The Eucharist of Liberation

Sunday 30th April 2017
The Third Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Luke 24.13-35

Alleluia! Christ Is Risen!

The Lectionary has not been kind to the wonderful story of Emmaus which is sometimes read at sparsely attended Evensongs on Easter Day or is delayed, as today, until long after accounts of Resurrection morning. So, let us begin at the beginning.

Imagine that this is Sunday evening, the first day after the Sabbath after the Crucifixion and death of Jesus. Cleopas and another, almost certainly his wife, have left Jerusalem for home in Emmaus before the women return from the empty tomb. So they know only that their Lord and Master is dead. For them, it is so much "all over" that they have started for home as soon as The Law allows.

Then what happens is precisely what happens every Sunday in Christian churches all over the world: The Lord comes to us; we hear the word; we are participants in Sacrament; and we recognise what has happened to us. In other words, the Emmaus story contains the framework for the Eucharist. It is not, however, the first instance of this as is too often stated by those unacquainted with the Passover. The Last Supper begins with the Word, with the liberation story of Exodus and culminates with the first Sacramental Eucharistic act; so Emmaus is the second, underscoring occasion. It says that on the very day of Resurrection the Eucharist of Word and Sacrament takes place for the second time. Thus the Crucifixion and Resurrection are book-ended by the Eucharist.

The reason why this is important for us in the Church of England is that the Eucharist became a deeply political issue at the time of the Reformation. At that time most Western Catholics believed that the Priest at the altar undertook an act of Consecration which, literally, turned the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, described, for shorthand purposes, as "Transubstantiation". This way of understanding the 'Eucharist was peculiar to the Western, or Latin Catholic Church from about 1000 AD and so a different theological understanding was certainly possible but the reason for the change of theology in England was profoundly and urgently political; the break from Rome required a denial of clerical, Eucharistic power. At the same time, a generation of theologians, including Zwingli (but significantly not Martin Luther), as part of their challenge to Rome, said that nothing happened at the Eucharist, it was simply a memorial which was, at the very least, to misunderstand what "memorial" meant in the Greek of the New Testament. It did not mean to recount, to re-tell a story it meant, as the celebration of the Passover meant, a re-enactment. "Transubstantiation" is only one way of understanding re-enactment because it is a mechanical explanation of a mystery, the kind of issue which most often quite foolishly divides Christians. What matters is the real presence of Christ with us in the Eucharist not how that happens.

But the result of this crisis of Eucharistic understanding in the 16th Century in England was that there arose a fairly widespread suspicion that the Eucharist was somehow Papist. Thus it was that the Eucharist in England became down-graded such that until quite recently one might lead a perfectly respectable Anglican life based on Matins and Evensong with an occasional festal Eucharist.

But that is not what we are instructed by the New Testament to undertake as our worship. We are told by the twin rituals of the Last Supper and the breaking of bread at Emmaus to re-enact or re-live our liberation in Jesus, not as an option but as an obligation. Once we understand this then the huge significance of the Emmaus story falls properly into perspective: Word and Sacrament are inextricably bound together. It is no more sensible to say that we can be Christians without the Eucharist as it is to say that we can be Christians without going to church.

This, of course, is only the most salient example of the politicisation of Christianity. On a wider scale, the status, for instance, of the Sacraments is deeply problematic in the Church of England. If a Sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace then it's difficult to understand how Ordination is not a sacrament, rather than a legalistic ritual; it's difficult to understand the purpose of Confirmation; and it makes contemporary arguments about the status of marriage almost farcical. ON this last, if marriage is simply a legal form with a blessing and not a Sacrament, then why is there such a major argument about who can be married and who not?

On the whole, our experience of religion cannot be separated from politics but we have to be self aware. Ever since the Emperor Constantine's adoption of Christianity, it has been unable to escape from its political context. At the very moment when Christianity received its imperial adoption it was plunged into theological arguments which were ultimately settled by theologians under diplomatic and even military pressure from the Emperor. Even more marked is the influence of political authorities on our Christian understanding of the social justice which Jesus taught such that Christian and secular authorities banded together to advance the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the poor and weak.

The conclusion is both obvious and shocking. When the Bible comes into conflict with political orthodoxy or political pressure, the Bible must win. To be a Christian is to be a follower of Biblical teaching; but that does not mean picking or choosing the bits we like and ignoring the bits which are inconvenient or onerous or simply alien to our way of thinking. In the Church of England  habits of thinking have forced us into a dichotomy between Catholics on the one hand and Evangelicals on the other but their understanding of The Last Supper and Emmaus should not be a cause of disagreement: we are told, unequivocally by the Bible, that the celebration of the mystery of the Eucharist of liberation is a necessary, not an optional component of Christianity.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!