Notes from the sermon by the Rev Dr Angela Birkin 27th October 2019 – The Eucharist (Part 4)
Introduction to the Eucharist
We are here this morning to celebrate together the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, or the Mass.
In celebrating the Eucharist, we will be drawing on traditions some of which go back to the first Christians, some of which are more recent, many of which have been rediscovered and recovered in the last century or so.
Such as the wearing of vestments – which were derived from clothing worn by civic leaders in the Rome of Emperor Constantine and were adopted by the new official religion of Christianity, taking on a new significance.
Our music may have its origins in medieval plainsong, choral music of the renaissance, the hymn writing of the 18th and 19th century, local folk music or modern pop and rock music and may be played on the organ, the cello, the guitar, the piano, drums or any number of other instruments or no instruments at all. Music may be played live or be recorded.
We may or may not light candles, burn incense, or process around our church buildings.
Our church buildings may be large or small, old or modern, very many such as St Michael’s and St Chad’s and the previous building on this site were built by the Victorians in the gothic style. Our buildings may have stained glass windows, icons, statues or other works of art or may be very plain.
We may bow, kneel, cross ourselves, genuflect or put our hands in the air at various points in the service or we may not. We may use computers and TV screens utilizing PowerPoint with video clips or we may use worship booklets or folders. None of these are right; none of these are wrong. None of these are essential, all have a place in Christian worship
What occurs here may look very different to what is happening this morning at St Michael or St Chad’s but is essentially the same. And is in fact essentially the same as the worship that will take place in Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic Churches all over the world and has taken place in churches back through the centuries.
We gather together with a President, there are readings from the New Testament and possibly from the Hebrew Scriptures, the OT, there is a sermon or talk or reflection, we pray together and share the peace, bread and wine are brought to the table, the president gives thanks over them and they are distributed to those present, and may then be taken out to those who are not present for example due to sickness. You’ll be glad to know that a collection was taken from very early times.
Within an Anglican service the prayers will usually include confession – saying sorry, praise, and intercession for others, and the prayer over the bread and wine, the Eucharistic or thanksgiving prayer will be one approved by the national church.
All prayer will be in the name of the triune God praying to God the creator, through the Son in the power of the Spirit.
Spoiler alert for part 2 of my talk later but I believe that God, the one true God who is love is present in a very special way in this service and that has consequences!
2 quotes from our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians written probably around 54 to 55AD so only just over 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, “Do this in remembrance of me”, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
I find it a bit mind boggling, thrilling and very moving that in this Eucharist this morning we are worshipping God and remembering what God has done for us through Jesus Christ not only in the same way as Christians all over the world today, but also in the same way as the first Christians at the time of Paul; breaking and sharing of bread and drinking wine. Not exactly the same of course but there is significant continuity.
Bread and wine were normal elements of a Jewish meal at the time of Jesus, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the early church appears to have developed out of a whole range of associations between Jesus and eating and drinking:
- The last supper of course, but also
- Many meals with all kinds of people during Jesus’ earthly ministry
- Miraculous feedings by Jesus – the feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle story of Jesus that is recorded in all 4 Gospels
- Jesus’ use in his teaching of the picture of the kingdom of God as a feast or wedding banquet, and
- The resurrection meals – several of Jesus’ resurrection appearances are accompanied by eating such as the meal with the two disciples at Emmaus which we have heard this morning
The first Christians probably met in private homes to share the bread and wine, but when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine church buildings were constructed using the template of the basilica, a secular building rather than the template of the pagan temple, and keeping of the Lord’s Supper settled into a weekly pattern on the Lord’s Day, the day of resurrection.
I am not going to recount 1500 years of church history you will relieved to know, but as Anglicans we need to be aware that the Church of England is both reformed and catholic, and therefore contains individual congregations with very different styles of worship and different beliefs about what happens to the bread and wine during the prayer of consecration.
Indeed, any given congregation is likely to include people with different views about the bread and wine which will affect how they receive them. If a church or an individual believes that there is an objective change in the bread and wine, they will tend to be very careful in how the bread and wine are shared, preventing spillage as much as possible and will treat consecrated bread and wine with reverence.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who was hugely responsible for the Book of Common Prayer which is still a very important prayer book of the Church of England, believed that the bread and wine don’t change at all, but that, as we receive them by eating and drinking, we truly receive the body and blood of Christ in a spiritual way. As Cranmer put it, we “feed on him in our hearts, through faith.”
Whatever our own understanding of what happens when we receive the bread and wine it is important to know that everything we receive at the Eucharist is the gift of God, and is the result of the grace and love of God.
At this point it is also important to say that to receive the full benefits of Holy Communion you do not have to receive both the bread and the wine. In eating the bread or in drinking the wine you make your communion, and the smallest portion is sufficient. This can be very important if a person is unwell or otherwise limited in what they are able to eat and drink.
How often should one receive Holy Communion? That is for the individual to decide. How often we make our Communion does not necessarily indicate how highly we value Holy Communion as those who receive once a quarter may prepare themselves very thoroughly for doing so seeing it as a high point in their Christian journey. In the Church of England non-Eucharistic services such as those of said Morning and Evening Prayer, and sung Matins and Evensong allowed people to worship God and to prepare themselves for the sometimes rarer service of Holy Communion. As a child in the choir of my local church I experienced the service of Holy Communion only every other Sunday, with the service of Matins on the other Sundays.
Over recent decades the Eucharist has been affirmed as the regular main Sunday service in the Church of England, but now some churches are looking again at having a non-Eucharistic service as their main Sunday service perhaps with a said service of Holy Communion earlier or later that same day. This happens at St Chad’s as once a month their Parish Praise service at 9.30am is non-Eucharistic but follows their regular 8am service of Holy Communion.
So, with alternatives available – why the Eucharist?
It is a gift to us from God. In baptism we are incorporated into the body of Christ in a once-for-all sacrament; the Eucharist is the sacrament of ongoing incorporation, where Christ takes us to himself by giving us his very self. In the Eucharist, as in his earthly life, Christ comes to be with us, and through his presence, to unite us to God and to one another.
In the Eucharist we are all guests at God’s table, Christ is the host, the priest is not the host, Christ is. In Andrei Rublev’s famous icon Abraham’s three visitors at the oaks of Mamre are seated around a table on which there is a bowl which resembles a chalice. Jesus is in the centre, the person of the Holy Spirit to the right in robes of blue and green, the person of the Father, the creator in rather diaphanous robes to the left. There is a place for us for each one of us at this table. We are all invited, each one of us, and that invitation, that gracious invitation from God to each one of us gives us all dignity in our individuality.
We are all affirmed by God, and therefore we are to affirm the value of each other, of all people, and in our Communion with God we are to become a community, affirming and supporting each other. We are helped to do this by God who comes to us in bread and wine, and who in the person of the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts and minds if invited.
This physical demonstration of the equality and dignity of all people before God in the Eucharist was important to the first Christians when many were poor or slaves, and that importance is still great today.
We are physical beings with bodies and the fact that in the Eucharist we not only say or think something, but also do something in remembrance of Jesus is significant. As much as I enjoy singing and hearing a good sermon the use of action, of symbol, of something that is tangible can greatly enrich our worship and our understanding of God’s grace.
For example, I was very struck by the reflection of Father Christopher here on Maundy Thursday that when we lift our hands to receive the bread or the cup we often form our hands into a cradle as if to receive a baby or to cradle the head of someone who is ill or dying. The bodily action of receiving the broken body of Christ into our cradled hands can speak to our hearts like nothing else.
And when we eat the bread and drink the wine, we utilize our senses of taste and smell and sight – receiving Holy Communion is a very bodily experience as well as a profound spiritual experience.
I also know from personal experience that being brought Holy Communion at home when unable to attend services due to illness is hugely important in the demonstration of worth and dignity in the sight of God and the community of God’s church, and of the presence of God in all circumstances good and bad.
Receiving from God and forming community with each other is not the end of the Eucharist however, for accepted and affirmed by God, fed and energized by God we are then sent out to take God’s saving love into the world in thanks for all that God has done for us. The word ‘Eucharist’ is derived from the Greek word for thanks, it is the least that we can do, knowing that we can come back again and again to be fed for our life’s journey and work.
In the Eucharist we remember and celebrate and give thanks for what God in Christ achieved in his life, death and resurrection, and we look forward to the day when God’s kingdom will come and we will all sit together at God’s table dedicating ourselves to work for that day.
If you would like to find out more about this series then please visit Phil Gardner’s site.