Celebrating Eucharist: Proverbs 9, 1-6 & Mark 26, 26-20
Today we come to the end of our teaching series, our journey. Or at least we come to the end of the first section of our journey. Our journey started with celebrating baptism, the inaugural sacrament, the sacrament Jesus had to receive in order to begin his ministry. Our journey finishes, at least for today, by celebrating Eucharist, the sacrament that Jesus gave to his church as the ongoing, perpetual and sustaining sacrament.
Jesus of, course, gave the Sacrament of the Eucharist to what was to become the church on the day we call Maundy Thursday stressing to his followers that they were to ‘do this in remembrance of me.’ We do however need to be slightly careful over the word remembrance, for what Jesus is suggesting is that what we are doing every time we take Holy Communion is allowing ourselves to be re-membered, united and brought into Holy Communion with Jesus, our neighbours, and of course the ‘entire company of heaven.’ To be re-membered is to be united with; made a member of.
There is a bitter Christian irony to the notion of re-remembering as an act of unification, for throughout Christian history acrimonious, sometimes life-ending, battles have been fought over the Sacrament of the Eucharist; too often far being a source of unity it has been, tragically, a source of division and conflict. Again, tragically, it continues to do so in so many ways.
When we think of the arguments surrounding the Eucharist it is perhaps inevitable that we start our reflections with the Reformation, but to do so is to miss out on approximately 1,200 years of Christian history. During the Reformation the great debate was over the real presence of Christ at the Eucharist, but for the early church the great debate was over something seemingly far less serious: bodily posture! Or, more specifically, whether communion should be celebrated standing up or kneeling down. Bodily posture in public prayer was a central concern at the Council of Nicea; that great church council which provided the words to the creed we use to this day.
So what do you think they decided? Well, they decided that standing up was the appropriate posture for all public prayer on Sundays. In fact the council issued a canon, or mandate, insisting that the Eucharist should be celebrated and received standing.
The rationale for this was basic and straightforward: Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection, and that when we come to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist we should do so standing tall and proud as already absolved and redeemed children of God. Kneeling at the Eucharist only really became popular again in medieval times and in some ways was a political response by the emerging Protestant churches to differentiate themselves from the Roman Catholic church.
My own belief is that it is important to receive communion both standing and kneeling, although I can’t remember, for obvious reasons, when I last knelt! I also think it’s sacramentally enriching to celebrate the Eucharist using different altars. When we use the nave altar the focus is on the resurrected Christ who continues to make His pilgrimage journey down into our very midst, to welcome us and feed us. When we use the high altar the focus is on the pilgrimage we make upwards towards the ascended Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father. It’s not that one is high and the other low, or one is formal and the other less formal, it’s about celebrating the totality of Eucharistic experience.
Anyway enough of history and liturgical practice, let’s turn to the present and think about why celebrate communion in this church each and every week:
The most simple answer is this: we celebrate the Eucharist because Jesus very straightforwardly said ‘do this.’ Celebrating Holy Communion, participating in the Sacrament of the Eucharist is therefore not some form of religious choice, but an obligation and a duty. Being and obligation shouldn’t however imply a lack of enthusiasm or joy, the very word Eucharist does, after all, mean thanksgiving. Celebrating and receiving communion, as the Book of Common Prayer insists, is both a duty and a delight. It is a delight for a very basic reason: ‘in Holy Communion Christ wants our company,’ (Rowan Williams): he wants nothing more that for us to be present with him and for him. That is why each and every week I start the Eucharistic Prayer with the words ‘the Lord is here.’
In and through the Eucharist what we are invited to experience is the very true, and very real, hospitality of the resurrected Jesus. The effect of this should hopefully be that the spiritual food that we consume should in turn make us more hospitable, more inclusive, more equipped to share our table story with others. Put simply if we aren’t open to the possibility of being both transfigured and transformed by the very act of participating in the Eucharist then why on earth bother with it all, for the very point of receiving Holy Communion is that we should be transformed into a Holy Communion of God’s chosen people? Holy Communion, in the words of Rowan Williams ‘is not only about our redemption but our re (my addition) creation.’
My own theology of the Eucharist is far more small c Catholic than Protestant for I would, and do, affirm the real presence of the Lord who is here and I would never want to reduce the Eucharist to a straightforward recollection of the Last Supper. For me Holy Communion, or Eucharist, comprises the following characteristics:
It is a commemoration of the Last Supper, but it is also an affirmation of the resurrection and an anticipation of that which is to come. Commemoration, affirmation, and anticipation, these three, are what makes the Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, so enriching and re-creative. It is through combination of these three sacramental virtues – which comprise our act of remembrance - that we ourselves become re-membered.
As you come forward to receive communion today can I ask you to reflect on two things:
Firstly, you come because you are wanted by God – the Lord (who) is here and secondly, that we receive Holy Communion in order that we might become a Holy Communion.
Come and receive just as you are. Not because you are worthy but because Jesus wants to meet you, feed you, transform you and re-member you, Amen.
The Unjust Structures of Society and Reconciliation
I wonder whether anyone has ever said to you ‘you are not going to like what I am going to say but.....’ or indeed whether you have felt the need to say something similar to someone else? I think today’s readings, both the Old Testament reading and the gospel, might have started with ‘you are not going to like it but....’
In some ways it might be a little easier to accept what I am saying in relation to the Old Testament reading. After all, we might feel ourselves justified if someone came up to us during the service, maybe at the juncture between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament, where we share the peace and said loudly for all to hear, ‘I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.’ I suspect were this to occur we would feel both embarrassed and angry. We would very possibly also offer a quick prayer asking that this sort of incident wouldn’t happen again in the future. I suspect that it is highly unlikely that we would say to ourselves, and to those around us, ‘Aha I see that we have a true prophet in our midst!’
I sometimes think that the church has a problem with the Beatitudes, for such is the majesty of the language that we tend to sanitise them. But listen closely once more to some of what Jesus has to say:
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil falsely against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’
What I take from this is that our vocation as Christians is not to seek reward in the here and now, nor to curry favour from the great and the good, but to dare to speak truth to power, just as the prophets did and just as Jesus did. We are, after all, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, to be the ‘Church Militant;’ we do pray each and every day for the breaking in of the Kingdom of God ‘here on earth as in heaven.’
As baptised and communicant members of the Church, fed each week through both word and sacrament, and sent at the end of every Eucharist to ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord,’ we have a basic obligation to seek to bring peace and justice into the here and now and where there is an absence of peace and justice to speak truth to power: our faith without both works and words is, to paraphrase James,‘quite dead.’ We should also take to heart the words of Amos, for in the absence of a commitment to seek justice, peace and reconciliation, our worship will be unrequited.
A true missionary church is a church which cares deeply about justice. A true missionary church is one that offers the hand of friendship and love to those in need whilst also looking upstream to identify the causes of injustice. Desmond Tutu makes this point, beautifully, on the quote on your pew sheet. Desmond Tutu is, of course, a modern day icon for Anglicanism’s, fourth Mark of Mission.
Here in Winslow we are blessed by having a patron, St. Laurence, who exemplifies the ability to offer the hand of friendship and love to those in need, whilst speaking truth to power and they ‘reviled’ him for it; in fact they put him to a brutal death for it, but his story is still told, his impact is still experienced. Laurence, the Deacon, dared to say to the Roman Imperial Powers that the poor are the treasures of the church. Who in this day and age to do we need to so treasure? Where and how we do we need to argue for justice and righteousness? If we are serious about mission and evangelism these are some of the questions we must ask of ourselves.
A small group of people have pledged to think through some of these issues so that we can become a ‘Church militant,’ a church which honours our patronage, pays heed to the prophecy of Amos and lives out the Beatitudes, a church which plays its own small part in ‘seeking to transform the unjust structures of society, challenging violence of every kind and seeking to pursue peace and reconciliation?’ If you would like to contribute to our thinking in this area please do speak to George Hooper.
In the meantime let us pray:
Loving Lord, show us how to challenge injustice and seek righteousness, for your name’s sake, Amen.
Matthew 7:24-27 by Rev’d Mark.
I love Harvest Thanksgiving Services. As I was a gardener before being ordained I need little excuse to be given the opportunity to praise God for the wonders of his creation. There are so many things that we have to be thankful to God for, and this is right at the top of the list.
In praising God for his wondrous creation we think of the usual things, the soil and the sunlight, (and although we do like to complain about it) the weather that brings the life-giving rains. It doesn’t matter where you look, from the planetary forces that drive the whole thing to the micro-organisms that although we don’t realise, we are completely reliant on. We should be humbled by all of this, the intricate beauty that is all around. It never ceases to amaze.
And today we are praising God for the results of his creation. The goodness of food, food that many of us shared on Friday night. The variety of it, how it brings us all together, how we bond over a meal.
Today’s Gospel reading, although not about food as such, can be seen as a comment on how we don’t always act in ways that protect God’s creation, the creation that nurtures and supports us. How we build houses on dodgy foundations, not thinking of the long term effects of our actions, too busy with short term gains.
We gladly behave in ways that does damage to the very systems that we depend on, grabbing more than our fair share whilst others go without. If our children behaved like that at a party, taking the best of the goodies for themselves and letting others go hungry then surely we would have words with them about their behaviour and we would be right, because it is always easier to recognise the greed and selfishness and injustice when it concerns other people than it is to spot it in ourselves.
Today we are going to sing, “All things bright and beautiful”. It reminds us that God is seen in all of his creation. We sing that his will is done on the just reward of labour, in the help that we give to our neighbour, in our worldwide task of caring for the hungry and despairing.
There is one plant that Jesus would have been very familiar with, and that is the Olive Tree and he would have known that it can take up to 30 years before an Olive Tree becomes productive. The ancient Greek philosopher Sophocles described them as, “the tree that feeds the children” not because kids love olives (in my household olives are only beaten by broccoli and Brussels sprouts for just how disgusting they are) but because it took what was then a human lifespan for them to bear fruit.
But as the average lifespan of an olive tree is between 300 and 600 years a bit of long term planning produces big results. The oldest Olive tree in the world is in Crete and it is approximately 5000 years old.
People who grow olives know that it takes commitment, that their foundations have to be built on solid ground. They know that they won’t see the fruits of their labour overnight but it will be others that reap the benefit of their work and perhaps they have a lot to teach us as we try to sow our seeds of faith in God’s kingdom.
Our hope is not just for our children and our grandchildren, just as we are inheritors of countless generations of pilgrims who have gone before so others will come after us. When we work for a world that will show gratitude to God by the way we care for the soil and share the harvest we are building on solid ground.
As followers of Jesus, we have every reason to believe that our commitment and patience and hope will not be wasted but will bear fruit in a multitude of surprising ways, not just in the hymns that we sing, but in the way that we hold God’s creation in our hearts and in our actions.
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