The Story and Meanings of The Eucharist: 4

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

4: The Liturgy of the Supper:
Communion and departure the Eucharist in our lives

Sermon preached on Sunday Sunday 30th March 2003

Many years ago I was privileged to be present in a Jewish household at a weekend when the Sabbath prayers were intoned and the Sabbath candle lit. It struck me how natural it is to the Orthodox Jew to express faith in that way. There, in the everyday context of one's own home.

The Jews, as we know, have been victimised and persecuted more savagely than any other people in history, but they have an incredible gift of bringing good out of evil - they had to have, I suppose. And one of the good things they developed was the gift of domestic religion. Partly because the Jewish law, which governs every department of life, was a religious obligation; but partly also because many of their sacred rites and acts of worship had to take place in the privacy of the home.

Let us go back to Jesus' words, echoed in the Eucharistic Prayer so clearly:" Do this in remembrance of me". Do what? Say a blessing over the bread, break it, and give a piece to each person present; say a blessing over the wine, and pass it round for each to drink. This may well have been a regular custom of Jesus when He and his friends were eating together and something he did in a characteristic way, for the two disciples from Emmaus who rushed back to Jerusalem the first Easter Sunday evening to say that Jesus was alive and had been with them reporting that "they had recognised Him in the breaking of the bread". Certainly his followers did not suppose that he meant them to do this only at Passover time, for in the Acts of the Apostles we are told that the first converts "devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching, to the common life to the breaking of bread and to the prayers".

The breaking of the bread took place, we are told, took place at home, in the setting of the family and household, just as Jesus' own meals with his disciples, and the Last Supper itself, had been private and domestic. When the Christian movement spread out into the pagan world, this gradually changed.

There's nothing in any of the Gospels to suggest that Jesus meant to found a new religion. He already had a religion. He was a Jew; and a Jew he lived and a Jew he died. But the interesting thing about the Jews, including Jesus himself, is that they were, as far as we know, the only instance in the world at that time of the body politic and the worshipping congregation being one and the same. The setting within which Jesus operated was that of a civil community whose members all worshipped the one God of heaven and earth. His mission to them was to deepen and purify their idea of God, to teach them and to pray to Him and to trust in Him as Father, to seek his forgiveness, and to obey Him first and foremost in unselfish love of other men and women. It was for this purpose that Jesus called His followers to be the salt and the leven and the light in the world. His vision was of ordinary life as sacred. And it was wholly in line with this attitude that he should seize on the Jewish insight about worship in the home, and that the only observance which he enjoined on His friends, to keep their devotion to the cause alive was one which was a natural part of everyday living. "Do this in remembrance of me".

It is ironic that Christianity of all movements should have lost hold of this principle. For the central belief of the Christian Creed is that in Jesus, God himself shared a genuine human life and death. It follows that all men and women everywhere, whatever their religion or philosophy, their race or culture, are brothers and sisters of the Son of God. In other words, the one family of God is the human race as a whole, not just the Church. It would also mean that ordinary human nature and ordinary human life have the potential at least of expressing the character of God, that in our human state even God could be himself. This is, or ought it be the vision to which Christians are committed; and their calling is to help all human beings to realise that this is so.

There are many ways of going about this. One of the most important is to cultivate the gift of 'thinking human', of realising that for all the failures and evil of which we are capable, people also have this family likeness to the Son of God, and that in our work, our responsibilities as citizens, our home life, our neighbourhood, we have endless opportunities to work together with others just as human beings to foster and protect the Spirit of God. And another area for action is the one we have been thinking about - that awareness of God, that sense of the divine dimension of life, which we call 'worship'.

Christians everywhere today are undoubtedly striving to re-integrate worship and life. The new flexibility and freedom which mark services at most Churches; the 'house church' with its Eucharist on the kitchen table, or the Eucharist in the place of work, the prison or the hospital - these things are all signs both of an unease and of a desire to do something about it.

But such measures by themselves will never be enough. They are still trapped in the mental categories of the immemorial separation between the sacred act and the profane human reality. All that they do is to move that sacred act physically into the setting of the profane reality. They do not unite the two. To achieve that unity something much more radical is required. On the other hand, we need special, set0aprt times and places and acts simply because it is hard for us to maintain our sense of God - his presence and his pervasive life and love.

One vital Christian contribution to human life is Christ's own gift of bringing all life within the sphere of the sacred. The joy and the thanksgiving that come with penitence and pardon, prayer and sacrament must not be confined to the cultic enclosure and the priestly caste, but must come into the lives of all people wherever the life of God's world takes them. When a Christian family welcome into their homes someone, of whatever faith of philosophy, with whom they have been working and thinking and suffering for the benefit of the whole human family in their town or village or country, and share with them as honoured guests the bread that has been broken and the cup which has been blessed as the heart of the family meal, then Jesus Christ the eternal Son and brother will be present in the midst not just of his Church, but of his world.

So the service ends by our being sent out into our daily lives, with the blessin gof God upon our thoughts and activities for good.

In the words of the Communion Hymn:

Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands
That holy things have taken
Let ears that now have heard thy songs
To clamour never waken.

Lord, may the tongues which 'Holy' sang
Keep free from all deceiving;
The eyes which saw thy love be bright,
The blessèd hope perceiving.

The feet that tread thy holy courts
From light do thou not banish;
The bodies by the Body fed
With thy new life replenish.

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

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