A sermon for Corpus Christi Sunday, June 2, 2013. The lectionary readings are from the Book of Common Prayer, “Of the Holy Eucharist,” Deuteronomy 8:2-3, Psalm 116:10-17, Revelation 19:1-2a,4-9, and John 6:47-58.
In Marcel Proust’s monumental work, Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu ) he made famous the little French cake called a madeleine. It was a bite out of a madeleine that opened up a whole rush of memories, and out tumbled a seven-volume novel.
Food and drink can do that, can’t they? They can unlock a flood of memories. The combination of turkey and cranberries, for many, conjures up Thanksgiving. Where I come from, cornbread, black-eyed peas, and greens of some kind are associated with New Year’s Day. And then, there’s the personal, private food for each of us that works like a hyperlink to memory, like it did for Proust. You know the feeling—that particular food, no matter where you have it or in what context—takes you back to another time, another place, and you can see it and feel and you’re back there.
The Holy Eucharist is a meal. On one level, it’s a holy meal of bread and wine. With prayers and the Holy Spirit, with faith, it is the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. It can take us back—back perhaps to our very first communion, or perhaps one of our very first communions in the Episcopal Church. It can bring back memories of other churches, other altars, other fellow-believers. But it is more than that. This is what makes an Anglican understanding of the Eucharist slightly different from some more Protestant perspectives. The Eucharist, Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper—this sacred meal of the Body and Blood of Christ by any name—is more than a memorial.
The Eucharist takes us back, yes, in history and memory. But the Eucharist also grounds us in the present. And even more amazing, the Eucharist puts us in the future, where we eat and drink with the saints and martyrs, the angels and archangels, the fellow believers of all time and place.
In the back of our Prayer Book is the Catechism, often helpful for reminding us of some of the basics of Christian faith through an Anglican lens. In the section on the Holy Eucharist, there’s a wonderful part that talks about the benefits of what we do, the benefits of partaking of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It says simply, “The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.”
The “forgiveness of our sins” has to do with the past. I think it’s a complete misunderstanding to think that we have to be completely clean and sinless in order to receive Holy Communion. I know the Church sometimes teaches this. We take those scriptures of St. Paul and we underscore them and enshrine them, perhaps too much. To the church in Corinth, Paul wrote, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. ” (1 Cor 11:27-28). But this prohibition of Paul needs to be understood also in the context of the welcome of Christ. Too often it results in closing off people who are the most hungry. Yes, there is confession—both General Confession (which we say out loud, together in church) and there’s individual confession that is available to all—either with a priest or another Christian. But this is no way substitutes for the cleaning, forgiving power of the Sacred Meal.
Think of a small child who has done something bad—perhaps lied. The child is not allowed to join the family for dinner until the child has apologized. The apology is crucial. It’s the deciding piece. But the welcome, the forgiveness, and the healing comes when the child joins the others at the table.
When we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, we are forgiven. We are forgiven again. Our sins are washed away at Baptism, but the ongoing accumulation of sin in our life meets its match in Holy Communion. Ignatius of Antioch called it the “medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, … that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.” Of course, medicine can sometimes taste bitter, especially if our tastes are accustomed to other things. But the Holy Eucharist teaches our tongue. Like good medicine, it increases our resistance level. Like vitamins, it strengthens us.
Through the forgiveness of sins the Eucharist recalls the past and wipes the slate clean. The Eucharist is the ultimate palate cleanser. But the second benefit according to the Catechism sets us down squarely in the present. It has to do with strengthening our union with Christ and with one another. In a world that often suggests we live only for ourselves, that we protect at all costs what we think is ours; the unifying work of the Blessed Sacrament is counter-cultural. But it is live-giving. In Communion we are reminded that we need each other. The common cup and common bread underscore that we are not so different from one another, after all. Barriers of race and class and education, differences of national origin, or sexual orientation or marital status or income are all dissolved in the common chalice.
They are diluted by the cleansing water of the Holy Spirit. And the blood of Christ, which is to say the blood of God our Creator, restores us into once again being fully human even as it fills us with what is fully divine.
The Eucharist has cleaned up the past, has awaked us to the present, but even more mystically, the sharing of the Body and Blood of Christ opens our eyes to the future—our future and a future with God. This holy Sacrament gives us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Mindful of the present, grateful for the reality of here-and-now, we are made aware in the Eucharist that we are also living toward a great feast that has no ending. Today’s reading from the Revelation to John is filled with images of this feast of praise and joy and love. We live into the salvation and power and glory of God. The voices of the faithful from all times and all places blend together in a holy noise that sounds like water rapids, like the clapping for joy of great waves, like a thunderstorm of laughter. This vision of heaven reminds us of our destination.
And so, grateful for the redemption of the past, thankful for the mystery of the moment, and glad for the hope that is ours, we celebrate this feast of bread and wine, of Body and of Blood.
Near the end of his great work on the Eucharist, Dom Gregory Dix points out that, of all the things Jesus said and taught, most have been ignored. Or, if they’ve been remembered at all, his followers (his disciples and us) have usually failed at doing them. But there was that one command on that one night, the night before his betrayal and arrest and crucifixion, in the meal he celebrated with his friends, when Jesus took, blessed, broke, and shared in eating and drinking, he commands his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Keep on doing this, he commands. Dix wonders about this and ask, “Was ever another command so obeyed?”
He goes on to reflect, “For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it until extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth.”
Dix doesn’t suggest “why” we continue to fulfill this command, but I think in part, one reason is because it’s something we can do. As Dix says,
[People] . . . have found no better thing than this to do
for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold;
for armies in triumph
or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church;
for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat;
. . . .
or for a sick old woman afraid to die;
for a [student] sitting for an examination
. . . .
for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover;
in thankfulness because a father did not die of pneumonia;
for a village headman much tempted to return to his fetishes
because the yams had failed;
[The Shape of the Liturgy, (London: Dacre Press, 1945) pp. 743, 744.]
… and on and on the list continues. And it continues with us.
When we can’t control the economy, when we can’t stop storms or even prepare for them, when we can’t heal the ones we love, when we can’t do so many things—we can, nonetheless turn our anger, our frustration, our hopes, our deepest desires into prayer. We can enact that prayer, embody it, and turn it into thanksgiving, into Eucharist, as Jesus did with his friends.
In the mystery of this meal, we are forgiven. We are brought together again into community, and we are pointed again toward God’s kingdom, God’s kingdom here and beyond.
Let us feast with Him who said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day ….The one who eats this bread will live for ever.”
Thanks be to God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.