A Communion Service for 5,000
John 6:1-16, 25-71
All four gospels tell us the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people. There, on the hillside, Jesus and his disciples shared in a communal meal, where five little loaves and 2 small fish became more than enough to feed a multitude. Some have suggested that this was a service of holy communion.
Of course, some who are precisionists would say, “Hold on. The first communion was on that Maundy Thursday night when Jesus took bread and wine, just prior to his death. That was the first one. This was just a miracle where the hungry were fed.”
On the surface that appears to be correct. But John’s Gospel, when telling us about that event, cannot resist the temptation to drop hints and allusions that point towards the approaching Maundy Thursday event, and all subsequent communion services in the life of the early church.
The clues about communion
What is the evidence that the writer of Gospel of John had communion at the back of his mind, if not the front of his mind, as he wrote his account of this miracle? Let me note the evidence for us.
When John writes his account, he says “It was the time of the Passover.” Why does John note that it was Passover time, the same time that Jesus died, the same time of that Maundy Thursday service of communion? John wants us to see a connection between the two events. He feels impelled to omit the communion service from his account on the Thursday night of holy week, but he does not want to omit it all together, so causes us to read this miracle as though it were a pointer to the hour of communion.
There is a second clue. When the bread is broken by Jesus our minds go racing to that other event when on the night of the betrayal, Jesus took bread, and when he had broken it, He gave it to his disciples saying, “Take, eat. this is my body.” The blessing and breaking and distribution are to remind us of communion.
There is a third clue that this miracle was to be a reminder of the communion service. Jesus begins by giving thanks. It is interesting to note that the word that John uses is the word “Eucharista”, which became in the writings of Paul, a word for the entire service of communion.
There is a fourth clue that this is a communion service. It is interesting to note that here the disciples are servers. The only time they have the function of being servers to the wider flock of God. And in ancient communion services it was those who followed in apostolic succession alone, that were to serve the communion elements.
Of course, the clincher comes from the words of Jesus in the gospel of John. At the close of this miracle, people are impressed, their bellies are filled, the food tasted fantastic. They are now prepared to follow him. Jesus stops the crowds with those arresting words, “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you can have no part with me.” Obviously, he was not speaking of cannibalism. He was speaking of the communion service.
But some would ask, what does fish have to do with a communion service? Scholars tell us that fish were used in the communion services of the early church along with bread, water and wine. By the 2nd century the fish had become a dominant symbol of Jesus. In the Greek language the word for fish is “Ichthus”. The early church took each letter of that word as an anagram of Jesus and his identity. The anagram in English reads “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, (our) Saviour”. The sign of the fish was inscribed on tombs, amulets, church architecture, artwork and baptismal fonts. It was the sign of Jesus Christ, and the breaking of the bread and fish in the miracle was seen as the suffering of Christ the Saviour of the world.
Three Implications for us
- Such a little amount of food can feed so many! And a small morsel of bread and a sip of wine can nourish us. As the song writer notes, “Little is much, when God is in it.”
- The first actual communion service took place as a meal in that upper room. It was at a table. In the wilderness Jesus also spread a table like that referred to in the 23rd Psalm, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup runs over.” May it be so for us too
- Some have said that communion is the Christian equivalent of Yom Kippur.The Great Day of the Atonement: a day when the conscience is cleansed, and the heart is purified. But it is intended to be more than that. For we too live in a spiritual wilderness. We are hungry and thirsty too, desperately needing nourishment, so that we too can return back to our work and our homes, strengthened with might by His Spirit. So, let us eat, drink & be merry!