We had the first of our Lent Bible Studies last night. It is always hard to attract people during the week here, for good reason, so it was encouraging to see those who did come! As I have said previously, this year we are thinking about the Eucharist and its meaning. Most of our services at Christ Church are Eucharistic and follow a set liturgy. Given this, it is all too easy to become mechanical in our worship and to fail to pause to meditate on the significance of what we are doing.
One of the questions, I want us to ask during these studies is about what is happening when we receive the consecrated bread and wine. Is anything happening that can only happen in this way by this means? Do I receive something tangible from God that I would not otherwise receive? And if so, what?
I spoke last night of my own developing understanding of the meaning of the Eucharist. I began my Christian life in a context in which Communion was peripheral and unimportant. At Bible College, I came to believe, through studying the New Testament, that partaking of the Lord's Supper should be the focus of our gatherings for worship. As a curate on the Wirral in the UK, I increasingly came to believe that Communion was something that we did together. This is important because very often people focus on their own private Communion with God to the exclusion of their Communion with each other. I found the book by Robert Banks, Paul's Idea of Community, very helpful in thinking this through.
When I left the Wirral, I had, then, a strong view on the central importance of the Eucharist for Christian worship and a belief that it was a communal celebration. I still, however, saw it fundamentally as something we were doing because our Lord had told us to, something that encouraged us to look back to what he had done for us rather than something that had real benefit in the present. To put it another way: while there are always blessings that are to be had from obedience to God, in principle there was nothing to be received in Communion that could not be received by other means - through praise, prayer and preaching, for example.
It was only after my return to parish ministry in Scotland that I found myself focusing more intensely on what was happening when receiving Communion. Was it only because our Lord had commanded it that we did this? Was its only benefit that it helped us to look back to what Christ had done for us? It was here that Calvin proved especially helpful in my thinking. To cut a long story short: I came to see Communion as conveying what could not be received by any other means and that something very real truly is present when we receive Communion.
I thus came to the place from which I approach these Lenten Studies with three basic convictions:
1. Worship should be Eucharistic, that is, the Eucharist should be at the heart of our life together as the Church.
2. Communion is both about our Communion with each other as fellow members of the Body of Christ and also about our Communion with Christ himself. In the Eucharist, there are thus two key moments: at the Peace when the Celebrant says, 'We are the Body of Christ', and at the administration of the sacrament when the minister says to the Communicant, 'This is the Body of Christ'.
3. When we receive the consecrated bread and wine, we really are feeding on the body and blood of Christ, truly present in the sacrament and this feeding is vital to both our spiritual and physical health as Christians.
Next week, I want to look at the Eucharist as a violent and bloody sacrifice. This week, I looked at my own developing understanding over my ministry of the Eucharist as something that conveys real benefits to the believer in the present. I want now to begin to look at the nature of these benefits by looking back to the context of our Lord's institution of the Eucharist. It is for very good reason that we call the place where the bread and wine are laid an altar.