The Bread of Life

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Back a few years ago when the diocese was considering ordaining me to be your priest, I got a call from the head of the commission on ministry for an interview by phone. The Canon asked me basically one question that would either let me go forward towards ordination for the priesthood or would stop me in my tracks if I happened to answer it wrong.
The question was to explain the meaning of the Holy Eucharist as I have come to believe it to be.
Now you might think that this should be a fairly easy question that any clergyman should be able to answer off the top of his head. But I would tell you that wars have been fought and lost over this one question because the answer is very much subject to one’s interpretation. The Orthodox and Anglicans believe the Eucharist to be one thing, whereas Roman Catholics believe it to be something different. Protestant denominations believe it to something quite different than us and yet all of us partake of the body and blood of Christ regardless of denomination because it is the one thing what Christ commanded us to do until his coming again.
So whether you are Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran or Baptist or Presbyterian or a Mormon you will at least once during the liturgical year partake of the supper of the lord.
During the middle ages, when nearly every church was in fact Roman Catholic, the Eucharist was believed to be so holy that the people who it was offered for were unable to partake of it. Instead it was the priest only who partook of Holy Communion for the people . . . for it was the priest only who it was believed worthy to receive it in both forms. This was the beginning of something called priest-craft that eliminated the congregation from the blessing of the holy elements. The priest would instead place the consecrated host wafer in a monstrance (sort of a holder) and stand before the people blessing them with the mere sight of the host. In this way, the people could partake of Holy Communion spiritually without actually touching it or ingesting it.
This went on for several hundred years and was among several causes of the reformation. When the reformation finally did happen, it was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer who came up with the prayer we say each week before we take communion. It is the prayer of humble access on page 12 of your booklet and begins . . . We do not presume to come . . . .
Early in this prayer, we are reminded that what we are coming to is a meal. We are invited as guests to a table where God is the generous host, and not an altar where we make an offering to appease God’s wrath. Our rubrics refer to this piece of furniture as ‘the Lord’s Table’ although we are used to calling it the altar.
This prayer is to create in all of us an attitude of humility, helplessness, and dependency on God. We do not deserve to be here. We have no suitable garment of our own to wear to the feast. The contrast is repeatedly drawn between what we do not have and what God does have, between what we are not and what God is: ‘not… trusting in our… but in thy… We are not… But thou art…’ Cranmer alludes to our Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman, who says, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7.28). But the allusion is somewhat double-edged, for it expresses both great humility and great faith, as seen by our Lord’s commendation of this same woman in the gospel accounts.
The Prayer of Humble Access has the same dynamic. It does not leave us in a state of hopelessness and despair. Although ‘we do not presume to come… trusting in our own righteousness’, God’s many, varied (‘manifold’) and great mercies combined with his unchanging essence (‘the same Lord’) mean that we do presume to come. Praying this prayer is an enactment of the gospel of God’s grace.
Some conservative evangelicals, however, wish to alter the second half of the prayer, seeing in it the reference to eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, a residue of the Roman Church’s use of the word transubstantiation which Cranmer failed to eliminate. There are some today who wish to eliminate this phrase entirely as being to Romanish. But ironically, this is one of the most directly scriptural parts of the prayer! Jesus says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6.56). The context indicates that Jesus is referring to his death, and the response he is seeking is faith. Whatever you may think about this, receiving the sacramental bread and wine in faith is a means of trusting in Jesus, and enjoying union with him and the cleansing from sin achieved by his death on the cross. It is in church where we can ask God to give us this without any qualms or trepidations.
In today’s gospel the people who had just eaten of the loaves and the fishes come to Jesus obviously looking for more food; more miracles . . . So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
As you know the center of our worship here in this place is the Holy Eucharist, which is in fact the bread of heaven that Jesus describes today and the cup of salvation which he describes elsewhere in his Gospel. The Eucharist joins our offering of worship to Christ’s offering of Himself upon the altar of the cross. It is in this way that Jesus is truly, spiritually present under the outward forms of the consecrated Bread and Wine, to infuse our lives with the spiritual strength of His life. And that is why we take and eat it . . . for us – as often as we can. For it is the Eucharist that sustains our spirit and makes us ready at all times to meet the Father in heaven as the children of God.
And because of this fact Paul today exhorts us all to live as the redeemed ought to live where he writes . . . I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift . . . the gifts he gave were that some [of you] would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
And it is specifically for this reason that Christians come to church each week – hopefully to be strengthened and equipped for ministry here in this world and at the same time, be sustained in hope of the resurrection and the life of the world to come.
It is the Eucharist that does this for us as the central act of our devotion, for it is in the Eucharist that God becomes present for us and in us and in our lives as we go about the business of life outside this place. This was the plan from the beginning and it is the essence of the Gospel that we are in fact Christ’s ambassadors of heaven until we are finally called home.
Each week as we come to Holy Communion we come as God’s servants, his teachers, and his messengers . . . not only for solace for our sins but for the renewal of our souls. And because we are his children we should always feel we can come to his house without embarrassment, and approach the Lord’s Table expectantly in the company of brothers and sisters in Christ, conscious of our unworthiness but truly confident of God’s welcome. Amen