23 August 2015

‘Abide with Me’: the Eucharist is the
shape of the mission-shaped Church

‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me’ (John 6: 56) … an icon of Christ the Great High Priest, in a shop window in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford,

Saint John the Evangelist, Sandymount, Dublin

Sunday 23 August 2015,

The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity,

11 a.m., The Sung Eucharist

I Kings 8: 1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43 or Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18; Psalm 84 or Psalm 34: 15-22; Ephesians 6: 10-20; John 6: 56-69.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

With this morning’s Gospel reading, we conclude our series of four readings in the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse in Saint John’s Gospel. This is also one of the most explicit Trinitarian passages in the New Testament.

In this morning’s reading, Christ speaks to us of the Trinity in terms of the inter-relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, explaining how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit work together, dance together, and are inseparable.

We owe our understandings of the Trinity, in terms of doctrine and social understanding, and how we express these understandings to the Cappadocian Fathers.

I spent some time in Cappadocia, in south-central Turkey, earlier this year. I was there because of my interest in sites associated with the three Cappadocian Fathers.

These were three key Patristic writers and saints: Saint Basil the Great (329-379), Bishop of Caesarea, his brother Saint Gregory (335-395), Bishop of Nyssa, and Saint Gregory Nazianzus (329-390), who became Patriarch of Constantinople.

They challenged heresies such as Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ, and their thinking was instrumental in formulating the phrases that shaped the Nicene Creed.

But their thinking was not about doctrine alone. It was also about living the Christian life.

So, for example, Saint Basil challenged the social values of his day. He wrote: “The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.”

Sacramental practice must be related to the practice of Christianity, and doctrine and belief must be related to how we live our lives as Christians.

Without the Cappadocian Fathers, would we have turned away from the difficult teachings of Christ, as we find them in this Gospel passage? Would we too have dismissed this passage as a “hard saying.”

Although Christ’s words “I am the Bread of Life” are familiar to many Christians, in this passage the disciples declare this to be a “hard saying.”

Christ is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, where he is interpreting a passage of scripture that has already been introduced by the crowd (see verse 31). They want a sign similar to the one of manna given to their ancestors in the wilderness in Sinai.

In response, he declares he is the manna, the “bread of life” (verse 35), just as he has told the Samaritan woman at the well that he is the living water (see John 4: 5-26), and just as he tells the disciples later that he is the true vine (see John 15: 1).

Moses could provide this miraculous bread, but he is not the bread of life. Moses could strike the rock and bring forth water, but he is not the living water.

How can Christ himself be bread and wine?

These are such difficult conundrums that they turn many of his listeners away.

They murmur and mutter, and the word used here is the same word used in the Exodus story (see, for examples, Exodus 15: 24; 16: 2) for the murmuring, muttering and grumbling of the people who have just experienced being liberated from slavery yet are not willing to accept the consequences of staying on the journey. They do not trust God to take care of them. Over and over, with questions of water, food, and physical safety, the Israelites play out the same drama of whether they will trust God to care for them.

Once again, people who are on a journey with God turn away. This turning away is the very opposite to the metanoia (μετάνοια), the turning around of conversion.

They are no longer willing to stay the course, they turn away from journeying with Christ, journeying with him to Jerusalem, journeying with him to the Cross, journeying with him to the promise of new life.

They are scandalised.

The phrase here reminds me of the common phrase, the Scandal of the Cross or the Scandal of the Gospel, although the phrase as such appears nowhere in the New Testament.

Some of Christ’s disciples have only understood his words in a literal way.

There are many today who hold up a literal interpretation of some obscure and contended passages of scripture, including, for example, some on sexuality, but who reject a literal interpretation of the passages in this ‘Bread of Life’ discourse in Saint John’s Gospel.

They cannot, will not, and refuse to accept Christ’s corporal presence, body and blood, in the Eucharist, however we may come to understand that. It is the one passage whose literal interpretation is a stumbling block, a scandal, to them.

When they ask whether you have invited Christ into your life, they would be scandalised were you to answer you do that every time you pray the Prayer of Humble Access, every time you receive him in the Eucharist, asking that “we may evermore dwell in him and he in us” [see The Book of Common Prayer (Church of Ireland, 2004), p 207].

There is little point in arguing that people at the time had no understanding of this Gospel passage as looking forward to the Last Supper and beyond that to the Eucharistic celebrations of the Early Church.

It was written not for the people who were present at the time, but written 50 or 60 years later and would have been first heard by people dealing with the divisions in the Pauline and Johannine communities that came together in the Church in Ephesus. In her lectionary reflections in the Church Times the Friday before last [14 August 2015], Dr Bridget Nicholas points out that the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse is the Fourth Gospel’s counterpart to the narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Synoptic Gospels.

The writer of this Gospel is addressing a small community of Christians in Ephesus, for whom linear time is displaced by the fact that they already know the divine identity of Christ. And the life that Christ offers to his own people is being worked out in practical ways by the recipients of the Letter to the Ephesians.

In this Gospel story, as in the Exodus story, this murmuring, muttering and grumbling shows a complete lack of trust, belief and faith in God. And this is not just intellectual assent, but a willingness to make life-changing decisions.

In this morning’s story, the twelve are the ones who “abide” with Christ. They stick with him even though his teaching is difficult. They stay with him at the Last Supper, and even though they will scatter during his trial and crucifixion, their faith is strengthened, returns in full vigour with the Resurrection and is fortified at Pentecost.

But the people who desert Christ in this morning’s Gospel reading, who turn away, are not “the crowds” – they are “disciples.” They had followed Christ and believed in him, but now they leave.

Abandoning the Eucharistic faith and practice of the Church is often the first step in abandoning the Church, abandoning Christ, and turning backs on the call to love God and love one another.

If we take part regularly and with spiritual discipline in the Eucharist we realise that it is not all about me at all. This bread is broken and this cup is poured out not just for us but also for the many.

It is interesting that the parishes with infrequent celebrations of the Eucharist are often the most closed, the ones most turned in on themselves, unwilling to open their doors to those who are different in social and ethnic background, with irregular relationships and lifestyles, and the parishes that err on the side of judgmentalism.

Regular reception of this Sacrament is a reminder that the Church exists not for you and for me but for the world, and that the Church is not for those who decide subjectively they are the “called” and the “saved,” but is there to call the world into the Kingdom.

In the Eucharistic prayers, we use words such as: “this is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins” (see The Book of Common Prayer, pp 210, 215, 217; Common Worship, pp 185, 189, 192,196, 199, 202).

In two of the New Testament passages we read: “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26: 28); and “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14: 24).

It is clear that the Eucharist, while celebrated among the disciples or within the community, is for the benefit of “the many.” The Eucharist is the shape of “the mission-shaped Church.”

Knowing and belief come together, knowledge is meaningless without wisdom, faith goes beyond accepting facts.

As Canon Patrick Whitworth points out in his new book, for the Cappadocian Fathers, doctrine, prayer and pastoral ministry are inseparable from care for the poor [Patrick Whitworth, Three Wise men from the East: the Cappadocian Fathers and the Struggle for Orthodoxy (Durham: Sacristy Press, 2015)].

The profession of faith by Simon Peter in this morning’s reading is followed immediately by a cautious and disturbing remark by Christ about betrayal (verses 70-71), although the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary have omitted them. Judas is going to walk out at the Last Supper. Is a regular refusal to eat this bread and to drink this cup a betrayal of Christ and of the Christian faith?

Which brings us back to our Epistle reading this morning (Ephesians 6: 10-20), which, like the Fourth Gospel, was written for the Church in Ephesus.

The word sacrament is derived from the Latin sacrāmentum, which is an attempt to render the Greek word μυστήριον (mysterion). Saint Paul asks the people of Ephesus to pray that he may be given a gift of the right words in telling of the “mystery of the Gospel” (τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ εὐαγγελίου, to mysterion tou evangeliou) (Ephesians 6: 19).

What if this Gospel reading is a reminder of the heart of the Gospel, the mystery of the Gospel?

Yes, it would affirm, the Eucharist is the shape of “the mission-shaped Church.”

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Visitation of Abraham or the ‘Old Testament Trinity’ … a fresco in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, interprets a Trinitarian and Eucharistic theme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Almighty and everlasting God,
you are always more ready to hear than we to pray
and to give more than either we desire, or deserve:
Pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy,
forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid,
and giving us those good things
which we are not worthy to ask
save through the merits and mediation
of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of compassion,
in this Eucharist we know again your forgiveness
and the healing power of your love.
Grant that we who are made whole in Christ
may bring that forgiveness and healing to this broken world,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. He preached this sermon at the Sung Eucharist in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Sandymount, Dublin, on Sunday 23 August 2015.

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