55. Communion

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 55.  Communion

Mt 26:26   While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body

Of all the analogies we have looked at in Matthew, this one is possibly the most familiar if you are a regular church-goer, for it is probable that we may hear these words at Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, or whatever else we might call it, because Luke added the words, do this in remembrance of me.” (Lk 22:19) and the apostle Paul added, “whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor 11:25,26) Thus we take this ‘sacrament’ (‘a ceremony regarded as imparting spiritual grace’) on a regular basis in most churches, for some weekly, others monthly. Possibly because the Synoptic Gospel writers had covered it adequately, John says nothing about what we refer to as Communion because it was obviously only one small part of all that went on at the Last Supper. John recounts Jesus’ amazing prayer then. (see Jn 17)

But at the heart of it there are two analogies. The first we have above, but then Jesus went on: “Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (v.27,28) So we have two sets of analogies: bread and wine, body and blood, and indeed they are both analogies.

Now we have to recognize that in practice there are different understandings of what takes place. For Catholics what takes place is “the conversion of the substance of the Eucharist elements into the body and blood at consecration, only the appearance of bread and wine still remaining.” For most Protestants, it is merely a symbolic act, an act of obedience which wins the blessing of God and therefore a sense of grace imparted

But we will focus, as in the rest of this series, in trying as simply as possible to catch what Jesus was trying to convey when he originally spoke these words to his disciples and ask, what might these ordinary men have made of these words? It is probable, as the Gospels show with so many things, the disciples were simply out of their depth in the face of such picture language and it would probably be many years before the likes of the apostle Paul helped out with understanding. Yet even in his one piece of writing on this Last Supper, it wasn’t his intention to spell it out, merely correct the Corinthians for their bad behaviour. So let’s look at the wording before us.

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” (Mt 26:26) Now for many years I thought that this was followed by the words, “which is broken for you” but actually Paul’s wording (and the Gospel writers don’t have this) is simply, “which is for you” (1 Cor 11;24) so any desire to impose a ‘theology of brokenness’ is unwarranted. So what did those words mean. In its very simplest understanding Jesus must have been saying, “As you eat this bread, imagine you are eating me, or if that is too much to cope with, imagine you are taking my very life into your life, so I become a living part of you, we being utterly united.”  i.e. this is what this whole thing is about, my coming to the earth, my living in human form; it is that ultimately we may become one, God in you.

Now there is nothing outrageous about that when you see the wider teaching of the New Testament, that we becomes ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’, vessels that contain the glory of God, humans indwelt by God, by Jesus, by his Holy Spirit. Was this a simple piece of imagery to remind us what his ultimate goal is for us?

But then the blood: “Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (v.27,28) Now the concept of the Passover covenant was probably more familiar to many of them, that to avoid the judgment of God in Egypt, a lamb had to be slain and its blood put on the doorposts of the home so that the destroying angel would see it and “pass over”. The tricky bit here is “my blood” and in that Jesus is ratifying John the Baptist’s words which the Synoptics had not picked up but John did, “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29 and also 35,36). It is also the picture conveyed in the vision John received in Revelation: “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne.” (Rev 5:6) The analogy is simple: a lamb was previously sacrificed to save the people; that Lamb was now Jesus. By his death a new covenant is inaugurated.

The talk of body and bread being eaten, signifying a oneness, might cause the sensitive spirit to ask, how can such a thing be? The answer is, because a lamb has been slain on your behalf so that judgment is averted and all the blessing of God is released to your life. That is why we can stand secure before the Lord and in the face of all that the world brings. We are one with him and he made that possible for dying for us. Hallelujah!

14. New and Old

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 14.  New and Old

Mt 9:16,17   No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

In the previous study, of the two verses before these, we saw Jesus was contrasting the world of the religious with the world of the kingdom of God. Some reading that may feel threatened or defensive because so much of modern church life in the West is NOT like the celebration of new, transformed life that Jesus implied through his analogy of the wedding feast, but the analogy is still there and is now being repeated twice by the next two analogies we now have before us.

In the first one he speaks of a piece of new cloth and an old garment. It is that simple. The point he is making is equally obvious: new material will yet shrink when it is washed while the old remains exactly as it was when it is washed, and so you don’t try patching the new into the old because it will tear the old. Now the problem here is that Jesus is teaching by implication and he does not apply what he is saying to the situation around him, yet it is fairly obvious what he means.

The ‘old garment’ that is unchanging must be Judaism with its powerful leadership in the chief priests and the temple hierarchy, who wanted to maintain the status quo and were thus annoyed at Jesus who they saw as a threat to their established ways, the traditions of the religion. By contrast, the ‘new material’ must be the life of the kingdom that Jesus was bringing. It was full of life, full of action, full of transformation, noisy, vibrant, exuberant and unpredictable. I don’t know if that is how you see Jesus’ ministry but that is how it was. Every time another person was healed there would have been rejoicing and all the words above would apply. The life that Jesus was imparting that brought transformed lives also meant that it wasn’t just a physical change but a whole life outlook change.

Life in the temple carried on day after day with no change. Life with Jesus was one of complete change. If you were one of Jesus’ disciples traveling with him, you never knew what the coming day would bring. For example, one day it meant healing a leper (8:3), then healing a centurion’s servant with a word (8:13), then the healing an old lady (8:15), but then they would leave it all and cross the Sea of Galilee and confront and deliver two demon possessed men (8:32) then, crossing the lake again, healed a paralytic on a stretcher (9:7), then comes feasting at tax-collector Matthew’s house (9:10) – all those things led up to this teaching. Imagine you were one of Jesus’ disciples and let’s assume all these things happened on the same day (maybe they didn’t), when you got up in the morning you wouldn’t have ever guessed all those things could happen. It was a completely unpredictable life as Jesus sought to work with his Father (Jn 5:17,19) expressing the kingdom of God on the earth. No, this was clearly a ‘new piece of material’ and it wouldn’t fit comfortably in with the ‘old garment’ of the life of the establishment. See that last word – ‘establishment’. It means those who are established, those who are set in their ways. If our church services are ‘established’ with the same thing week in, week out, we are more akin to the temple priesthood than to Jesus.

But then he adds a second analogy which makes exactly the same point: new wine and old wineskins. They just don’t go together is what he is saying. New wine is still unstable and changing and even may be effervescent. If you put it into old wineskins which are stiff and rigid and try and contain it, the life of the new wine will just split the skins and pour out. Isn’t that what happens every time a new denomination springs up? The old order gets rigid but as the Holy Spirit keeps working in some, they can no longer tolerate the old and they break out and form some new group. Sadly, and almost inevitably, that new group eventually settle down and becomes rigid and so the conflict continues – and it IS a conflict as the life of God pushes against the rigid boundaries that men so often establish.

Remember the context of all this was John the Baptist’s disciples coming to cross examine Jesus (9:14). Already they had settled in their thinking that John’s severe way was THE right way and so they had trouble with the life and vibrancy of what was happening with Jesus. Later John, in prison, was to send some of his disciples to Jesus to enquire of him, possibly to introduce them to Jesus so they could move on now John’s ministry had ended. When they questioned Jesus about who he was he replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (11:4,5) Look again at that summary of Jesus’ ministry and envisage the joy etc. that accompanied it. This was the new wine and so it was no wonder that it upset the ‘old wineskins’ of orthodox Jewry.

This was Jesus’ way of explaining to John’s disciples on the earlier meeting how incompatible the life he was bringing was with the more orthodox ways (praying and fasting) of the established religion of Judaism. He didn’t actually say it, but the question still hangs in the air – which would you prefer, the day by day, never changing humdrum religion of law and ritual, or the life-transforming ministry of Jesus with its accompanying joy and exuberance, excitement, energy, and liveliness? Will we simply settle for the old, stable and unchallenging and unchanging ways of traditional religion, or will we seek the Lord for an outpouring of his Spirit as he continues to do today what he did then? Be careful how you answer because new wine cannot be controlled and is often unpredictable – but it is life from heaven and it is the expression of the will of God on earth!

4. The Life Transformer

Meditating on Great Themes in John:   4. The Life Transformer

 

John 2:11   This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.

So far, John has given us light-bulb revelations, knowledge of Jesus  that comes in quick bursts through the mouths of others. Suddenly that all changes. As we move into chapter 2 John recounts an incident, early in Jesus’ ministry, that he calls the first of Jesus’ miraculous signs. John is big on signs; he sees the miracles of Jesus as signs that reveal him for what he is.  We find the phrase ‘miraculous signs’ appear in 2:1,  2:23,  3:2,  4:48,  6:2, 6:26, 7:31, 9:16, 11:47, 12:37 and 20:30, i.e. 11 times!  The words ‘miraculous sign’ appear in  2:18,  4:54, 6:14 , 6:30, 10:41 and 12:18 i.e. another 6 times. So seventeen times John refers to Jesus’ miraculous activities as signs pointing to himself. We will also see later the number of times John uses the word ‘testify’. The two things go together as ways things point to Jesus to reveal who he is.

So here we find Jesus and his first followers a few days later at a wedding in Cana back in Galilee. They are there because Jesus’ mother is a guest and so Jesus has been included and he simply brings along his few followers. It’s an ordinary wedding but soon things go wrong: the wine runs out. Some Christians are a little sensitive about drinking alcohol but whether this was full blown wine or watered down wine, the fact is that wine was the drink to have at a celebration because it tasted good and it lightened people up. Don’t forget that latter part. Yes the apostle Paul did teach, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” (Eph 5:18)   The thrust of his teaching was don’t lose self control.

So the wine runs out which would be both a cause of shame to those organizing the wedding celebrations and a dampener on the remainder of the party. To cut the story short for emphasis, Jesus gets large jars filled with water and then turns that water into what turns out to be very good quality wine. Now we sometimes so focus on the nuts and bolts of a story that we miss the big picture, the things being revealed in the wider sense.

First, this is a miracle, of that there can be no doubt. If Jesus had leant on a neighbour or nearby friend who had a large source of top quality wine, the logistics of ferrying it all in without anyone knowing would have made that impossible. Similarly if this story got out afterwards and it had not been true, the servants would have said so. Likewise there is no possibility that the person running the celebration would have held back a secret store of top quality wine because a) that would have reflected badly on him when the news of no more wine leaked out, and b) the practice was to use the best wine first and then bring out the poorer quality wine when every had had too much to drink (v.10) and were less discerning!

Second, this is about transformation. At the heart of it is water being transformed into wine, the ordinary being transformed into the special. Water simply slakes thirst, wine blesses the palate and releases the heart: “wine makes life merry.” (Eccles 10:19) There is no doubt about it that alcohol in small measure lifts the spirits (sorry for the pun!). Yes, in excess it causes unpleasantness, but winegrowing was a particular characteristic of the Promised Land. Remember the spies came back bringing bunches of grapes from Canaan (see Num 13:23). It had already got Lot to act without knowledge there for drinking too much of the produce! (see Gen 19:32-35)

But this is a major issue in this particular incident. Jesus isn’t simply helping out, he is revealing his purpose in life to bring life transformation, from the humdrum to the boosted joyfulness. Do you remember when the Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost  the effect on the disciples was to have some to accuse them of being drunk (Acts 2:13). Joy is a normal response to being filled with the Holy Spirit.

When Luke was recording the early events of Jesus’ ministry, he used the incident of Jesus reading the scroll in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19 quoting Isa 61) That also is all about life transformation. Luke’s record had been around many years so John didn’t need to repeat it. Instead he conveys the same thing but through the first of the acts of Jesus, the miraculous signs.

Jesus in his teaching conveyed this, speaking indirectly of what he was doing as ‘new wine’: “Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Mt 9:17)  The message is clear, Jesus came to bring an effervescent life to replace the gloom and darkness of the sin-laden life. As Jesus’ ministry developed and crowds were healed, joy must have been the primary characteristic of what was going on. That is what Jesus had come to bring and John conveys it through this miracle.

7. Explanation – a Sign

Short Meditations in John 2:  7. Explanation – a sign

Jn 2:11  This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.

Presumably they told the master of the banquet what happened but we aren’t told. John simply wraps up this first miracle in his Gospel in this brief declaration: it is a sign, it points to Jesus and it shows who he is. John sees such miracles as sign posts to Jesus so what does this first sign say about Jesus?

Well first, and most obviously, he can take that which is ordinary (water)  and turn it into something special (wine). Indeed isn’t that exactly at the very heart of all Jesus came to do? He came to transform lives, he came to take ordinary lives, lives living in the ways of the world, enslaved to sin, estranged  from God, lives that were helpless and hopeless, and utterly transforms them.

Any description of Christianity and the Gospel that does not emphasise and declare this falls short. The whole purpose of Jesus coming, revealing the Father and dying for our  sins, is so that our lives might be utterly transformed, cleansed of sin, forgiven by God and adopted as His Sons, empowered by the Holy Spirit and promised a place in heaven in eternity, so what more could one ask for?  That life on this earth be transformed as well!

And that is his intention, that the work of cleansing, forgiveness, adoption and empowering is not just for eternity after we die, it is also to transform our lives, here and now and for all the years of living that we have on this earth. As different is wine from water, so is the life in Christ from the life before we knew him, that is what this is all about.

There is a sense whereby one wonders if Jesus, when he took up the invitation to go to the wedding, knew exactly what was going to happen and so used it to declare (for those who had eyes to see) the purpose of his coming – life transformation – through the amazing picture of water being changed into wine.

But there should perhaps we something else says to us: whatever and whenever we get into a crisis, if Jesus is there he can transform the crisis. With his grace, his wisdom and his power, no crisis need ever stay the same. He has come to rescue us in more ways that one and it is very practical. Commit today’s difficulties to him!

4. Good Advice

Short Meditations in John 2:  4. Good Advice

Jn 2:5    His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

There are times when a verse or piece of Scripture almost seems too simple to heed. Mary has brought to Jesus’ attention the fact that the wedding party has run out of wine. We might wonder, in retrospect, if the son of God ever needed anything drawing to his attention! Nevertheless she has done so and he has declined to do anything about it, but perhaps she knows her son and has faith in him that he will not see a need and not do something about it. Whatever is in her thinking she simply says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Now this suggests she has a relationship with the wedding party whereby she could give orders to the servants and they would obey, or was she simply someone of such stature in the community that she was used to giving orders. The possibilities are interesting but we aren’t given any background.  Whatever is the truth, she instructs them accordingly with an instruction which of itself is so simple and, in the light of all that we know of Jesus, must act as the summary of all that is required of a Christian: do what Jesus tells you.

What she thought Jesus might do again is merely a matter of speculation. What Jesus might tell me to do today again is purely a matter for conjecture because until it happens I won’t know. It must have been like that being a disciple of Jesus, wandering around Galilee, following him wherever he went, not knowing what the day would bring, never knowing who they would meet and what Jesus would do.

When the apostle Paul wrote, “We live by faith not by sight,” (2 Cor 5:7) his intent must have been something like this. Where Jesus leads, we follow, what Jesus says, we do, or at least that is how it is supposed to be.  The fact that today we have his word as general guidance and his Spirit for specific daily guidance – and the latter is not always easy to hear – it may be that we sometimes miss it. Yet that surely must be our intention – to do what he says because putting it most simply, the Son of God knows best. His knowledge is unlimited and his wisdom is unlimited and he knows everything there is to know about us, and he knows what is best for us.

I wonder if, in reality, that is how we live our lives as Christians, with the knowledge that Jesus knows best and we need to learn to hear him and then do what he says, whatever area or aspect of our lives it covers, for that surely is what being a disciple is all about.

2. An Expectant Mother

Short Meditations in John 2:  2. An Expectant Mother

Jn 2:3-5   When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Life has its little problems and sometimes they are not so little. It is traditional for a celebration to be accompanied by drink and in this culture it was wine and now we find the wedding people have drunk dry the supplies laid in. Problem! Big Problem! We don’t often think about this aspect of it but this could have become the talking point of Cana for the next six months: “Do you remember when old (whoever) didn’t get enough wine in and they ran out and how the whole celebration went flat! How could someone be that short sighted? Whatever you do, you get in enough drink for this sort of do!”

As yet it doesn’t appear to have become a big issue but somehow Mary has heard about it. Perhaps she is close to members of this family, perhaps she was helping out as the women friends might do. Whatever it was, she finds out that they are in trouble. Now here’s where it gets interesting: she turns to Jesus and simply tells him “They have no more wine.”  She isn’t going to tell him what to do but clearly there is implied in this simple statement an invitation for him to do something.

Now of course, knowing all that followed, we assume that Mary is inviting Jesus to do something miraculous but unless some of the weird and wonderful non-canonical stories about Jesus’ childhood are true, and he had been known for doing strange miraculous things, even if she thought highly of him she would not be expecting that – but she clearly expects something, otherwise it is pure gossip. Jesus clearly thinks she is putting pressure on him by his response which we’ll see in the next meditation, so what is she expecting. Well I suppose it is possible that she expects the miraculous from her son but it may be that she is simply inviting him to go out to neighbours or friends and try and obtain more wine. It could be that simple. It could be that she is about to be surprised, because John tells us this is the first of the miraculous signs that Jesus performed (v.11).

The obvious application question that must flow out of this is, when we start running into difficulties in life, do we turn to Jesus for help (especially as we now know who he is) and is our expectation of him on a par with him being the all-powerful and all-wise Son of God? Mary didn’t tell him what to do, only invited his help. Is that how we pray?

20. Life Transformer

Jesus in John’s Gospel : 20 : Jesus, transformer of life

Jn 2:7-10 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

John’s Gospel is full of picture language. Some of it is Jesus’ direct teaching, e.g. I am the gate (Jn 10:7), some of it are references from others, e.g. Behold the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:29). Some of it was clearly figurative language with a meaning, e.g. If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him (Jn 7:37,38). Sometimes he did things which were a picture of a spiritual reality, as in today’s verses.

First of all the facts of what actually happened, the things we would have seen if we had been there. They run out of wine at the wedding feast, Jesus instructs the servants to fill large jars with water and when they do that and take it to the master of the banquet it has all turned into first class wine. That is what actually happened but the next verse, as we’ll see tomorrow, says This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” This, says the writer John, revealed something of Jesus.

So what did it show about Jesus? Well first, quite obviously, it shows that Jesus was a man of care and compassion. The wedding was in trouble and he had the means to help so he did. Second, he obviously had the power to do miracles, for turning water into first class wine is certainly a miracle. But was that the only reason that John included this miracle which does not appear in the other three Gospels? John tries to get us to think and believe. So in its basic terms, what happened here? Jesus took something very ordinary (water) and turned it into something capable of bringing pleasure, something of character and wonder (well that’s what connoisseurs of wine tell us about a fine wine).

So here are millions of tired and weary people, living ordinary, humdrum lives, who are longing for something more and Jesus comes along and says, “Yes, they’re a bit like water aren’t they, just sufficient to stay alive, but would you like them transformed to be full of interesting flavour, full of potential to bring life and joy, and to be freed up?” That’s the offer that is hidden in this little episode, the offer of life transformation.

Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did all the time? He did it with the twelve disciples who travelled with him and with the women who accompanied them. Mary Magdalene was a classic example. He did it with people he encountered. Zacchaeus was a classic example.  When I look back on my life I see a life that has very clearly been changed from ‘water’ to ‘wine’. I have friends who I know have been similarly transformed. There is a challenge in all this: if we have become a Christian, has it been a life transformation, because if it hasn’t you’re not getting the full effect! Paul spoke about us, we…are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord (2 Cor 3:18). That is what the Lord is doing, changing us into Jesus’ likeness, and it’s a change as different as water into wine!