The Sacrament of Holy Communion (sermon)

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Emmaus, Rembrandt

At the Student Bible Study, the students have been looking at the Sacraments, and tonight  we consider the gift of the Sacrament of Holy Communion (a sermon preached 14 May 2016 at Holy Trinity Utrecht).  Tonight we will consider the Old Testament pre-figurings of this Sacrament, and that will help us to see why Jesus has given us this Sacrament, and finally we’ll look briefly at the service and our preparation to receive.

I  Old Testament antecedents

There are many pre-figurings of this Sacrament in the Old Testament – here are some, and in each case they point to some of benefit of the Sacrament:

We can begin with the Tree of Life in the garden of Eden, we are told that the fruit of that Tree would have enabled Adam and Eve to live forever [Gen 3:22]. Adam and Eve were cut off from access to that Tree of Life after they sinned.  But Jesus restores our access to the food that enables us to live forever.  He says in tonight’s second reading, Whoever eats this bread will live forever!  [John 6:58] From the Tree on which he was nailed comes the fruit of eternal life.

Next, we can think of the remarkable encounter between Melchizedek and Abraham. Abraham had risked everything to follow God’s call to go to a new land.  There are very few incidents recorded of God speaking to Abraham directly.  But suddenly, after victory in a battle, Melchizedek, who identifies himself as priest of God Most High, approaches Abraham out of nowhere, bringing with him bread and wine to celebrate!  The Holy Communion is a meal of celebration of the greatest victory – the victory of Christ over sin and death – Jesus comes to us to bring great joy.

Later Abraham is called by God to sacrifice Isaac, and at the last moment God intervenes, and says he will provide the sacrifice – it was a ram at the time, caught in a bush, but it points to Christ’s sacrifice, which we participate in at the Holy Communion. God will provide and does provide the ultimate sacrifice, none other is needed, we need only trust in His offering.

Moving ahead to the time of the Exodus, we can think of the Passover meal, mentioned in our first Lesson, where the people of Israel were called upon to sacrifice a lamb, to put the blood on the doorposts and lintel of the door, so that the angel of death, God’s judgement, would pass over them. On the night Jesus was betrayed, he said, with desire have I desired to eat this Passover meal with you – that is the longing of God to bring about our Redemption! – 1200 years he waited! – then he took and transformed or fulfilled the meaning of the Passover, with reference to his own offering of himself.  John the Baptist says, Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!  Holy Communion is the way in which the Blood of the Lamb of God is sprinkled on our souls, and judgement passes over us.

In Hebrews we learn, if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ,… purify your conscience.” [Heb. 9:13-14]  We consume the cup of everlasting salvation and the most inward parts of our souls are purified.

We can think of the heavenly manna which the people of Israel were given to sustain them after their Exodus from Egypt during their wilderness wanderings to the Promised Land. And Jesus refers to it in our second Lesson tonight from John’s Gospel.  He speaks of that manna in contrast with the True Bread that He shall give for the life of the world.  As the manna sustained Israel in its outward journey, much more so the Holy Communion sustains and strengthens us in our inward spiritual life in our wilderness journey to the ultimate promised land – the Kingdom of Heaven.  (we use unleavened bread here to remind us of this connection)

We can think of the bread of the presence always in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temple at Jerusalem. Within the holy tent was found a table on which was to be placed twelve loaves of flat bread as an offering to God, and God commanded that it be set before Him always.  The loaves were to be baked fresh and placed before Him on the holy table each Sabbath, and the priests alone were to eat the bread that had sat “in the presence” of God for the previous week since it was ‘most holy’.  Does that sound like a pattern that we find in the Church – but now, the priesthood of all believers, consuming the most holy bread of the presence of Christ week by week that He may abide in the Tabernacle of our hearts?  The holiness of God passes into us through contact with this holy food.

We can think of Lady Wisdom, a feminine image of Christ, who it says in Proverbs [9:1-6]… has built her house, she has set up her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table.  She has sent out her maids to call from the highest places in the town,  “‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here! ’To him who is without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.  Leave simpleness and live, and walk, in the way of insight.’”  To prepare ourselves and partake of this meal is to know more deeply our own souls and God, it is to be filled with Wisdom, and to walk in the way of insight!

The Fathers (e.g. St Cyril of Jerusalem, St John of Damascus) saw a connection between the hot coal from the altar that purified Isaiah to ready him to be a prophet with the sacrament we receive from the altar. The seraphim cried, "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven." [Isaiah 6:5-7]  In the Byzantine Liturgy, the priest speaks these words after receiving Christ.

We can think of the promise in the last of the prophets, Malachi [1:11], "For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered to my name, and a pure offering." What could be purer than Christ’s offering?

When we think of the prefigurings in the Old Testament, we must remember that is not that Christ conveniently took the figures of the people of Israel and transformed their meaning.  But rather, it is the Divine Son who providentially prepared us for the Holy Communion by deliberately placing all of these types and figures in the Old Covenant.  And the very multitude of these images helps us to understand more about the significance of Holy Communion for us.

II So why Holy Communion?

Jesus left His disciples, He left us, this Sacrament as the means by which the sanctifying grace of His Cross and Passion might be applied continually to our souls’ health.  It is for the assurance of forgiveness, the cleansing of our souls and bodies, for spiritual strengthening and refreshment, and for the union of our souls with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

i) For the Assurance of Forgiveness:

God is invisible, so he gives us “plain and sensible tokens to know what we cannot see…[God] communicates by sensible means those blessings which are incomprehensible.” [Hooker]  We are embodied creatures, we learn by the senses, and God knows the perfect way to give us the assurances we need of His saving grace.  Just as in the Old Testament sacrifices, a family who brought an offering for sin, was expected to participate in the feast with the priest and God (parts of it were burnt on the altar), so do we partake of this sacrifice of Christ by eating and drinking His self-offering in a spiritual way.

ii) For the Cleansing of Our Souls and Bodies:

The beginning of the life in Christ is through baptism, where we are grafted into Christ, made members of His Body, and become sons and daughters of the living God.

Jesus leaves us Holy Communion, as Richard Hooker says, “to respond to the impairment of the state of our spiritual being from baptism.”  While our souls are regenerate at baptism, we know that we continue to struggle with temptation and we sin, falling from the union that our souls can have with God through our baptism.  Holy Communion, when received through faith, becomes the means of restoring our impaired union after baptism and of deepening that union.

When we stop sinning, then we will no longer have need for the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  But until that time in heaven, Jesus has given us this spiritual food – His very life – for the cleansing and restoring of our souls from the effects of sin.

iii)  For the Union of Our Souls with God

The forgiveness of our sins and the purifying of our souls are not an end in itself – it is for the purpose of uniting our souls with God.  John H. Blunt, in his commentary on the Prayer Book states:

“The union spoken of is not mental conformity of opinion, sympathy, and will, although these necessarily result from it, but it is a real and actual incorporation of the spiritual portion of man’s nature with the Sacramental Body and Blood of Christ, and hence with Christ Himself.”

In the Holy Communion there is a showing forth of the death of Christ.  But then there is something that can only be apprehended by faith, a mystical exchange between Heaven and earth – we offering ourselves by grace, and Christ responding by giving Himself to us.  As we eat the Sacramental Body and Blood of Christ, we ourselves are consumed by God, drawn up into His life.

Holy Communion is the consummation of love in our spiritual marriage to God.  The promise is there in Scripture [e.g. Genesis, the Song of Solomon, Ephesians, Revelation], of a mystical marriage, it is fulfilled in Holy Communion.  In the beautiful prayer of Humble Access before Communion we pray, “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His Body, and our souls washed through with His most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in Him and He in us.”  [These words are inspired from that second Lesson we had tonight, in John 6:56 – whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.]

Remember the Resurrection appearances of Jesus to the two men on the road to Emmaus – they knew him in the breaking of the bread [Luke 24:13-35].  Likewise in the Liturgy, we are to gather, we are to hear and discuss the Holy Scriptures, hopefully our hearts burn with love, we invite Jesus to be our guest, and then are led by Him to a mystical apprehension of His Divine Presence in the Holy Communion.

iv) For Unity with our Brothers and Sisters in Christ

But Jesus is not only drawing us towards Himself individually but necessarily at the same time towards one another.  It is perhaps clearer in the Holy Communion than in prayer or in reading Scripture that this is something we  do together.

St. Paul speaks about us being “members of Christ’s Body, of His flesh, and of His bones.”  [Eph. 5:30]  In Scripture this is an image of the marriage union of Christ and His bride, the Church [see Genesis 2:23].  St Paul speaks of how the Body has many members, with differing gifts working together.  In the Holy Communion, our divisions, our dis-membering from the Body of Christ through sin, are undone.  We re-member – become once again the Body of Christ by this Sacrament of Reconciliation. [see also 1 Peter 2:5]

Christ dwelling in our hearts is the means of unity that we are called to and which Jesus so much desires.  Remember that the very night of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus prayed [John 17], “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me; that they may be one, even as we are one.”  [17:11]… “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may be in us” [17:21].

The more Christ indwells us through His Spirit, the more we will share His hope and He will bring to fulfillment His promise that we may be one even as Christ is one with the Father.

It is a beautiful thing to ponder our unity in Christ as you return from the altar.

You know that in some churches, they reserve the Holy Sacrament in the church in a tabernacle, as a focus of devotion – a candle is lit to indicate the presence of Christ – and when people enter such a church, they normally bow or genuflect out of reverence.  And in our church when we come forward to receive Holy Communion, we kneel in the sanctuary out of reverence and awe and humility to receive the sacrament.

But think about what happens after we have all received the Holy Communion – each one of us has become a tabernacle, the dwelling place of Christ!  We can be altogether unaware of the holiness and awe that we ought to have for one another in Christ!  Maybe we should bow or genuflect before one another!

III  The Service of Holy Communion

I would like to speak briefly about the Liturgy itself.

All the prayers, all the hymns, all the Scripture reading and preaching, in addition to praising God, is leading us to come forward humble and contrite, having our souls laid bare but also full of faith in the mercy of Christ, certain that we will be forgiven and graced.  Then the priest shows forth Christ’s death: pouring the wine into the Cup, reminding us of Christ’s blood poured out for us; breaking the bread reminding us of His body broken for us on the Cross.  The priest says the words Jesus said and then Christ in heaven responds to our prayers, which we are making in obedience to Him, and consecrates the elements of bread and wine that they may be for us His Body and Blood.  And, after preparatory prayers, we draw near and kneel, and Jesus comes to dwell in us.  Having put on Christ, we then come back to our pews, we lift up our thanks and praise and ask that we might continue in that holy fellowship and walk in love.

When I was in an isolated community in my first parish in the far North of Canada I used to lament about not being able to go to shows, to concerts and plays.  I was speaking by phone one Sunday evening to a mentor priest who lived in Halifax.  He and his wife had been to a play the night before and I was thinking how wonderful it would be.  I asked him what he thought of the play.  He said it was all right, but it was nothing compared with what had happened at the altar that morning.  I think when we reflect on this, when we compare earthly joys and think them somehow as greater, we see how much we take for granted the greatest gift of heaven.  It makes me shutter that I can often be so spiritually blind.

I want to suggest that when you come back to your pew after receiving: that you consider closing your eyes and praying.  Pray for others that they may be ready and blessed as they go to receive.  Pray for yourself, that you might perceive the spiritual presence of Jesus.  Listen to the end of a poem by George Herbert on the Holy Communion:

Only thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privy key,
Op’ning the souls most subtile rooms;
While those to spirits refin’d, at doore attend
Dispatches from their friend.

When you’ve returned to your pew, ponder what a miracle Christ is doing in transforming us all and building us up into a spiritual Temple.  Be in awe of the unity He is bringing about in us.  Later in the service, as we begin to depart, and as we gather for fellowship, think of the presence of Christ in your brothers and sisters.  Later in the day, reflect on Who you have received in your heart this day.  Remember Him, realize His presence in you, ask Him to sustain you, pray that you might not offend Him in anything you do this week.  Rejoice inwardly at the Perfection of heaven dwelling in your soul.

I hope above all things, that tonight our hearts are being stirred up with a love and an eager desire for the Holy Communion of Christ’s Body and Blood!

Let us pray:

O GOD, who in a wonderful sacrament hast left unto us a memorial of thy passion: Grant us so to reverence the holy mysteries of thy Body and Blood, that we may ever know within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption; who livest and reignest with the Father in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end.  Amen.

[2nd Collect for Maundy Thursday, Cdn BCP 1962]

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