Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, the Festival of the Holy Trinity. It was the last in a series of great festivals which began this church year back in November with Advent Sunday. Except that just when we thought we had completed the cycle, some churches on Thursday just past, almost as a PS, had one more - Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi is also known in the Anglican Church as a ‘Day of Thanksgiving for Holy Communion. As this longer title suggests, Corpus Christi celebrates the service that is known in Churches by different names: the Mass, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, Breaking of Bread, or simply, the Liturgy. Whatever title is used, the service itself has its origin in our Lord’s Last Supper with his disciples on the night he was betrayed and arrested.
As with other festivals that fall on a weekday, many churches celebrate Corpus Christi today on the Sunday following and we are no exception. It is appropriate that we are using a Mass setting today that was specially composed for us by a member of our church family, Canon Martin White. And we would send our thanks and greetings to Martin and his wife, Noreen, this morning.
This year, as many will know, we are remembering what is seen as the symbolic beginning of the European Reformation when, on October 31, 1517, a monk who taught in a university in Germany nailed his ‘Ninety-fve Theses’ to the door of a church. (At least, this is how the story has come to be told.) It was a routine way at the time of inviting academic debate. There was, however, nothing routine about what followed as a consequence. The Church in the West was to be divided into Roman Catholic and Protestant. The division is with us still. As someone who is chronically sick often learns how to live with their sickness so we in the church have learnt how to live with ours.
The division between Catholic and Protestant was over several different issues, but it became focused on the doctrine of ‘justification by faith’. Ironically, there is little disagreement between Catholics and Protestants over this now. But the Reformation didn’t just result in division between Catholic and Protestant, equally serious and bitter was the division between Protestant and Protestant. And that division was over how to understand the service we are celebrating today, and unlike justification by faith that disagreement remains today. Thankfully, although still terrible, it is normally without the bitterness that often characterized the difference and disagreement in the past.
In our closing hymn, we will pray for ‘our sad divisions soon to cease’. Sadly, there is no sign at the moment that they will. Given our divisions, it is easy to forget how much we are actually agreed upon. We in the Churches are all agreed that Jesus did share a Meal with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion and we are all agreed that he told his disciples that they should continue to do it after he had left them. We are also all agreed that the Church did continue to do so and that this service we celebrate and give thanks for today is a gift to us from God to be received gratefully and thankfully.
We are, however, a bit like someone who has been given a gift only to unwrap it and say, ‘What is it?’ Because while there is much that we all agree on, there is much that we do not, and at the heart of our disagreements is the question of how to understand the gift we have been given in this service.
The divisions at the time of the Reformation all centred on whether and in what way Jesus was present in the Eucharist. For Roman Catholics and for Luther, the monk who started it all, Christ was truly present in the bread and wine: ‘body and blood, soul and divinity’. So that to eat the bread and to drink the wine was really to eat Christ’s flesh and to drink his blood.
For other Protestants, however, this was to take it all too literally and, indeed, to miss the point. What Jesus meant at the Last Supper when he said, ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is my blood’ is that the bread and wine represent his body and blood. After all, as a matter of fact, they couldn’t be his body and blood at the time he said the words!
For those who took this position and who take it today, the Lord’s Supper is a ‘commemorative meal’; one in which we remember what our Lord did for us in the past and think on what that means for us in the present. Of course, our Lord is with us when we do this, just as he is with us when we meet on other occasions to worship and to pray. The bread and the wine, however, they believe, remain exactly what they are: bread and wine.
Some took a middle way not comfortable with what they saw as the literalness of Roman Catholics and not happy with the ‘divine absence’ of the hard-line Protestants. Christ might not be physically present in the bread and wine, they argued, but in eating and drinking the bread and wine we are doing more than remembering Christ, we are feeding on him spiritually.
Well, we are not going to solve the divisions of 500 years ago this morning. I imagine that both those in the congregation here at Christ Church and those of you listening on air or online have your own ideas and understanding. What I would say, however, is that as Christians we should begin by focusing on what we are agreed on.
And again, we are agreed that our Lord did this and wants us to do this. In other words, it is important and it matters. It is hardly conceivable that our Lord would have made this the last thing he did with his disciples if it were not.
All of which brings us to this morning’s Gospel reading. In it, Jesus 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.’
At this point, many, including many Biblical scholars, would cry, ‘Foul!’. They see it as illegitimate to link our Lord’s institution of the Eucharist with his use of very literal sounding language here in St John’s Gospel. They argue that the eating and drinking our Lord is talking about here is not the eating and drinking we do in the Eucharist, but the spiritual feeding on Christ that takes place when we believe in him and make him and his teachings the basis of our lives.
And with this understanding of Jesus’ words, I would agree. At least, this is what I think it means in the first place. After all, in our reading, Jesus is physically present with those he is speaking to. How could it mean anything less? Jesus is challenging the crowd to make faith in him so integral a part of their life that they could not live without him. Believing in him, knowing him, is to be more important to them than food and drink.
Jesus is challenging them to see him not as an optional extra in their lives, but as essential to their very existence. They are not to see him simply as some teacher who they can turn to as a guide when they need some help, but as the centre and basis of their lives without whom they cannot go on living.
This is a challenge to all who would follow Christ now as well as then.
But imagine you were hearing these words in John’s Gospel for the first time not on the lips of Jesus during his earthly ministry, but when the Gospel was read during your gathering with other Christians as a Church. We know that these gatherings, like ours this morning, centred on the Lord’s Supper. Would it have been possible to hear Jesus saying that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood without also relating his words to what you were about to do? And wouldn’t St John, the writer of the Gospel, have realized and intended this?
We may disagree as Christians on precisely how Jesus is present in our service this morning, but what we can and should agree on is our need to feed on him. Whatever our understanding of what happens in the Eucharist, we aren’t simply remembering Jesus this morning nor are we simply remembering all that he has done for us, we are reminding ourselves of our need for him and of our dependence on him for life itself.
But it is not enough for a hungry and thirsty person to be reminded that they need food and drink to live. They know that well enough. They need to be given food and drink and that, I believe, is what Jesus offers us in himself and through this service for which we are giving thanks.
There is, however, one more thing that it is all too easy to forget because it seems so glaringly obvious. All Christians are agreed that, at the very least, the bread and wine represent Christ’s body and blood, that is, they speak of his death and sacrifice: when he gave his flesh for the life of the world and poured out his blood as a sacrifice for sin so that we could be ‘justified by faith’ and ‘have peace with God.’
The trouble is that we don’t always want reminding of this. We are comfortable with the idea of Jesus as our teacher and guide. We like that he is our friend and brother, a companion in times of trouble and when we are sad or lonely. We are not so comfortable with the idea of Jesus as the Lamb of God who was sacrificed for us and because of us.
At the heart of our faith and worship is a bloody sacrifice. Jesus didn’t just die on the Cross as an event we look back on in the past, he very deliberately put his death at the very heart of what we do in the present every time we meet to celebrate the Eucharist and receive Holy Communion.
Many Christians refer to the sacrifice of the Mass. At Christ Church and in many churches, we describe the piece of furniture at the front of our place of worship as the altar. Christians have different ways of understanding how the sacrifice of Christ is experienced by us in this service. But let there be no disagreement over this: without Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, without the shedding of his blood, there would be no forgiveness of our sins, no possibility of us feeding on him or of us being able to follow him.
Christ’s death on the Cross is what makes our life as Christians possible and our worship of God acceptable.
So, this morning, we approach the altar to eat of this sacrifice, to partake in it, knowing that as Christ himself said: ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.’ But we also know that the ‘one who eats this bread will live forever.
We come then this morning to him who gave his life for us knowing that he will not turn us away. We bring our worries, fears, problems, needs, and, above all, our guilt and sin confident that the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin.
As we kneel before the altar, we are reminded that ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ And in faith, we feed on him whose ‘flesh is true food’ and whose ‘blood is true drink’.