Below is the text of the talk at our first teaching eucharist this Lent, given by Fr Edmund Newey, vicar of St. Andrew's Handsworth.
Heresy is a strong word and we use it rather too readily. We tend to deem heretical anyone whose views are too far removed from our own: advocates of gay marriage, opponents of women bishops; readers of The Guardian, readers of the The Daily Mail; lager drinkers, members of the Campaign for Real Ale. Take your pick – one camp is likely to think of the other as beyond the pale! So I’m not going to use the word ‘heresy’; I’ll use the word ‘error’ instead.
There are, I think, three common errors in the life of the Church today. The first error is the belief that Christians are just disciples of Christ. The second error is that the Church is just a human institution – that ‘Church’ is just a word that we use to describe a gathering of disciples of Jesus. The third error is that the eucharist, the mass, the holy communion, that we celebrate this morning is just one service among a range of many other ways of worshipping God.
Notice that I said ‘just’: Christians are not just disciples of Jesus, the Church is not just a human institution, the eucharist is not just one service among many.
· Error number one: Of course we Christians are disciples of Jesus: we do follow him. But more importantly we are also called to live in him as he lives in us: not just following Jesus at a distance, trying to keep up with our Lord as he constantly threatens to disappear over the horizon. No, we are called to share in Christ, to be united to him: ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’, as Saint Paul puts it (Colossians 1: 27).
· Error number two: Of course the Church is a human institution: its many mistakes, blindnesses and wrong turnings in the past, in the present and no doubt in the future too, make that only too clear. But the Church is also the Body of Christ – and not just metaphorically, almost literally. As we look at our fellow Christians and indeed at our fellow human beings, Jesus’s words should be on our hearts: ‘truly as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me… truly as you did not do it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did not do it to me’ (Matthew 25: 40, 45). The people sitting next to you this morning are Christ for you and you are Christ for them. Being part of the Church isn’t like joining a gym or a golf club; as Christians we belong not just to an institution, but also to one another and to God. Our feet are firmly placed on the ladder that links earth to heaven: Jacob’s ladder: ‘truly this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’ (Genesis 28: 17).
· Error number three: of course the eucharist is an act of worship. But, for all the immense value of other forms of worship – the beauty of evensong, the intensity of a house group, the vigour of an Alpha course – the eucharist is of an entirely different order. The eucharist makes the Church; it is our very lifeblood. ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you’, says Jesus (John 6: 53). This isn’t just a rhetorical overstatement: it is a reminder that cut off from this holy meal, we are cut off from Christ.
Sadly this morning I don’t have time to burden you with my thoughts on all three of these errors, so I’ll allow the last one to stand for them all: the eucharist. The eucharist is not just one act of worship among many others, it is not just one item on a menu of worship dishes that we may choose to serve up. It’s not one item on the menu. The eucharist is the whole menu; and it’s the restaurant too; and it’s the chefs, the waiters, the diners, the owners, the farmers and food suppliers, the financiers, the whole caboodle.
It becomes easier to understand this if we turn to today’s gospel. ‘Pray then in this way’, says Jesus to the disciples, ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread’ (Matthew 6: 9-11). By the time we get to that point the familiarity of the words often lulls us into lack of attention. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’.
As you know, Jesus wasn’t an Englishman so he didn’t speak English. He spoke Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew, and the gospels were written in Greek! In the Lord’s Prayer the Greek word usually translated as ‘daily’ is epiousion, which means something like ‘extraordinary, of a different order’. In Latin it comes out as supersubstantial, and if you know your Church history, you may start thinking of the Reformation there.
We don’t need to worry too much about the debates of four and five hundred years ago – was Christ present in the bread and wine or in the recipients of the bread and wine? Was he present at all or was he just remembered? Did the consecrated elements cease to have the substance of bread and wine and instead become substantially flesh and blood? As Anglicans we tend to sit lightly to overly precise definitions, but we must recognise that the Lord’s words at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer direct us to a mystery. Whatever that little Greek word epiousion means – daily or tomorrow’s or needful or future or extraordinary – whatever it means it’s clear that we’re not just talking about calorific intake: carbs and fats and fibre and protein. It’s the bread of life that Jesus is talking about: yes, the bread we all need to live physically, but also the bread we need to be alive spiritually: ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven’, says Jesus, ‘Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’ (John 6: 51).
St Alphege is one of a small, but vital band of churches where the eucharist is celebrated each day. Now of course it’s not possible for all of us to be at the eucharist every day, but the daily celebration of the life-giving feast of Christ’s body and blood here in this church is a sign of the trust we place in this saying of the Lord’s prayer: give us daily this extraordinary, needful, supersubstantial bread: to help us become more fully what we already are in embryo: the Body of Christ.
And, if we can’t be at the eucharist daily, then at least we can make our daily lives more eucharistic. So, briefly, let me take us through just five aspects of the eucharist that we celebrate today. Just five aspects that we can take away with us as sustenance for the coming week.
1. Our eucharist began with a name and a greeting: the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and then we wished that the Lord be with one another. This is where we stand: in the midst of the presence of the Lord of hosts. Like Isaiah in the Temple or Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones; like Jacob at the foot of his ladder or Elijah on Mount Horeb; like the disciples in the upper room, on the Emmaus Road or the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We meet in the life-giving name of God and share God’s life with one another…
2. Then we heard the life-giving gift of God’s Word in the Gospel. ‘Hear the Gospel…’ We hear the Gospel, we listen to it, we attend to it, we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it here and now. Each week the scriptures read in church at the eucharist are there to enrich our lives. I can guarantee – and I’m sure you know from your own experience – that if you take to heart the words of each Sunday’s gospel, if you reflect on them in the days of the coming week, they will speak to you and guide you through its challenges and opportunities. ‘Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ (Revelation 2: 29).
3. Shortly we will share with one another the life-giving gift of God’s peace: shalom, the original peace in which the world was made. A peace that is ripped apart by our mishandling of one another and our world, but is restored in Christ. We shake hands, because that’s what, in our understated English way, we do. In other cultures they dance and sing and embrace. Being English, I’m awfully glad I don’t have to do that each week, but inwardly all of us should be singing aloud!
4. Then in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer we will proclaim the life-giving mystery of the faith. ‘Great is the mystery of the faith’ – you know the answer. ‘Great is the mystery of faith’: ‘CHRIST HAS DIED. CHRIST IS RISEN. CHRIST WILL COME AGAIN.’ If you watch the service of Nine Lessons and carols from King’s College, Cambridge, you may recall the introduction to the Ninth Lesson; ‘St John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation…’ That process of unfolding is what the Christian faith is all about. To unfold a mystery is not to explain it or dispel it: it is to deepen it and explore it in all the depth of its richness. All the central truths of the faith are mysteries: the Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection – and the eucharist is no less mysterious either.
5. And finally at the very end of the service we will receive God’s life-giving blessing: ‘Christ give you grace to grow in holiness, to deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow him’. Blessing, benediction, speaking well of one another and God, allowing God to speak well of us and to us. How different might our lives be if every time we opened our mouth we spoke well: of one another, of the world, of God?
There are many more – countless more – but those are just five life-giving gifts that come to us through this marvellous mystery of the Word made flesh: Christ alive among us, week in week out, day in day out.
So let’s never take this meal for granted, let’s never count the eucharist as just one way of worshipping God among countless others. And above all let’s always go from this place altered for the better.
This week ask yourself these questions: How can my life be more filled with God’s grace, more open to God’s transforming power? How can God’s life-giving name, God’s life-giving Word, God’s life-giving peace, God’s life-giving mystery and God’s life-giving blessing be known in me and to those I meet?
‘I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance’, says Jesus (John 10: 10). May we taste that life in all its fullness as we share in the bread we ask of God today: daily bread, needful bread, extraordinary bread, bread without compare.