Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Communion

Come and see!  Said Andrew to Peter

Come and see!  Said Philip to Nathanael

Come and see … the word made flesh, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,

Come and see … an ordinary man from Nazareth who is a remarkable teacher

Come and see … the Son of God the King of kings

Come and see!

Christmas is almost upon us … and once again we turn to John’s Gospel.

But today the invitation is subtly different.

In some ways the fourth gospel is the most spiritual of the Gospels.  It’s where you find those wonderful I am sayings of Jesus.  I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

I am the way, the truth and the life no one comes to the Father except through me.

I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

And yet in other ways the fourth Gospel  is the most tactile, the most concrete, the most down to earth.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at the very end when it comes to John’s account of the resurrection.  You can try it for yourself.  Read through chapters 20 and 21 and underline all the words associated with the senses.

Peter and John SEE the empty tomb, Mary SEES a gardener, HEARS him say her name and is the first to carry the Easter Message of resurrection victory when she tells the other disciples, “I have SEEN the Lord”

The disciples see the risen Christ, hear his words, and then are invited to touch his hands and his side.  Thomas won’t believe unless he sees and feel just how real the risen Christ is.  He does just that and Jesus says, Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And then it’s on the shore that the dsciples smell the aroma of a charcoal fire as Jesus is preparing a meal – and they eat a breakfast of fish and bread.  Sight and hearing, touch and taste, all five of the senses are there as the disciples smell that charcoal fire.

Christmas is about the spiritual coming down to earth.  It’s about the Word made Flesh and dwelling among us so that we too can SEE his glory.  It’s about the sights and sounds of the city of David.

Not so much, come and see … more taste and see!

It’s an age-old tradition in many a church to have a Christmas communion.

It’s what we are going to do today.

It doesn’t fit with the perception of Christmas as the time of festive fun and games.  Remembering a body broken, blood shed for our sakes?  This isn’t the time or the place is it?   Re-living that last occasion Jesus shared a meal with his closest friends?  Not exactly the comfort and joy Christmas should be about?

I had a lovely time with Min King on Friday.  Min arrived in Cheltenham as part of a staff of not much more than half a dozen in what is now UCAS (the Universities Central Admission Service)  and was then UCCA moved from London to set up in Cheltenham where it has remained ever since.  She was as sprightly as ever (above the waist as she told me she has been telling people) and asked to be remembered to those who would remember her.  She was one of many Joan Lee had kept closely in touch with over the years.  We were talking about Joan’s death, and she made the comment so many make – with the shooting of all those children in the States, the awful things that are happening in Syria and so much tragedy, it doesn’t seem like Christmas.

That’s the point … Christmas is exactly about the cruelties of a vicious world and the difference Christ makes in precisely that kind of world.  It is not an escape from its ugliness, but it’s a confrontation with that ugliness.  It was in the squalor of an empty stable, it was in a town that was to experience its own massacre of young children.

And it took two who were long in years and wise beyond measure to say to Mary even as she and Joseph were presenting the child  in the temple that a sword would pierce her own soul too.

So shouldn’t we have put the chairs back for Joan’s funeral and left them there?  Why bother to set the church out around tables once again.  Shouldn’t we have done communion properly.

For Advent this year we have been looking into John’s Gospel to see just who it is whose coming we celebrate at Christmas.

It’s in John’s Gospel that you begin to realise that Communion is more than a simple re-enactment of the last supper.  It was after all, the last supper, the last in a long sequence of meals that Jesus had shared.

Maybe we should remember all the meals Jesus shared with his disciples and those meals he shared with others too.  They didn’t sit in rows with a table in the far distance.  They sat together round a table.  It was about being together being with each other  and being at one – com meaning with each other – and union meaning at one.  Meals that were a coming together as one – a communion.

Meals that got people round the table with each other talking, sharing, being in fellowship with each other – people who didn’t always eat together.

Jesus was in the business of breaking the rules – Jewish rules that limited the people you could eat with for fear of being unclean – no wonder the purists among the Jewish people of Jesus’ day couldn’t get on with the way Jesus bent the rules to eat with tax collectors and sinners.

Jesus was in the business of breaking the rules of the Roman world where you ate only with people of your own status in society – a Roman citizen eating at table with a slave – never … no barriers like that for Jesus.  He got people sitting round the table and eating together.

You don’t get miracles in John’s gospel – he calls them signs … they are filled with significance.

And the first of those signs is at a meal.  No ordinary meal.  A celebration.  A wedding in Cana of Galilee – and the water becomes wine.  The ordinary everyday becomes special and new.  That’s what’s happening here around the table.  We are celebrating something new that’s in the air.  A new way of looking at the world, a new way of looking at each other.  This is special beyond words.

It’s not long before Jesus is breaking barriers down – over water from the well and in the company of a Woman from Samaria of all places.  And then comes the second sign – and again it’s filled with significance as Jesus heals the son of a royal official – whose whole household is changed in their encounter with Christ.  All are welcome in Jesus’ company.

Then comes the third sign.  And Jesus breaks the rules again – healing someone on the Sabbath.

And the next sign.  A crowd who are hungry and a boy with five barley loaves and two fish.  And all five thousand eat their fill.

What’s going on here – we are already half way to Jerusalem and the final week.

Eating with one another.  Sharing a meal with each other.  It’s what you do.  It’s what you need from one day to the next.

And we need the presence of Christ with us no less.   His presence at the table breaks barriers down, brings us together as one, and sustains us for the task he has set for us to do.

I am the bread of life, he says,  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

And the meal is open to all.

Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.

And then he presses the point home.

His sustenance is not just for a period.  It is for a life time … and more than that it is for eternity.

Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.  I am the bread of life.

The most spiritual of all things – the message of resurrection victory, the message of eternal life that speaks into the sadnesses that can be so acute at Christmas comes down to earth, and is most tangible as we eat and as we drink.

The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

It is as if those meals Jesus shares with his disciples are a foretaste of the body that is going to be broken of the blood that is going to be shed.

Very truly, I tell you unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.  But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.

And so as we prepare to share in communion around the table – face to face with one another – let’s seek that oneness in Christ that is true comm-union.  Let’s break barriers down.  Let’s rejoice in that eternal life that Jesus promises and let’s follow in his footsteps once more.

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