone call was this: When he came forward for the sacrament, the pastor went to press the wafer into his hand and his response was immediate:
“This is not real.”
And the pastor’s response was every bit as instantaneous, sending the congregation into an uproar: He excommunicated the man on the spot.
Setting aside the tone-deaf pastoral instincts demonstrated here, this exchange exemplifies what is ours to wonder at every time we gather for this special meal. In fact, those disputing with Jesus so long ago would have likely sided with the one who the pastor excommunicated that day. Fast forward these more than 2000 years and if we stand still long enough in the words Jesus offers now, we might just join them, for this does sound like “crazy talk.” Indeed, if we really listen and really take Jesus at his word, one’s stomach might just turn to imagine this. That with a bit of bread and sip of wine we are tearing into actual flesh and blood.
How can this be ‘real?’
Oh, I expect it is so that those of us who gather at the table regularly have become so accustomed to these words that they roll off our collective consciousness. We have long ago stopped wondering at their veracity or, perhaps, even at their meaning, having nibbled on the bread and sipped the wine so many, many times. Familiarity alone can and often does lead to us losing the sense of startling power this proclamation would have held to those who first heard and experienced it.
And, yes, it is so that I have no actual intellectual understanding of how or perhaps even any verifiable proof that this bread and this wine is actually somehow more than just a memory of a meal that tied these elements to the actual flesh and blood of Jesus. I only know that there is power in this meal. And that is real. That is real every single time.
- For yes, I knew it some time back when I was on call at the hospital. A large, extended family was gathered around the bedside of a loved one. I got the call that they wanted Communion. I gathered up my kit with extra plastic glasses to accommodate all of those who would be there. When I entered the room I realized that those gathered were Hispanic. Many spoke little English. It turns out they were, in fact, Roman Catholic. They didn’t care. In their time of deep concern for their loved one, they simply did not care what divided us one from another. They were hungry for the bread — for most did not receive the wine — to hear again the certain promise that Jesus with them in the melting wafer on their tongues. This was real.
- And yes, I know it every month or so when I carry communion to a member who is past 100 now. Her senses are dulled by age and time and now and again I do wonder if she fully comprehends the gifts of this special meal any more. But, her daughters do. They surely do and it matters to them that their mother is still fed at this table. And yes, this is real.
- Every week as we gather for the meal it has always been my practice to serve the people first, repeating the words, “The body of Christ given for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.” It never goes perfectly. Wafers slip from our hands or are accidentally dropped into the wine. The wine spills down the front of the acolyte’s robe. We get mixed up as to where we were in the serving and have to backtrack. And the people stand or kneel, coming forward with their hearts full of fear and struggle, sadness and hope, and reach for these gifts of God which somehow sustain them. And then it is mine as well when the assisting minister joins me behind the altar and extends the bread of wine to me, “for you,” spoken to sustain me for another hour, another day, another week. And oh yes, this is real.
- And on and on and on…
How is it real? I do not know. I just know that over decades I witnessed this truth. That Christ is in the bread and wine and satisfies the hunger of God’s people for hope and meaning, for comfort and direction. Every single time. And yes, that is real. It is real every time.
Now if it had been me stepping from behind the altar with a tray full of wafers in my hand. And if it had been me who extended the bread to one who seemingly rejected it out of hand, I cannot say what my response would have been. (Fortunately, God did not gift me with quick impulses in situations like that and I probably would have let it pass only to circle around to address it later.) I would hope I would have known those who came to the table well enough to know how best to respond to such an unexpected response to what I have long taken for granted. (And yet, it is altogether possible that deeper conversation may have led to realizing that he was not questioning the veracity of the meal, but something else altogether.)
Even now, though, these many years later that story resonates in my mind for the challenge pointed to by one parishioner’s comment and one pastor’s impulsive response is real. How do we speak of and understand something which made little sense even to some of those who heard it first? How can we be sure this is real?
Truth be told, if I had to offer a reasoned, scientific explanation of how this is so, I could not.
- I can, however, offer example after example of how it really stands at the center of the lives of faith of those who receive it.
- I can speak of how it really empowers and strengthens people to simply go on.
- I can speak of the gift of forgiveness which is received and experienced in and through it and how that really changes everything.
Indeed, from what I have seen, all the evidence points to this being real. In every way that matters this is real.
- How do you find yourself understanding and speaking of the mystery Jesus’ words point to today? What does it mean that we consume his flesh and blood in bread and wine?
- Put yourself in the pastor’s shoes in the example I offer above. How might you have responded?
- What examples of the real-ness of Holy Communion — bread and wine, flesh and blood, would you offer? How has it been real for you?