August 19, 2012

 

ON THE ELEMENTS IN THE EUCHARIST

                                                      Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                           at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on August 19, 2012

Reading from the Gospel: John 6: 51-58

 

For the last several weeks our readings for the Gospel have come from the sixth chapter of John and have featured a long discourse by Jesus on the role that has been carved out for him in what we might call the sacramental relationship between Immortal God and mortal human beings.  And perhaps the most obvious thing to notice is that John does not include this discourse in his account of the Last Supper.  In fact in that account John makes no reference directly to either bread or wine, but only to a choice tidbit that Jesus lifts out of the common dish and gives directly to Judas Iscariot, whom, we may assume, was sitting beside him on his left. 

It is interesting to take note of what the different evangelists have to say about that meal.  Matthew describes Jesus taking a loaf of bread and, later, a cup.  The Greek word is poterion, which is the generic term for any drinking vessel.  Matthew does not say what was in the cup, but that its contents were potable.  Mark also describes the bread and the cup in the same way, which is no surprise since Matthew often simply repeats what Mark wrote.  Luke is not so simple in his account, since he has two cups.  Jesus takes the first one before the meal and again we are not told what was in it – although there is a strong hint that it contained the juice of the vine, whatever that might have been.  Then, after supper, Jesus takes a second cup, and again we are not told what was in it.  And to add to the mystery, Luke does not have Jesus pass this second cup around the group at this meal.  There is a fifth account, from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and again it involves a loaf of bread and a cup after the meal, but with no indication as to what was in that cup.

None of the evangelists was at the Last Supper, and Paul certainly was not.  John claims that he got his version from the so-called Beloved Disciple, who sat next to Jesus, but on his right hand.  Paul claims that he got his version directly from Jesus, presumably during the time that he was interrogating Jesus after his arrest and before the trial at the residence of the High Priest. 

What all this means is that we have to be very careful when we get into discussions about the Last Supper, the Holy Communion, the Eucharist or the Mass (however you choose to describe it), since the evidence from the New Testament may not support what you claim.  Indeed, although the New Testament, particularly Acts of the Apostles, speaks of the early believers meeting for what is called “the Breaking of Bread”, when we look at the context of these meetings all too often they seem like any other Saturday night meal, or, perhaps, what we might call a pot-luck.  In other words, since Jesus told his disciples to follow his example at any meal they share, all meals, wherever we eat them, have the potential of being a celebration of the Eucharist!

I like to think that John got it right.  None of the evangelists or Paul suggests that Jesus did any prolonged teaching at the Last Supper concerning what he was doing with the bread and the cup.  He must have done that beforehand, and this sixth chapter of John seems to ring true in reflecting such a time of teaching.  Later on, the Church, or the liturgists within the Church, ritualized the entire event, and chose to draw a parallel between what Jesus did and the Passover meal of the ancient Hebrews.  Yet, oddly enough, John makes it very clear that the Last Supper was not a Passover celebration, Luke wavers about whether it was or not, and only Mark and Matthew, following Mark, describe the Last Supper in terms of the Passover.  None of them mentions a roasted lamb, which there would have had to have been for it to have been a Passover meal.  In any case, as followers of Jesus had been excluded from the sacrificial areas of the Temple, none of them would have been able to have obtained a sacrificed animal for a Passover celebration.  

But talk of Jesus as the Lamb of God in the context of the Last Supper is both irrelevant and inappropriate since only one person ever directly referred to Jesus as the Lamb of God, and that was John the Baptist, and that in only one Gospel. 

So we are drawn back to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  Over the last several weeks we have seen Jesus talking about himself as “the Bread from Heaven”, and by this he surely was likening himself to the manna that the Lord God gave to the people each day as they journeyed through the desert for forty long years.  Do we have an echo of this in the Lord’s Prayer when Jesus exhorts us to say, “Give us this day our bread for today”?

What Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul all do is have Jesus say over the bread as he broke it, “This is my body”.  Well, that is how it is usually translated in English, but it would not have been what Jesus said in Aramaic or Hebrew, or what the New Testament authors wrote in Greek. 

It is one of the quirks of the English language, as it is of any language derived from Latin or German, as is English, that we have to have a verb in every clause and sentence.  Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic do not have this rule, and where we have “is” in English, the writers of the New Testament have nothing at all.  Those listening to what was said or reading what was written had to supply their own verb and also the tense of that verb, past, present or future. 

We are so familiar with the customary translation of the words of Jesus that we overlook what he meant.  If he really meant to equate the loaf of bread that he broke with his body, then once that bread had been consumed there would be nothing left to be his body.   Then that would mean that what the Church has been doing ever since makes no sense at best and is nonsense at worst.  So what might Jesus have meant?  Let me try to answer this question. 

To do so I have to go to the descriptions of the Last Supper in Luke and I Corinthians.  Remember that Luke was not there.  He got his information from Paul, whose disciple, friend and colleague he was.  But both Paul and Luke include these words that they ascribe to Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me” (as they are usually translated), or “Do this for the remembrance of me.” 

I have spent many hours over many years explaining what the word, “remember”, means.  It means to re-assemble something (or someone) or to put it (her or him) back together in its original state.  In the context of the celebration of the Last Supper Jesus is telling his disciples, and that includes us, that as we break the bread he is being reassembled in our midst – or, to put it another way, we are at the Last Supper!  That might sound rather “far out”, but do remember we are talking in spiritual, ghostly terms here, and not physical, carnal terms. 

And since we are in the realm of the Spirit, we are to understand what Jesus said concerning the bread and his body in terms of the realm of the Spirit.  For what he said in Aramaic or Hebrew, and what the evangelists and Paul wrote in Greek may just as easily and legitimately be translated into English (and other languages derived from Latin and German) as, “This will become my body”.  But just as the manna could only sustain those who believed and did as they were directed by the Lord, so this “Body of Christ”, the “New Bread from Heaven”, will only sustain those who believe and do as they are directed by the Lord.

As with so much concerning the ritual of the Church – an entirely human-created phenomenon – there has always been argument as to how the bread becomes the Body of Christ.  There are those who argue that the bread becomes the physical flesh of Jesus and the wine (always supposing that there was wine in the cup at the Last Supper) becomes the physical blood of Jesus.  Well, I’ve tasted enough roast lamb, and au jus at that, to know that the wafer and the wine are still wafer and wine when I consume them.  Then there are others who argue that the bread and the Welsh’s grape juice remain bread and grape juice, and if you must think in simply physical terms then that is correct for you.  And I would make so bold as to suggest that neither position reflects what we read in the New Testament, or what it was Jesus meant when he spoke about himself as the “Bread from Heaven.” 

Remember what I just said about the meaning of “remember”.  What we do at every celebration of the Eucharist is place ourselves at the Last Supper, and then we go with Jesus to his arrest, trial and crucifixion, and they become for each of us our arrest, trial and crucifixion, and then, as we declare at every baptism, we are buried with Christ through baptism, and if buried then raised with Christ, ascended with Christ into the Heavenly Realm and are now sharing in the Heavenly Banquet, the very Bread of Heaven.

And in all this we are restored, we are re-membered, we are reassembled, we are renewed, so that we may return to the Earthly Realm, our very earthy world, and in a very real sense we become the Second Coming of Christ since we have become the Body of Christ by consuming the Bread from Heaven.  And that, my brothers and sisters, is what the Eucharist is all about.

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