Picture – church notice, central London
A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion (Corpus Christi)
‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me’ – Jesus in John’s gospel. And now, a headline from the weekend: ‘Divided, pessimistic, angry: survey reveals bleak mood of pre-Brexit UK’.
It’s hard to remember now, but we did actually disagree quite a lot before the 2016 referendum. I have a cartoon from the same newspaper in 2014, during the so-called Trojan Horse controversy. You may remember, there were allegations of infiltration of school governing bodies in Birmingham by people pushing a certain version of Islamic practice. Ofsted reports used the word ‘extremist’, and this prompted a debate about practices in other schools that might be ‘extremist’ too. The cartoon shows worried parents reading newspapers with ‘Trojan Horse’ headlines – and two girls. One has red hair – suggesting, I presume, Irish descent and therefore Roman Catholicism – and she is saying to her hijab-wearing friend, ‘Cheer up. At my sister’s school they drink blood and eat Jesus.’
This cartoon says something about the strange attitude to Christianity of an otherwise excellent newspaper. It’s also a reminder of how something that may be second nature to insiders can look weird – even extreme – when viewed from the outside. From the second century onwards, opponents of Christianity caricatured the Holy Communion as a kind of cannibalism; and you can see how those words about eating the flesh of the Son of man gave them the ammunition.
So why did Jesus do it? Why, on the night he was betrayed, just hours before he died, did Jesus leave us this to remember him? He could have left a final set of rules for us to follow – convenient in a way – but no; he left a meal. He could have left a detailed explanation of why he had to die and what it would accomplish – that would have saved us a lot of trouble – but no; he left a meal. Why? It must be because there is something about this act of eating and drinking – taking solids and liquid into yourself – in the company of others, that comes closer than anything else could to expressing what Jesus lived to proclaim and died to make possible. Many things flow from that. I’ll mention just two the way we see the world and the way God changes us.
First, how do we see the world? If the church is above all a eucharistic community, people who break bread together, that means that we are fundamentally in the hospitality business. We see the purpose of human society as one of conviviality. We share a vision of heaven with our Jewish brothers and sisters, Isaiah’s picture of a banquet, a cosmic shared meal (Isaiah 25.6-9). This means that we see all men and women and children as potential companions: literally, people you share bread with.
I acknowledge that sometimes extreme events block that potential – I am not, for instance, a complete pacifist – but Jesus in this meal shows us what is really at stake when we treat others as disposable, not just in warfare but in more everyday affairs: when (for instance) our attitudes towards the breakdown of our climate treat those far away or not yet born as irrelevant to our choices (I say this in the week the master plan for Heathrow’s third runway is published). However, ‘divided’ and ‘angry’ we may be, we are created to sit at table together. When Jesus broke bread before dying to save the world he made every soul for whom he was to die my companion.
Second, how does God change us? We know now the immense effect that food has on us. But that effect (aside from, say, food poisoning) is generally gradual: you can skip a meal and not collapse, you can have a binge and not jump a clothing size. Yet week by week, little by little, what you eat shapes the person you become. If Jesus, who makes God known to us, is the living bread, then that image points to the way we are likely to know the effects of God in our lives: not, usually, in the sudden transformation (though that can happen) but rather by a gradual, deepening change, like that which comes when you eat and drink healthily.
It is the daily and weekly diet of feeding on God – the snatched moment to pray or read the Bible, the times when you fail yet again but yet again open your heart to God and say ‘Please help me’ – it is these things that are embodied in what we do here with bread and wine. It is these things which gradually ‘feed and train us up for heaven’ (as Charles Wesley put it). They nourish in us a life that death can only change, not take away, because ‘the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’