The Story and Meanings of The Eucharist: 3

A series of four sermons

Historical background and study material
1: The Gathering of the People of God
2: The Liturgy of the Word
3: The Liturgy of the Supper: the Eucharistic Prayer
4: The Liturgy of the Supper: Communion and departure

3: The Liturgy of the Supper: the Eucharistic Prayer

Sermon preached on Sunday Sunday 23rd March

1. The Peace

This is an important act in the Eucharist and one which raises all kinds of feelings! It can be a moment that some dread and other relish. Care is needed. It is not the time for a gesture that is dependent on how well we know the person we are greeting. The gesture is a sign, an indication, that it is the peace of Christ that we share, a blessing that we would wish on everyone, from those that we are finding most difficult to be alongside, to those whose friendship means so much to us. We salute the divine in one another…. encouraging and supporting one another on our Christian journey.

2. The Offertory

This marks the physical move to the altar with the preparation of the gifts. It also gives us an opportunity to express our thanks, to give our offering back to God through the collection. It is an expression of our faith. It sometimes makes sense if we view the offering of the gifts of bread and wine as ours, even ourselves, being put at God's disposal . We can see them as symbolizing our talents and gifts, placed before God to be perfected by grace. This is done when they are brought up, on our behalf, by two people within the congregation.

3. The Eucharistic Prayer

I remember a party that a friend of mine decided to have with a group of friends. She had set her heart on gathering a very diverse number of people together and I offered to help. She made all kinds of preparations, had gone to endless trouble, but when the evening came it went hopelessly wrong. People argued and didn't really talk to one another and it left my friend feeling pretty miserable. Perhaps the first Maundy Thursday was rather like that, not least, of course, for Jesus.

What is certain is that he had given a lot of thought to the meal He was going to have with his disciples, who, significantly, in John's Gospel He simply called his friends. Whether it was the Passover meal itself - as the first three Gospels say it was - or whether it was one of the preparatory meals that often preceded a Jewish festival and every Sabbath, Jesus had taken a great deal of care over it. It was very much His party. He had made very careful arrangements with a friend and the disciples had gone into Jerusalem to complete the preparations. Eventually, Jesus had joined them, and at first, everything had gone as He had planned.

And then, at that moment of all moments, at that meal of all meals, a row had broken out among the disciples. It was heartbreaking for Jesus. But he didn't tear them off a strip, actions speak louder than words, so he simply took a towel and a basin of water, and began to wash their feet saying "Look! I have done this as something for you to follow. If you do what I have done, if you wash one another's feet, there can't be any of this 'top dog' nonsense".

The row wasn't the only thing that went wrong that evening. It was at that meal that it finally became clear - to Jesus at least - that Judas was going to betray Him. In fact, it was clear to Jesus that the end could not now be far off. The disciples' row: Judas' betrayal; the end at hand. What an evening!

But there was something even more startling to come. The kind of meal they were accustomed to having together was something which, as Jews, they were very used to. It had its regular pattern and ritual. But what Jesus suddenly said, in the middle of the meal, was unbelievable.

They all knew that the meal they were having celebrated the time when, centuries before, God had delivered their nation from slavery in the exodus from Egypt. But, suddenly, Jesus said words that implied, unmistakeably, that God had established a new relationship between himself and humanity: a new covenant, through Him, through Jesus himself; through His blood; His life; His suffering; and His death, still ahead. It was as He gave thanks and took bread - and there was no surprise about that - that He suddenly said the revolutionary words, "This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me". And when he took the cup, he said "This is the new covenant, sealed by my own blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me". They all knew about the old covenant between God and Israel. But their master was saying "This is the new covenant, in and through my blood". It was either the most incredible arrogance, or nonsense, or madness, or blasphemy - or the truth. Jesus was pointing our relationship with God along new paths.

But they knew very well the man who had just washed their feet wasn't arrogant or mad. They knew he was a man of profound prayer and goodness. They had watched Him in prayer and it was the terrible and glorious events of the next few days following Maundy Thursday which filled out for them what Jesus had meant by his words and actions at the table that evening.

About twenty years later, St Paul was writing to the church at Corinth. St Paul decided to write them a letter in which he described what he had been told had happened that very first Maundy Thursday. And it is extraordinary, nearly two millennia later, that we continue to be faithful to Jesus' command.

In our churches today, we tend to separate off our meetings from our services, and no longer does our Communion Service look at all much like a meal together. I think we lose quite a bit through that, but at least no-one dreams of having a row, as the disciples did, at Holy Communion.

But in these days, when the McDonalds sign is becoming better known than the Cross, when many families no longer sit down together at the meal table, the Church must surely set the world an example afresh - for example Catholic and Protestant, regardless of division - anticipating the coming of the Kingdom . But if it to be an example to the world, it has to be again essentially a group of disciples, of Friends, who gather round a table, knowing that it is the Lord himself who has prepared the meal, that it is the Lord himself who passes to each one of us the bread and the cup to share with one another, and says to each one of us, "This is my body, this is my blood". A shared loaf and a shared cup is the very essence of Holy Communion; literally the heart of the matter. And, of course, sharing the bread and wine, which Jesus identifies as His body and blood, His very self, means that His friends are being invited to share in His commitment to God - which means His death. In fact, they fled in terror. Can we take on the cost of discipleship? We can, by grace.

You will recognise and note the key actions in the Eucharist - offertory, grace over the bread and wine, breaking and giving. These themes are reflected in the physical actions and movements of the priest; open arms, blessing, taking of bread and wine, blessing, breaking and giving. These symbolic actions reflect Jesus' new meaning, incorporating them into his own life and death. This is Communion, Holy Communion with Him

Not long ago I came across a poem which I think may have something to say to us as we reflect upon the Eucharistic prayer. It's by Chuck Lathrop, and it's called 'In search of a round table':

Concerning the why and how and what and who of ministry,
One image keeps surfacing: A table that is round.

It will take some sawing
To be roundtabled.
Some redefining
And redesigning,
Some redoing and rebirthing
Of narrow long Churching
Can painful be
For people and tables.
It would mean no daising
And throning,
For but one king is there
And he is a foot washer,
At table no less.

And what of narrow long ministers
When they confront
A round table people,
After years of working up the table
To finally sit at its head,
Only to discover
That the table has been turned round?

They must be loved into roundness,
For God has called a People
Not "them and us".
"them and us" are unable
to gather round; for at a round table
there are no sides
and ALL are invited
to wholeness and to food.

At one time
Our narrowing churches
Were built to resemble the Cross
But it does no good
For building to do so,
If lives do not.

Round tabling means
No preferred seating,
No first and last,
No better, and no corners
For the "least of these".
Roundtableing means
Being with,
A part of,
Together and one.
It means room for the Spirit
And gifts
And disturbing profound peace for all.

We can no longer prepare for the past.
We will and must and are called
To be Church,
And if He calls for other than a round table
We are bound to follow.

Leaving the sawdust
And chips, designs and redesigns
Behind, in search of and in presence of
The Kingdom
That is His and not ours.

4. Communion

And finally, as we receive the sacrament, we gladly accept Christ's life and truth for ourselves and trust that with our fellow Christians, we shall live in his strength.

The Reverend Dr James Woodward

Historical background and study material
1: The Gathering of the People of God
2: The Liturgy of the Word
3: The Liturgy of the Supper: the Eucharistic Prayer
4: The Liturgy of the Supper: Communion and departure

Arms of Lady Katherine Leveson

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