Living Evidence

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

Imagine that it's evening! The worst thing that has ever happened to you is on your mind even though you left the scene of the horror as soon as you could. And you're on your way home. It will be a terribly sad homecoming but, after all, eating your own food and sleeping in your own bed will be some consolation after too many nights in the wicked city. Then you are joined on your journey home by a stranger. You tell him why you are feeling so miserable and, against our cultural assumption which says that trying to persuade somebody out of something is both invasive and useless, he painstakingly tells you that you need not be sorry; for a wide variety of reasons you have misunderstood the events that you have lived through. In suffering the horror you have left before the end of the story. You are so relieved that you invite the stranger into your home to share a makeshift meal; and then he does something quite remarkable; he actually enacts the key incident which he described, the liberation of mankind in the breaking of bread, informed by the liberation of the Chosen people at the Exodus. And in his breaking bread they recognise the act of Jesus and recall the words he says. And they are so moved by the events that they immediately get back on the road and retrace their steps in the dangerous dark to tell their friends what has happened to them; and, when they arrive, their story is not so remarkable any more but is a piece of supporting evidence for the resurrection which those who stayed in Jerusalem have experienced.

So this is a remarkable story, sadly out of place on this Sunday morning two weeks after Easter which is commonly understood in the way that I have just told it as a confirmation, through the Word and Sacrament of Jesus, of the Resurrection. But it is more than that. It is the enactment of the second Eucharist just three days after the first which means that the Crucifixion and Resurrection are book-ended between two Eucharistic enactments constituted both by a Scriptural exegesis and by the breaking of bread which emphatically underlines the importance of the Eucharist as part of our Christian lives. And this is no accident. The Evangelists were not just collecting stories of Jesus together and setting them down without structure. Most scholars agree that the prominence of the Crucifixion narrative in the four Gospels is no accident and, indeed, that its lack of salience in other works ruled them out of the Biblical canon. And, within the Crucifixion narrative, it would therefore be difficult to argue that the role of the Eucharist is accidental.

It is extremely sad, therefore, that the mechanics of the Eucharist have become a matter of controversy between Christians when its centrality, as a Sacred Mystery, is what matters. Indeed, the controversy in the Western Christian Church about the nature of the Eucharist is a bit like the struggle between the Montague’s and Capulet’s in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet; everybody is aware that there is a controversy but nobody is really sure why. What this has come down to, in broad terms, is an artificial conflict between the authority of the Bible on the one hand and the authenticity of Sacraments on the other. As we have seen, the centrality of the Eucharist in Christian life is emphasised in the Gospels by the very fact that it directly precedes the Crucifixion and directly succeeds the Resurrection. The dichotomy between those who speak for the authority of the Bible and those who speak for the authenticity of the Sacraments is totally false. It is one of the saddest  ironies of Latin or Western Christianity that the Eucharist has become a source of disunity rather than being the central act of Christian self-identity.

Now there are people, even in the Church of England, who think that the celebration of the Eucharist is an optional extra, that being a good Christian exists precisely and solely in acknowledging the authority of Scripture, however that may be defined but it is clearly absurd to acknowledge that authority while simultaneously ignoring what it requires. So, for example, many people believe that the Christian journey begins with Biblical instruction and may or may not lead to Sacramental participation whereas  in the Greek Orthodox Church babies receive the Eucharistic bread as soon as they can ingest it. Both of these are extremes of sorts, making one thing a necessary precondition for the other. But, less technically, the important point is that The Gospels not only under-write  but project the centrality of the Eucharist in the Christian life.

There is one communal aspect of the Eucharist which is particularly important during the period of Easter, quite different from its effect may be on the spiritual comfort and understanding of the individual recipient; and much more important than theological differences in the way we understand a mystery; and that is the clear centrality of the Eucharist not as a symbol of but as the actual means of freeing humanity from the bonds of time: just as the Cross and Resurrection have broken the power of death, so the Eucharist breaks down the barrier between space and time-bound creatures and the timeless, space less creator; the Word became flesh in Jesus and the flesh became the Eucharist through Jesus. In the Incarnation God broke into human history and by the Cross and Resurrection he freed us from death but in the Eucharist God in Jesus also perpetuates the Incarnation through the Eucharist.

Any doctrine of the Eucharist has to be much more than speculation on mechanics: it has to relate our collective experience of the sacred event with our lives as Christians bent on spreading the good news of the Resurrection, of the way in which God is with us and why that is important for everyone, not just the actual participants but all of humanity because just as the life and death of God made human is cosmic and not particular and local, so its extended life in Eucharist is also universal and cosmic. God with us in our efforts to build The Kingdom is a necessary precondition for our collective enterprise. What happened on the road to Emmaus and then at the makeshift, evening meal is living evidence of horrors overcome, our worst fears put to rest and assurance of our present and future life in Christ.

Alleluia! Christ Is Risen!