Sunday 16th August 2015
Holy Communion at St Mary’s Hadlow
Readings Ephesians 5:15-20 & John 6:51-58
May I speak this morning in the name of God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I had originally planned to celebrate today as St. Mary’s patronal festival and I transferred the readings about Mary from yesterday to today. However when it became clear to me that this would mean that we would not be hearing about the gospel actually set for today I changed my mind and we shall now be celebrating our patronal on the 6th September.
The reason I changed my mind is because the verses we heard today from John 6 lie at the heart of our identity as a church which places the Eucharist or the communion or the mass at the centre of our worship life. These are, of course, all interchangeable words for the service that we are in now – Eucharist from the Greek meaning ‘thanksgiving’, communion from the fact that we enter into communion with God and one another through the service and mass coming from the blessing at the end of the Latin service ‘Ite missa es’ meaning “to send out” as Jesus sent out his disciples.
And it is worth remembering from the outset that not all churches do place the Eucharist at the centre of worship life. There are plenty of churches out there, even within the Anglican fold, who only occasionally break bread and share wine and, when they do, it is treated simply as a memorial of the Last Supper and many of them would often have no truck with the idea either of the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine or of them having any role in the work of our salvation.
Interestingly it is those churches who most often call themselves ‘bible based’ who are the most anti-sacramental and yet they seem keen to ignore these verses from the bible which speak to me quite explicitly of the importance, and centrality, and effect of the bread and wine we share in communion. There is a book in my study by a well known evangelical writer and former bishop which contains reflections on the readings for every Sunday in the year – however in the entry for today he almost completely ignores the gospel and concentrates instead on the old testament reading.
The fact is that today’s gospel reading is difficult, controversial and divisive and that is as true today as it was on the day that Jesus first said them. Next week Annemarie will be looking at the reaction of many of those who heard Jesus speak and we will see that his teaching on this was too difficult for many and they stopped following him. Some of the causes for the division between Catholic and Orthodox, between Catholic and Protestant and even within the Anglican church are due to our understanding of what is going on in the communion service. The safest course of action might be to ignore the difficult and controversial stuff, perhaps like the book I just mentioned, but if the words of Jesus are to be believed then this is a central issue of our salvation and deserves to be addressed head on. And the controversial stuff is always more interesting in my view.
Verses 51-58 come near the end of Chapter 6 of John but it is worth briefly reminding ourselves of the arc of the story which comes first as it makes this climax to the argument more contextual. Please feel free to look at your pew bibles as we go.
The beginning of chapter 6 is the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. Jesus blessed the loaves and fish and distributed them throughout the crowd and, of course, there were 12 baskets left over. This was Jesus satisfying physical hunger with the distribution of physical food but via a miraculous multiplication. There are undoubtedly echoes here of the Hebrew people in the desert with Moses being fed by miraculous manna from heaven, although there was only satisfaction of their physical hunger in both cases.
This was then followed by Jesus withdrawing from the crowd who wanted to make him King because of this sign and he walked across the water to the boat which contains the disciples. But the next day the crowd caught up with Jesus and he accused them of only following him because he satisfied their physical hunger and he told them that they should work not for food that spoils but for food that endures to eternal life.
When asked what this work involved in verse 29 Jesus told the crowd that the work of God which endures to eternal life is to believe in the one that he sent.
But the crowd wanted another miraculous sign from Jesus, who had fed them only the day before, and they cited to him the story of God sending down manna or bread from heaven to feed the people in the wilderness. Of course there is some irony that the people God fed with manna in the desert were often as ungrateful and forgetful of God’s grace as this crowd who had been fed by a miracle only the day before and were now demanding more. Although perhaps that is equally true of us.
And this leads on to the reading we had last week in which Jesus said that he was the bread of life sent down from heaven but that unlike common bread or even unlike manna anyone who came to him would never be hungry again. But even this statement was controversial as some in the crowd wondered how Jesus could possibly be sent from heaven as they knew Mary and Joseph. We spoke only a few weeks ago about prophets having no honour in their home and this is another example of that truth.
Finally we get to today’s reading. Having said that he, Jesus, is the bread of life sent from heaven Jesus develops the argument to its logical conclusion:
“If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” v.51
This caused more grumblings and dissension and so Jesus spelt it out for them, and for us, as clearly as possible:
“I tell you the truth, unless you can eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”
I will not pretend that this is not a difficult lesson to hear, even now, and Annemarie will be looking at that further next week, but to me it is also unambiguous. The work of God is, yes, to believe in Jesus, the one whom God sent to be the bread of life. But, if we are to have any life in us and if we are to be raised up on the last day, then we are also called to consume the flesh and blood of Christ as he commanded at the last supper and as John has explicated here.
And so, you may ask, do I believe that Christ is really present in the bread and wine that we consume here every week, in fact three times a week? Undoubtedly and unashamedly I believe in the real presence of Christ in that sacrament. When you and I receive communion I believe that we are eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ both as he commanded and as he said that is the only way we shall have life within us and eternal life at the end of all things.
The more theologically minded may be saying; but what is your position on transubstantiation and consubstantiation?
In case you weren’t thinking that, Catholic scholars came up with the term “transubstantiation” which means that the substance, the underlying reality if you will, of the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ while their outward forms remain as bread and wine.
Martin Luther and his followers came up with “consubtantiation” which meant that neither the outward appearance nor the substance of the bread and wine were really changed but that Christ became united with the bread and wine in a purely spiritual sense through the power of the Holy Spirit.
And whilst this may seem like scholars playing with words we should not forget that people went to the stake over these questions, or rather over this desire to answer the question about what happens in the sacrament, to unravel the mystery.
But whilst Catholics and Protestants in the West tussled over these questions and burnt each other at the stake for either coming up with or subscribing to different answers the Eastern Orthodox church has had an entirely different approach, and one that I find highly attractive.
Firstly the word they use for the sacraments of the church, including communion, is not sacrament but rather, they call them the Holy Mysteries. But, unlike Agatha Christie stories, these Holy Mysteries are not intended to be solved, rather they are to be entered into with the eyes of faith as a pure gift from God. So they believe firmly that Christ is really present in the elements of bread and wine but how is he present? It is a Mystery! In what form is he present, physically or spiritually? It is a Mystery! At what point during the communion service does he become present – you can probably guess – It is a Mystery!
And a Holy Mystery does not mean that Reverend White did it in the drawing room with a revolver, rather a Holy Mystery, in this case the Mystery or Sacrament of Holy Communion is a pure gift from God, given that we should be able to share in the body and blood of Christ as Christ himself said we should and thus enter into eternal life in communion with God.
So our encounter with Christ in the Eucharist is both real and mysterious but it is not a mystery to be solved; rather it is a mystery to be experienced and to be lived. We all privileged to be invited and welcome to enter into the life of Christ and to have him enter into our lives around his table this morning.