Eating and drinking are essential for our living – whether for humans, or for animals. But in human living they are more than necessities. We can satisfy our hunger by hurriedly eating a McDonalds Extra Value Meal as we run from one activity to another, but whilst that may fill our stomachs, it will certainly do little else for us. We eat together with our family and our friends, we share meals together as a Church because eating and drinking are essentially social activities. Eating and drinking together cement our friendships, and strengthen our sense of community. That is why we have festive meals, birthday parties and wedding banquets.
Taking time to eat together and to be with each other is a sign of the value that we place on each other. Food and drink feature largely in human life, and so they feature too in the Bible, indeed Biblical meals normally have a special significance. When Jesus eats with people, he turns water into wine, he welcomes those un-welcomed by the rest of society, (like the tax collectors and prostitutes) and whilst he is eating with others, Jesus teaches his disciples. That “special significance” is true not only in the New Testament but in the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament) as well.
Today, on this fourth and final weekend of our Season of Celebration, the Church gives us the Festival of Corpus Christi to focus especially on a meal which spans both the Old and the New Testaments, and which we continue to gather around in our worshipping lives week by week. The Latin words “Corpus Christi” mean “the Body of Christ,” and in our Anglican calendar we more properly call this festival, “Thanksgiving for the Holy Communion.” It is the one weekend in the year when we deliberately stop and set aside time to focus on and give thanks for the gift of the Holy Communion which we experience each week as the sacred meal of the Eucharist is celebrated here. For some Christians the Last Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass, is so important that it is celebrated every day. For others it is so important that it is celebrated just once a year.
As we heard in our Gospel reading a few moments ago, at that first Last Supper, Jesus performed with ordinary food and drink an act of Jewish prophetic symbolism. The bread he took and broke was a sign of himself: he was to be given as a sacrifice on the cross for the whole world. The wine in the cup was a sign of his life blood: it was to be poured out for all humanity on that cross. Jesus dramatically enacted his death in advance, and told the disciples what it meant, so that they would be prepared for it.
He took an old Jewish meal that was focused on God’s mercy in the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, and transformed it into an act that looked no longer to the past, but to the future. Jesus taught through the bread and the cup, (signs of his body and blood) that he was being offered as a sacrifice that would inaugurate a new covenant, a new relationship between God and humanity: and there was a consequence to taking part: eating the bread and drinking the wine meant that the disciples would have a share in what Jesus did and who he was. The bread was his body – himself. The wine was his blood – his life – and all those who shared in that body and blood, were to share as well in the Kingdom of his Father.
The disciples of Jesus went on eating and drinking together after his death. They took bread and wine, gave thanks to God over them for all that Jesus had done, and all that he meant, and shared them in a ritual meal. At first they called this ceremony the Lord’s Supper, because they met in the evening. Soon they called it the Eucharist, a Greek word which means “the thanksgiving”, because the prayer that they said over the bread and the wine was a thanksgiving for all that God had done for them in creation and redemption, and continued to do in their common life together. Over time, and certainly within a few hundred years of Jesus’ ascension to heaven Christians recognised clearly that the consequence of sharing in this meal was the obligation to continue to live out the mission of Jesus in their time and place, and so they began referring to this celebratory and memorial meal as “the Mass” from the Latin word “Missa” – which comes from the sending declaration at the end of the Eucharist, “Go and serve the Lord” – in order to remind themselves that the whole purpose of the Eucharistic celebration is to give glory to God, and to be caught up in the sacrifice of Christ, in order to be strengthened to go out and serve him in the world.
So from the earliest life of the Church, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving of Christians has been given material form in bread and wine, symbols which were inherited from the Jewish tradition, but which in some way also looked a little like the body and blood of which they spoke. They offered these gifts to God in prayer and in remembrance of the sacrifice which Jesus had offered. They ate the broken bread and drank the cup of wine, not as ordinary food and drink, but as the body and blood of Christ: the names which Jesus himself had given to them on the night before he died. Christians have gone on eating the bread, the body of Christ, and drinking the wine, his blood, as the central act of Christian worship. We are not, of course, cannibals – although in the early centuries of the Church’s life its enemies accused it of eating slices of murdered human flesh and drinking human blood.
What, then, do we mean when we say we receive in Holy Communion the body and blood of Christ? Christians have disagreed, and still do disagree, about the meaning. For some of us there will be a belief that the bread and the wine are in a very real way transformed into the body and blood of Christ. When we celebrate the Mass together what appears to be bread is actually Christ’s body, and what appears to be wine will become his blood: that’s a way of seeing the Eucharist which is described as ‘transubstantiation’, and there is a slight variant of it that says that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ not on the altar but as we receive it.
For others of us there will be a belief that the gifts on the altar as we celebrate the Eucharist together, will remain bread and wine but God will be present around them in a special way which is different from how God is present everywhere else in the world. The bread and the wine will be surrounded by God in a most holy and different way: that’s a way of understanding the Eucharist which is described as ‘consubstantiation’.
The third broad group of ways of understanding the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, (which again some of us here will hold), is that there is nothing special or different about the bread and the wine on the altar except that they become a symbol for us, a reminder for us of all that God’s love in Jesus has done for us: they serve as a memorial for us, as we remember the life of Christ.
Within our Anglican tradition all of those views, and beliefs, have been embraced and rejected by different groups at different times. Within the Diocese of Newcastle there are similarly a broad range of approaches to our Eucharistic worship, which is sometimes signalled in whether we use phrases like “The Lord’s Supper,” or “Holy Communion” or “Holy Eucharist,” or “The Mass;” and all of those terms are used in different Anglican congregations around the Diocese, indeed many of us have come to use them interchangeably. It is no surprise that what has been true throughout the history of the Church, and is true around our Diocese, is also true of us who are members of the Church here in East Maitland. Across our congregations a range of ways of describing and understanding the Eucharist are used here. But as Anglicans we generally believe (whichever way we specifically talk about it) in the experience of the “real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” What we mean by that is that in some sense we encounter Christ in the consecrated bread and wine in Holy Communion in a different way from the encounter that we have when we eat normal food. In other words, there is a depth of encountering the presence of God which is contained in and around, (or hidden in and around) the bread and the wine. We know what presence means. So when we talk about presence, we know what it means: and it means the same thing when we talk about Christ’s presence with us in Holy Communion. We might disagree about the theological mechanics of how it happens, but we believe (as Anglicans) that Christ will be “really present” with us in our Eucharist today. Really present, and not “nearly present”.
It happens that I prefer to refer to this great sacrament as ‘The Mass’ – some of you will think that that is terribly Roman Catholic. But I use that title, as I have said, because I want to point to the fact that this is not an event which simply draws us together here, but it is focused too on sending us out as Jesus’ community of disciples: refueled, refreshed, re-invigorated, to serve Christ in the world. It does not make sense to me to understand the Eucharistic celebration as a private holy moment between me and God – if I want that I can watch Songs of Praise at home. This is a communal event, where together we join ourselves with the life-giving death and resurrection of Our Lord, as we prepare to serve him in the world. That is why our Deacon has such a pivotal role when we gather to celebrate this sacrament together, because she is the one who sends us out – beyond the brief interval of our being gathered together here – to get on with worshipping God and serving him in the name of Jesus in the places where God has called us to live and work; and as Deacon Wendy pushes us out of the door with the words, “Go in peace to love and serve the other,” we respond in agreement with the words, “in the name of Christ. Amen.” – In other words, ‘we agree – that is what we will do – in the name of Jesus’.
On this great Festival of Corpus Christi we give thanks for the Holy Communion which we share each week, not just with God through the bread and the wine, but with each other, through the real presence of the Holy Spirit at work in each one of us. At this and at every celebration of the Lord’s Supper around the world today Christ will be truly present in the body of his Church. The challenge for us is that whilst that same presence renews and revives us at this holy meal, this is not a private affair, God is not just present for our own sake. Christ will be truly present at this Eucharist, this celebration, to drive us back into the world, where we are called to be truly present – in his name – to ourselves, and to each other, and to the needs of those around us.