Summary: A sermon about the sacrament of the Eucharist
Some of you will know I am a football supporter. And I’m talking about proper football, the type you actually play with your feet. (Although I do also like some of the oval ball offshoots, in which you are allowed to carry the ball.) The club I support is West Ham United Football Club (or West Ham for short) from East London.
One of the problems with supporting an overseas based sports team is that you rarely – if ever – get to see them play live. So I could not believe it when I found out last year that West Ham was coming to New Zealand, and that they would be playing Sydney Football Club in Wellington. This was something I could not miss. So I got tickets for Maria and me, in the West Ham fan zone of course, and off we went to the Westpac Stadium.
We lost the game 3-1, but that did not really matter. We still had a great time. What mattered was being at the game with other fans, getting to belt out the club’s anthem and a few chants, seeing players like Winston Reid, whom I had only previously seen on TV, and having an experience that I otherwise could only have had in England. What mattered was being there.
For the last four consecutive weeks, our gospel readings have come from Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to St John. We have heard about the feeding of the five thousand, the bread that came down from heaven, and today, the words of eternal life. And we have been told the bread that came down from heaven was Jesus himself. Not only did he teach that he was the living bread and that whoever ate this bread in the form of his flesh would live forever, but that they should drink his blood as well.
The concept of eating human flesh would have been as horrific to Jesus’ Jewish audience as it is to us today. ‘Eater of flesh’ is how we would translate the Aramaic title for the devil. And drinking blood was an absolutely abominable act, so Jesus’ teaching was not merely difficult, it was outrageous. “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” 1
Of course, we now know what he really meant. Very soon, his body would be broken for us and his blood would be spilled for us in what would be the most revolutionary act in history. This extraordinary sermon that Jesus preached at Capernaum described what would happen to him and also anticipated the inauguration of the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
The Eucharist re-enacts what happened at the Last Supper on the night before Jesus died. On the day of his resurrection, Jesus met Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus. They invited him home, where he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them2. These four actions re-enacted what he had done at the Last Supper and are repeated at every Eucharist service to this day.
So, what actually happens at the Eucharist? Different churches hold different views.
The Roman Catholic belief is that the bread and wine change completely into the actual body and blood of the Christ. You may have heard the word Transubstantiation, which is the proper term for this.
The Orthodox Church accepts the real presence of the Christ at the Eucharist, but, does not make any attempt to explain how the change occurs, and prefers to regard it as a Divine Mystery.
The Lutheran understanding is that the bread and wine remain bread and wine, but there is also a real presence of the Christ in what Martin Luther called a “sacramental union”. Luther explained this by using an analogy from the third century theologian Origen. If a piece of iron is placed in a fire and heated until it glows red, it remains iron, but heat is now present as well. The Christ is physically present, but the bread and wine retain their distinct identities.
The Reformed and Presbyterian tradition is that the presence of the Christ is only spiritual and not physical.
And the ultra-Protestant position is that that the Eucharist is nothing more than a memorial service.
So what is the Anglican position? That is a difficult question, as the individual views of Anglicans vary considerably and can be any of the views I described above. To understand why this is so, we need to remind ourselves how the Anglican view of the Eucharist changed a number of times during the turbulent Tudor era, which saw the Church of England repeatedly changing direction during the respective reigns of Henry VIII (who actually remained a believer in the fundamental Roman Catholic teachings, despite having been excommunicated); Edward VI; under whose reign Protestantism was established for the first time in England; Mary I, who restored Roman Catholicism; and Elizabeth I, who got to pick up the pieces.