Pentecost 11 August 16, 2009

Proverbs 9:1-6                                                                     

John 6:51-58                                                                       

One of my fondest memories of Holy Cross will always be the ecumenical Thanksgiving service we celebrated at the Town Hall with Christ Community Church. This was back when Christ Community was just a house church, before they built their building in South Weare. A team of people from Holy Cross and a team from Christ Community worked together to design the service. We read the lessons and sang together, and then when it came time for Communion we had parallel tracks. Their pastor, Bob Christiansen, explained what they believed and how they celebrated Communion. I explained our beliefs and practices. And then we each did our thing, and people came forward separately, the Christ Community people in their line and the Holy Cross people in theirs.

For the Christ Community people, there was no consecration of the bread and grape juice (no wine). There was just the reading of a passage from one of the gospels recounting the words of Jesus at the Last Supper about sharing bread and wine together in remembrance of him. Pastor Bob emphasized that in their Baptist tradition the bread and juice were “only symbols.” They were not in any sense to be reverenced as holy in themselves. I, of course, was telling the Holy Cross people that what they were receiving was “the Body of Christ,” “the Blood of Christ.”

That occasion brought home to me, and I hope to the other Holy Cross people there, that at the very heart of our celebration of the Eucharist is our belief in something called the Real Presence: that Christ is “really present” in the Eucharist. This Real Presence has several aspects: Christ is really present, first of all, in the assembly of the faithful, the congregation (something that is emphasized when we have our seating “in the round”). He is really present in the word proclaimed and broken open. He is really present in the person of the priest or bishop presiding at the Table, “in the person of Christ.” And, finally, he is really present in the Bread and the Wine.

Through the ages, theologians have come up with various ways of trying to understand the Real Presence. Transubstantiation is the best known of these, the official explanation of the Roman Catholic Church: that the “outward incidents” of the bread and wine remain, but their “inward essence” is transformed into the Body and Blood. In typical fashion, Anglicanism has held that this is one way to understand the Real Presence, but not the only possible way. It is not the explanation that is important, but that we should reflect upon, and be drawn into, the underlying Mystery.

What does it mean that Christ is really present in our midst this morning? What does it mean to see him in someone else’s face at the Peace? To hear him speak to us in a reading or prayer? And perhaps central to all, what does it mean that he is really present in the Bread and Wine, that they are truly his Body and Blood? I often reflect on this in my prayer.  It surely means something very radical. For one thing, that material things, day-to-day things, what we eat and drink, what we say and do, the life around us, is all sacred, all holy. That we should treat nothing and no one as mean or unimportant or incidental.

It reminds us that God took an enormous risk, made a huge gift of Godself, in entering our world in the person of Jesus Christ. It reminds us that God is not just an idea, lofty and abstract and far off somewhere. God is here and now.  And this asks of us a correspondingly enormous response. That we take our lives seriously, each other seriously, the created world seriously, time and matter seriously. For God is here, incarnate in all things. Christ is really present in the Bread and Wine, but as a focus of his Real Presence in a much broader way in everything.

So do we shrug all this off? Do we say it isn’t true? Or that it’s in some sense “only a symbol”? If we do, God took that risk for us in vain. If we do, we throw away the key to understanding what Jesus Christ is all about. He is not somewhere else. He is here. He is now. These things are sacred, holy. How do we respond to his Real Presence?

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The Holy Communion portion of the Eucharist – the part after the “hinge action” of the exchange of the Peace – consists of the long prayer of consecration, known as the Great Thanksgiving. The Great Thanksgiving reveals this Mystery of the Real Presence to us, and invites us into its sacred wonder. It consists of four “actions”: taking, blessing, breaking and sharing. They are actions performed with the Bread and Wine, but in a broader sense they are the actions that reveal the Real Presence to us in all of life.

Taking: We bring the Bread and Wine forward and receive them at the Altar Table. They represent what our human hands have made with the grain and grapes God has given us. In other words, they represent us, our lives. It is important symbolically that the Gifts are brought forward from the midst of the congregation. It is also important that we use real bread, which someone in the congregation bakes. It would be wonderful if we could also use wine which someone made – maybe a youth group project? The connection with our actual lives is important.

Blessing: We bless the Gifts brought forward in an interesting way, by giving thanks for them. The Eucharistic prayer is derived from ancient Jewish table prayers of thanksgiving, such as Jesus would have used at the Last Supper. When we give thanks, we recite the story of God’s saving work through history: creation, the Exodus, the prophets, the Incarnation, the ministry of Jesus, and especially – and culminating – his sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection. Then we remember the Last Supper, and Jesus’s words to us there about remembering him in the sharing of bread and wine. We give thanks for all of this. Giving thanks means, essentially, letting go of our claims of ownership, our claims that “we did it” or “we deserve it.” In letting go, we open up. And then, in the action that we call the epiclesis, we invoke the Holy Spirit to sanctify the Bread and Wine. Our letting go makes room for God, or opens our eyes to see that God was already there.

Breaking: After taking and blessing, we break the Bread. This action symbolizes the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In the Eucharist we do not repeat Christ’s sacrifice, but rather we renew or re-member it – re-present now. Breaking is what happens when we let go of our control and ownership; it’s why we’re afraid to let go. The Crucifixion was what happened when Jesus let go of his life, his need to succeed in earthly ways, his need to know what was going to happen. My spiritual director is always telling me, “John, let go. Trust that God will be there.”

And finally, sharing. This is the wonderful thing that happens when we finally do let go, when things break. If the Bread were not broken, it could not be shared. One person would get it all – the way the world works, through competition and jealousy and greedy hoarding. The kingdom of God works just the opposite, through sharing. We share the Bread, we share the Wine (and here the symbolism of actually drinking from the Cup is much to be preferred to dipping the Bread, as well as more sanitary). And there is always enough. No one is left out.

So, taking, blessing, breaking, sharing – the rhythm not just of the Great Thanksgiving, but of the whole Christian life. We repeat it over and over, week after week, because it is so different from the rhythm of the world around us. Only by repeating it all our lives can we begin to hope we’ll get it right.

Is this Real? Really Real? Is Christ Present in and through it? We believe so. We seek to live so. The Holy Communion is the center of everything in the Christian life.

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