Welcome back to the Sunday Mass notes. The focus of the readings this week is on the background and importance of communion. We open with a reading from Exodus in which Moses recounted God’s provision of manna to the Hebrew people during their desert wanderings. Then we move to Saint Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians with some teaching on the communion meal and then conclude with the Gospel lesson from John in which Jesus taught the people that He was the “bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51). As you study this week, keep in mind Saint Paul’s admonition to examine ourselves before we partake of communion that will be covered in the reflection questions.
Introduction to the First Reading:
The first reading is from Deuteronomy 8. The context is God’s giving of the Law to Moses after they had escaped from the wrath of the Pharaoh and struggled for forty years in the desert. The main audience whom Moses addressed were those who were either born during this 40-year period or those who were under twenty when it began. This was because all of the adults who were 20 years and older at the time of the Exodus perished except for Moses, Joshua, and Caleb (Numbers 14:29). The context of the reading today is Moses final address to the people about to enter the Promised Land. “Then Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: ‘Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I am speaking today in your hearing, that you may learn them and observe them carefully’” (Deuteronomy 5:1). He continued in the next chapter, “Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the LORD your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it (Deuteronomy 6:1). He then proceeded to recount the main points of the Law.
The reading that follows includes all of the verses that were skipped in order to provide the full context and to illuminate the complete meaning of the text.
2 You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. 3 He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD. 4 Your clothing did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years. 5 Thus you are to know in your heart that the LORD your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son. 6 Therefore, you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him. 7 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; 9 a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you. 11 Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; 12 otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, 13 and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 15 He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. 16 “In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end. (Deuteronomy 8:2-16)
Moses’ purpose of this address was to remind the people of God’s miraculous provision and protection of them during their desert wanderings (v. 2). First, Moses recounted God’s provision of clothing that did not wear out (v. 4a) as well as protection from injury (v. 4b). Second, Moses reminded the people that they were disciplined by a loving God in the same way that a father disciplines his child (v. 5). He reminded them of the manna that God provided (v. 2) a food that pointed to God’s supernatural provision as well as to looking forward to His coming Son the Lord Jesus who called Himself the “Bread of Life” (John 6:35) that we will talk about later in this study. Next, Moses gave the people some insights into the nature of the Promised Land that they were about to enter (vv. 7-9) and warned them about the dangers of forgetting the Lord and His commandments (v. 11). He said that if they forget the Lord by not keeping His commandments their hearts would become proud in spite of His supernatural provision (v. 14). Finally, he reminded them of how God had delivered them from the fiery serpents (v. 15) provided water for them in the desert (v. 15), and fed them manna from heaven (v. 16). Both the manna and the incident of the people with the fiery serpents prefigured the Lord Jesus Christ. The latter incident was recorded in Numbers 21 in which Moses instructed the people to construct a bronze image of a fiery serpent and place it on a stick. When the people looked in faith to the healing power provided by God through the symbol, they were saved from the danger inflicted by the snakes (Numbers 21:8). Jesus said about Himself, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). People who looked at the bronze serpent with faith in God were healed. In a similar way, those who look to Jesus in faith are forgiven of their sin and given eternal life as a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). In both cases, people were (or are being) saved by God’s grace through faith in God.
Introduction to the Second Reading:
As we saw in the first reading, the Old Testament provided many important parallels for the disciples and the first Christians to recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s predictions concerning the Savior. As we move to the second reading, we will see how Saint Paul spoke against the idolatry that was prevalent among the people of Corinth in the First Century. Paul reminded the people about the curse that was placed on God’s people for grumbling against God as recorded in the Book of Exodus. Paul said, “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction” (1 Corinthians 10:11) and urged the people to flee from idolatry (v. 14), “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” The issue that he was confronting here was the objection that some had to eating food that had been sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 10:18-33). The reading today is sandwiched right in the middle of this important discussion.
It is important to understand the context of the Book of 1 Corinthians. Paul wrote this Letter to church filled with disharmony and division. This particular passage is part of how he sought to unite the weak and immature Corinthian church. He focused upon the fact that they were all one through Jesus’ sacrificial death, something that leveled the playing field because all are equal because of the cross.
16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? 17 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)
Paul said is that in order to partake of the communion service we must be in unity together and in fellowship with God. Matthew Henry said it this way. “By partaking of one broken loaf, the emblem of our Savior’s broken body, who is the only true bread that came down from heaven, we coalesce into one body, become members of him and one another.” Unlike the pagan sacrifices which were repeated and never brought redemption to those participating, Jesus’ single sacrifice resulted in salvation for all those who believe (1 Peter 3:18). Also, unlike the continual sacrifices offered by the Jews that looked forward to Jesus, Jesus can never be sacrificed again because after he made one sacrifice for sins forever He sat down at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:12). “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). When we celebrate communion we remember the single, final sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross (Luke 22:19). We celebrate the fact that when we share in the communion cup and the bread we unite in the belief that Jesus poured out His blood and allowed His body to be broken to pay the penalty for our sin.
Introduction to the Gospel Reading:
The Gospel lesson is from John Chapter 6. The context of the reading is after Jesus went from Jerusalem where He had healed a paralyzed man, to the “other side of the Sea of Galilee” (John 6:1). It was here on the east coast of the lake that Jesus went up on the mountain near Bethsaida to teach His disciples and was followed by a large crowd (v. 2). He evidently ended up teaching this discourse in the synagogue in Capernaum (John 6:59). Jesus opened this section of teaching with a bold statement regarding His deity. He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). This is the core of the Gospel message, the Good News, that anyone who believes in Jesus as his or her Savior has eternal life. Next, Jesus made another of His bold statements that He was God in the flesh, the manna sent from heaven when He said, “I am the bread of life” (v. 48). The Jews would have clearly understood His use of the Greek phrase “ego eimi,” translated in English “I am.” Jesus is the eternal God, the preexistent One, the “bread of life” sent from God the Father (John 6:46) as the supreme and final sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:12).
As you read, notice Jesus additional use of the “I am” phrase, and how Jesus used this to confirm His identity as God in the flesh.
51 “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” 52 Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 “For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. 56 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. 58 “This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58)
Jesus again affirmed His divinity when he said, “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven” (v. 51a). Next, He said that the way to eternal life was by partaking of His body (v. 51b), something which was a stumbling stone to the religious Jews and Pharisees (v. 52b). Jesus answered their objection by telling them that although their forefathers ate the bread of God (manna, see Exodus 16:1-36) and later died (v. 58b), anyone that partook of belief in Jesus would have eternal life. Jesus said, “he who eats this bread will live forever” (v. 58c). In the Jewish world, there was a high emphasis given upon the value of community that occurred around a meal. What Jesus said was that in order to partake of Jesus, the bread of life, you must commune with Him. One of the ways that we as believers commune with Jesus is through the communion meal.
This reading follows a train of thought where Jesus is explaining and defending His deity to both seeking and skeptical people. The disgruntled and skeptical Jewish leaders ask Jesus in John 6:42 how He could claim to be the contemporary version of God’s “bread of heaven” when they knew both of his parents and had seen Him grow up as any normal boy and become a carpenter like his dad. Jesus therefore refers back to their common knowledge about how God worked in the Old Testament when he provided food from heaven called “manna.” Instead of being physical bread, which had to be eaten regularly in order to live, Jesus referred to Himself as spiritual or “living” bread that came down uniquely from heaven. Jesus invited them to “eat of this bread” in order to live forever.
What does it mean to eat of His flesh and to drink His blood? We often focus on the communion service as the answer to this question. While participating in communion is a righteous, sacred ritual, we must not replace the ritual with the intended outcome. A better question is, what is the intended outcome of communion? Jesus partially answered these questions in the text of the reading. “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:56). Abiding in Jesus, relating to Him, doing life with Him is the end goal of communion. So, if we are not being drawn closer to daily trust and mindful awareness of Jesus’ presence in our lives, something is wrong with how we are participating in the Lord’s Supper.
What do the teachings from the readings and Gospel lesson mean for our lives? First, God calls us not to forsake the assembly together in the communion service (Hebrews 10:25). As we celebrate communion from now until the day the Lord Jesus returns we look back to the one sacrifice that He made for our sins. Second, we can recognize that we are saved by grace through faith in God (Ephesians 2:8-9) the same as Moses and the other believers in the Old Testament. They looked forward to Jesus through the symbols of God’s supernatural provision through manna and the healing by faith in God by humbly kneeling before the bronze serpent. The elements of communion are the way in which we remember Jesus’ body broken for us and His blood shed to pay the debts for our sin. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
1. In First Corinthians 11 beyond what we read in the second reading today, Saint Paul called for believers to make a serious self-examination before the partook in communion. “But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). He warned, “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord” (v. 27) and even went so far as to say that “For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep” (v. 30).
If you take communion this week, as yourself the following question. What does it mean to “examine yourself” before communion? What are two or three things that you could bring before God in prayer this week prior to communion?
2. Read the following quote from Jesus that He said in the Sermon on the Mount.
“Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:23-24).
What are some ways in which this verse speaks to the practice of examining ourselves before communion?