Sunday 19th August 2018
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.
As you may know, I have not long been back from my summer holiday, which was spent bobbing around on the canals. Some people spend their holidays laying on beaches, we go to the salt factories of Cheshire and the potteries of Staffordshire. I now know much more about salt production, both ancient and modern, than I ever thought I would. But just a little word of advice, if you ever go to a salt factory never ask if the building next door is a pepper mill.
Some people just can’t take a condiment.
This year we passed through the town of Middlewich and, whilst we were there, I decided to pop into the local church for the Thursday morning communion. It was a nicely attended mid-week service, and St Michaels’s was a lovely church. Whilst taking part in that service I was powerfully reminded of the fact that to be part of the church is not just to be part of a local community, but it is to be part of something much bigger; although I was a couple of hundred miles from home, and although I had never met any of those people before and will probably never see them again, the fact that we were able to gather together in a church, to say the familiar words and to share bread and wine together demonstrated clearly that we were children of the same heavenly father, sisters and brothers in Christ and therefore part of the same Christian family. And that moment of insight into the fellowship which we share was only the tip of the iceberg. Putting aside issues of language for the moment that same Christian family could be discovered in churches around the world and, putting aside the difficulties of time travel, that same family also stretches back in time to the beginning of the Christian story, and forward to time to the end of the story, when Christ returns in glory.
To be a Christian is to be a child of God and to be part of a family of billions.
But what part does coming to Church, and doing some of the apparently strange things that we do such sharing bread and wine, have to play in being a Christian in this day and age?
It seems to me that there are two equal but opposite mistakes, both of which we should try to avoid.
The first is to act as though the church and communion are of no importance at all. That to be a Christian is simply to have a personal relationship with God, that church buildings are a waste of time and money, that the sacraments have nothing to do with Jesus and that my personal interpretation of a modern translation of the Bible always trumps 2000 years of theology and practice. If you think I am exaggerating for effect, believe me I’m not.
But there is the other extreme, of which we should also be aware. That is to treat coming to church religiously on a Sunday as all there is to being a Christian. If we hear the word of God and even if we receive the sacraments of the Church but we do not allow those things to transform the way we live the rest of our lives outside church for the rest of the week then we are merely clanging gongs or whitewashed tombs, looking clean on the outside but full of death on the inside. Again, there are no shortage of Sunday only Christians.
Of course, and as I’ve always sought to encourage, a full understanding of our faith has to include both a participation in the life of the church and its sacraments as well as living out our discipleship and our relationship with God in the real world every day of the week.
Today’s readings are a particular challenge for those who believe that being part of a church and receiving the bread and wine of communion is not essential to being a Christian. The reading from Ephesians reminds us that every moment is precious, not to be wasted, and that we should sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and that we should give thanks to God at all times and for everything. These words echo the words of the Eucharistic prayer, which urges us to be a thanksgiving people.
And the Eucharistic prayer of course leads us to the reading from John, in which Jesus talks in the most graphic and uncompromising terms about the meaning and effect of the bread and wine which we share.
“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, 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, if we are not to be the whitewashed tombs, 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.
For me, this is not a matter of ‘transubstantiation ’ versus ‘consubstantiation’ rather it is about us entering into the Holy Mystery of Communion and simply believing that if Jesus said this was his body and blood and if this was what we needed to do to have his life in us then rather than arguing about the hows, whys and wherefore we should be clamouring to receive the life of Christ within us, but also allowing that to transform us to become ever more Christ like in the way we approach God and one another.
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.
As we gather around his table this morning, and as we take communion, it may be worth bringing to mind that as we eat bread and drink wine we inviting Jesus himself into our lives both spiritually and physically, and that as we do this we enter into communion not only with God and our fellow worshipers on either side of us at the rail, but also with our brothers and sisters in Christ in Middlewich, in Tanzania, throughout the world and throughout time. And that should make each one of us into truly thankful, Eucharistic, people who are eager to go in peace to love and serve those around us in the name of Christ.