Eucharistic Suspicion

Wednesday 7th April 2021
Year B, Wednesday of Holy Week
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service of the Word
Luke 24.13-35

Those of you who have heard me preach during Holy Week will know that I have been particularly concerned with the link between the Jewish Passover celebrating the freeing of Captive Israel from the Egyptians and the Institution of the Eucharist at the last Passover meal of Jesus freeing us from the captivity of death, the fundamental point of salvation which is often obscured by the intermediate idea that salvation means being freed in some way from our imperfections and consequent wrong choices, for we are, in the last resort, not saved from our "sins" but from the deadly consequence of our Sin. What matters is not the mechanics of sin but the certainty of freedom from its consequences.

To Cleopas and his partner, probably his wife, walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, the theology of the Crucifixion and Resurrection would not have been very clear. A careful listener to the teaching of Jesus would have picked up a vague idea that his death had something to do with the idolatry of Israel, a proposition put crisply some 20 years later by Saint Paul who said that Jesus died for "our" - meaning the Jews' - sin according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15.3). By the time Paul was writing he had developed an outline doctrine of Salvation but that was not available to the travellers. All they knew was that there had been a humiliating death and a strange event which we now call the Resurrection.

Then they were joined by a stranger who explained the significance of what happened in recent days and no doubt his explanation centred on the story of the liberation of the Chosen People from Egypt which had been the enthralling drama behind the last meal Jesus shared with his followers.

I think we tend to mischaracterise time when there is a crucial event so that we say "before" and "after" something happened but that is really an historian's privilege; to Cleopas and his companion it was just that a huge amount had happened inside 72 hours and they were trying to come to terms with it.

Then they arrived at Emmaus and recognised Jesus in the breaking of the brad and rushed back to Jerusalem to speak of an episode closed, what had started with Scripture and the bread had finished with Scripture and the bread. Incidentally, many commentators say that the events on the road to Emmaus and at the meal constitute, in Word and Sacrament, the fundamentals of our Eucharistic worship, somehow forgetting the critical role of The Word at the last meal of Jesus before his death. What we might want to ask is why our Gospel Reading plays such an inconspicuous part in our Easter celebrations where we thank God for the Eucharist given to sustain us in the new era of Kingdom Building after the Resurrection.

The best way I can explain the strange status of the Eucharist in the Church of England is to explain something of what happened at the English Reformation in the middle of the 16th Century.

First, the great reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, both believed that Jesus was fully present in the consecrated bread and wine but they did not believe in the mechanics for that effect set out by Saint Thomas Aquinas as "transubstantiation" effected by the consecrating Priest. But the effect and the mechanics got mixed up and so England ended up in the Thirty-Nine Articles, throwing out the baby of the real presence of Jesus in the Sacrament with the bath water of Transubstantiation, so we ended up in the Articles with a position on the Eucharist supported by the Anabaptists, who were declared heretical by Luther, and the reformer Ulrich Zwingli who said that the Eucharist was not in any sense a re-enactment but only an exercise in recall. Thus, in spite of more than a century of firm opposition by the Church of England establishment to Puritanism, its doctrine of the Eucharist was extremely Puritan. While the church claimed to be "reformed" not "Protestant" on this issue it was more Protestant than the Protestants. this situation obtained until the middle of the 19th Century when the Oxford Movement, wishing to restore what it saw as theological elements from the first 1500 years of Christianity, reintroduced a much more Sacramental view of the Eucharist, described for shorthand purposes as Catholic.

Secondly, the strong connection between the Book of Exodus and the Institution of the Eucharist was a cat kept very securely in its bag by the Medieval Church and the 16th Century reformers were certainly not going to let it out. As early as the 1520s Martin Luther was backing the violent and bloody suppression of a peasants' revolt based on a liberation reading of the Bible. And this separation of the Eucharist from its Biblical moorings persisted until the birth  of Liberation Theology.

Thus, the Eucharist has been under suspicion and its integrity compromised by a kind of English theological nationalism and political conservatism, a stance which would have astounded the early Church.

The first of these factors is somewhat esoteric because it is the Holy Spirit, not the celebrant, who effects the Sacramental action of the Eucharist but the de-coupling of the Eucharist from our social context has been shocking because it has not only perpetrated the heresy that we can be good Christians without a passion for social and economic justice but it has also, therefore, deprived millions of the oppressed of what they have a right to expect from Christianity and which we have Jesus-ordained obligation to provide.

Those who spend most of their worship time beating their breasts because of their sinfulness really ought  to ask what kind of sinners they are. I promise all of us that Jesus did not die for our individual, private shortcomings, he died because of the collective mess we have made of the world through our pride and greed but, even more, our callousness and indifference.