The following is a sermon I preached for Corpus Christi this year. As I am about to write on the Eucharist in my series on my spiritual journey, I thought it might be useful to post it. It can also be heard on my Church's website.
"For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes." (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NRSV)
"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." The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" 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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."" (John 6:51-58 NRSV)
June 7 was the day known as Corpus Christi. In some parts of the world, it is a public holiday. Corpus Christi is Latin for the Body of Christ. As the Anglican lectionary puts it, it is a ‘Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion’, otherwise known as the Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, or the Breaking of Bread. However, as these different names suggest, there are real differences between Christians as to what it means and what, if anything, happens in it.
These differences largely emerged as a result of the 16th century European Reformation. At the time of the Reformation, the Reformers were very critical of the way the Catholic Mass was celebrated. I think most, Roman Catholics included, would agree nowadays that there was some justification for theReformers concerns. It needs to be said, however, that the Mass celebrated by Roman Catholics today is very different to the Mass celebrated then and of which the Reformers were so critical. Criticisms of the practice of the Mass in the 16th century cannot simply be transferred to the Roman Catholic Mass of the present.
It was one thing for the Reformers to agree on their protest, another altogether agreeing on an alternative. There emerged sharp disagreements between the Reformers. Neither they, nor their followers, could agree on an understanding of the Eucharist. These disagreeemnets are still with us today.
At the risk of a gross over-simplification, there were and are, basically three different approaches. At one extreme, are those who see nothing happening in the elements of the Eucharist. This was the position of Zwingli and his followers. Essentially for them, the Eucharist is a chance to remember what Christ has done for us. The elements of bread and wine merely serve as visual aids to help us in this act of remembrance. They remind us of His body given for us and His blood shed for us. Nothing happens to them, in them, or through them. They remain bread and wine.
Everyone would agree that the bread and wine do help us to remember, but is that really all they do? At the other extreme were Reformers who took a position very similar to the Roman Catholics. This was the position of Luther and his followers. For them, the bread and the wine actually do become the body and blood of Christ so that when we eat the bread and drink the wine at Communion, we are, quite literally, eating Christ’s body and drinking Christ’s blood.
Many wanted to say that more is happening than mere remembrance. But are we really physically eating Christ’s flesh and drinking Him blood? A third alternative was taken by those who were not happy in seeing the bread and the wine as physically body and blood, but who could not accept that nothing is happening except an act of remembrance. They argued that that while the bread and wine remains physically bread and wine, they nevertheless became the means by which spiritually we eat Christ’s body and drink his blood. The bread and wine so represent Christ’s body and blood that they enable us by faith to feed on Christ spiritually. This was the position of Calvin. Calvin also argued that Holy Communion should take place each week and should be at the heart of the Church.
Strangely, those who followed Calvin more generally in his teaching in the Reformed Churches, largely did not follow him in his understanding and the practice of Holy Communion. Ironically, it was Anglicanism that did not follow Calvin more generally on other matters that took up his position on Holy Communion. It is Calvin’s understanding that is reflected, broadly speaking, in the Anglican liturgy we use Sunday by Sunday. Although with Anglicanism being Anglicanism, you will find Anglicans at each of the extremes and at all points in between!
What do you think? What do you think is happening in our service of Eucharist this morning? What are you doing when you eat the bread and drink the wine? And, perhaps more importantly, does it matter? To attempt an answer to these questions, let us think for a moment about why we do this in the first place.
On the night before he died, Jesus had a Last Meal with His disciples, a meal that the Gospel writers tell us that He went to some trouble to arrange. It mattered to Him that it took place. The Meal had the character of a Passover Meal. This was a meal celebrated annually by the Jewish people, then as now. Jesus reinterpreted this sacred Jewish meal, which remembered the deliverance from Egypt, to refer to Himself and His soon to be death. He famously told them to do this in remembrance of Him.
So seriously did His disciples take this that their re-creation of the Last Supper took place weekly, and not annually, as was the case with the original Passover Meal. Incredibly, within 20 years of Jesus’ death, we know that this Meal was the centre of Christian worship in churches of Gentiles in Greece.
In our reading from 1 Corinthians 11, Paul tells us that he had passed on to the Corinthians what had been passed on to him, namely the details of the Last Supper. This meal was something they too shared in week by week in their gatherings. It was not an optional extra or something at the periphery of the Christian faith, but something central to it.
What is more, it is clear from what Paul writes to the Corinthians that it was understood as far more than act of remembrance. Paul elsewhere in 1 Corinthians describes it as ‘participation’ in Christ’s body and blood. So seriously does Paul take it that he believes that the reason why some of the Corinthians have become sick or have died is because of their failure to celebrate the Lord’s Supper properly.
Jesus went to great trouble to institute this meal, a practice established by how seriously His first followers took it. But why? Why did Jesus want His disciples to do this in remembrance of Him?
I think that John gives us the answer in the Gospel reading for this morning. John does not describe the actual institution of the Eucharist. Instead, he gives us an account of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus tells those listening that He is the Living Bread. But then He says, ‘Very truly’ – in other words He wants His hearers to take what follows very seriously indeed – ‘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.’
Even more startling He says, ‘Whoever eats me will live because of me’
This very graphic way of speaking was just too much for his audience in the synagogue, who could not understand how they could eat His flesh or drink his blood. What is more, it was too much for many of His disciples who, we are told, stopped following Him because of what He had said.
Jesus is not saying that they should indulge in cannibalism as if chewing on His arm would do them any good, but that they must feed on Him in the sense that they must become as dependent on Him for life as they are dependent on food and drink. He is to be the source of their life, the basis on which they live, the One they worship and follow. This is to be a dependency and reliance on him that goes beyond faith and obedience. It is a complete identification with Him so that life without Him becomes not only undesirable, but impossible and unthinkable.
Those who so feed and depend on Christ in this way are promised that they will have eternal life. This is not just life after death, although it includes that, but life here and now.
His disciples who left him realized what this means and what it entails. It means abandoning trust and reliance on anything or anyone else ourselves included. It means relying solely and absolutely on Jesus for life, strength, and fulfilment: not money, not family, not our own achievements, not our own resources, nor anything else, but only on Christ. It is not just a spiritual reliance whereby we depend on Christ in, for example, our prayer life. It is a complete spiritual, emotional, psychological, and intellectual dependence on Him in which our physical welfare becomes of no consequence compared to doing His will.
One of the accusations frequently made against Christians is that we are weak people, who cannot make it on our own. We need an emotional and psychological crutch. The truth, however, is that we are not weak enough. We think we can rely on Christ and ….. and money, and career, and our gifts and abilities. But, as Paul put it, it is only when we realize our own weakness, only when we abandon all hope and trust in ourselves, only when we are so utterly crushed and broken that it is only on Christ that we depend, then, and only then, will we know the power of God. For the power of God is made perfect in weakness.
What is the source of my life here in the present? What is my hope for life in the future? What is my strength? Not my intellect. Not my gifts. Not my status or position. Not my wealth or influence. Nothing, but Christ.
‘Nothing in my hand I bring,Simply to the cross I cling;Naked, come to Thee for dress;Helpless look to Thee for grace;Foul, I to the fountain fly;Wash me, Savior, or I die.’
Paul writes: ‘Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ …’ (Philippians 3:7-8) And this is what Jesus means when He says:
‘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.’
For Jesus’ words this morning are not just a promise, but a statement of a stark reality: it is only by feeding on Christ that we can have life. This feeding on Christ begins when we first trust in Christ and commit ourselves to Him, but it is a feeding that must be continual. It is in Holy Communion supremely that we do this. Here the benefits of Christ’s death are made available to us. Here we are united with Him in his death. And here the benefits of his death are made available to us for without the death of Christ nothing would be possible.
Paul writes: ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’. As we meet each week for Holy Communion, we proclaim that it is only in the death of Christ that life may be found, and we call others to join us in this life. We also pronounce the judgement of God on this world and its values. We tell the world so confident in its power, strength, and wealth that it is only in the humiliation, weakness, and poverty of the Cross that the true God is to be found. Here Sunday by Sunday the world is judged and its idols laid bare.
We gather here today to feed on Christ and to receive from him all we need for life both now and forever.