My Grandmother, once Church of Ireland now aligns herself more with the Salvation Army. My step father, born a Jew, and then a Seventh Day Adventist Minister is now an agnostic philosopher. My aunt is a lapsed Baptist.
One side of my family have retained their Jewish heritage, whilst parts of the other are largely indifferent to religious beliefs. Some members have joined and indeed been ordained in a modern tradition which tries to link Catholicism with Science. And Luisa and I represent the Anglican tradition at the table. A friend who joined us for dinner some months ago commented afterwards that it was like being at a meeting of the Parliament of World Religions. We certainly enjoy as a family all the debate and discussion which goes on. It is always good to be together.
Eating and drinking are essential for our living whether for humans, or for animals. But in human living they are more than necessities. We can satisfy our hunger by hurriedly eating a McDonalds Extra Value Meal as we run from one activity to another, but whilst that may fill our hunger, it will certainly do little else for us. We eat together with our family and our friends, we share meals together as a Church, because eating and drinking are essentially social activities. Eating and drinking together cement our friendships, and strengthen our sense of community. That’s why we have festive meals, birthday parties and wedding banquets.
Food and drink feature largely in human life; and so they feature too in the Bible. But Biblical meals normally have a special significance. When Jesus eats with people, he turns water into wine, he welcomes those un-welcomed by the rest of society, like the tax collectors, and he teaches his disciples. That “special significance” is true not only in the New Testament but in the Jewish Bible as well.
In our first reading Abraham was tired after a long march and a short fight; and so Melchizedek, that mysterious priest-king of which we know almost nothing, brought him bread and wine as a sign of God’s blessing. Our Christian tradition has likened that meal with the last meal which Jesus ate with his disciples, at which bread and wine also feature prominently. As Jews became Christians so they looked back in their own tradition to find events which foreshadowed what they now knew in Jesus, and this Melchizedek encounter was seen as a forerunner, a “type” of what Jesus himself did at the Last Supper.
Saint Paul describes what happened at that Last Supper in today’s epistle reading. Jesus and his disciples lived as a travelling community. They ate and drank together all the time. And we can imagine that during those times, they shared together the experiences of their day, and Jesus helped them to reflect on those experiences.
But this time was special, more special than all of the other meals. Jesus knew that his Life was in danger. He said grace in the usual way, took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God for it, and broke it for distribution around the table, There was nothing unusual in that, but what he said next was distinctly unusual. “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” After supper he took a cup of wine, gave thanks to God over it and handed it around the disciples. That was usual. But again he said something which was highly unusual: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Of course we are familiar with these words because they are at the heart of our worship as we meet together each week. We encounter them every time we gather here in the words of our Eucharistic prayer. As Paul says, we meet together to eat the bread and drink the cup, proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes. For some Christians the Last Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass, is so important that it is celebrated every day. For others it is so important that it is celebrated just once a year. In the churches of some of our Protestant brothers and sisters the Holy Communion is never celebrated without the washing of each other’s feet, as we did together on Maundy Thursday. We have lost something by breaking the connection between those two symbols.
At that first Last Supper, Jesus performed with ordinary food and drink an act of Jewish prophetic symbolism. The bread he took and broke was himself: he was to be given as a sacrifice on the cross for his disciples. The wine in the cup was his life: it was to be poured out for all humanity on that cross. Jesus dramatically enacted his death in advance, and told the disciples what it meant.
He was being offered as a sacrifice that would inaugurate a new covenant, a new relationship between God and the disciples. Eating the bread and drinking the wine meant that they would have a share in what he did and who he was. The bread was his body: himself. The wine was his blood: his life.
The disciples of Jesus went on eating and drinking together after his death. But once a week, on the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection, they met to eat and drink specifically in remembrance of him, to proclaim his death and its meaning. They took bread and wine, gave thanks to God over them for all that Jesus had done,(and all that he meant,)and shared them in a ritual meal/At first they called it the Lord’s Supper, because they met in the evening. Soon they called it the Eucharist, which means the thanksgiving, (as we do today) , for the prayer that they said over the bread and wine on Sunday morning was a thanksgiving for all that God had done for them in creation and redemption, and continued to do in their common life together.
Their sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving was given material form in bread and wine, symbols which they had inherited from their Jewish tradition, but which in some way also looked a little like the body and blood of which they spoke. They offered these gifts to God in prayer and in remembrance of the sacrifice which Jesus had offered. So they ate the broken bread and drank the cup of wine, not as ordinary food and drink, but as the body and blood of Christ, which he himself had called them the night before he died. So Christians have gone on eating the bread, the body of Christ, and drinking the wine, his blood, as the central act of Christian worship. We are not, of course, cannibals, although in the early centuries of the Church’s life its enemies accused it of eating slices of murdered baby and drinking human blood.
So what, then, do we mean when we say we receive in Holy Communion the body and blood of Christ? Christians have disagreed, and still do disagree, about the meaning. As Anglicans we believe that in some sense there is a “real presence” surrounding these elements after they have been consecrated. In some sense we encounter Christ in them in a different way from the encounter we have when we eat normal food. There is a depth of encountering the presence of God which is contained in and around, (or hidden in and around) the bread and the wine.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus teaches his disciples that, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” When Jesus says that we must eat his flesh and drink his cup, he calls us to live by the faith which he embodied: the body which symbolises his ministry and teaching, and the blood which symbolises the new life which he offers to us in faith. As we take bread and wine, we commit ourselves to sharing in his faith, and his self sacrifice, and living by that same costly love which he offered to the world.
Bishop Frank Weston, the Bishop of Zanzibar (a beautiful island off Tanzania) reminded the Anglo Catholic Congress in 1923, which was one of the events that re-invigorated the centrality of the Eucharist in our Anglican Tradition that the Eucharist, because of its rich meaning must be more than a ritual which we Anglicans enjoy but rather a platform from which we launch our mission of sharing God’s love to the world. He said, “you cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle or on the altar, if you do not pity Jesus in the slums… It is folly… it is madness, to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the sacraments and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children.”
Bishop Weston lived the reality of what he spoke about. The cathedral in Zanzibar is built upon the site of the slave market in that city, symbolically breaking the old order of slavery and replacing it with the new life of the offer of God’s love in Christ. Whatever else it is, the Eucharist must be more than our own private ritual at which we feel loved and assured each week. If there is no connection between the bread and wine which we eat here at this altar of love, and the food which we distribute to the needy from our Parish Pantry then we have missed the point.
This evening we do what Jesus told his disciples to do at the Last Supper. We take bread and wine, and give thanks over them. We present them to God in remembrance of Jesus, and eat and drink them to recall his sacrifice. In the whole celebration of the Eucharist the living Jesus comes to us. Before his death and resurrection he was present in his natural body. Now he is the risen and glorified Christ, who lives no longer in the flesh, but in the Spirit. In the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, he is present everywhere. But in the Eucharist he takes bread and wine to be his body and blood, just as once he took flesh and blood in Mary’s womb. They become the tangible, edible means of his spiritual presence with us.
On this celebration of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Corpus Christi (the feast of Christ’s body) we will also bless this Parish with these symbols of love and life. Just as when we consume them, we feed on him who gave himself for us on the cross, so when we bless with them, we pray that God will bless our Parish and bring people to Jesus through the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
When we take his body and blood into our life, God’s life becomes ours. Eating and drinking at this meal is essential for fully human living — it cements our communion with Christ and with one another, and so we become more fully the body of Christ, the Church. We are nourished by Jesus’ life in order to be strengthened to go out and live that life of love in the world.