One of the intriguing things about the New Testament is that when we want to find the presence of God we don’t find it located in places. It locates it in a person, or persons in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, they show up, but move about and are not static. And yet the history of Christianity seems to have been obsessed with buildings and special places. It’s as if we are all Peters at the Transfiguration whose response to revelation is to get out tools to build something to capture it. God has to be contained so that we know where to find him and so that we know where he is. It would be far too concerning and troubling if God was allowed to show up where he willed and unexpected. But that is precisely what the New Testament gives us. Peter is silenced midsentence. He is wrong.
Today we celebrate the presence of God in ordinary food and drink. We refer to this meal as the most holy meal going, a celestial banquet, a feast for our souls. But then we look at the menu and it’s bread for goodness sake, and flattened, unleavened bread in wafer form at that. The wine carries a rich heritage of feasts, the Kingdom of God and bounty. But the meat is not meat. And what is more when Jesus institutes this banquet with a difference it is the action that seems to convey his presence not just the substance he uses. It is in the breaking of bread that the disciples recognize him at the end of a dusty journey to Emmaus on the first Easter Day evening. It is to meet together to pray and to break bread that the disciples are formed into the fledgling church in that time between Easter Day and Pentecost. Doing it seems to matter. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ is far more than just have this magic food; it’s an activity of the will that is needed. Jesus says ‘do this’ not ‘have it’.
And this is not a solitary activity. Jesus said he would be present when two or three are gathered together. Not one person on their own, though God does not abandon the lonely. But the call is to gather and share in this meal. We need other people to guide and shape our faith, to help us see what we would otherwise miss, to form a community with Christ at its heart, and in the Church of England priests need another person to be present for the Communion service to take place. If no one shows up, no mass. It can’t be done on our own and so one of the most important questions comes in the Sursum Corda, the responses at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord our God’ and we need to reply ‘It is right to give thanks and praise’. That is your consent and therefore the giving of your authority as the gathered people for the president to proceed. Translated it is ‘do you want to do this?’ We reply, ‘Yes we do’! Keep silent and therefore withhold your consent and we don’t continue.
What all of this means is that the presence of God in the sacrament of Communion is not something prepackaged and waiting for us on the shelf. It has to be brought to life through the action of gathering, breaking, pouring and sharing. The point of places of pilgrimage is that the journey to get there, note an activity again, is a spiritual journey that puts us in the place to be able to recognize what is actually available to us at the bus stop, in a friend’s front room and whenever together we gather to pray.
So we celebrate today with thanksgiving the institution by Christ of taking bread and wine and making them into a sacrament of his presence. But it is the taking, the thanking, the breaking, the sharing that makes this sacrament. God’s presence is never static and will not be contained by boxes, however special and however many lights we place outside them. Reserved sacrament is always distributed with prayers which themselves recall the love of God in Christ and join that person receiving it with the act in this service. We treat the bread and wine with respect, reverence it, but Christ’s command was to the action, to ‘do this’, the focus not just on the holy food. It is in the ‘do this’, the breaking of the bread that God’s presence is found and made known to us.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Corpus Christi, Thursday 19th June 2014