‘Cannibalism? Surely not!’ Sung Eucharist, 15.08.21

August 23, 2021

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Canon Dr Richard Lindley

John 6. 51-58

When you stop and think about it, is it really any wonder the early Christians were accused of cannibalism? John’s gospel records this:

The Jews . . . disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’.

The Roman Empire violently opposed Christianity in its early days. So an allegation of cannibalism was a great excuse for persecution. Christian spokesmen vehemently denied the charge, of course. Though one of them, called Athenagoras, argued in a letter to the Emperor in AD 176 that Christians couldn’t be cannibals because cannibalism required the victim to be dead, whereas Christ was still alive. We can’t help wondering if suggesting they were eating a live victim really helped the Christian cause!

At the last supper, Jesus did say, ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is my blood’. So the Church developed the theory of transubstantiation. This is still Roman Catholic doctrine: that, even though the appearance of the bread and wine remains unchanged, their all-important inner ‘substance’ is radically and really changed into the actual body and blood of Jesus.

The opposite, very Protestant view is that the bread and wine are simply symbols of the living Christ. The Church of England’s middle position since the Reformation, shared by most of the Reformed churches, is of the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine. These distinctions can seem pretty esoteric, hardly worth the blood that was shed in the 16th century or the continuing division between churches. After all, it isn’t very likely there was a shared theological understanding at the Last Supper!

It makes better sense when we think of the Eucharist as an occasion when a group of Christians meet to celebrate their common faith and their sense that Jesus is with them. How often have we heard someone say, ‘I know she’s died, but she’ll always be with us’? It’s like that for Christians with Christ, but more so, because we’re part of this ancient and continuing world-wide community, with a lively sense of Christ with us. Community is important. When we hear ‘This is my body’, we can justifiably take it to refer not only to the bread but also to the community of Christians, the body of Christ. ‘This is my body’, gathered here now.

Do you know what was the very first food eaten on the moon? In 1969, Buzz Aldrin took bread and wine, consecrated at his church, to the moon. In a moment of silence while waiting to leave the lunar landing-craft, he ate and drank his minute portions, sharing Holy Communion with the people of his local church and with Christians everywhere. The body of Christ in community and in communion.

Earlier than that, in 1963, in the then Soviet Union, repressive communism still prevailed. In a central Moscow hotel bedroom, just off Red Square, an impromptu Eucharist was being celebrated. The door was left open, and before long a handful of hotel staff gathered outside the open door; the language was foreign to them, but they knew what was taking place, and some of them knelt and crossed themselves in the Orthodox style. This was a moment of community, across language, nationality, denomination and politics. It is a moment I treasure. The body of Christ in community and in communion.

The Eucharist is celebrated at all sorts of times of happiness and sadness, in prisons and hospitals, at weddings and funerals, on ships and battlefields. In these and so many other community settings the presence of Christ becomes a reality through the shared faith of those who meet together.

The Holy Communion, someone once said, is not a canteen meal, where people come and eat their individual meals and then go about their individual business. It’s a social matter, a social occasion.

Sharing the peace during the liturgy is so important – even if we only smile and wave during our continuing covid caution. And in normal times meeting for coffee afterwards. These are invaluable parts of the process, the process of celebration: celebration of each other in community together and with Christ himself. Roll on, when we can safely return to the ceremonial entry of the coffee trolley and the sacred rite of the coffee cups! There we find reinforcement of the real presence of Christ in the bread and the wine. ‘This is my body’ – in the bread. ‘This is my body – in the loving community to which we belong.

There are terrible tragedies facing the world, to which we are called to respond, as a nation, as the world community and as individuals. ‘This is my body’, said Jesus. We eat the bread, we are the bread, called to feed the world. We are the body, the body of Christ, called to serve the world. May it be so.