Holy Communion Gritty Reboot
I learned several new things this week that I really probably should have known before now.
This is not an unusual experience for me, to be honest.
I was talking in my sermon planning group with my friends Suzanne and Jeff, and we were thinking about different routes we could take with our text from John this week, the Feeding of the 5000.
And Suzanne said, “Well, you could use this gospel to give an open communion sermon.”
That caught me off-guard. Really? How?
It turns out that there are several interesting facts about the Gospel of John that frankly I should have known before now.
There is no scene in John of what we would call “The Last Supper.”
In John, as the end of his life approaches, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, and continues to teach them. He says to the disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”
They want to know who it is, and Jesus says, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish,” and then he gives it to Judas.
He tells Judas to do quickly what he plans to do, and then Judas leaves.
No blessing and breaking of bread.
No, “Take, eat, this is my Body.”
No giving thanks for the cup of wine, declaring it his blood of the New Covenant, and passing it around.
None of that. We can’t trace our idea of Eucharist today to a Last Supper scene in the Gospel of John, because there isn’t one.
So what kind of meals do we get in John?
We’ve got the Wedding at Cana, and the last dinner at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, plus this meal with the disciples, and the breakfast on the beach at the end.
But there’s only one meal that comes close to our idea of what a “communion origin story” might be, with blessing and breaking of bread. And that’s the Feeding of the 5000.
Significantly, the Feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle of Jesus that appears in all 4 canonical gospels. It must have been important.
So if the Gospel of John was the only gospel we had, and we wanted to trace the theological roots for Holy Communion as we practice it today, what would we learn from this story?
If John wanted to tell us with the Feeding of the 5000, “This is how you share bread together, and the meaning of it is to take Jesus into yourself,” what are the implications?
Well, first of all, it’s not just with Jesus’ inner circle. It’s with 5000 random people.
There are no doctrinal tests before receiving the food.
No one has to be baptized before they partake.
The recipients may have only heard one sermon of Jesus’, or maybe none at all—they may have just tagged along to see where the crowd was headed.
It is a free and full giving of sustenance to anyone and everyone who shows up.
That’s how the Feeding of the 5000 is connected to open communion.
The doctrinal standard of the Episcopal Church is that “all baptized Christians” are eligible to receive Holy Communion.
But many priests practice “open communion,” which means all people are welcome at God’s table, whether they’re baptized or not. We could make a case for this practice based on this story and how it is used in John.
Notice also the nature of Jesus’ teaching right after this passage. His next major topic is himself as the “Bread of Heaven.”
“I am the bread of life,” he says to the crowds. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
He’s talking to the same crowd whom he fed with the loaves and fishes.
It would not have been lost on them that this man miraculously fed them all of them with what should not have been nearly enough bread, and now he is describing himself as bread. This seems to create a clear Eucharistic throughline.
The meal is bread and fish, not bread and wine.
(Here I’m glad we didn’t take John’s track as a church, because I loathe seafood and I guarantee you I wouldn’t be a priest if we had bread and fish as our sacrament.)
We have clear evidence for how significant the Feeding of the 5000 was to the early church through early Christian art. Jesus is often shown blessing and offering bread and fish.
There may have been some early Christian communities who partook of bread and fish instead of, or in addition to, bread and wine in their shared meals.
And according to historical tradition, one way Christians had of recognizing one another was to draw one arc of the Icthys fish in the dirt. If someone drew the other arc, finishing the shape, you knew you could communicate with one another as Christians safely.
The fish was a secret sign, also used to mark Christian meeting places.
So the evidence is mounting for a case to consider the Feeding of the 5000 as an important root of the Eucharist, Christian sustenance, community, and receiving of the presence of Christ.
And when we consider whether John meant it to function as the Last Supper in his gospel, we have to go all the way to the end, chapter 21. This is the famous Breakfast on the Beach scene.
Peter and the disciples, having betrayed and abandoned their teacher to his death, have given up hope. They’ve gone back to their old jobs—as fishermen.
But they can’t catch anything until Jesus shows up. And then, with Jesus in the picture, suddenly their nets are breaking with the weight of all the fish they’re catching.
Peter recognizes Jesus and leaps out of the boat to swim to shore. The others follow.
“When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread…Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.”
That last sentence sure sounds like Eucharistic language. It’s very reminiscent of how Matthew, Mark, and Luke talk about how Jesus gave the disciples bread and wine.
And this is Jesus’ final resurrection appearance in John.
It seems very significant not just that it’s a meal, but it’s a meal of bread and fish, which we last saw in the Feeding of the 5000.
Peter and the others have been through hell since that joyful picnic on the hillside with the crowd. They need to be built up to be sent back out to do ministry as Jesus prepares to ascend to the Father.
And Jesus chooses to do that by feeding them bread and fish. That can’t be a coincidence!
Peter and the others must know that as they are receiving the literal bread and fish on the beach, so also are they receiving the Bread of Heaven.
And it works. Peter is able to let go of his shame, proclaim his love for Jesus, and be empowered to do the great work he’s about to embark upon.
So that’s the case, as best as I can make it, for the Feeding of the 5000 functioning as the Last Supper in John, and bread and fish being a solid option for the Eucharist as opposed to bread and wine.
Interesting, right? But what does it mean for us?
I’m certainly not suggesting that we switch to bread and fish for Holy Communion—I, for one, would have to convert to a non-Eucharistic church because I just cannot deal with fish.
Where I think we have an important takeaway for ourselves is when we go back and reexamine the central meaning of the story of the Feeding of the 5000 that we remember from before we considered it in a Eucharistic context.
Before you read this sermon, if someone had asked you, “What’s the moral of the story in the Feeding of the 5000?”, you might have said something like this: “We never think we have enough resources as a gathered community. We’re dominated by scarcity. The fundamental assumption is that we don’t have enough, so we’d better look out only for our own. And Jesus comes and breaks that wide open. He proves to us that his presence with us creates life and food and resources abundant, where we thought we had none. In Christ, everyone is fed.”
So now consider that moral to the story in the light of Eucharist.
It casts “a fenced table,” the name for ecclesiastical exclusions from receiving communion, in a very specific light. It seems to land on the side of scarcity.
And open communion seems much more in line with the overflowing generosity of God, which knows no bounds and knows no strangers.
The presence of Jesus can turn our fear of not having enough into a joyful festival of sharing with all.
Frankly, that sounds like a pretty solid foundation for a sacrament to me.
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