Because of Corona Virus all sorts of things have changed in society. Instead of being a few feet away from me as I deliver this sermon from the front of church, you are watching this sermon on your computer. One of the other things that has changed is that we are becoming an increasingly cashless society. If I send my daughter to pick up a little bit of shopping for me, I can no longer send her with bank notes, I have to give her my debit card. Because to avoid infection the shops are trying to persuade everyone to pay by contactless card.
An unforeseen consequence of this is it could undermine one of my favourite illustrations of what goes on in the bread and wine of communion - which involves a bank note.
Would you rather be given a bank of England Five Pound Note - or a Monopoly Five Pound note, And of course you say “I’d rather have the bank of England one thank you very much”. And I say “Why?” “errr… because it’s real money?” “But they are both pieces of paper that symbolise £5…” “Yes but it’s real money…” And when I try to pin you down to what you mean, eventually we get down to it. The monopoly money only has value because we the players of the game give it that value. No one else will accept it’s value. But the “real” £5 not is different because although it is equally a piece of paper that symbolises £5, it is not us who has given it that value. An outside power - the government, the bank of England has put it’s value into the piece of paper - such that it has value not just for a group of people who choose to give it value but for everyone.
“My flesh is real food. My blood is real drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them” John 6:56
The bread and wine of communion are not like monopoly money. They are not something that a small group of us human beings give value to while we are playing our religious game in church. Rather they are like the bank note. An outside power (in this case God) put’s his value into them. He says this is my presence among you - this is my body.
God knows that we are physical beings, bodily beings. So he meets us in a physical bodily way in bread and wine. That’s what the bible says, and that's what all the earliest Christians for at least 8 centuries believed.
Sadly - even though we don’t realise it, we are often influenced more by Plato than by the bible. Plato thought that physical and spiritual were opposites and that physical was inferior to spiritual. It’s a view that has crept into society as a whole and particularly since the 16th century has crept into the Church - but it is wrong.
Let me use the analogy of electricity.
You can’t see electricity and you can’t touch electricity - a bit like the Spirit.
And yet I can talk about an electric light or an electric toaster or an electric car. How says Plato can they be electric because they are things you can touch and we all know you can’t touch electricity? You can touch an electric light bulb (and it might hurt!), you can touch an electric toaster (and put toast in it). You can even climb inside an electric car.
So what do we mean when we talk about an electric lightbulb or an electric toaster or an electric car? We mean a physical bulb or a toaster or a car that has electricity flowing through it, electricity powering it.
In the same way when the bible talks in 1 Cor 15 about a spiritual body it means a physical body that has the Spirit flowing through it. When the bible talks about Spiritual food it means physical food that has the Spirit flowing through it.
The French Christian Irenaeus, writing only three generations after the Apostles writes “For we offer to him his own fittingly proclaiming the union of flesh and spirit. For just as the bread from the earth, when it has received the invocation of God, is no longer ordinary bread but Eucharist consisting of two things earthly and heavenly, so also our bodies, receiving the Eucharist , are no longer just things that will one day rot, but have the hope of the resurrection”AH 4:18:5
St Ignatius of Antioch, trained by the Apostles themselves, describes the bread of communion as “the medicine of immortality, the antidote against death”
Or as Jesus puts it “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:50-51
During Lockdown I have enjoyed going to a couple of Zoom parties. It’s quite fun chatting with friends, seeing their picture on the screen, sharing a glass of wine (although of course we are all drinking different stuff). But it is not the same as actually going to supper with friends. When for example when a few months back one of you invited me for lunch and there were some of you I knew really well and some of you I didn’t know so well, and - well being round the table, passing food to one another - it’s a totally different experience to chatting over the phone or via computer. We are physical bodily beings.
Jesus knew that. Jesus spend loads of time eating with people. Having lunch with them. Having supper with them. With Zachaeus or Matthew the tax collectors, with Simon the pharisee, with Lazarus and Mary and Martha, with Simon the leper, with prostitutes whose names aren’t recorded, and of course with the 12.
Jesus knew that - which is why when he gave us worship, he gave us a meal, a meal in which he makes himself present to us through bread and wine.
So the Quakers for example - lovely people , heavily involved in the abolition of slavery, done great things to the world. But when it comes to worship - they are wrong. They sit around in silence with no symbols, no music, no stuff, no sacraments, because they want their worship to be purely spiritual. Silence is beautiful. But is this is not what it means to be spiritual. Just as an electric lightbulb is a bulb with electricity flowing through it, spiritual worship is physical earthy grounded worship with the Holy Spirit flowing through it. And at the heart of it - the bread in which Jesus makes himself present.
In the Passover sacrifice and other Old Testament sacrifices there were two elements. First the passover lambs were sacrificially killed in the Temple - then people came and took the sacrificed lamb home for the Passover meal where they could share the meal together, and participate in the sacrifice. The killing of the lamb was not enough, you eat the flesh at the Passover meal.
So in the great sacrifice of the New Testament. Jesus was slain once for all on the cross. But that is not enough. We have to share in that sacrifice through eating the the sacrificial lamb.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my life and drink my blood have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Just as the living father sent me and I live because of the father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” John 6:55-57
Or as the great early church theologian St Augustine put it “Recognize in this bread what hung on the cross, and in this chalice what flowed from His side... whatever was in many and varied ways announced beforehand in the sacrifices of the Old Testament pertains to this one sacrifice which is revealed in the New Testament.”
One of the most painful things about lockdown is the lack of physicality. We can’t hug our friends. We can’t share a barbecue together. We can’t properly share the mass together. And this is what we miss because we are bodily human beings. But one day in not too many months we will be able to share the Body of Christ together again, we will be able to share the peace together again, we will be able to share our physical life together again.
Until then Christ promises us - I am with you always to the end of time.
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