Today’s scripture readings:
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Early on in the pandemic, in those first weeks after the entire country went into lockdown and we moved our worship services online, we scrambled to figure out how we could worship together while we were apart. You probably remember we started on Zoom and then eventually moved our services over to YouTube. Just figuring out the technology proved a steep challenge, so we kept those first services pretty simple. We sang along with pre-recorded hymns, said prayers, read scriptures and heard sermons.
But we didn’t celebrate Holy Communion—at least, not at first. We wrestled with some theological questions most Christians had never faced before—questions like, Is it possible to be an assembly gathered around a communion table when all of us are in our own homes watching a worship service on a screen? Central to our Lutheran understanding of Holy Communion is the idea that it takes place in the assembly. The gathered people of God celebrate the sacrament. Among pastors, theologians, and other church nerds, there was a lot of conversation about this. Are we a gathered assembly when we’re all in our own homes? Even if we’re watching the same service at the same time?
The ELCA’s Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, urged us to fast from Holy Communion. She said, “Fasting from Holy Communion for a time might be a good discipline. This absence makes God’s presence more profound. During this limited fast we might become more aware of God’s presence around us and in creation in ways we never noticed before.” Others had a different opinion. Our own Deanna Thompson, Director of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community at St. Olaf College, wrote that “virtual gatherings for worship… for many of us have been real experiences of gathering, connection and worship.” Even as we worshipped in our own homes, many of us did feel a real sense of connection, like we really were worshiping with others. We were together, apart.
Here at Gloria Dei, we weren’t really sure what we should do about communion. Then some of you started sending us emails and Facebook messages with photos of you and your families worshiping together at home. Even though we weren’t celebrating Holy Communion as a congregation, some of you took it upon yourselves to prepare your own table. You set out bread and wine and you communed one another on your own. You sent us pictures and said, “Look! We had church at home!” Now if I’m being honest, the rule-follower in me wanted to write back and say, ‘Stop! You shouldn’t be doing that! It’s against the rules!” But that impulse was short-lived, because the deep desire of Christians to be fed with the body and blood of Christ—at a time when so many of us were afraid, unsteady, stressed, and stretched to our limits, the need to receive into our own bodies Christ’s very self—it was hard to find fault in that. As days became weeks became months of pandemic separation, we learned we could get by, but we longed for something more. Some of us longed for Holy Communion, which feeds us in ways nothing else can.
Last Sunday we heard John’s version of the story of Christ feeding the five thousand. If you missed it last week, here’s a recap: A huge crowd of people who are intrigued by Jesus’ teaching and healing are following him from place to place and eventually they get hungry. The disciples wonder, how are we going to feed all those people? It’s not like there’s a grocery store nearby and even if there were, there’s no way they could get enough food to feed such a big crowd. One of the disciples spots a boy with five loaves and two fish. Jesus takes the bread and the fish and distributes it to the crowd and everyone has plenty to eat. Afterward, the disciples go around collecting the leftovers and there’s enough to fill twelve baskets. Everyone is amazed and they want to make Jesus their king, and when Jesus realizes that, he escapes from the crowd and retreats with his disciples.
Today’s Gospel lesson picks up where last week’s left off. Jesus had tried to get away but the crowds catch up with him. He tells them, “You’ve come looking for me because I fed you. But don’t be so concerned about perishable things like food. Look for the food that gives you eternal life—the food the Son of Man can give you. God offers you the true bread from heaven, bread that gives life to the world.” The people reply, “Yes, that is what we want. Please give us that bread always!” And Jesus tells the people, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Even though the crowds following Jesus had been fed with bread and fish the day before, they are hungry for something that does not perish—the new manna, the bread of life from heaven. Their basic needs had been met. They were getting by. But they longed for something more. They longed for something that would feed them in ways nothing else could.
The thing the crowds can’t comprehend—at least, not yet—is that Jesus is the “something more.” He is the bread of life from heaven that feeds the world and gives life.
Dear little Elaina Lynn: In a few minutes your parents will bring you to this font. Your sponsors will be standing with you and everyone here will be looking on in anticipation. We will splash water over your head three times and you will be baptized. (It will be the first baptism we’ve had in person with a gathered assembly in more than 16 months.) We will wrap you in a garment that represents Christ’s love for you, love you’ll get to wear for the rest of your life. We’ll anoint you with oil the way our ancient ancestors used to anoint royalty. We’ll light a candle for you that signifies your participation in the new life offered to you through Christ’s resurrection. As you are baptized, you become part of a community that gathers each week around a table where people come forward with hands outstretched seeking to be fed with the bread of life from heaven. Truth be told, none of us really understand how this works—how bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. All we really know is that somehow it does, and it changes us.
Elaina Lynn, if you had been here a few weeks ago when this congregation shared Holy Communion in person again for the first time since before the pandemic, you would have seen people coming forward with tears streaming down their cheeks. Why? Because this meal isn’t just bread and wine. Or, it is bread and wine, but it brings us something more. As you get older, you’ll discover that there are a lot of tables where you don’t feel welcome. But this is a table where everyone is welcome; nobody is turned away. Everyone who comes to this table gets the same amount of bread and wine; people with a lot of money and power don’t get any more than anyone else. On those days when you feel like you’ve messed up so bad that you can hardly bring yourself to be seen in public—and I hate to say, there will be days like that—you can come to this table, put out your hand, and receive the body and blood of Christ given for you. That’s special. When Jesus says he is the bread of life from heaven, I think this is what he means: Even when the world makes you feel like death, you can come to this table and receive life.
There’s a lot more we could say about Holy Communion and just what it is this bread of life from heaven means to us, but it’s probably best if we just eat. Just come to the table and be fed. Any words we use to describe this meal will fall short. The meaning and power of this meal transcend our ability to describe it. So, come and eat. Partake of this mystery in which we receive Christ’s very self. The body of Christ given for you, the blood of Christ shed for you. Taste and see that the Lord is good.
Elizabeth Eaton, “A Letter Regarding Fasting from Holy Communion,” published March 20, 2020, accessed July 30, 2021, https://mthoreb.net/2020/05/28/a-letter-regarding-fasting-from-holy-communion-by-presiding-bishop-elizabeth-eaton/.
Deanna A. Thompson, “Christ is Really Present Virtually: A Proposal for Virtual Communion,” published March 26, 2020, accessed July 30, 2021, https://wp.stolaf.edu/lutherancenter/2020/03/christ-is-really-present-virtually-a-proposal-for-virtual-communion/.
The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1997).
William H. Willimon, “John 6:24-35: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).