The Rev’d Devin McLachlan
Associate Vicar, The University Church, Great St Mary’s, Cambridge
26 August, 2018
Here’s a bit of trivia — in the Gospel of Saint John there is no specific description of the Last Supper; no words of Institution, ‘This is my Body…’ Instead on that final night before Jesus’ execution John gives us the image of Jesus kneeling before his disciples and washing their feet.
I’d like you to imagine, for a moment, that it was Christian practice to meet every Sunday and wash one another’s feet. It’s an uncomfortable and shocking thought, both culturally alien andfar too personally invasive. And yet Christians seem perfectly comfortable drinking from a common cup referring to bread and wine in some way or another as flesh and blood.
We may think that we are well-bread, the upper-crust, but when we come to receive the sacrament I knead to say that too often we fail to rise to the occasion; spiritually we are loafing around — which is pretty crumby, any way you slice it.
In other words, here at the end of these Living Bread Sundays, as we’ve listened to the difficult teachings of Jesus in John’s Gospel, let’s bring that foot-washing discomfort to a conversation about communion.
As Annie Dillard challenges us:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
….The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
Or in the words of the grumbling disciples of today’s Gospel: “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”
I grew up at Saint James’ Cathedral, Chicago: high church, smells and bells, gold-stenciled walls and marble floors. I was convinced that if I stepped past the altar rail into the marble-lined chancel there would be an earthquake, the marble floor would open and swallow me up!
That I find such thoughts silly now is not that I’ve outgrown childish things — it is that I have learned to trust God more deeply, learned to see that the awe and mystery of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood are yet still Good News, accessible, familiar and nourishing, even as they are difficult, mysterious, — awful as well as awesome.
Sacraments, the prayer book teaches us, are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.
To swim in the waters of Christianity is to make peace with contradiction. Fear and grace, mystery and invitation, bread and flesh, blood and wine. It’s why there are so many titles for what we do here today, all of them true, each of them pointing to particular facets:
This is the Eucharist — that is, taken from Greek, the Great Thanksgiving; “It is right to give God thanks and praise.”
This is Communion — that is, a common meal that makes of us a community as we drink from a common cup, remembering that Jesus instructed us, at the last Supper, both to break bread together and to love one another as he loved us.
This is the Lord’s Supper — it is our anamnesis, our remembrance of that last supper which Jesus shared with his friends on the night of his arrest leading to his execution.
This is the Divine Liturgy — to translate quite literally, the Godly work of the people.
This is the Mass — from the Latin, missa, dismissal, because the purpose of what we do today does not end at this table, but is in how we are fed by God’s grace through the Sacrament to go out into the world and bear Christ’s love. Sacraments, the catechesis of our prayer book tells us, “sustain our present hope and anticipate its future fulfillment.
There are a few requirements for the Eucharist. The least interesting is the priest, someone raised up by the community and ordained by the bishop to preside at the Eucharist as one of our duties of priest and pastor.
The priest cannot celebrate the Eucharist alone, however — in our reformed church we need community for communion. Two or more gathered in Christ’s name is the gospel minimum.
We need bread, we need wine — because we recall Jesus’ last supper; because these elements recall and are for us the spiritual food of the most precious body and blood of Christ; wine and bread at the table become the blood and flesh offered at the altar. Because Jesus taught us that he is indeed the Living Bread. Because bread is but seed that has been scattered, then gathered together in harvest, then broken in the mill, then made into a loaf, and then broken at this table at the fraction — just as Jesus was broken on the cross — that we might be gathered together as one body.
We need our hearts — that we might lift our hearts up to God, just as the bread and wine are lifted up, that we might offer to God not just this bread and wine, but ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice.
We need story — anamnesis, remembrance, the stories in Scripture and the story recalled each time we gather at this table, of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples and of the mysteries of his incarnation: His life and his death, his resurrection and glorious ascension.
We need prayer — the sanctus we sing with angels and archangels holy, holy, holy; the specific epiclesis— when the celebrant calls down the Holy Spirit: “Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him. Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace.” We need prayer throughout — in our intercessions, in the Lord’s Prayer, in our collect and post-communion prayer, and most briefly and vitally at the end of the Eucharistic prayer — for the Eucharist is not complete without the Great Amen spoken by the whole congregation, that wonderful word from Hebrew: Amen. So be it. It is so.
Bread and wine. Community, celebrant, story, and prayer. And two more things:
We need time — one of the most mysterious of God’s creatures, and in August sometimes one of the most elusive. In all the rush and busy-ness and panic of life, to celebrate the Eucharist means making an offering of time back to God, God who has given us all of the time that we have.
And we need hunger. Hunger for God’s grace, hunger for the company and prayers and support of one another, hunger for justice that all might be fed, hunger, in this present age of fear and violence, for the coming of God’s peace. The hunger to declare to one another, to Lopez, to the World — we have come to believe and know that Jesus Christ is the Holy One of God.