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"Now the Feast..."
based on John 6:51-58
Jim from B.C.

What's the most consistent image of heaven in the Bible? It's not the golden streets or pearly gates. It isn't harps or eternal singing. It's feasting with the family.

That doesn't mean that when we go to heaven, we are going to eat forever and ever. Even if we could be guaranteed never to gain weight, and never to have to clean up afterward, eating would become tiresome after a while. No, the reason Jesus often started his parables saying that the Kingdom of heaven is like a feast or like a banquet, is because he wanted us to know that heaven is about the joy of togetherness. It's about the union of soul brothers and soul sisters. It's about fellowship with Jesus and with each other, and it's about equal love for all.

There's a story I don't completely remember, but I think it was the archangel Michael who was giving a new angel a tour of heaven and hell. In one particular room in hell, there was a large group of people around a banquet table that was laden with lots of scrumptious food. But they were starving to death because they were unable to eat it. They weren't allowed to use their hands, and the only utensils they were given were five-foot long spoons.

On the tour of heaven, the angel saw a room that was identical to the one in hell. He saw the five-foot spoons leaning against the wall, but the people were fat and happy and having a good time. She asked Michael: "What's the difference between this group and the group in hell?" "Oh," said Michael, "in heaven they feed each other!"

At meal-times, a lot more is going on than eating. I suspect that the reason McDonald's is the world's largest fast-food company, is not that they sell food (or a facsimile of food), but that they sell fun, good times, enticing experiences. Parents and grandparents, do your kids ask to go to McDonald's to get hamburgers, or to be with other kids and get Happy Meal toys?

In ancient times, eating and drinking together was more of a celebration than it is today. A meal together was a sign of mutual trust and a kind of pledge to be friends. In politics still today, when a head of state visits another country, they will often have a state dinner or ceremonial banquet, not because they need to fill their stomachs, but they need to cement relationships.

The same is true of our ceremonial meal in church. Our concern is not to fill our stomachs, but to cement relationships, with each other and with our Lord Jesus. As Jesus says in today's Gospel Lesson, "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them."

When you think of memorable meals in your life, why do you remember them? I'll bet it's mainly because of the company. Perhaps you remember a date at a restaurant when you were given a ring. Or a wedding reception meal. Or a Thanksgiving dinner with special friends. Or a Christmas dinner with the family. What was most important was not the entree or dessert, but the sharing of laughter and tears and all that the years will bring. It's the koinonia that's important, the fellowship.

I said before that heaven is most often pictured as family festivity and community celebration. But God also wants us to have, already here on earth, a foretaste of the feast to come. And that's why our Lord Jesus instituted the Holy Communion, Supper of the Lamb, the sacrament we call the Eucharist— so we can celebrate our shared faith and our shared love, and so we can feast, again and again, on the Source of that love. Therefore our Hymn of Praise and our theme for every Sunday is "Now the Feast and Celebration."

Of course, it's hardly a feast in the modern sense. At the altar we don't get enough bread and wine to keep a starving person from dying, much less to fill a hungry man's stomach. It's a feast in the sense of a fest, a celebration of thanksgiving for the blessings and love of God. It's a tangible way of giving thanks (which by the way is what the word Eucharist means) — giving thanks not only for daily bread, and for peace and prosperity and all our physical needs that God satisfies, but most of all, Communion is a thanksgiving for our spiritual blessings: — for God's forgiveness of our sins; — his gift of our faith and our awareness of his love; — his gift of a mission and purpose for us in life; — and his gift of a secure future, eternal life beginning now, — and his gift of resurrection and The Eternal Banquet in heaven.

And last but not least, Holy Communion is a Fest because it celebrates the union we have with each other and all other Christians here on earth. It means THEY are our true family.

As we come together from our separate houses, separate careers, separate backgrounds and temperaments, we eat together to affirm that we are family, brothers and sisters of Christ, fully and equally loved by Him.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Communion Meal is that it's a wordless word, a non-verbal communication. Everything I've said so far in this sermon, is a message that you receive without words, when you eat and drink the bread and wine.

Indeed, Holy Communion is such a powerful message that words are inadequate. Yet in terms of description, no one said it better than Jesus in today's Gospel Lesson: "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."

Wow! What a blessing! What a privilege! To eat God, to take Jesus inside us, so that he lives in us! This IS a feast! What else do you need to know about Holy Communion?

Yet there's always someone who asks, "How is Jesus present in this sacrament? Explain it!" Of course, we Lutherans do not believe that the bread and wine magically becomes the literal flesh and blood of Jesus (what some Roman Catholic theologians have called "transubstantiation"). If you follow that line, then you get into all the complications of reserving the sacrament, in other words, what are you going to do with the left over body and blood? Do you dare throw it away after the service?

You also get into the whole question of the Eucharist as sacrifice. Is the priest re- sacrificing Christ's body and blood when he breaks the bread and pours the wine? That's the way Martin Luther was brought up, and that's why he had such a terrible panic attack the first time he celebrated Holy Communion as a priest. We don't want to go there. Christ was the Lamb of God who was sacrificed once-and-for-all on the cross, and we should leave it at that.

On the other extreme (in the Reformed churches and those to the west of Reformed), are those who treat Holy Communion as unimportant. It's just a memorial meal. You can take it or leave it. Use fruit juice and little tiny Ritz crackers— it doesn't matter.

But it does matter! It's a family feast! It's a state dinner! It's a wedding banquet, with Jesus as the host, and he says we're eating his body and drinking his blood! What could be more important than that? What could be more awesome! What could be more thrilling!

"Take, eat; this is my body." Jesus said. "Drink from this cup, all of you," he said, "for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." What could be more important than that?

We're not feeding our face, we're feeding our faith. What could be more important than that?

It's not just a memorial meal, and we dare not trivialize its meaning, or take it for granted. It's a supreme privilege, a priceless gift. It's a foretaste of the Feast to come.

So let us never fail to take Jesus up on his invitation to eat his body and drink his blood. For as he said, "My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink." Amen.