Corpus Christi Sermon June 18, 2017
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. 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
Today, we are observing a Feast that officially dates back to the 13th century but unofficially to the earliest days of the Christian Church. The Feast (or Solemnity) of Corpus Christi is a day set aside to commemorate not only the institution of the Lord’s Supper but the Real Presence of Christ in our own observance of the Rite of Holy Communion. This Feast is usually kept on a Thursday but the Holy Father, Pope Francis allowed it to be transferred to Sunday this year and our own Bishop Sloan has given us permission to commemorate the day, although it is not in our official Episcopal Church calendar. To be honest, there are few Episcopal Churches that keep Corpus Christi.
It is an important feast of the Roman Church but for Anglicans who have a more Catholic theology of the Eucharist Corpus Christi gives us an opportunity to reflect upon and celebrate the deep joy we find in our experience of Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament. In many ways the rites for Corpus Christi are reminiscent of Maundy Thursday and include a procession of the Blessed Sacrament. Unlike Maundy Thursday, which shifts the focus from the Lord’s Supper to the Gospel account of Jesus washing the feet of the Disciples, Corpus Christi keeps our attention on the Blessed Sacrament at the Altar and the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ blessed, broken and shared among us to give spiritual life to us and to the world.
For Episcopalians there is a diversity of understanding about Holy Communion in general and the Blessed Sacrament in particular. On one end of the continuum we find our more protestant brothers and sisters who are more in the line of the Protestant theologian Ulrich Zwingli, perceiving Holy Communion to be a memorial meal, a remembrance of past actions that is kept because Jesus commanded it. On the other end of the spectrum are the Catholics among us who believe in the doctrine of Transubstantiation, understanding the bread and wine to actually become the body and blood of our Lord… the substance having been changed but the outward appearance(the species) remaining unchanged. I suspect that most Episcopalians fall somewhere near the middle, believing in Christ really present in the Eucharist, but unwilling to speculate, as to how.
In my own religious upbringing in a very Protestant tradition, the congregation did share a form of Holy Communion every Sunday but it was continually impressed upon the people that this was a memorial meal…a recalling of Christ’s sacrifice held as a solemn observance, open only to the baptized. But it was made very clear that it was baptism that was the instrument of salvation. It seemed to me that the faithful kept the practice of Communion because Jesus commanded it but that it held little meaning in the spiritual lives of the believers. It seemed that something very important was missing from both the experience and the explanation but I would not find the answer until Fr. Francis Walter gave an “Instructed Eucharist” as part of our newcomer’s education.
When he began to talk about the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Eucharist my mind opened to the possibility that Sacraments were more than just actions done in obedience. They were in fact conduits for God’s Grace and had the potential to significantly impact those who received them. Holy Communion was not just a bit of bread and wine consumed in memory. Rather, in some profound mysterious way these elements of creation held within them the very substance of Christ and through the Holy Spirit could unite us to Christ in his sacrificial love and by that union we could partake of spiritual healing and strength and in fact become ourselves agents of God’s Grace to bring blessing to the world.
But as I mentioned earlier, within Christian tradition, even within our own Episcopal Church, there are members who hold differing theologies on the Sacraments in general and Holy Communion in particular. This diversity of theology was probably not present in the early Church. The days of blood sacrifice were not so far removed and Divine Mystery was more easily accepted. For first century Christians the rite of Holy Communion was so important, so mysterious that only baptized members of the community could even be present. Following the liturgy of the Word, which probably ended with a homily and prayers of the people, new people were escorted from the assembly to a separate space to receive instruction in the faith. There were two reasons for this. The first of course had to do with respect for the profound sacredness of the Rite. The symbolism of the ritual would have had no meaning or would have been confusing to someone who had not been educated in the faith. In the Episcopal Church we are still in some internal conflict about the idea of an “open table”. The question of whether Holy Communion should be open to unbaptized folks who may not be familiar with the theological or spiritual significance of the Rite is even now being debated.
The second reason the early worshippers were kept apart from the Communion service was more practical. At the time Christianity was considered a dangerous religious cult that was disruptive to the social order. Believers were always at risk for exposure and arrest, leading to persecution and even martyrdom. The communities of believers were wary and watchful for spies, people who would turn them in for political gain or out of spite. It was understood that the Eucharistic Feast with its language of flesh and blood was the most disturbing part of the worship for anyone unfamiliar with the practices. This secrecy did not serve the Church well for strange theories developed and rumors circulated among nonbelievers. In the early days some believed Christians to be cannibals and accused them of human sacrifice among other things.
Even now many modern Christians are very uncomfortable with both the language of sacrifice and the references to eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. In our Gospel reading from John, when Jesus was saying these very words his disciples were distressed about it as well. The scriptures record that at one point a good many of his followers left him because they could not understand or accept the disturbing things he was saying.
What strange metaphors for Jesus to use, especially when he was attempting to reach followers who were faithful Jews, subject to any number of strict dietary laws. The Law of Moses was very concerned with what one ate and how one ate it. For Jesus to declare himself to be “bread from heaven” and to insist that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood would not die was incomprehensible to even his closest friends.
Think about it for a moment. Jesus was trying to describe something heavenly using earthly language. He was speaking of the eternal in a temporal way. In making the correlation between himself and food he was emphasizing that a relationship with him is vital to one’s life…not just in the spiritual but the physical as well. As creatures, biological animals by nature, food is an absolute necessity. If we do not eat we die. All life consumes other life and incorporates the elemental substances of what is consumed. We cannot separate ourselves from the essence of what we have eaten. In the same way when we have consumed the Christ really present in the Sacred Elements of Communion we incorporate his divine person into our own. We cannot define where Christ ends and we begin for he is in us and because he is eternal with God and no longer flesh, we are in him as well.
Jesus used these visceral symbols to get at the heart of relationship with God. To be in full communion with God is to be consumed by the Holy Spirit, eaten up with the divine. In like manner we are to consume that same Spirit, groping for truth and wisdom, inspiration and creativity, gnawing it off the divine bones with spiritual teeth. There is absolutely nothing polite, nothing sterile, nothing dignified about this relationship. We consume the bread of life and Christ becomes us as we become Christ.
There really is no way to understand this Mystery. It must be experienced. As Christians we believe that something precious and profound happens when we gather together in holy fellowship around the Altar to share in the Communion of the Blessed Sacrament. We believe that in some way Christ becomes present, whether in the bread and wine or in the community of believers gathered…we know our Lord to be with us. And one cannot be in the presence of God and remain unchanged. In the Blessed Sacrament we find strength for reconciliation, comfort for affliction, healing for the soul and the body. It is the Kingdom made present, a direct connection to the Communion of saints. It is the thinnest place where earth and heaven meet and the ordinary becomes sacred.
Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ…the Word made flesh and the flesh made bread…bread from heaven that once eaten brings life and immortality. Brothers and Sisters, in the Blessed Sacrament we come as close to Christ as we can in this life. Through the Holy Spirit our Lord is with us and in us and we in turn are with and in him…given life in the spirit, strength for holy work and healing for soul and body. This is gift…this is blessing….this is grace.