First (and last?) communion

Text: John 6 (selections — The Bread of Life)

For some people, their first communion is also their last. This was the case for many of Jesus’ followers in today’s reading from John. After a miraculous meal that Jesus had prepared for them from a few loaves and fish, they broke away from Jesus because of his words about eating and drinking his flesh and blood. I think I can relate because following my first communion, I also turned my back on church.

I first took communion as a 14-year old at Knox United Church in Cornwall Ontario. My late father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, presided at communion in a service that welcomed new members into the congregation from a confirmation class he had led.

I had attended all the classes; I responded affirmatively to the questions in the part of the service called Profession of Faith; and when communion was served, I took the bread and juice. But I did so in bad faith because in the confirmation classes I had decided that religion was bunk. For me, confirmation was not about joining the church. It was about graduating from it.

My decision to leave church after confirmation was hardly unique. In Canada today, there are more than one million people who were confirmed as adolescents in the United Church of Canada but of whom only about 100,000 are still active in church.

Because my father was a minister, I continued to attend Sunday services until I left home for university four years later; and I imagine that I participated in some communion services during those years. But if I took the bread and juice, it was without conviction or enthusiasm.

As a child, I had been interested in religion. I debated with my father. I bugged my friends with questions about their experiences in church or temple. And I often discussed the “big questions” with my older brother as we drifted off to sleep.

The turning point for me in the confirmation class was an exploration of other faiths. Cornwall in the early 70’s didn’t have a lot of religious diversity, but I remember visiting a local synagogue and an Anglican Church. This was near the end of 30 years of discussion between the Anglican and United denominations that failed to result in a merger of the two.

We also discussed Roman Catholicism, which was the biggest denomination in Cornwall. I was negatively impressed to learn of the Catholic belief that the Pope was infallible on matters of doctrine.

In looking at other denominations, they all began to seem ridiculous to me. So, I decided to abandon church and pursue spirituality elsewhere. This felt possible in the counterculture of the 1970’s because there were a lot of spiritual paths to follow that didn’t involve infallible pontiffs, tribal gods, or debates about the flesh and blood of a long-ago human incarnation of God.

And yet, here I am today, an ordained Christian minister preparing to celebrate the sacrament of communion with you again.

As an adolescent, my spiritual journey was all about ideas. I was an intellectual, and if something didn’t seem rational, I dismissed it.

Seventeen years ago when I stumbled back into church, I began to develop aspects of identity other than the mind — things like sensations, emotions, relationships, and mysticism. While sacraments like communion may not seem rational, sometimes with grace they nurture parts of ourselves that are as important as the mind.

The story we heard today from John – about the miracle of the loaves and fish, and Jesus’ teaching on eating his flesh – is not one that is amenable to our minds.

For one, John’s story doesn’t jibe with the other gospels. All four gospels include the feeding of 5,000 people in the wilderness. But only in John does Jesus introduce the metaphor of The Bread of Life and talk about his own flesh and blood.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus doesn’t talk about bread and wine as symbols of his body until The Last Supper on the night of his arrest. In John, there is no supper on the night of Jesus’ arrest and no remarks about a meal of remembrance. Instead, in John’s Gospel, Jesus washes the feet of his friends on that fateful night and gives a long speech about love.

In communion prayers, we follow the story of The Last Supper from Matthew, Mark and Luke and use the metaphor of The Bread of Life from John.

The stories don’t match, which is one reason we can’t be sure what Jesus said after the feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness or on the night of his arrest. Still, I believe that we can experience truths about life in the sacrament of communion.

In communion, we remember the crucifixion of Jesus, which can confront us with our own wounds. Social violence often dashes our hopes for peace and equality. Family dysfunctions often thwart our desire to love one another as we deserve. Personal fragility and mortality always loom over us.

In communion, we also remember the resurrection of Jesus, which reminds us that out of defeat God’s Love can lead us to unexpected victories. Out of dashed hopes and dreams, new life often arises that is more closely aligned with Love. And no matter what happens to us this side of the grave, we trust that in death we are reunited with the Source of Love.

Finally, in communion, we connect with Christians past and present and feel in our bodies that we are part of God’s Love.

My adolescent self was not impressed by communion. But today as someone who has found the Grace to accept more of reality after decades of ups and down and joys and pain, I trust the symbols and traditions found in communion in a way that I couldn’t as a 14-year old.

The part of confirmation class that I enjoyed the most was listening to a recording of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The fact that the opera, like the Gospel of Mark, showed the execution of Jesus but didn’t include any resurrection appearances, helped feed my skepticism.

But now I see things differently. For me, resurrection is not about belief in the contradictory stories in Matthew, Luke and John about the Risen Christ. It is about the Risen Christ that dwells in our hearts. There may be no historical reality behind stories of loaves and fish or the words attributed to Jesus by gospel writers. But I have no doubt that eternal life is real because I have tasted it; and in communion I often experience depth, beauty and mystery.

Given the way our intercultural society is evolving, fifty years from now it might be that our descendants will no longer come to the Table of Jesus. But today, I feel called to it by the Risen Christ that lives in this community. It is a sacrament in which I pray all of us will taste again that God is Good.

Thanks be to the God.

Amen.

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