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 new dimension.

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 and deeper.

"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 this table.

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 Greeting" p.17)
  • He asks us to tell him what troubles us (confession, P.18) "We had hoped..."
  • 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 (Peace p.24)
  • 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" p.28)
  • 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 intercessions.

Preached: Cliburn, Crosby Ravensworth, Sunday 22nd April 2012; Morland, Sunday 6th May 2012