This was my sermon today, on Ephesians 5, 15-20 and John 6, 51-58.
It is a strange but nice co-incidence that as we are adapting to the imposition of a different way of taking communion, the readings this week give us the opportunity to reflect on drinking wine, and on the theology of communion as a whole!
The beginning of Ephesians chapter 5 reminded readers that they should be imitators of God (Ephesians 5.1) and offered practical advice on living in the body – the church. This passage is in the same vein. It offers two contrasts – between foolish and wise behaviour (vv. 15-17) and between being filled with wine and filled with the Spirit (v. 18).
For the Ephesians as for us Wisdom contrasts with the foolishness of the godless environment that is the world around us. Wisdom here is more about a whole attitude to life in Christ than an abstract concept or intellectual achievement. The core value of wisdom is that Christians should not wander aimlessly through life or behave as if they were in a moral stupor. There was for the Ephesian church a constant danger that Christians might be fooled by the attractions of the present age. The times required people to be cautious.
In one sense, nothing has changed. I wonder how much we differ from our neighbours who are not sitting next to us this morning. Do our lives from Monday to Friday reflect what we do and say on Sunday? I suspect they do, but we might not even be aware of why this is. There was in the early church a belief that evils increased as the end of the world neared –Mark 13 is an example of this. Wisdom was to be gained and accessed through discerning God's will (v. 17). The church is the principal means of carrying out this task of discernment. Yes, the Spirit speaks to individuals, and yes, the Bible or a hymn or poem can inspire the individual, but the Church (with a capital C to show I mean the universal church, not just our church) is the filter and sounding board and thinking space for these things.
Today there is also a feeling that things are going off the rails. Fed by media stories of crime and violence, of assisted suicide and of economic meltdown, it is sometimes hard for us to avoid thinking that there is an increase in evil in our world. Even in the Anglican Church things are looking a bit shaky; yet I am confident that in the Church of England at least, the corporate discernment of God’s will is still underway.
Paul’s second contrast in this passage is about alcohol, and about self-control, but the text continues to address the difference in moral attitude between the Christian and the non-Christian. Being filled by wine and being filled by the Spirit might both lead to singing, but there was and is a difference – in the first instance the alcohol is in control, in the second, it is the Spirit, when the Christian allows him control of their life. We have a glimpse here of the worship of early Christian communities who continued to sing the psalms of their Jewish heritage and added hymns and spiritual songs. There is no reason to suppose that the purpose of these verses was to address problems relating to the common meal of the community. They are making a pointed contrast rather than a targeted point. The note of praise and worship at the end of this passage is an important counter-balance to a view of wisdom that is worthy and dull. The wisdom that threw a party in the passage from Proverbs is the same wisdom that discerns the will of God.
Our second reading however is of course much more directly about communion. In the readings from John 6 set over the last two weeks, we have seen the unfolding of Jesus' understanding of himself as the bread of life, not just in a symbolic way, but in the flesh. We have also seen the desire of the crowd to keep the discourse about real (in their terms) bread so that Jesus would repeat his sign of feeding them. Now they were discussing how anyone could give their flesh to be eaten (v. 52). It was probably a heated discussion. What did Jesus mean exactly? Was this cannibalism – a charge frequently levelled against early Christianity? As people familiar with the Lord's Supper, Communion or Eucharist, we may be so familiar with the idea of eating the body of Christ that we find it difficult to understand how offensive this might sound to others. We can also become acutely aware of how entrenched our attitudes can become, to things like the cup, the nature of the elements and so on, or even about whether or not we should partake. This is one of my favourite Bible passages, and I would not be exaggerating to say that studying it totally transformed the way I understand and experience the grace of God in the Eucharist. However, I will try in what follows to avoid too much self-indulgence.
In John 6, verse 51, Jesus re-emphasises his claim to be the bread from heaven. Everyday bread has life-giving properties and the only way to get that nourishment is to eat the bread. In the same way, the only way to receive the life-giving potential of the bread from heaven was to eat. Does that mean we can’t truly be Christians unless we are communicants? That’s a tough question, and I would like to answer it gently and deliberately so as to challenge, but not exclude.
First a bit of background; John’s gospel dos not have a last supper account, as the others do, from whence we derive a lot of our communion theology, along with 1 Corinthians 11. Chapter 6 then is the main source of Eucharistic theology for this gospel. In it Jesus clearly identifies himself with the saving provision of God in Israel’s history – the manna from heaven. He also prophetically identifies himself with the elements of the Passover meal that tell of Israel’s deliverance. Thus far, we are in the same territory as the other gospels. John 6 is a little bit more mystic, yet we should always read it in the light of the other three.
Read in isolation, and without care, it can appear that this passage indicates that salvation is achieved through the consumption of bread and wine as body and blood at communion. That would be the conclusion of some scholars who understand this text to be a later insertion to justify and explain the origins of the Eucharist in the early church. However, we need to return to that concept of corporate discernment of God’s will; as a whole, the message of Scripture is not that salvation, our identity as Christians, or even our capacity for relationship with God, is a matter of eating and drinking bread and wine. It does say that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. Church practice entails that this faith is expressed by, but not entirely defined by, our participation in the Lord’s Supper.
Having said that, there can be no doubt that the eating of Christ’s body and the drinking of his blood are central to Christian faith and practice. In Church history there has always been a graduating tendency whereby the child, the newcomer or the new convert are gradually drawn into the Eucharistic fellowship. That is not to say (even if the impression is sometimes strongly given) that the catechumens – to give them their traditional name – are in any way less of a Christian than someone who’s been taking communion for decades. Let us remember that at the Last Supper, the denier and the betrayer shared the bread and the cup. It is therefore dangerous to presume that we know who should and shouldn’t take communion. Children, occasional attenders or people who for whatever personal reasons have decided not to take communion, are not a lesser part of the church.
What I think I’m trying to say then, in answer to my own question of a few minutes ago, is that not taking communion does not exclude you from being a Christian. However, being a Christian is about a journey together, towards God in Christ, and we as a church express that journey in our worship by partaking of the body and blood of Christ in the communion. We understand communion in the Anglican tradition as being among other things a means of meeting with God and receiving his grace, a means of reviving and encouraging our faith, and ultimately as an act of worship we were commanded by our Lord to do, in anticipation of his return. The Eucharist does define us, but I hope never in an exclusive way. So I hope to have fulfilled my promise not to exclude anyone; here comes the challenge.
John Wesley, when he was an Anglican minister, called the Eucharist “a converting ordinance”. His heart was strangely warmed by the exposition of Scripture, as I expect ours are too. Yet my heart is warmed by communion. I am so blessed to be your priest because I get to preside here – we all celebrate communion, let’s remember, I am just the president. My heart is warmed because it is where I meet with God, it is a big part of how my faith grows and is sustained, and mostly because I therefore know how much God loves me even though I do not deserve or understand why he should. Let’s be clear that you do not have to fully understand how communion works to be part of it; if that were true, none of us would be able to take the bread and the wine. Neither do you have to be perfect or even nearly so to take the bread and the wine.
I am blessed by those of us who come but do not partake; I just want to say that if ever anyone wishes to change their status from non-communicant to communicant, I would be equally blessed;
“Live not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity …”