I was lucky enough to be brought up in Kendal. Looking back, I can see that it was a lovely place to be, although I didn’t really appreciate it as a teenager; it seemed you couldn’t go into town without a teacher who was still waiting for your homework! The town motto of Kendal is ‘Panus Mihi Panis’ : ‘Wool is my bread’. For Kendal was built on wool; fortunes made from wool built the impressive parish church and the beautiful merchants’ houses that line the main street. Even the pubs are wool themed – The Woolpack, The Fleece and so on.
I can remember when I was a child that the old tenter frames, on which the spun wool was stretched were still there on High Tenter Fell where I used to go to play with a friend. The phrase ‘I’m on tenter hooks’ has its origins in wool processing. It was wool that put bread on people’s tables in Medieval Kendal – it still did to some extent when I lived there – many people still worked at the sock factory and at Croppers’ carpets.
Today we are on the final Sunday readings taken from an extensive dialogue in John’s Gospel; this is what this Gospel gives us instead of an account of Last Supper. Today we have read about eating Jesus’ body; something which sounds very distasteful and cannibalistic. Indeed, one of the charges laid against the earliest Christians during times of persecution was that of cannibalism – and it’s not really surprising when you read today’s Gospel!
Fortunately, Jesus provided bread and wine, as we read in the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. ‘This is my body, given for you – do this to remember me’. Then, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’ Just as the good folk of Kendal didn’t literally eat the wool that was their bread, Christians are not cannibals . But Jesus gave us something which sustains us spiritually, just as much as wool put bread on the table of the people of Kendal in days gone by.
What we can easily miss though, is the link between Jesus’ words and the system of Temple sacrifices which were at the heart of the Jewish faith at that time – so part of the life of Jesus and the lives of his followers. Sacrifices were what kept people right with God, and there were many different kinds of offerings for different situations, and different things to offer according to your wealth – poor people often brought grain, wealthy people brought sheep, goats and even bulls.
This is not my area of expertise, but two particular kinds of sacrifice caught my eye: the first is the sacrifice of well being and fellowship – this seems to be the only one where the person bringing the sacrifice gets to eat some of it – mostly the meat of the sacrifices was eaten by the priests or burned completely. The bread which Jesus gave to us as his body, is similar to this: we get to eat it. Seen in this way, Jesus gave us a sacrifice of well-being and fellowship. I think many of us feel like this; our gathering at church is definitely a time of fellowship. And bread of the eucharist is a bringer of well-being: this familiar ritual by which God comes to us.
The other type of sacrifice which caught my eye was that of the Sin or purification offering. This dealt with disruption in the relationship between human beings and God. The offering depended on the identity and status of the person required to make it; the wealthy and privileged had to bring a bull, whereas ordinary Israelites brought a female goat or lamb. Those who were too poor to afford a goat or sheep could offer birds, and an offering of flour was acceptable from the very poor. Here parts of the offering were completely burned on the fire. The rest was taken outside the city and thrown away. This seems to have striking similarity to Jesus’ physical destruction outside the city. There is also a lovely echo in the ability of the poorest people to bring grain, with Jesus’ giving of bread – his body sacrificed for us. We know that Jesus had a great love for the poor during his life; was his giving of bread another way of including them in the sacrifice of his death?
These echoes are just my guesses, but what is certain in Jewish theology is blood IS life. For this reason the blood was never eaten: it was burned, or poured over the altar and was as sacred as life itself. So Jesus’ offering of blood in the form of wine was something new – the life is given to us – Jesus’ death – the shedding of his blood – brings us life. And this life, given by God’s Son, is the life of God – the life which enlivens all of creation, and which is eternity itself!
And so we come, each Sunday to received a scrap of bread and a sip of wine – small things, not much to look at, but holy things holding within them our spiritual wellbeing, our fellowship with each other, the forgiveness of our sins and the reception of the eternal life of God; we take divinity into our bodies and are transformed.
In that scrap of bread and a sip of wine we are given the riches of heaven and the entirety of God’s love. In fact, in the Eucharist, God is put into our hands. As the visionary poet, William Blake (who wrote the words of ‘Jerusalem’’ wrote:
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour’.
Or Mother Julian of Norwich who, taking a tiny hazelnut into her hand understood that ‘It is all that is made’.
When we reach out our hands for the bread, we receive all that is God and God that is all. We receive God’s great love for us; we receive the Passion that Jesus suffered for us; we receive the energy of the Spirit who transforms everything until it becomes divine.
We must never, therefore, receive the Eucharist lightly. We Protestants, I think, tend to undervalue the bead and wine – treat them as mere symbols. But, in the bread is held the immeasurable love of God – and eternal sacrifice made by Jesus. In the wine is life itself, not thrown away, but given to us to take for ourselves.The taking of these holy into our hands is our life and strength, our energy, our reason for living. Amen