Teaching Eucharist: 10 February 2019 (4th before Lent), All Saints’ Oakham Parish Communion
Isaiah 6: 1-8 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 Luke 5: 1-11
Introduce 1st hymn, procession, then first talk
• Introduce self. Welcome to all, especially newcomers. Hope you will stay for coffee.
• Something different today. Todays’ teaching is focused on the Eucharist itself. And, for once in a year (actually twice, we plan to do another in the autumn), we will have a series of shorter talks through the service rather than one sermon, all at once.
• Why are we doing this? Each of us has been called here, to eat at God’s table, so as to be nourished: that is, He wants us to leave today’s service different – stronger, clearer, gentler, more excited. The Eucharist is about transformation.
• How does this happen? In today’s readings we hear some stories which illustrate how God invites us to work with Him. And He transforms not by zapping us – sweeping away the difficulties of life, for instance – but by filling us with hope, with faith and love. This is the work of the Eucharist – and if we understand how the Holy Spirit uses the service, we can work more actively alongside God, to enable Him to do more with us and for us.
• I will speak to you four times during the service: now, as we come to the Gathering; then, as we reach the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Sacrament, and the Sending Out. (The big red paragraph markers in the liturgy divide it this way.)
• Just now, I will be brief, as we are all ready to begin, but let me say just one word about the first part of the service, the Gathering.
• The Gathering refers to the Greeting, the Prayer of Preparation, the Confession and Absolution, the Gloria, the Collect. All this is not just a clearing of the throat. It is essential, because it does two things that are utterly necessary for the Eucharist to be possible at all. Let me explain.
• It is fundamental to the meaning of the Eucharist that it begins with a gathering, and ends with a scattering. In other words, Holy Communion assumes that the life of the church is out there, all week, building the Kingdom of God. The Eucharist enables that life, but it is not itself the substance of that life.
• So we woke up this morning in all sorts of different places, with different things on our minds. But we are called together so as act as one. And therefore, a first miracle is required: one that unites the whole bunch of different people – rich and poor, male and female, young and old – into one people. Which is essential, because the Eucharist is an act of the people of God (from our side, I mean; of course, God is also acting). It is not the act of a disorganised crowd – nor, incidentally, an act of a priest watched by an audience – but of a people. So that is the first utterly necessary thing that the gathering performs: it constitutes us into a single people, ready to act together.
• How is this miracle done: the transformation of a bunch of random individuals into a family? The Holy Spirit moves in us, using the familiar words we speak and sing. Words that re-state, once again, the basis of our hope.
• We are God’s own chosen people, because we are redeemed by Christ’s blood. So the second utterly necessary thing done during the Gathering is to restate our reconciliation with God. We confess our sins, and hear once again that God loves us, and that through Christ’s sacrifice God has made it possible for us to return to His embrace. So we move into the Eucharist not just as a single people, but specifically as God’s people.
• So as we move into the Gathering, I invite you to consider, what raw material have you brought with you into church? Perhaps you have dragged in a burden of anxiety, or even guilt. Perhaps you are full of hope and excitement about a new thing happening in your life. Or you just need some space to sit and reassemble the scattered bits of yourself. Whatever you have carried into church today, that is your raw material: offer it to God.
Resume with the Trinitarian greeting. Proceed to after the Collect
• So, we have been gathered as the people of God. Now we come to the Liturgy of the Word: readings from the Scriptures, a hymn, a sermon, the Creed, our prayers of intercession. There is a bit of a change of pace, and we might be tempted to sit back – “let the readers and the preacher do the work for the next bit”. But readings and sermon are not an interruption of the liturgy.
• Rather, this is a further step into the mystery – one we take together. As one people, we open ourselves up to the Scriptures – to their power, their beauty, their mystery – to stories that puzzle us, or amaze us, or inspire us. And the sermon, we trust, is at the service of the readings. The preacher’s aim is surely to break open the Scripture, to make sure we can all get at the nourishment inside. St Paul describes Holy Scripture as like a sharp sword. At this point in our service, we take off our body-armour, open our shirts and offer our unprotected bodies with a prayer to the Holy Spirit: pierce me with your truth, that I might be changed, deeply and forever.
• So, God speaks to us: and then, we respond. We respond in several ways.
o We say the creed – affirming that we share the faith of the apostles, of the whole church through the ages.
o We pray prayers of intercession. I talked about the things we brought into church with us – our burdens and joys, hopes and fears – as raw material. Here is a first opportunity to set this material to work.
• And we respond also by singing. The whole liturgy is a symbolic language, and one thing that I must not fail to say is this: if this symbolic language is not beautiful, then it is badly muffled. The beauty of the liturgy takes many forms – poetic language, noble dignity of movement, the soaring elegance of ancient stone, craftsmanship in silver and brass. We are each susceptible to different forms of beauty – but in every case the purpose is the same, to intensify the meanings of our sacramental liturgy.
• Perhaps foremost, for very many of us, is the beauty of music. The words of our hymns respond to the meanings that we rehearse through the course of the liturgy. As you sing the gradual hymn in a few minutes, think about that – the liturgy being not so much repeated, as responded to by the words of the hymn. The music adds, for many of us, a power of penetration and an emotional charge. And, of course, metrical words set to a good tune sink deep into our memories.
• So now, let us hear our first readings… after which we will sing in the gospel, with the gradual hymn.
Proceed through readings as far as the Peace
• We arrive now at the liturgy of the Sacrament: the peace, the offertory, the Eucharistic prayer, the breaking of bread and distribution of communion.
• We approach now to a sacred mystery, and I am not going to try to explain exactly how your communion with God is achieved through eating and drinking. I want only to say that it is a work of the Holy Spirit; it is true; it can be trusted.
• And, from a different point of view, this is also a work of us, God’s people. We begin with a bare table. What shall we bring to the preparation of this meal? We bring bread and wine, of course. Well, actually something that symbolically stands for bread, in fact a kind of wafer; and, to be honest, not so much wine as sherry. But what do the bread and wine stand for? What is it you bring to God, so that it might be transformed?
• It is our own lives that we bring. The bread and the wine – and also the money in the plate – these are all but symbols. They represent the fruits of our labours – the substance of our lives, with all their striving and joy. I spoke earlier about the substance of your life being raw material for the Eucharist – and now that metaphor bears its fruit. Would you be relieved of a burden that is too heavy for you? Lay it on the altar. Do you seek to be worthy of a great love? Lay it on the altar. Are you full of hopes and fears, for your children, for your parents or your friends? So, bring your own self – as friend, or parent, or child – and lay it on the altar.
• In this light, the offertory is understood as of pivotal importance. The money is the least of it (with apologies to the church treasurer!); money is just a rather obvious symbol. “All things come from you, and of your own do we give you,” as one of the optional prayers at the preparation of the table has us say. Our money represents our whole selves, just as the elements do.
• Just so, we heard in our gospel reading about Jesus’ friends, the professional fishermen, working a shore that they knew with great expertise. Jesus’ invitation to them was to give up that expertise, to hand over control to him. They placed on the altar their work as fishermen – and they saw it transfigured – so that it became for them a sign of hope, by which their lives were transformed forever.
• Just so, the offertory is your opportunity to place on the altar whatever you bring to be transformed. If you have dragged in a mess, then dump it on the altar. If you have come bearing roses, place them beside.
• And the promise of Christ is that all this will be transformed. If we place our lives on the altar, they are swept up once again in the great miracle by which we are the Body of Christ. The symbols of our lives are transformed into His sacred body – the body that was sacrificed for us, and is now offered for us to eat and drink.
• By this we are nourished: we feed on Him in our hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving. In this, God collaborates with us: we provide the raw materials, that are our lives; and He comes, in a daily miracle, and transforms them into the stuff from which is built the Kingdom of God.
Stand for the Peace – etc. through to prayer after communion. Then notices etc. Then talk, before final hymn
• We are nearly finished. We come to the Sending Out. (Sometimes called the Dismissal, but that bit of Latinised English tends to suggest you’ve just been sacked from a job. Dismissal means, Sending Out.). As we draw towards an end, let me emphasise the deep unity of the whole liturgy.
• This unity lies in the fact that the whole thing is a ritual action, and so is each element within it. Each part is to some extent shortened and stylised. Each speaks to us not only or even mainly as itself, but as a symbol of something greater.
• Think about what the service would be like if this were not true. As we came to read the Bible, we’d have read a good solid chunk: a whole epistle; a good few chapters of a Gospel. We would have listened to the music, as at a concert. Then we would have had not so much a sermon as a thorough Bible study. And when we got to the bread and wine bit – well, we would not just have play-acted a meal, we would actually have a meal.
• Of course, there is nothing wrong with solid Bible study, or concerts, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating a meal together. But that is not what the Eucharist about. Every element of this liturgy speaks to us symbolically, and together they form a great pattern, they tell a whole story. Together, they speak the sacramental language in which a concrete thing points us towards a spiritual thing.
• Why do we do this? Why use symbolic language rather than just explain everything in plain English? Because we are trying to speak of something so much bigger than ourselves that words fail us; because we are trying to speak about what is really real. We use words, you see, and they trick us into thinking that the real means the concrete – means the things we have words for, like cars, houses or food. And then we start talking as if the spiritual were by analogy, as if it were less real.
• Whereas, in fact, the opposite is the case. As, week by week, we spend time rehearsing this ritual narrative of love and grace, it weaves its web around us. Hope, love and faith become injected into the veins of the ordinary, and transform it from within. Slowly, slowly we start to realise that the houses and cars and so on have precious little solidity – they come and they go, they fail to touch us. But the gossamer threads of meaning spun through the liturgy? They hold us fast; they inspire us to transcend ourselves; they sustain us when life is awful; they hold us fast in God, as He carries through the work of shaping us back into His unblemished image.
• So: what did I bring? What did I expose to the searching gaze of the Holy Scriptures? What did I ask God to bless in our intercessions? And, supremely, what did I offer to God so that it could be incorporated in the great miracle of the Eucharist, and transformed into Christ’s own body, by which I am nourished.
• The key word in this final part of the liturgy is “peace”. When I bless you, I will pray for peace. And then I will suggest that you should go in peace and you will say “Amen” – which is to say, yes, that is indeed what we are going to do.
• We go out in peace. Whatever you left at home, return to it in peace. Whatever Monday will bring, go into it in peace. We go out as heralds of God’s peace and reconciliation. We go out as agents of the Kingdom of God.
Discussion points for the Sermon Discussion Group
In absence of a sermon!… You might want to think about the following:
1. Do you have a favourite part of the Eucharist? Why?
2. How does music in our service help you to worship?
3. Are there other rituals in your life? What is the role of ritual for you?