They said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.
May I speak in the name of God…
A hospital chaplain told the story of taking Communion round people on the hospital wards one Sunday morning. The chaplain then reported back the refusals: ‘no thank you, I’m anglican’ was a good one – and then – ‘can I have cereal instead, please; perhaps even better!I think – therefore – we can assume that when we talk about Holy Communion, like the Hebrews did about the manna in the wilderness, people still say to one another “What is it?”
In John’s Gospel Jesus tells the people that he is the bread of life: unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you cannot have life in you – he says: And at the end of chapter 6 some of the disciples find that sort of language just too hard to accept, and they stop following Jesus –no doubt they also asked but what is it? We do not know what it is.
For 2 thousand years that question – what is it? has not gone away.
Christians have struggled with what the Eucharist is, in various times and places. Is it bread? Is it wine? Does it actually change? Do we believe in transubstantiation, or is Holy Communion a memorial meal – or something in-between?
The Roman Catholic Church teaches transubstantiation is – a specific explanation of how the outward form still looks like bread and wine – but the inner reality – what it actually is – becomes the flesh and blood of Christ.
You might think that that is confusing, and of course it is! – our own generations have become better accustomed to artists and scientists making one material look convincingly like another.
Although I’m not a believer in the philosophical system behind transubstantiation, it was explained to me many years ago like this: imagine four piles of stuff : a pile of wood, a sheet of glass, a piece of plastic and a piece of metal – that’s what they are – wood, glass, plastic, and metal – four different things. But when each of these materials are given legs and flat surface and are shaped into tables – then their category changes. They are no longer four different things – they are now all the same thing – tables. The material they are made of has not changed – wood, glass, plastic or metal – the accident – but what they actually are – what they really are – what they are known as – their substance – has changed. Now, I do know that is a great over simplification of the 1215 4th Lateran Council doctrine of transubstantiation – and I know I could do better, if I tried, with carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen atoms and polymers – but it makes the point that things can change what they are- be one thing and look like something else.
And then – at the other end – there are the Swiss reformers who would have none of all that fancy aristotelian word-play – the bread and wine remain bread and wine – they said, obviously – and for Zwinglian christians nothing changes into anything – Reformed Christians celebrate Holy Communion so that they can remember Jesus with their minds – and when they remember Jesus, then Jesus becomes present to them in their minds. It is essentially a memorial service: a Remembrance Day service for Jesus.
Martin Luther wasn’t happy with either of them – he didn’t like the Roman Catholic idea much but he wasn’t happy with Zwingli either. After all Jesus has not said ‘this looks like my body – or this represents my body – of this is just a memorial of my body’ Jesus had said ‘This is my body’ – and Jesus couldn’t be accused of being either wrong or worse still misleading us: he must have said what he wanted to say – so Luther devised a new word: consubstantialism –bread and wine, body and blood of Jesus both together at the same time.
Anglicans – not surprisingly – and I’m one of them – were exquisitely vague. Parts of the 16th and 17th century Book of Common Prayer are very protestant, and other parts are very catholic – that’s part of our vaguely exquisite Anglican privilege! and each anglican ever since has been able to choose the pages she or he likes. Nowadays we prefer phrases like – the Real Presence – which many of us can agree on and yet all believe slightly different things. In the end I have a deep suspicion that everyone at the altar rail is just a little the Wilderness Hebrews: we just don’t know what it is! The Orthodox call it a Mystery.
But I think we might not know what it is, first, because we are asking the wrong question – and secondly because we have missed the blatantly obvious. First, because the real question is ‘what is it for?’ not ‘what is it?’ The manna in the wilderness was there to keep the Israelites alive when they were starving – and it did that very well, even though they never found out what it is.
And secondly because there are three ‘Bodies of Christ’ in the New Testament – and we tend to overlook that.
There is ‘the Body of Christ’ – the real Jesus, living, walking, breathing, dying and rising again – the person who was born in Bethlehem and died in Jerusalem, and then there is ‘the Body of Christ’ the Holy Communion given at the Last Supper: Take, Eat, this is my body which is given for you, and then there is ‘the Body of Christ’ – you me and the whole Church throughout the world. “We, being many are one Body, for we all partake of the one bread’ – I don’t think that it is by chance that the same phrase is used for all three ideas.
St Gregory Palamas – some would say the greatest Orthodox spiritual writer, wrote in the 14th century: Jesus says, eat My Body, drink My Blood… so that we be not only created in God’s image, but so that we might become gods and kings, eternal and heavenly, – Jesus – clothing us with Jesus.
Another orthodox writer – the somewhat quaintly named St John of Shanghai and San Francisco wrote in the last century: We partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, in the holy Mysteries, so that we ourselves may be Christ’s Body: or as the lest quaintly named Dean of Montreal would say: – we eat the Body of Christ in the sacrament so that we can become the Body of Christ in our lives – we ingest Christ to become Christ.
St Teresa of Avila – the great Spanish mystic of the 16th Century, is reputed to have said:
‘Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.’
And so, if we combine St John of Shanghai and St Teresa of Avila, then add a sprinkling of the Dean of Montreal we can say : Holy Communion – the Body of Christ – becomes the link piece by which the Body of Christ – the walking, living, acting historical Jesus – becomes the Body of Christ – us, the Church, here, now and today – and – reversely – it is the link by which we, the Body of Christ – the Church today – become the Body of Christ – the walking, living, acting presence of Jesus in the world. neat!
But – and there always at least one big but in any theology which works – Holy Communion – the Body of Christ – is more than just the link piece between us and Jesus – more than just a memorial symbol which helps us remember Jesus so that we can be more like him, and more than the catholic means of grace which transforms us individually so that we can become more like him, – it is also the visual image of what the real Body of Christ looks like. One dark Thursday night – the night we call Maundy Thursday – Jesus took bread and he broke it and and shared it as he said: Take, eat, this is my body given for you. – the next day – the day we call Good Friday – Jesus’s own real flesh and blood body was taken and broken and given on the cross for the life of the world – – and here’s the tough message which I think all of us prefer to forget – what was true of those two Bodies of Christ, has to be true of the third as well – if we are to be the Body of Christ, then we too must be taken and blessed, broken and then not just shared, but consumed by the world, for the world, so that the world may live. You see, that’s what happens to the Body of Christ – it is eaten up.
Build…up the Body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure and full stature of Christ.’ some are apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers …. to equip the saints for the work of ministry.
There is nothing there about what feeds each one of us as individuals, – nothing about what we think we need to make our own personal spirituality or faith or prayer life grow – there is nothing about a means of grace so that we might become more holy, and even less is there anything about what we enjoy or like, – instead it is work – the work of ministry – what nowadays we call service : service in and through our paid employment; service in and through our family and friends networks: service in and through volunteering where we are needed. The work of ministry – both big and small – the jobs just need to be done so that the world might live : being sent out into odd places with odd people, speaking out for justice, modeling goodness and kindness and compassion in our lives, taking care of people in need, and teaching others what is right and good and noble: what the epistle writer calls: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers – each one of us taking up the responsibility for being the Body of Christ for ourselves and each one of us allowing ourselves to be consumed in that responsibility so that the world may live.
And yes, this work of ministry is real work, hard work, at times, of course, it is unfulfilling work. But I think understanding this responsibility is the ‘maturity, the measure and full stature of Christ.’ No longer being like children, tossed to and fro, satisfied with the toys and games we like playing with for our own amusement and satisfaction – but it means becoming adults – becoming like Christ – ready to offer ourselves in ways and systems and in a world that we do not really want to play with, ways and systems and in a world which might not satisfy us very much, and which may, in the end consume us.
And the good news – and – yes – there is good news at the end of this challenging and rather hard sermon, the good news is that Jesus’s advice is good advice: the childish quest for the next best toy – or satisfying experience – something which I think we see all around us in our consumer culture – always deceives us in the end. It always leaves the child in us hungry for more and thirsting for something better, – I love my iPhone 4s but I’ll not be satisfied until I get an iPhone 7? Religion is ultimately not a pleasing toy for children, it is a life-time commitment for adults.
It is the life-long, life-taking, life-giving work of ministry– and this is the food that will feed us in the end. – the bread of life: The historical Body of Christ’s teaching, the sacramental Body of Christ’s transforming power, and the community minded extravagantly generous and sacrificial Body of Christ of which each one of us in our own way are privileged to be a part – this is the bread which will feed us: After all, Jesus said: Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. And – as Martin Luther knew – Jesus doesn’t lie and Jesus doesn’t mislead us – his words are spirit and they are life – to whom else shall we go, he has the words of eternal life.