Today we come to the end of our teaching series, our journey. Or at least we come to the end of the first section of our journey. Our journey started with celebrating baptism, the inaugural sacrament, the sacrament Jesus had to receive in order to begin his ministry. Our journey finishes, at least for today, by celebrating Eucharist, the sacrament that Jesus gave to his church as the ongoing, perpetual and sustaining sacrament.
Jesus of, course, gave the Sacrament of the Eucharist to what was to become the church on the day we call Maundy Thursday stressing to his followers that they were to ‘do this in remembrance of me.’ We do however need to be slightly careful over the word remembrance, for what Jesus is suggesting is that what we are doing every time we take Holy Communion is allowing ourselves to be re-membered, united and brought into Holy Communion with Jesus, our neighbours, and of course the ‘entire company of heaven.’ To be re-membered is to be united with; made a member of.
There is a bitter Christian irony to the notion of re-remembering as an act of unification, for throughout Christian history acrimonious, sometimes life-ending, battles have been fought over the Sacrament of the Eucharist; too often far being a source of unity it has been, tragically, a source of division and conflict. Again, tragically, it continues to do so in so many ways.
When we think of the arguments surrounding the Eucharist it is perhaps inevitable that we start our reflections with the Reformation, but to do so is to miss out on approximately 1,200 years of Christian history. During the Reformation the great debate was over the real presence of Christ at the Eucharist, but for the early church the great debate was over something seemingly far less serious: bodily posture! Or, more specifically, whether communion should be celebrated standing up or kneeling down. Bodily posture in public prayer was a central concern at the Council of Nicea; that great church council which provided the words to the creed we use to this day.
So what do you think they decided? Well, they decided that standing up was the appropriate posture for all public prayer on Sundays. In fact the council issued a canon, or mandate, insisting that the Eucharist should be celebrated and received standing.
The rationale for this was basic and straightforward: Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection, and that when we come to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist we should do so standing tall and proud as already absolved and redeemed children of God. Kneeling at the Eucharist only really became popular again in medieval times and in some ways was a political response by the emerging Protestant churches to differentiate themselves from the Roman Catholic church.
My own belief is that it is important to receive communion both standing and kneeling, although I can’t remember, for obvious reasons, when I last knelt! I also think it’s sacramentally enriching to celebrate the Eucharist using different altars. When we use the nave altar the focus is on the resurrected Christ who continues to make His pilgrimage journey down into our very midst, to welcome us and feed us. When we use the high altar the focus is on the pilgrimage we make upwards towards the ascended Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father. It’s not that one is high and the other low, or one is formal and the other less formal, it’s about celebrating the totality of Eucharistic experience.
Anyway enough of history and liturgical practice, let’s turn to the present and think about why celebrate communion in this church each and every week:
The most simple answer is this: we celebrate the Eucharist because Jesus very straightforwardly said ‘do this.’ Celebrating Holy Communion, participating in the Sacrament of the Eucharist is therefore not some form of religious choice, but an obligation and a duty. Being and obligation shouldn’t however imply a lack of enthusiasm or joy, the very word Eucharist does, after all, mean thanksgiving. Celebrating and receiving communion, as the Book of Common Prayer insists, is both a duty and a delight. It is a delight for a very basic reason: ‘in Holy Communion Christ wants our company,’ (Rowan Williams): he wants nothing more that for us to be present with him and for him. That is why each and every week I start the Eucharistic Prayer with the words ‘the Lord is here.’
In and through the Eucharist what we are invited to experience is the very true, and very real, hospitality of the resurrected Jesus. The effect of this should hopefully be that the spiritual food that we consume should in turn make us more hospitable, more inclusive, more equipped to share our table story with others. Put simply if we aren’t open to the possibility of being both transfigured and transformed by the very act of participating in the Eucharist then why on earth bother with it all, for the very point of receiving Holy Communion is that we should be transformed into a Holy Communion of God’s chosen people? Holy Communion, in the words of Rowan Williams ‘is not only about our redemption but our re (my addition) creation.’
My own theology of the Eucharist is far more small c Catholic than Protestant for I would, and do, affirm the real presence of the Lord who is here and I would never want to reduce the Eucharist to a straightforward recollection of the Last Supper. For me Holy Communion, or Eucharist, comprises the following characteristics:
It is a commemoration of the Last Supper, but it is also an affirmation of the resurrection and an anticipation of that which is to come. Commemoration, affirmation, and anticipation, these three, are what makes the Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, so enriching and re-creative. It is through combination of these three sacramental virtues – which comprise our act of remembrance - that we ourselves become re-membered.
As you come forward to receive communion today can I ask you to reflect on two things:
Firstly, you come because you are wanted by God – the Lord (who) is here and secondly, that we receive Holy Communion in order that we might become a Holy Communion.
Come and receive just as you are. Not because you are worthy but because Jesus wants to meet you, feed you, transform you and re-member you, Amen.