Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Isn’t it great to welcome Justin today for his First Communion? And I use the word ‘welcome’ deliberately, because it has always seemed to me more than a little ironic that the Eucharist, the very sacrament which should best express the unity of the people of God, has all too often been made into one of the chief sources of disunity among Christians. Rather than the altar being a place of welcome and acceptance, where we can find healing and reconciliation, it has too often been made a place that highlights divisions between Christian denominations, with obstacles being put in the way of the Sacrament. Small wonder that people have often wondered if they are allowed to come to Communion; in some cases, have perhaps felt too guilty or unworthy to come or – worse still – have even been told by others that they are not good enough to be there. Of course, the church’s ultimate sanction has been literally to excommunicate – to bar people from the sacrament. All this, I think, has done great harm to what lies at the heart of this sacrament. You would never think that it is the God of love, forgiveness and generous wide open arms who invites us here. Frankly, if it boiled down to asking who is worthy to come, I guess few of us would pass the test. But worthiness is not what it’s about. We come because Jesus, at the final meal he shared with his followers before his death, took bread, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body’. And he took wine and said, ‘This is my blood….. Eat and drink in remembrance of me’. And Christians have been doing precisely that ever since. We come here each week to receive the holy sacrament so that the life of Jesus may be continued, nourished, refreshed and made real in us.
How is Jesus’s life made real in us? Well, there are some answers to that in the Gospel reading we heard a few moments ago. Jesus told his followers, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’. In other words, in welcoming one another, we are welcoming God himself. But, do you know, it is that cup of cold water that most intrigues me. Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, will not lose their reward. In the Eucharist, some ordinary things of life take on extraordinary significance. Bread becomes body, and wine becomes blood. Together, these feed, nourish and equip the people of God to do the work of Jesus.
What is the work of Jesus? Well, that cup of water – something else that is ordinary and everyday, in many ways sums it up, because it, too, carries a symbolism way beyond the ordinary. What today’s Gospel calls the prophets and the righteous people certainly have their place, and thank God for sending them to us. But at the bottom – or, I wonder, is it at the top of the list? – is that cup of cold water. The ordinary church member who notices somebody is missing from church, and finds out why. The lift given to a hospital appointment when the journey would otherwise be very difficult. The welcoming smile that makes all the difference. The voluntary work with all kinds of organisations. The housebound person whose contribution is to remember us all in prayer. The unobtrusive cleaning and polishing in church. The cup of tea, the letter, the phone call, the visit, the help with carrying a heavy bag, or with crossing a busy road, or getting a pushchair on and off the crowded bus or train – these small but vital acts are the backbone of Christian service, and indeed, of mission and evangelism, because to love and serve your neighbour is to love and serve God.
In this 10th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we have been given a lesson in mission; what it means to be to be both the guest and the host, what it means to be both welcomed and rejected. The generosity Jesus speaks of is, at one level, an ordinary response to need: a cup of cold water for a weary traveller. The overwhelming public response to the recent tragedies in Manchester and London have shown us, once again, that the ordinary gesture is never to be undervalued. In today’s Gospel, the gift of water takes on a wider significance as a sign of divine hospitality and assistance. A simple cup of cold water for another becomes a symbol of the work of God we are called to share. It reminds us, too, of a time later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus returns to the subject of welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and those in prison. Such acts carry eternal significance, as if they had been done for Jesus himself, even if they seem quite insignificant to those who perform them.
Each time we come to Communion, we are reminded that Christians are guests – welcomed and wanted by God. Celebrating the Eucharist is an actual, visible way in which Jesus remakes the people of God – remakes us – as individual people and as a community. It isn’t merely a memorial meal re-calling Jesus’s Passion and death; it is also an active, transforming and empowering sacrament that enables us to share in Jesus’s resurrection life, continuing his work of bridging gulfs between people, and between God and humanity, and the rest of creation. Receiving the life of Jesus, of God, in the Eucharist, is also an act with eternal significance. The sacrament feeds and nourishes us, but it isn’t just about satisfying ourselves. It also seeks a response from us, and that will be seen in how open we are to the life of Jesus being made real in our own lives each day.
So, today, Justin, we welcome you as you come to Communion for the first time, fed by Jesus’ gifts of bread and wine – ordinary things made holy, with eternal significance. We pray for you and for each other, that as God in Jesus has shown such great generosity to us, so we may be generous in our response to God.