In the history of the Christian Church there have always been two main sacraments that have been recognized by all the branches of Christianity, whether liturgical or Anabaptist or non-liturgical. These are Baptism and Communion or what we commonly call Eucharist. We had a baptism this morning at the 8:00 service and our scripture readings for today focus on the Eucharist.
Both sacraments require important decisions on the part of those who participate. For today's baptism at the 8:00 service, parents, grandparents, and godparents all had to make decisions. One of them, young Ryan Morsberger, became godfather to his cousin Katherine Ann Morsberger. To do so, he had to make several serious choices, not the least of which was his willingness to accept a significant spiritual responsibility. When he participated in the baptism, he made a covenant with both Katherine and God. By his statements of renouncing, trusting, and promising he reaffirmed for himself his fundamental Christian beliefs and spoke on behalf of Katherine a statement of his willingness to assist her to arrive at the same professions of faith when her time comes. By being willing to be a godparent, he accepted an awesome responsibility and has made an equally awesome decision. I both congratulated him and challenged him to persevere, like the Apostle Paul, to the end of his responsibility.
Likewise, the Eucharist and our presence at communion this morning also requires an awesome decision and engenders on us an awesome responsibility. Let me explain.
When the Samaritan woman heard Jesus speak of the water of eternal life in John 4:15, she said to him "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst." Just before the events recounted in our Gospel reading this morning (John 6:32-34) Jesus spoke to the gathered synagogue about the true bread from heaven, the bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. In response, they said a similar thing to Jesus "Sir, from now on give us this bread". What the woman at the well was really asking, though she didn't know it, was for baptism and what those in the synagogue were asking, even though they don't know it, was for the Eucharist.
Jesus was going to tell them about an incredible secret, hidden from the creation of the world. Not only does he offer to give them the bread of life, Jesus tells them he IS the bread of life. The bread of true life, eternal life and the only place this bread can be found is through him alone. Indeed he says the bread IS him. In verse 35 Jesus told those in the synagogue "he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst."
Imagine with me for a moment that you are living in first century Palestine. Life is hard. Water is scarce and getting food took a major portion of your day's labor. With that as your context, imagine that there is a man standing in front of you, a man who tells you something unbelievably marvelous. He tells you that he is the means to do away with your hunger and thirst. Can you imagine hearing that for the first time? Can you imagine what your reaction would be?
But then Jesus says something very strange, something incredibly difficult for you to listen to. He says, "I am the living bread which came down from heaven; anyone who eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." Whoa!
The crowd's initial response is understandable. "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" But then things get hard, very hard, and the truth of what Jesus now says to them has been just as hard for everyone who has pondered his words ever since.
Before I go on, however, I want you to understand that those listening to Jesus are out of their depth. What he is saying is utterly new and novel to them, beyond their comprehension and his response to their bewilderment is of little help. Jesus says further "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him."
Imagine yourself in that crowd. You, like them, would be in a quandary. Apart from the repugnant thought of cannibalism, you as Jew had severe dietary prescriptions against the consumption of blood, or even meat without the blood being drained from it. And all the way back to Noah God has said that the life was in the blood and it belonged to Him and him alone. The thought of drinking human blood was doubly abhorrent and doubly problematic to any Jew.
Then Jesus takes it even a step further and says "Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me." He says the Father gives him life and Jesus' flesh in turn will give them life. Remarkably, Jesus places himself between them and God as the source of life, and not just any old life, but eternal life.
Even his disciples, those who have been following him for some time say, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" So, you should not be surprised at the crowd's initial reaction, nor in the response of history since that moment, both in and outside the professing Christian church.
Let's take a quick look at history. Over the life of the church there have been two basic views developed about the Eucharist: the realist or real presence view and nominalist or symbolic view, with each these having two basic interpretations. Historically these two basic views are referred to as "high" or "low" views of the Eucharistic. You also need to understand that there are no middle views, since every approach either falls on one side of the divide or the other. You either believe Christ's body and blood are really or symbolically present in the physical elements of the communion table. Liturgical churches tend to follow the realistic view while the Anabaptist or non-liturgical traditions tend to follow the nominalist or symbolic view, with most of these seeing the Eucharist as a mere memorial.
As you think about this, it is important to understand that it wasn't until the Reformation that anyone argued for the symbolic view of the Eucharist. Up until that time the undisputed position of the church, of all of the church fathers, both those came before and those who came after the time of the Nicene Creed, was that the Eucharist was literally and realistically the body and blood of Jesus. They took Jesus at the plain understanding of his words when he said "my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink" and believed "the one who feeds on me will live because of me" was what he really meant. As far as I have been able to tell, this symbolic view of the Eucharist is the only major doctrine to come out of the Reformation that doesn't find an active precedent somewhere in early church thinking.
What do we believe her at St. Timothy's? We are an Anglican, liturgical church and as such we adhere to the historic realistic view of the Eucharist. The Thirty Nine Articles, which form the core of our historic theology, says in Article XVIII (page 873). Of the Lord's Supper "The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ's death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ." This view is commonly called the "real presence" or simply put, Jesus Christ, our Lord, is really present in the Eucharist and when we consume the bread and wine we are consuming what Jesus himself said, his flesh and his blood, real food and real drink.
It is also very important to understand that the real presence in communion is not merely the spiritual presence of Jesus in our midst. We already have that guarantee in another context when Jesus assured us that when two or three people gathered together in his name, he is in the midst of them. That gives us the assurance of his presence outside of the Eucharist. No, communion is the real spiritual presence of Jesus internally within us, we who are, as Paul said, the new and living temple of God. We believe that the Eucharist really is Jesus' body and blood, which nurtures and sustains our new man, the new creation God has fashioned within us, until the time we are fully united with in God. While baptism is the sacrament of initiation, Eucharist is the sacrament of sanctification and growth in the spiritual life. Baptism is a singular event. Eucharist is our ongoing nourishment as we live out the Christian life.
Now, because of the weighty significance of this view of the Eucharist, there are two things we need to always remember. The first relates to the necessity of our continuing reception of communion and the second concerns our proper reception of it.
Don't you find it very interesting that Jesus compared the Eucharistic meal to manna, which was the only substantive food available to the children of God during their sojourn in the desert? It was God's special gift. While life sustaining, it could not be stored up; it was only good for the day at hand. God's people needed it's regular availability for their continued health. Historically, communion has been viewed in a similar context. Acts tells us that the early church devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer; the four parts of our Sunday worship together. We can see that from the beginning communion was seen as regular and as important as the other essentials of the Christian life. Irregular prayer will not properly sustain us and neither will irregular communion.
But a problem soon developed. As the church spread and became established, error found its way into the church at Corinth as the Eucharist and the fellowship meal which surrounded it become on the one hand routine and boring and on the other exclusive and segregated. The common cup and common table were lost, as was the deep sacredness of this unique, life-giving moment.
Paul addresses this in First Corinthians 10:16-17 by saying "Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf." He establishes again for Corinthian church both the oneness of Christ and the oneness of those who partake at the table of Christ. This further echoes the underlying principal of his statement in Galatians 3:28 "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." There are no distinctions at the communion table of life in Jesus Christ. The manna of Christ is available to all equally and we are all equal before him when we consume it.
After reestablishing this important precedent, Paul then goes on in chapter eleven, our reading for this morning, to severely chastise the Corinthians and in doing so he uses some pretty severe language. He says in verse twenty "When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat." Wow! Leaving aside the question of when would the Eucharist not really be the Eucharist, why would he say that? Thankfully for us he elaborates, "One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!" This gives us an interesting aside to those who argue for the use of grape juice at communion, no one ever got drunk on grape juice. But let's return to our main point, their communal supper, at which communion was included as an integral part, had become an abomination and so, as a result, had the communion along with it. As a result, Paul warns them "Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord." Another wow!
How are we to respond? Paul gives us the answer. "A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself." It appears we have only ourselves to blame. But Paul doesn't stop there, he goes even further and says, "That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep [died]." He lays the blame squarely at our own feet. Paul finishes his argument with an important principal. He says, "But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world." The beloved apostle explains that God does not take lightly our failure to discern the importance and significance of the Eucharist. But his warning is not all gloom and doom, there is hope mixed in with the judgment. God judges us this so that we will not be condemned. He acts as a loving Father, disciplining his wayward children to bring them to righteousness.
That is a lot to think about and lot to pray about. For some of you this may new, for others it may have expanded your understanding of the nature of our common table with the Lord. Hopefully none of us will ever take the Eucharist for granted in the future.
Here at St. Timothy's, communion has been available every Sunday, except on the rarest of circumstance and additionally it is available at mid-week services for those who want it. But an important question comes with that availability. Is your temple properly swept clean, is your heart properly prepared, are you ready for your Lord to enter in? We should examine ourselves and ask ourselves if we prepare our heart in the same way we would prepare our home if we knew Jesus was coming to dinner tonight? Is not our heart the true home that Jesus is coming to visit and is not communion the true dinner we will share with him?
Before you come to communion this morning I would ask us all to take a moment to prepare ourselves, to discern the body, to judge ourselves, and with the redeeming forgiveness of Jesus shed blood, sweep our temple clean.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for the gift and sacrifice of yourself at the communion table. Prepare our hearts to receive you. Nourish our souls and prepare us for the work ahead. Never let us take your gift of yourself for granted and may we always receive you with gladness and purity of heart. Amen.