Notes from the sermon by Paul Magnall 6th October 2019 – The Eucharist (Part 1 – Sign of love / Sign of hope)
Friday was 4th October the feast of St Francis, the last day of Creation-tide and the time when we focus specifically on God’s Creation, not that we should forget about it for the rest of the year! And Extinction Rebellion will be doing their bit this week to remind us about how we are treating God’s creation.
Today is when we celebrate harvest. We urban dwelling people are more out of touch with the seasons and so harvest might otherwise pass us by especially if we are not involved in growing and harvesting any of our own foods. I will be talking about food today (I never stop thinking about food!) but not so much in connection with harvest.
As I have talked about before, much of our lives, both individual lives and community lives, are guided and influenced by the stories that we tell or are told. If we are brought up to believe that we are superior to everyone else then we will live that way. If we are told that we are worthless when we are young then that is what we are likely to believe as we grow up. If we are part of a nation who believe that they were a great nation once upon a time and that now we have lost our influence in the world then we may well believe that we need to make our nation great again. Some of the stories that influence us are quite obvious, some are much more hidden and subtle.
So today “I wanna tell you a story”!
“Way, Way back many centuries ago, not long after the Bible began!” (Catherine plays tune)
The story of the Bible starts with Creation, something we have been looking at over the last month during Creation tide. The creation story ends with Adam and Eve walking with God in the garden, in paradise. But then things go wrong
Time passes and a very wealthy Jacob with his many wives and sons are living together tending their sheep. Joseph is brought up believing himself to be Jacob’s favourite son and so he acts in a way that really gets his brothers backs up and they try to do away with him. To cut a long story short, as we don’t have the time this morning and I can’t do the whole Bible in half an hour like Heston does, the whole of Jacob’s family end up abandoning their lifestyle and moving to Egypt where they are welcomed. Time passes, Jacobs descendants have increased in numbers and the Egyptians feel threatened by these “refugees” that they welcomed in and so they make them into slaves and all male offspring are killed. Along comes Moses and after some further amazing stories and not a few plagues the Israelites leave Egypt for the wilderness. A new story emerges of how God has chosen them and rescued them from slavery. This is a great new story to live by, they are chosen, special, loved. God is with them. But, and there’s always a but, how will they live in the wilderness? At least in Egypt they had a roof over their heads and some food to eat even if they were slaves!
But God has something else to teach them. The Joy in Enough! Every morning, except the Sabbath, there was enough food for them. It miraculously appeared. There was enough for the day, not too much, not too little, just enough. Except on the day before the Sabbath when there would be enough for the next day as well. We are reminded of this when we pray “give us this day our daily bread” – a prayer for enough, not too much, not too little – a prayer that we should be satisfied with enough.
And so for forty years the people of Israel wander in the desert learning to trust in God, learning how to live in community sharing what they have and that they could live on enough.
Jewish tradition grew from this. Every Sabbath the family would sit together and remember parts of the story of the Exodus using the food of their meal as symbols. For example, in the Sabbath meal on the Friday night they have two loaves of bread to remind themselves that God gave two lots of manna on the day before the Sabbath.
And each year Jewish families celebrate the Passover, Pesach Sedar, with a meal with even more symbolism. Examples include
• bitter herbs to represent the bitterness of slavery in Egypt,
• unleavened bread to represent the speed with which the Israelites had to pack up and leave Egypt, they didn’t have time to let the bread rise
• Salt water to represent the tears of the slaves
• Cushions on the seats to show that they can now recline in comfort at their meal since they are no longer slaves
Pesach Sedar, the Passover meal, is celebrated in many different ways across the world with added symbolism according to the history of that Jewish community eg an additional cup of wine known as Miriam’s cup is used in some communities to symbolise Miriam’s Well and the role of women in the Exodus story.
There is so much symbolism and storytelling in this meal and this has sustained Jewish communities over the centuries through all the good times and the bad times.
So let us go back to the time of Jesus and the stories that the Jewish community were telling themselves at that time, and the way in which Jesus wove old and new meaning into the story.
The Jews were again being oppressed. This time they weren’t slaves in a foreign land, they were living in their own homeland, the land that God had promised them but they were being ruled over by yet another invader – the pagan Romans.
The Romans allowed the Jews a certain amount of religious freedom but they were definitely in charge. They imposed their own rules which often contradicted the religious rules of the time. They taxed everyone. They took over land to grow food and wine to export back to Rome. They set about factory fishing the lakes for fish to in order to send them back to Rome. They were the supreme colonialists. And if anyone contradicted them or opposed them they had the military machine to impose “Roman Peace” and to remind everyone that Caesar was the all-powerful “Son of God”.
The Passover meal gained importance for many Jews as it gave them hope, if God could rescue them from the Egyptians He could do it again with the Romans. It inspired some to resist the Romans, every Passover festival the Romans had to send extra troops to Jerusalem in order to enforce their “Roman Peace”.
Into this situation came Jesus. He reminded the Jews of their story, often re-interpreted it and brought new meaning. Let’s look at a few examples:
• In feeding the 4000 and 5000 he reminded them of the story of God feeding them in the wilderness with manna from heaven, that God supplies all their needs, that they should have “Joy in Enough”. Their wealth was not in material things but in being a community walking with God.
• In listening to, speaking to and healing people from all races, all backgrounds, all walks of life – the untouchables, the women, the foreigners, the oppressors, the other – Jesus reminded them that God is the creator of all and the lover of all Creation.
• Jesus told them that to be the children of God you should love your enemies and pray for them since God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:45)
Jesus told a story of a chosen people that was different from the one that the Jewish community were living by at the time. The narrative of Jesus was about a God who loved all of creation, who provided for all and that we should all respond by loving and caring for all of creation and each other. And this narrative got him into a lot of trouble!
So, back to food!
According to the synoptic gospels the last meal that Jesus had with his disciples was a Passover meal or Pesach Sedar. Jesus took the meal that his fellow Jews ate to remember their time as slaves in Egypt and to celebrate that God chose them as a people and led them out of Egypt, into the wilderness and then onto the promised land, Jesus took that meal and gave it what was to become a new narrative, a new story for his followers. In the Jewish Passover those taking part would discuss the symbolism of the meal – the roasted lamb, the unleavened bread, the wine, the bitter herbs. In the meal that Jesus celebrated with his followers Jesus did the same but differently. He talked of the bread as being his body, of the wine as his blood – as I understand it he was redefining the symbols as speaking of what was happening to him. He was saying “I am bringing to this meal a new understanding, a new narrative, a new story. Use these symbols to retell my story in the same way that Jews have retold their story for centuries before.” Of course, the disciples were so wrapped up in their traditional narrative they didn’t understand until after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The early Christian Church was mostly made up of Jewish followers of Jesus and they would have celebrated the Sabbath and the Passover in the traditional Jewish way but with a Christian narrative. As the church grew and non-Jewish Christians grew in number their practice would have been different as they wouldn’t have had that Jewish tradition, that Jewish narrative to guide them.
Here is a description of early Christian worship from the second century AD.
Early Christian worship
In the middle of the second century a Christian writer, Justin, explains
Christian practice to the educated Roman public, telling how ‘On that day
which is called after the sun all who are in the towns and in the country
gather together for a communal celebration.’ First the writings of apostles
and prophets are read, ‘as long as time permits’; then follows an
exhortation by the president:
Then we all rise together and pray and, when our prayer is ended,
bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like
manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability,
and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to
each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given,
and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And
they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and
what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the
orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other
cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers
sojouming among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in
need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common
assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a
change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ
our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.
[From The Sign of Love, chapter 1, by Tim Gorringe]
Since that time, as Christianity has spread around the world and met different cultures and sub-cultures, been absorbed into the Roman Empire and other empires as the state religion new narratives, new interpretations and new practices have either sprung up or been imposed. Today all the different “flavours” of Christianity have their own emphasises, their own practices, their own narratives. I come from a background of exclusivity in the celebration of this meal. In the church that I first went to only those who were baptised and were members of that local church could take part in the meal, it was held once a month after the service once everyone else had left and consisted of tiny squares of white sliced bread and tiny thimble like cups of non-alcoholic wine plus lots of words. It had it’s good points and it’s bad points!
We all have our own backgrounds. Some of us have no or very little experience of church practices. Some are from so-called “low” church, some are from “high” church, many of us are from Western traditions but some are from Eastern traditions. We all have our own stories, narratives, interpretations that hopefully speak to us through this meal.
Sign of love / sign of hope
Over thousands of years people have been sustained and inspired by the signs of love and signs of hope that they have found in the Sabbath and Passover meals and the Eucharist or Holy Communion. A meeting place for God and people – God and people sat down together, sharing food and wine, listening to one another and caring for each other, sharing one another’s joys and burdens, recapturing God’s plan for all of Creation. I believe that in these times of political and environmental crisis we need this sign of love and hope more than ever. For me, the story of a faithful God working throughout history, through all sorts of people, continually reminding us of His-Story, his narrative for the world, giving us our daily bread, continually breaking down the barriers between us, giving us new life, new hope – I am reminded of all of this in the simple sharing of bread and wine.
Over the next 6 weeks we would love it if we could share and explore our understanding of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Mass, Holy Communion, whatever you choose to call this meal. It is a central part of most, but not all, Christian traditions. It is so full of meaning and death and life and resurrection, of symbolism and of power and of the power to change.
If you would like to find out more about this series then please visit Phil Gardner’s site.