When we eat this bread and drink this cup

Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Thursday 20th June 2019 (Corpus Christi)
Gen. 14.18–20; Ps. 116.10–end; 1 Cor. 11.23–26; John 6.51–58

I always think Maundy Thursday has rather too many themes, but I suppose there’s no getting away from the fact that quite a lot happened that evening. Jesus got his apostles together for a ‘Last Supper’ at which, according to John, he washed their feet and commanded them to love one another. He also, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul, took bread and wine, gave thanks over them, gave them new meanings connected to his approaching death, and told the apostles to continue doing this in remembrance of him. Finally, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed in great distress, and was arrested.

So in order to focus on Jesus’s sharing of bread and wine and his instruction to continue doing it in remembrance of him, in 1264 Pope Urban IV established the feast of Corpus Christi – a day when we can focus on the eucharist without being distracted by all the other things that happened on Maundy Thursday.

But actually it’s these other things that are key to the meaning of the eucharist, and when we forget them the eucharist begins to morph into something different, something a bit more conventionally religious, something a bit less challenging.

It’s very common to think of the eucharist, of Holy Communion, as primarily a moment of individual communion with God, possibly the spiritual high point of the week, the moment when we come closest to God and experience our strongest religious feelings ­– apart from the world, on our own. This makes Holy Communion static and individual – all about me and God now. But what happens if we put the eucharist back into the context of Maundy Thursday? There are two things to consider.

First, Jesus was about to be arrested and condemned to death, and he drew attention to this in the new meaning he gave to the bread and wine. The bread and wine we receive in the eucharist stand for the body and blood of Christ: his body which was given up and his blood which was poured out for the sinful and the godforsaken. They recall his death.

But they’re not simply about remembering his death, or even about celebrating his resurrection. They look forward. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus says, ‘I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’ In the words of Paul, ‘[…] as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ We sometimes say in the eucharistic prayer, ‘Christ has died: Christ is risen: Christ will come again’. That is the ‘mystery of faith’ – the story isn’t finished, we’re still in the middle of it. By recalling Jesus’s death, we remember the event by which God saves the world, but we also look forward to the completion of God’s saving work: the ‘kingdom of God’.

So the eucharist is about placing ourselves in the middle of a story that hasn’t ended, recommitting ourselves to that hope of a better world to come, about opening ourselves to the Spirit, inviting God to inspire us to work for his kingdom when we go outside.

Second, Jesus washed the apostles’ feet. In John’s Gospel Jesus doesn’t do anything special with bread and wine at the Last Supper. Instead he does this: a dramatic act of humility and service, designed to teach the apostles how they should behave once he’s gone.

But how quickly the church forgot! The few sentences from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth which we heard earlier are part of a longer section about conduct at the eucharist. It seems that in those days, the eucharist was preceded by a full meal, which was supposed to be a ‘bring and share’. But the rich people in Corinth brought and didn’t share, leaving the poor hungry. For Paul, this makes the whole ceremony pointless – there can be no communion with God without communion with one another. Jesus gave two great commandments: love God, and love your neighbour. The first is hollow without the second.

Our rather strange reading from the book of Genesis earlier reminds us that the primary purpose of sharing bread and wine is hospitality: Melchizedek brings out bread and wine to share them with Abraham as a sign of peace and blessing. So communion with God – yes. But only if we also have communion with one another.

The eucharist is central to Christian life, and it’s right that we celebrate it often, and make it our principal act of worship. But if we treat the eucharist as just like any other religious ritual, a sacred rite in a sacred building, a holy act that brings us closer to God than is possible in our everyday lives – then we’ve missed the point.

Christ didn’t come to set up another religion – another way for human beings to get together to ask God for things, and to perform special rituals to get close to him. Christ came to inaugurate the kingdom of God, and to fill us with his Spirit as a pledge of this glorious future. As Christians we meet God in the world: in the joy of human love, in the suffering of the poor, in the patient overcoming of darkness with light. We come here to gather as a community to give thanks for all of that, and, by remembering Jesus’s death and resurrection, to place ourselves in the mystery of faith, to open ourselves to the Spirit, so that we may be part of the completion of Christ’s work.

So although it’s not Maundy Thursday, let’s imagine ourselves back to that Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples, and allow ourselves to be caught up in the mystery of salvation: God working through his Spirit to bring in his kingdom.

When we eat this bread and drink this cup,
we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

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