Eucharist 2 – who we are

 

1 Corinthians 11:20-27 and Luke 14:15-24

A couple in their 90s die suddenly in a freak accident. Up till that point they had been in excellent health, due to the wife’s interest in health food.

When they reached the pearly gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion, with beautiful kitchen, swimming pool, lovely view. As they “oohed and aahed”, the old man asked Peter how much all this was going to cost.

“It’s free,” Peter replied, Remember, this is Heaven.”

Next they went out back to see the championship golf course next door. Each week the course changed to a new one representing the greatest golf courses on Earth. The old man asked, “What are the green fees?”

“This is heaven,” St. Peter replied. “You play for free.”

Next they went to the clubhouse and saw the lavish buffet lunch with the cuisines of the world laid out. “How much to eat?” asked the old man.

“Don’t you understand yet?” St. Peter asked. “This is heaven. It’s free!”

“Where are the low fat and low cholesterol foods?” the old man asked timidly.

“That’s the best part…you can eat as much as you like of whatever you like and you never get fat and you never get ill. This is Heaven.”

The old man looked at his wife and said, “You and your stupid bran muffins. I could have been here twenty years ago!”

When Jesus talks about heaven, how does he imagine it? He certainly doesn’t talk about harps and clouds at all. As far as I’m aware he mentions Paradise just once – to the thief on the cross who puts his trust in Jesus right at the end of his life. Because he turns to Christ he is forgiven and will be in Paradise.

But mostly the image Jesus uses is a banquet. ‘Blessed is the person who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God’ says a dinner guest piously. Jesus has just said something challenging and it seems that the guest is one of those people who tries to defuse tension by saying something that all can agree on. But Jesus isn’t going to let an opportunity pass.

He responds by telling a parable about a banquet. How lucky indeed those will be who eat in the kingdom. So make sure you respond to God’s invitation! Don’t take it for granted, says Jesus!

Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus talks about feasting in the Kingdom of God. You and I are invited to a glorious celebration, a wedding banquet thrown by God. And I don’t mean the sort of party where you make polite conversation with people you’ll never see again while wishing you had three hands because you’re standing up and it’s impossible to eat canapes from a plate while holding a glass of imitation Prosecco.

No, God invites us to abundant joy. To celebration and fulfilment. To the whole company of the redeemed. Not the smug nuclear family of the Christmas adverts. This is a celebration that involves the full communion of the saints – all those who have belonged to Christ. The vast breadth of people from every race, nation and language who have accepted Christ will be there. It will make the Olympic opening ceremony look tame by comparison. We are invited. God calls each one of us today to make a response – to say yes to him, be forgiven, and then live his way…

This feast, this gracious invitation from God, this inclusive celebration is symbolised and foreshadowed in the Eucharist. Holy Communion is a picture of God’s heavenly banquet. Here God invites us to come to his love feast. To join in celebration with all those others he has called. Today we will explore what the Eucharist says about us. How it symbolises the diversity of God’s people. How it calls us into fellowship with one another. How it creates a new Kingdom community.

Isn’t it interesting that in the Gospel reading from Luke several people refuse the host’s invitation? And they do so for individualistic reasons. The activities they do instead are not about community: they are solitary and could be done anytime: inspecting a field, trying out oxen. Even having a new wife begs the question ‘why not bring her along and share your joy?’

Are the people rejecting the invitation because they turn away from others? Now of course, for an extravert who likes being in a crowd it is easy to be the life and soul of the party. For a bookish introvert a party can be a fearsome thing. I don’t think Jesus is talking about that – not least because the things the introvert may be concerned about such as looking stupid or being rejected, those fears are not issues in heaven.

No, the ungrateful guests are rejecting the host and his character. They don’t want to be part of his celebration. They prefer to be independent rather than receive blessing from others. They don’t want to share with the guests he has invited, community holds no attraction for them, the openness, even vulnerability that fellowship requires is a step too far.

It reminds me of the old style 8 o’clock. When I was a curate about two dozen came to prayer book communion. There was plenty of room in the choir stalls but several people preferred to be miles away from anyone in a church that could seat 800. There was quite an emphasis on ‘making my communion with God’ – but rather less on communicating with one another. I knew a chap who even used to leave before the clergy had reached the door so that he didn’t have to speak to anyone.

I can see how such a service could provide a place of refuge for those who have been deeply damaged. It can hold them in a safe place but it’s contact with others which gives the chance of greater healing. Being willing to share your pew, offering the peace, staying for coffee after the service are much more than just being sociable. They are God given means of grace, ministries by which we can welcome one another, build relationships and support fellow Christians on the journey of faith. Meeting is a way that we can encourage one another in living out the gospel in the coal-face of Christian living: at work, home, school.

For God’s mission in the world is not done by the clergy, it’s carried out Christians in the front line – by the lay people. It’s lay people who have contact with other folks through their work, school, home or social interests. You can be the light of Christ for them, show his love, speak of him. It’s your work that makes a difference for the Kingdom in the world.

The job of the clergy is to resource the wider church, to support through ministry of word and sacrament the laity who are on the frontline of God’s mission.

So think of how we can support one another in our work for the Kingdom. That time after the service is potentially a real blessing. It’s not just for the clergy; it’s a chance for all of us, the whole body of Christ, to share in real ministry. Ministry belongs to everyone – the whole people of God.

Stay if you possibly can. Speak to different people. What about those you know well? Can I challenge you to raise your game? Go a bit deeper: what’s are you doing this week? What did you think of the sermon? And be willing to open up yourself, for it’s as we share with one another that trust and support grow. That does require us to step out and make the effort. But if we can kneel at the rail and open our hands to receive the presence of God, surely we can stand and recognise his presence in one another.

In the parable the host throws open his doors. He invites those who are truly vulnerable, the disabled and rough sleepers, people despised and rejected because society believes they have nothing to offer. The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, recently spoke of seeing a peer of the realm and a man recently released from prison kneeling side-by-side to receive the sacrament. Humility before Christ removes all pretensions to status; in His presence we are all equal: sinners redeemed and saints in the making.

When the God’s people can embody this grace, it is an incredibly powerful witness. Which is why St Paul is so frustrated in the reading from 1st Corinthians. Imagine how revolutionary it would have been in Romans times for slaves and masters to share communion together! That symbolism would undermine the whole institution of slavery.

But the Corinthians weren’t practising equality. Their Eucharist took place in a meal, and it seems that it wasn’t so much Bring and Share as Bring and Scoff. The idle rich arrived early and ate their banquets. When the slaves had done all their tasks, there was nothing left for them to eat. ‘Do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?’ says Paul. Because of their disunity, it is not really the Lord’s Supper they are eating. Division means they are not recognising the body of Christ. It is a kind of blasphemy when they say they’re celebrating the Body of Christ in bread and wine but not recognising the human Body of Christ right in front of them.

It’s so important that we act on division quickly. If you’ve got an issue with someone there are several things you can do. Firstly, don’t grumble about them to everyone else but approach them directly. The most destructive thing to relationships is an undercurrent of grumbling that never gets addressed. Secondly, best not to send emails or even letters – they are so easily misunderstood – but pluck up your courage and speak face to face. Thirdly don’t accuse or lose your temper, but speak honestly, owning the emotions you feel. ‘When you did that I felt hurt because…how can we stop that happening again?’

We share the Peace because Jesus told us to be reconciled with one another before we approach God in worship. Hopefully sharing the peace reflects good quality relationships that do exist – but if there are problems may it also be a reminder that we need to sort them out.

Perhaps this episode explains why the church moved away from celebrating the Eucharist as a meal. It can be very powerful when we do – perhaps we ought to more. We have celebrated a Maundy Thursday supper – are there other times when the church can gather for Eucharist in a meal? Perhaps this is something we should do as a Gauzebrook Group, overcoming the isolation that can creep into rural life.

When people share communion together it can be an incredibly powerful symbol of reconciliation. We are who are many are one body because we all share in one bread. The Eucharist both expresses the unity of the God’s people the church – and creates it. When we share the bread we are united in our common dependence on Christ. When we drink from one cup we acknowledge that each one of us is here because we have responded to his love poured out on the cross. As we kneel together we affirm our equality in God’s sight and as we rise we look forward to that heavenly banquet. In the meantime, let us go and be Christ’s body in the world. Amen.

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Eucharist Series 1

1 Peter 2:1-3 and John 6:32-40

There’s a story told about one of the early cosmonauts who went up into space, and on his return gave a press conference. A Russian journalist asked him: ‘When you were up there, did you see God?’ And as a good communist, the new hero answered ‘No, I did not see God.’

So when an American astronaut had returned to earth the press asked him the same question: ‘When you were up there, did you see God?’ ‘No,’ replied the astronaut, ‘but I would have done, if I’d taken my helmet off.’

It’s a question of discernment. Are you open to the God who calls us? God is there, can we accept him? Christianity believes in a God who reveals himself. He is not far off, not hidden, not secreted away through knowledge available only to the few, but God himself reaches out to us. This is one of the key Christian beliefs, not that humanity has to build up a pyramid that we ascend to reach God, but that he comes down to us. In our prayers and thinking we do not play hide and seek but he makes himself known to us, most of all through Jesus Christ.

So how do you meet God? Through prayer? Whether silent or out loud, forming words – one’s own or using someone else’s – or the wordless way of contemplation? Do you meet God through the Bible, reading, reflecting, holding, meditating, being inspired and challenged? Did you catch this morning morning’s glory, in the Arboretum or along the Cliff, caught up in praise and wonder for the beauty of God’s creation?

Such moments are like sparks of the divine, a flash of spiritual light, a shooting star falling that only the stargazer will see. Being open to God, seeking him, is like being that stargazer. Standing outside and looking up at the night sky does not make shooting stars appear, but it means that when they do come you’re in the right place to perceive them.

Similarly prayer and reading the Bible does not force God to make himself known. Spiritual disciplines are not mechanistic, we cannot manipulate God, what ‘worked’ yesterday may feel routine tomorrow, but those disciplines do create the space for us to be aware of him. Which is why it is so important that we continue to make time to pray, reflect and be open to God.

So how do you meet God? Do you find him amongst other people? The outer and corporate life as well as the inner and personal? Worship is so important for every Christian – of course there are different ways, and various styles which appeal to the whole range of personality types – but the give and take in worship is very important too, as is the sense of fellowship and community over a shared meal.

Many people find God through acts of service such as feeding the homeless, taking communion to the elderly or teaching the children. I often find that this is God’s way of taking us deeper in our faith. That people whose spiritual lives have got a bit dry can find renewal and great fulfilment by looking outwards and serving others.

And it’s important that we use as many ways of communing with God as we can. Look at the pillars and walls of this church – they hold up the roof together. No one pillar, however massive could bear the weight alone, nor could the walls hold the centre.

So it is with our spirituality. Someone who spends a lot of time in solitary prayer but does not meet for fellowship or serve others can easily end up with an inward looking religion which makes little difference to the world around them. But relying solely on service will leave you feeling drained with nothing left to give.

Or an approach to spirituality which relies on regularly receiving communion but does not put aside time to read God’s word will find it much harder to feed the mind, or encounter spiritual challenge, and is therefore unlikely to grow.

All these are necessary. All are means of communion with Christ, of experiencing God through Jesus. In our gospel reading from John 6, Jesus teaches that this relationship with him is at the heart of our faith.

The reading is set shortly after the feeding of the 5000, where Jesus breaks the loaves and fish to sustain an enormous hungry crowd. This sign is then used to explore how Jesus can feed us in a spiritual sense.

The people have been well fed. Can you keep on doing this, just like Moses did in the desert, they ask. Jesus has to remind them that it was not Moses who gave their ancestors manna, but God himself, and it is the sign of a much more profound food. In verse 33 ‘For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’

‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ They understand it as physical food, but Jesus says ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ He can sustain us for ever, and his offer is open to all: ‘whoever comes to me I will never drive away’ – what wonderful words those are when we doubt whether God’s mercy and love can really include us.

Indeed he will ‘lose no-one who comes to him’. When we commit ourselves to Jesus, we are secure in him and through him we have a promise of life that lasts forever, in verse 40: ‘This is indeed the will of the Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.’ Jesus is like spiritual bread. When we believe in him he nourishes us for eternity. And he gives us spiritual food each day 

The way that we abide in him is through those ways of meeting God. Prayer, the Bible, worship, service, all those things we thought about earlier. They are all forms of communion with God through Christ.

Which brings us to the Eucharist, which we’re thinking about in this sermon series through Advent. It’s important to see the Eucharist against that background – to appreciate that God makes himself known and does so in a variety of ways. The Eucharist itself is a special form.

It’s an act in which we receive the presence of Christ. When we eat the bread and drink the wine it’s a very physical act. The sacrament becomes part of us. There’s no more profound way of expressing your assent and your dependence on Christ than by physically receiving. It’s where we show that we are in him and he is in us.

Now of course Christians have argued for centuries over the exact way that Jesus is sacramentally present through the bread and wine. I don’t intend to think about that today. It’s far more helpful to acknowledge his presence and ask him to reveal himself and minister to us when we receive communion.

So what does communion tell us about God? God is the host, inviting and welcoming all to his table if they will receive. That sense of invitation and welcome should flow throughout our worship. Communion must never feel exclusive – so is it right to hold a Eucharist at times when lots of non-communicants are present? And if we do, how we do include them?

God reveals himself to us in bread and wine. This tells us he does not despise the physical. So when we worship Christ born in a stable our liturgy must connect with today’s world. If Eucharistic worship becomes distant, over spiritualised or inaccessible it ends up denying that Jesus came to the world as he found it. How can our style of worship be coherent with its central truth: that of incarnation?

The Eucharist tells us that God is self-giving and loving – Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins and through his love we are forgiven. As we follow in his footsteps we are called to be a community of love, giving and forgiving one another. When we share the peace, it is good to ask is there anyone with whom we’re not reconciled as we approach the altar? We’ll think about the community of faith more next week.

Finally, the Eucharist tells us that God is present with us on life’s journey. Christ is the bread of life on whom we feed. He has given us many ways to be in communion with him. So perhaps we can ask ourselves: How balanced is my spirituality? Am I over dependent on one or two means of grace? Where might God be calling me to grow?

As we come close to Christ and receive the bread and wine, let’s be thankful to a God who makes himself known and offers himself to us that we might live. Let us pray that we may discern his presence at communion and in the world around. Amen.