Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
1st of October, 2017
Talking about the Eucharist
Today I’m not going to preach on the Bible readings; I’ve decided instead to colour outside the lines. Today I want to talk about food.
Later in this service we’re going to celebrate what is called Eucharist or Communion or the Lord’s Supper. ‘Eucharist’ comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving and the name goes back to Paul’s description in First Corinthians when he describes what Jesus did: ‘when he had given thanks’ and ‘given thanks’ is eucharisteesas (1 Cor 11:24). ‘Communion’ describes what we do, we gather as community to share in common the body and blood of Christ and thus commune with God. ‘The Lord’s supper’ is what Paul called the meal when writing to the Corinthians; he says: ‘When you come together it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper’ (1 Cor 11:20). That name also reminds us of who is the Host at the table. The church isn’t hosting this meal; we’re all the guests of God.
Whatever we call it, this meal is the central sacrament of the Christian Church. It’s in Communion that what happened once-for-all when Jesus lived, died and was resurrected is experienced by the church again and again. It’s in Communion that we both remember the past and celebrate the future. It’s in Communion that we both become and demonstrate what we are: the body of Christ in the world.
It can be easy to forget that Communion is a meal. In Uniting Churches we usually celebrate with a proper loaf of bread, rather than wafers, but Uniting Churches often drink grape juice out of individual shot glasses. It’s a bit weird that churches that can use a common cup (because the alcohol in the wine kills any shared germs) then usually use wafers that look nothing like bread. The churches that use a common loaf, as we do, then frequently use grape juice, as we do, and so have to have individual glasses to prevent us passing on germs to each other. It’s a pity, because if we did both share a common loaf and a common cup of wine we might be reminded that the roots of communion are a shared meal, with all that that implies.
The gospels all make a connection between the Last Supper and the celebration of Passover. For Jews, sharing a meal in common united them in a sacred relationship with each other and with God. The Passover meal, in particular, celebrated God’s liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt; the covenant established between God and the people at Sinai; and the unity of the covenant people who then gathered each year to celebrate their liberation from Egypt by God. For Christians that means that Communion was born as part of a communal celebration of liberation. Communion always involves a longing for freedom and a celebration of community.
We encounter the risen Christ in the Eucharist and that’s been true since the very beginning. After the resurrection, the disciples met Jesus over a meal, whether in the breaking of bread at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32) or at a breakfast of bread and fish (John 21:9-14). The New Testament suggests that we will normally meet Christ at the table when bread is broken. As well as being a call for liberation and for human community, at Communion the bond between us and God is celebrated, and the gift of communion with Christ is given and received.
The gift of communion with Christ, becoming one with him, is a gift with serious implications for how we live our life. In both baptism and Eucharist we become one with Christ, and so we’re empowered to live with him, suffer with him and pray through him. Receiving Jesus, who gave himself in his life and death, we’re called to respond with the same ‘Eucharistic’ giving of ourselves. We identify with Jesus not only through retelling his story and remembering his crucifixion and resurrection, but by following his example in all aspects of our lives. Communion nourishes us to go out, one with Christ and ‘one in ministry to the world’.
Andrew Dutney, theologian and Uniting Church past president, reminds us that the one complaint against Jesus that is consistently reported in the gospels is that Jesus ate with sinners. As a meal Communion recalls all those other meals; meals that were foretastes of the kingdom. When Jesus shared a meal, the people around the table experienced the banquet of the kingdom of God. One of the signs of the coming of the kingdom was the sharing of table fellowship with tax collectors like Matthew, Levi and Zacchaeus, as well as with respectable people like Pharisees. Rich, poor, women, men, sinners, foreigners, the despised and the respected, all were welcome to share food with Jesus. So when we celebrate Communion we’re reminded that we are to continue to welcome absolutely everyone to the kingdom of God.
Communion celebrates a sacred event with bread and wine – ‘goods of this earth’. They recall the gift of creation. They also raise immediate questions of justice because however symbolic they may have become they represent real food. At the beginning of the church’s life it seems that Communion took place at a meal eaten to satisfy hunger, in which the bread and wine were not merely symbols but the staples needed for life. One of the worst things in the world today is that fact that some people still die from a lack of food, while the health of others is put at risk because we have too much. Every time we eat the bread and drink the wine we should be reminded of the desperate need of food to feed the hungry. Among other things, our sharing in Communion together is intrinsically connected with us bringing offerings for the Emergency Relief Program.
Communion reminds us not only of the need to share food, but also of the need to share the other necessities of life. The connection between sharing bread and sharing other goods seems to have been taken for granted by the church in its first four centuries. Martin Luther described early communions as ‘so properly used … that they even gathered food and material goods in the church, and there … distributed among those who were in need,’ and while he was probably exaggerating to make a point there does seem to have been a strong connection between the celebration of communion and charity. Justin Martyr explained that Christians, in contrast to the contemporary pagans, worshiped God not by burning as offerings the things God gave for sustenance, but by using them for themselves and the needy. Bringing forth a variety of goods for the use of the needy at the same time of the Eucharistic offering seems to have lasted until at least the late fourth century. Maybe we need to do that again here to remind ourselves of the connection between sharing communion and sharing with those in need.
So – we’re doing a lot as we celebrate Communion together today. Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez once wrote that: ‘The breaking of bread is both the point of departure and the destination of the Christian community.’ By sharing Communion together, we’re celebrating the redemption Christ has won and God’s victory over all forms of injustice. Nourished by Communion, we’re then called to minister to the whole world, sharing the good news of God and feeding the hungry. As we gather together around the Lord’s Table we pray that we might become ‘one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry in the world’. That’s quite a terrifying request, if you think about it. But what we’re asking is for God to help us to become the people God created us to be. So it’s terrifying and exhilarating. We gather around the Table at which our Lord is the host, knowing that we are welcome there, and then we leave the table to share God’s welcome with the world. Fed by both metaphorical and literal food, we go out to share both metaphorical and literal food. We receive what we are and we become what we receive – the body of Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Quoted in Edward R. Pirozzi, ‘Toward Locating the Separation of Charity from Communion in the Ancient Western Church.’ Worship 71 (1997), p. 335.
 G. Gutierrez, ‘The task and content of liberation of theology’ in Christopher Rowland, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 37.