Holy Communion on the 4th and 5th Sundays of Easter.
(1 Corinthians 11:17-29 & Luke 24:13-35)
We human beings seem to mark important occasions by having meals together
- birthdays, end of season trophy presentations, Jubilees and so forth,
all seem to involve celebratory meals together. It seems to be hard-wired
into our psyche (it may even be God-given). Eating together says something
profound about who we are and what we mean to each other. It binds us
together in a way that words cannot fully explain.
One of the supreme examples of a meal doing just that is the Jewish Passover
meal. It is a meal celebrated, not in public, but in the intimate setting
of the family unit. And it is a meal where the food is used to re-tell
the story of God liberating them from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the
Promised Land. The foods are eaten in a particular order, with each recalling
part of the story. In effect, they are re-living the original Passover
in order to participate in it themselves. In other words, they are participating
here and now in the event that took place way back then.
And the Passover meal is eaten reclining on couches around a table. In
other words, they are eating this meal of liberation at their ease in
that new free world which they are celebrating. The hardships of slavery
and the desert are behind them and now they are enjoying the promised
freedom and sharing the promised abundance.
Now, the Passover meal is also a prophetic statement. It is saying to
the world at large (including their enemies and occupying forces) "whatever
it might look like, we are God's free people."
Now this is important because the Last Supper, which Holy Communion re-enacts,
was a Passover Meal. The bread and wine were being used by Jesus to tell
that story of liberation. But in Jesus' hand that story takes on a profound
Now, the first thing to notice is that Jesus is sharing this family meal
with his disciples. He clearly considers his disciples to be his true
family. Jesus takes on the role of the head of the family and the host
by re-telling the Passover story, handing round the food in order as he
does so. But when he gets to the bread (and later to the wine), he suddenly
changes the story. Instead of using them to point back to the Exodus,
he uses them to point forward to his death and resurrection. This
is the new Passover. The real escape from death is through his
blood. The real liberation from slavery is achieved in his resurrection.
Taking the bread and the wine in this Passover story enables us to live
out that resurrection liberation here and now (that's what we mean by
taking them "in remembrance" - not merely recalling past history,
but living it out here and now.)
So, the bread and wine of communion is:
- A family meal that binds together Jesus's new family in celebration
of their liberation;
- A meal at which Jesus is the head of the family and the host (it is
the Lord's Supper);
- A celebration where we recline at our ease eating at table in that
new Free World. When we eat this meal, we are eating in the Promised
Land, the Kingdom of Heaven;
- And it is a meal that says boldly to the world at large (including
our enemies and occupying forces) "whatever it might look like,
we are God's free people."
But there is more. In Jesus' hands, this Passover meal takes us further
"This [bread] is my body. This [wine] is my blood," Jesus says.
Now this is much misunderstood. Because of the reference to blood and
because the bread is broken, it is easy to think the bread and wine symbolise
Jesus' death. It can look as though we're participating in something rather
grizzly (something the church has been accused of right from the beginning).
But, the symbolism of the bread is not that it is broken (that's
only done in order to share it). It is that it is given.
As we were saying during Holy Week, the essence of sacrifice is not the
offering of death. It is the offering of life. In Jewish thought, blood
symbolises the essence of life. And the body symbolises your person. In
offering us his body and blood, Jesus is offering us his life and his
person. He is offering us his resurrection body and life. It is the risen
Jesus, triumphant over sin and death, that we receive when we eat the
bread and drink the wine.
Now, in order to participate in his resurrection, it is first necessary
to participate in his death, but it is not the bread and wine that do
that. On the night he instituted the Lord's Supper, Jesus referred to
his death as his baptism. It is by baptism that we participate
in Jesus' death, putting our sinful selves to death with him. As we say
in our prayer over the baptism water, in baptism "we are buried with
Christ in his death." So baptism is a pre-requisite for Communion
because in baptism we participate in Jesus' death. And in Holy Communion
we participate in his resurrection.
So Holy Communion is the means by which we live the life of Jesus' resurrection,
the life of the Kingdom of God, "here on earth as it is in heaven".
And that kingdom becomes a reality here on earth because we participate
in it through this meal. This is a world-making activity, by which the
world is brought back under God's kingship and re-ordered according to
his divine ordination. We are quite literally making history here around
But it is even more still. This meal is a deep, profound union with Jesus
himself. In the bread and the wine we receive him. Now how this happens
is a controversial subject - the greatest split the church has ever known,
the Reformation, was all about the way in which Jesus is present in the
Eucharist. But leaving aside that interesting and complicated controversy,
it is important to state this: that all the doctrines of Holy Communion
on both sides of the Reformation debate emphasise that Jesus' presence
in the bread and wine is real. They are not mere symbols of his
body and blood. They are his body and blood.
Therefore, just like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, we recognise
the Lord Jesus, fully alive and present with us, in the breaking of the
bread. When we eat and drink, we are touching Jesus himself. He is that
real to us, he is that present.
So that, in the smallest nutshell I can manage, is what Communion is:
A family meal in which we recognise each other as our true family, and
Jesus as the head of the family. It is a meal in which we literally touch
Jesus and touch heaven itself. And by doing so, we are also brought into
the presence of the whole church of God, both militant here in earth and
transcendent in heaven. We eat in the presence of all the saints who have
gone before - including those we have known and loved in this life. At
the table of Jesus we enter eternity and share with them the liberation
and new life of heaven.
But how does what we do in church relate to that?
Well, firstly we re-tell and live out the liberation story every
time we gather around this table. The act of eating this meal says so
much more than words can tell, but words set the context for the action.
So our liturgy, for example, follows the journey to Emmaus:
- Jesus meets us as we gather on the Road. ("the Gathering"/"the
- He asks us to tell him what troubles us (confession, P.18) "We
- He opens the scriptures to us (Bible readings and sermon p.21) and
our hearts burn within us as he does so; and we explain why it was necessary
for the Messiah to suffer and die (Creed, p.22)
- We ask him to remain with us (intercession, p.23) and he consents
- We recognise him in the breaking of the bread (communion p.25-27)
- And we rush out to tell the world what we have seen ("the Dismissal"
- So, you see, we relive the story each time we gather around the table.
Secondly we are united with Jesus: bread and wine are taken, blessed
and given in accordance with his instructions and through our obedience
he honours his promise "that we may evermore dwell in him, and he
in us." But it is crucial to this that the Lord still presides at
his supper. And he does that through those he appointed to continue his
work of gathering his family together - the apostles. Those apostles appointed
successors (which we now call bishops) and those bishops appointed certain
people to carry out their work of gathering the family and presiding at
the table (which we now call priests). So Jesus acts as host of this meal
through his appointed representatives (ordained priests). That's where
my ordained priesthood does differ from your priesthood, the priesthood
of all believers. In most cases our ministry is identical, but at this
moment, I represent Jesus as the host of the supper. There is nothing,
of course, to stop you breaking bread and drinking wine together, but
that is your supper, not the Lord's supper. Only when Jesus
is the host, is it the Lord's Supper, where we receive Jesus himself.
And that is one reason why you need a priest present in order to celebrate
the Lord's Supper - to represent Jesus as host.
Finally, we achieve union with each other. We cannot take Holy
Communion alone. The family must be gathered together. And we cannot take
Holy Communion with our enemies, only with our family. That again is why
baptism is a pre-requisite. But it is also why confession and peace-making
are pre-requisite. We must be at peace with one another before
we eat. Of course we have a ritual confession and peace-sharing as part
of the service, but that is intended to be symbolic of a real and active
change in our relationships.
That is why St Paul instructs us (v.28) to examine ourselves before presenting
ourselves at the table (a command that used to be enshrined in the Book
of Common Prayer). And if we are not at peace with our brothers and sisters,
then we should go and make peace with them before coming to the table.
That means examining ourselves to discover whether we have done anything
that requires us to repent, say sorry, or make reparation. And it means
examining ourselves to ensure that, where others have sinned against us,
we have forgiven them. It was for that reason that our forebears, who
really understood this meal, would spend Saturday night preparing themselves
to receive Communion. We should do likewise! Because it is that requirement
for peace that lies behind Paul's warning that those who eat and drink
without recognising the body of Christ bringing judgment on themselves
(v. 29). Where is the body of Christ? Here in the bread and here
in you and I - we are the body. Unless I recognise and love the Jesus
in the bread and the Jesus in my neighbour, I don't eat the Lord's Supper,
I eat judgment upon myself. It is a serious warning. We must be reconciled
to one another and have a care for one another before we eat and drink.
And because it is a communion with the whole church (not just those gathered
here), the whole church must be represented. And that is another reason
why an ordained priest is necessary, because they are the ones the Church
has appointed to represent her at the table. So I have to preside
at this meal, not because I'm special or different, but because I have
been appointed by Jesus as his representative here and by the Church
as hers. Through a priestly presence, this meal becomes a communion
- with Jesus and with all the saints.
Now that really completes my teaching on communion for today, but of
course I've been asked to preach on this because it impacts on a number
of things we are thinking about - the admission of children to communion,
the use of communion by extension and the starting of new styles of worship.
So, although I am conscious that this is already a long sermon, I do want
to end with just a few principles from what we've learned that impact
on our thinking in these areas:
Firstly, Baptism is the pre-requisite for Communion and there is no other.
There is no direct link between Communion and Confirmation. The Church
of England imposed that link at the time of the Reformation. Other Christian
churches did not. It was not God-ordained. It was our decision,
for reasons which were good at the time. It remains our decision
as to whether those reasons still hold or whether it is time to revert
to baptism as the sole pre-requisite for communion. That's a discussion
we still have to have, but I will say this: those reasons for linking
communion to Confirmation were not specifically about excluding children
from communion. Indeed, in the Passover meal on which the Lord's Supper
is founded, children are an essential element.
Secondly, Holy Communion underpins all our worship. It is not, however,
necessary to have communion every time we worship. We can worship in other
ways, we have fellowship in other ways. But they only find fulfilment
ultimately in communion. Whatever else we do, our overall pattern of worship,
our identity as church, must reach fulfilment in the communion we find
in the bread and wine taken according to Jesus' commandment. We can do
many new things as church, but in the end, they must lead us back to gather
around this table.
Thirdly, it is not communion unless (a) the Lord is present as host;
and (b) his body is present (the church). Two things are essential here:
firstly there has to be a real gathering of God's family in one place
and sharing genuine peace. Secondly, both Jesus and the whole church have
to be present in a representative capacity (i.e. by an ordained priest).
Communion by extension is a very new idea which seeks to overcome the
problem of priestly presence when priests cannot be present in two places
at once! It seeks to unite two congregations in one communion, albeit
that they are meeting in different places at different times. It may be
the best we can do in the circumstances, but I have very grave reservations
about whether two congregations meeting in different places at different
times with no personal link between the two can be a genuine gathering
of God's family sharing genuine peace together in the presence of Jesus.
And if it isn't that, we shouldn't be pretending that what we're doing
is having communion. We should be worshipping in some other way and having
communion only when we can do so properly.
I will leave us to ponder that at greater length another time. But for
now, we are here gathered around the Lord's table to share his meal. He
is our host, so let us ask him to abide with us as we turn to him in our
Preached: Cliburn, Crosby Ravensworth, Sunday 22nd April 2012; Morland,
Sunday 6th May 2012