A sermon preached by the Vicar of the Close, Canon Ian Woodward
Holy Communion or as we also describe it ‘The Eucharist’ meaning ‘Thanksgiving’ is a celebration of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. For some it is celebrated on a weekly basis and sometimes more often - in the BCP there is an expectation that it should be attended at least three times a year. But however often we express our thankfulness to God we are remembering what Jesus did for us and we are sharing in his saving love that he wants us to share with one another. I’ve often wondered why we celebrate this service today – the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Haven’t we simply got the day wrong? After all today’s Feast is to officially mark the institution and gift of the Holy Eucharist – our Holy ‘Thanks- giving’ and given that it was instituted in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday shouldn’t that be the best day to do this? But of course on that day we primarily remember Christ’s Passion – the arrest, torture and crucifixion of Jesus. So this very important feast gets given the ‘fag-end’ as it were of the Church’s year as we go into that thoroughly unimaginatively titled ‘Ordinary Time’. Corpus Christi – the ‘Body of Christ’ wasn’t set at this time until 1264 by Pope Urban lV and to be more pedantic, in the 1970 Roman Missal today, it is known from its references in Thomas Aquinas’s Suma Theologica as the Body and Blood of Christ. One of the most rewarding experiences of being a priest is preparing Christians of any age for Confirmation – that public declaration and witness of their faith. When we get to the discussion on the Eucharist – the Holy Communion, the bread and wine become a practical central part of being a practising Christian. Some confirmands readily accept the theology whilst others struggle with the symbols. But all agree that it is a mystery and remains so, and that is no bad thing. There is a danger that if we lose the mystery, we lose the meaning. In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks at some length about bread and life. In John Chapter 6, the crowd questions Jesus soon after he had fed the 5,000 with bread and fish; they ask:
‘What must we do to perform the works of God and what sign are you going to give us then, so we may see it and believe?’
They went on:
‘Our ancestors ate the mana in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘he gave them bread from heaven to eat’- a quotation from the Exodus story. Jesus responds ‘Very truly I tell you it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which gives life to the world.
They said to him
‘Sir give us this bread always’
Jesus responds to them:
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”
John then recounts that the Jews then disputed among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, (in the wilderness) and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
John’s gospel is a wonderfully succinct account of what God did and does in Christ for us, and I wouldn’t attempt nor want to improve on it. Here we have history, culture, context, bread, nourishment, life death and life again, forgiveness and salvation and the promise of eternal life for all who believe. In a word the God given opportunity to change and be changed for the good of our selves our neighbours, our world, and for God. Perhaps we need to rediscover and hold on to that image of Caravagio’s of the supper at Emmaus when the risen Christ breaks the bread and the incarnate mystery is revealed.