This Sermon was delivered at St Mary the Virgin’s, Diss at an Evening Eucharist to celebrate the Festival of Corpus Christi on the 20th June 2019. Readings: John 6:51-58, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Genesis 14: 18-20.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It may horrify or delight you to hear that my first theological dissertation, submitted in the final year of my Theology BA, was a ten thousand word technical examination of a theologian called Thomas Torrance and his epistemological framework; specifically, as it applies to his understanding of the Eucharist. It could well be tempting to draw on it and by so doing lead us through the next half an hour or forty minutes wrestling deeply with concepts ranging from a history of philosophical dualism, which necessarily entails some headaches pondering the nature of space and place, and then time as well, through to Einsteinian methods of Critical Realism and how this might offer us a more satisfactory metaphysical framework for falling asleep during a sermon.
Indeed I suspect that at Corpus Christi, perhaps more so than some other festivals, it could be easy to miss the wood for the trees; to become so wrapped up in trying to explain, either by way of attacking or defending ideas of transubstantiation, epiclesis and anamnesis, the how of the sacrament that we miss the what – or more importantly the who – of the Eucharist we’re here to both celebrate and participate within.
Fortunately for us, our Gospel reading confronts us immediately with what the disciples will later say is a ‘difficult teaching’ which is hard to accept.
Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Again, “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink”.
If we are to reflect on the sacrament tonight we can only do so eucharistically and to think eucharistically of the bread and wine is to take Jesus seriously.
Elsewhere in the scriptures, and we shall hear it quoted in the Eucharistic prayer later, Jesus says at the last supper “Take, eat. This is my body broken for you”, Take, drink. This is my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in remembrance of me”. Perhaps we might think that this would be a better Gospel reading for us tonight.
We might think it is a better starting point for reflecting on the institution of the act of worship which the Church has continually practised and passed down through the ages; this is certainly what Paul speaks of in our Corinthians reading when he says “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you… for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”. The Eucharist is an act of worship which we each have come to value and here as the Diss Team Ministry we are in the process of handing on to the next generation to come.
There has certainly been a joyful sense for Tony and I of a clergyman who is coming towards the end of his stipendiary ministry being able to share wisdom and experience, insight and practice with one who is about to be ordained priest and to celebrate their first Eucharist in little more than a week’s time. The Eucharistic celebration is in that sense a light which shines in an all too often dark world, a light which is to be passed on and kept alive.
Perhaps then it would make sense to focus on the last supper, which we have so wonderfully displayed on our altar frontal. But I would suggest that that would be to focus on what we have been told to do, on the actions which we all do whether we’re the priest holding the elements at the table or the grace-led sinner holding out our hands to receive the elements at the rail.
Our actions are important, but let us not lose the wood for the trees. It is right that our Gospel portion should remind us that Jesus is the living bread. He is the one who is God living for us as one of us within our human world so that we might encounter and true come to know him within our own lives.
Jesus makes reference to the Israelites in the desert following their exodus from slavery in Egypt where they depended upon the mana, the bread which came down from heaven, for their daily food. Just as they depended upon the divinely provided food, so we too depend upon Jesus not just for our lives now but for our continuing and prevailing union with him so that we may abide in his presence eternally, having been raised by him on the last day.
More than this, every breath which the church takes as the church, be it through acts of worship or fellowship and service, she takes because of the Spirit of Christ which is the life of Christ himself still and ever-living today; abiding in us as we abide in him.
This is to say plainly and clearly that the Eucharist is not something we do nor is it about how it makes us feel or even what we think and believe about it.
The Eucharist gains all that makes it the Eucharist because it is wholly and inescapably Christ Jesus himself.
He is the living bread from Heaven which gives us eternal life. He is the living bread from heaven who tells us that our bread is his body, is his bread – is himself.
And the fullness of himself is the fullness of the God who makes himself known to us through the incarnation. He is God, the son of the Father, and he is human, the son of Mary; one altogether, as the Athanasian creed puts it, not by confusion of substance, ie he is not half and half, but by unity of Person, the person who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, and rose again the third day from the dead.
To talk about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is to talk about all that Christ did for us, which we confess in our creeds. It is to remember, hope and trust that he shall come again in Glory to raise us to eternal life with him where pain and death and sin are no more but where we shall live with God and God shall live with us, his people, in the New Creation.
To talk about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is to say that the physical sensation of chewing the bread and swallowing the wine is more than our cognitive understanding of what we believe is happening when we take bread and wine, but is given its true value by the value which Jesus, our risen and ascended Lord, gives to it by bringing himself to us through it.
This is so important, to keep our eyes on the who of the action, to look for Jesus, the living bread from heaven in the bread of the earth. It is especially precious to place the source of spiritual nourishment on Jesus and not on our own cognitive abilities when we take, as this Church does, the sacrament out to those who, among other physical limitations, find that their minds are not as clear as they used to be.
Remembering that it is Jesus who gives meaning to the sacrament maintains not just the value of our actions in administering elements to them but it also preserves their dignity as Children of God who have been loved by God, are continually loved by God and shall, with us and all the Church, be raised to eternal life in the presence of the everlasting love of God.
As such the ministry of our eucharistic ministers is a profoundly precious one and it is a real blessing that we’re able to serve our community in this way. All of us, in time, may receive the sacrament in such a way and it shall preserve our dignity as Children of God.
I say it is a blessing because that’s truly what the Eucharist is, as our Genesis reading reminds us when Melchizedek, priest of God Most High, having brought out bread and wine, says: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”
The relationship of promises between Abram and the Lord forms the foundations of the relationship between God and his people throughout history and here the priest Melchizedek, with whom Jesus is compared as our high priest in the letter to the Hebrews, presents us with not just bread and wine but a two fold pattern of blessings.
That is, that God blesses Abram, and that God, who has done great things for Abram, is blessed by this.
So it is with us when we come to the bread and wine.
Blessed be the Church by God Most High, who has sacrificed himself that they might have eternal life;
Blessed be God Most High, who is the strength of our salvation.
Let us remember what Jesus says in our Gospel reading, I am the living bread from heaven. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
When we approach the Eucharist we should remember that it is what it is because Jesus makes it about him. More than this we should remember and cling to our faith that Jesus is who he is for our sakes. He loves us. He desires us. He died on the cross and lives, truly lives, for us.
When we come to the bread and wine we do so as Children of God, grafted into the relationship of promises which started with Abram and God Most High; when we come to the bread and wine we both encounter Jesus and are blessed by him with all that he is for us. And by coming to the bread and wine we encounter Jesus and bless his Holy name.