I don’t use the Book of Common Prayer Communion order of service very often. I have very mixed feelings about it. I don’t like the order it puts things, you never quite get forgiven by it – it follows the words of absolution with a reminder of our sinfulness – and its language can be convoluted, though at other times it is pithy and direct. There are elements I do like, though, and one of the texts which I particularly appreciate is the words to accompany the giving of the bread and wine, particularly the wine. A version of this has been captured in the ‘Draw near with faith’ prayer. In the Book of Common Prayer version it ends with a simple ‘And be thankful’. There is something direct and clear about that which cuts through: ‘be thankful’.
Thanksgiving, being thankful, matters enormously. It changes us. It changes the way we see the world and helps us remember that everything is gift and there is a gift in every situation. I was listening to a woman talking on Radio 4 yesterday morning. As a child during the Second World War she had been captured by the Japanese and taken to a prison camp. The conditions she described made me think who needs horror films. The floor was sticky and it slowly dawned on her that this was because of the dead bodies left around her. The story she told was appalling. It reminded me of reading Eric Lomax’s book ‘The Railway Man’ with his memories of being a prisoner of war building the Burma railway. This woman then said that her mother insisted that, even in that horrific place, they give thanks before meals. She just wanted to eat, so scarce was food, but her mother kept them focused on being thankful and raising their spirits with it. That is thanksgiving, unconditional and just the heart's response to being alive and having sustenance to keep going.
Human beings have a much deeper quality to their life than other animals. That deeper quality is the level of our consciousness. We are not just the consequence of drives and desires, appetites and unrestrained demands. We can think, imagine, make music and think in the abstract. There are levels which this is shared with some other animals, which seem to be able to display cunning and calculation, can even be self-giving and put the needs of their young before their own. But the level at which we can do this, with writing, poetry, music and philosophy gives us a level of awareness that is more developed than any other creature. Despite what Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ may say about dolphins. Thanksgiving is a way we connect and keep connected with this deeper sense of being, of being human, of being human created in the image and purpose of God.
I said last week that John doesn’t give us an account of the Last Supper in his gospel. What he gives us instead is this long teaching in chapter 6 about Jesus as the bread of life, that eating his flesh and drinking his blood brings eternal life. There are clear links with the Communion sharing of bread and wine and this passage, though it is not spelt out in those terms. By not narrowing down the focus to one meal, to one way of communing in the highly ritualized format that we know, John opens up wider possibilities. Can it be that every time we eat and drink we share in the great thanksgiving? Well only if we are mindful of what we are doing, if each meal becomes a moment of thanksgiving and praise, of remembering that the food of life is connected to the source of life. So it is that thanksgiving that changes the focus of the meal, not just some kind of magic food.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to gather together to worship and feed on word and sacrament. Privatised, isolated faith is not good. Which is not quite the same as saying there should be no choice, but it needs to be corporate and open to all, not narrowed down to just a club of the like minded. However, being thankful in all circumstances and especially when life gives precious little obvious cause for it, becomes a moment when grace shines through and the situation is transformed even if in a small way. This moment of grace becomes Eucharistic, thanksgiving, becomes a moment when we feed on Christ as if on his flesh and blood.
The letter to the Ephesians was written at a time of persecution and great hardship. There are hints of it in the reading we heard (Ephesians 5:15-20). The days are described as ‘evil’. Rather than trying to anaesthetize the pain with alcohol and being drunk, or some other mood altering substance, the writer encourages his readers to look deeper into chinks of sunlight that manage to penetrate the darkness. Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are a way of being reminded of God’s unfailing goodness. The lives of the persecuted are not forgotten and abandoned.
On Friday our church calendar remembered the Franciscan friar, Maximilian Kolbe. He was imprisoned by the Germans during the Second World War. A prisoner escaped and so as a warning the guards lined up ten men to be shot. One pleaded for his life, that he had a family and begged to be spared. Maximilian took his place. From his prison cell he sang songs of praise and thanksgiving and drove his guards round the bend with fury that they couldn’t break his spirit. He died transformed with this grace.
The broadcaster Gerald Priestland wrote a book in 1983, based on a radio series, called ‘The case against God’. It was an exploration of suffering and pain. How can we believe in a God of love and care and justice when there is so much suffering in the world? And when we look and see just how awful human beings can be towards one another, not only 70 years ago in wartime, but today with ISIS, trafficking of human misery, abuse and all forms of oppression and violence. In his book, Gerald Priestland told a story of a group of Jews who put God on trial in their concentration camp. The case was overwhelming. God was guilty of the worst crime, that of permission, creating a world where all these things were possible, indeed inevitable. The possibility means there must be actuality and that permission gives us a darkness in God that we do not understand; a darkness of our perception but also how it feels. At the end of the trial, a Rabbi stood up and said let us not forget that it is time for our evening prayers. And they ended that day, as they did every day, with prayers. The service at St Martin-in-the-fields yesterday for the 70th anniversary of VJ Day ended with the hymn ‘The day thou gavest Lord is ended’. The commentator introduced it by saying this was the hymn sung at the end of each day in the prison camps, used as a rallying cry.
Songs of praise in a death cell, songs of praise in a prison camp, the best response to the problem of suffering and pain, is not clever words and arguments, which quite frankly don’t cut it when the pain is raw, but praise and thanksgiving. We find in it and through it that we are affected and changed, lifted and transformed. Lament, anger and sorrow, all have a place and must be held. They are held on the cross. But so must praise and thanksgiving because it reminds us that we are not just brute beasts that have no understanding, but are created from gift and there is grace and gift in our lives whatever it brings. Not just in the dark moments, but especially in the dark moments, and especially when we find we don’t feel like it. It is then, as with the famous poem footprints, that we find there is only one set of footprints on the sand and we are being carried.
So the bread of life comes to us today through praise and thanksgiving. It is in that praise and thanksgiving that bread is turned into the gift of life. We share in the Communion of Christ’s body and blood, in bread and wine, but it comes to us through praise and thanksgiving because that is what the word Eucharist means. ‘Take this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and be thankful.’
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 16th August 2015