Vicar's Sermon - 30th April 2017
In my last post, as a Team Vicar in Hereford, we had a team office, staffed by an administrator. When the office was empty access could be gained by tapping in a code into an electronic gizmo that beeped for a while and then released the lock on the door. I’m sure the code has changed but, considering that those who were ever likely to want to gain access were likely to be clergy it was perhaps somewhat obvious that the code chosen for the lock was 1662.
Sixteen sixty two. For many folk here the number carries meaning: for newer members of the church perhaps it no longer carries the significance that it once did and is just a random number. But just in case you were unaware, 1662 refers to the date the Church of England’s Prayer Book was restored to use in the Church following the years of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell and then the return of the monarchy under King Charles II. For centuries the 1662 Prayer Book was one of the most treasured possessions owned by many people: a little book – small enough to fit into a pocket or bag – filled with tiny print but containing every service you were likely to come across in the established Church.
But the prayer book wasn’t actually written in 1662. It pretty well came to its final form over a hundred years earlier – in 1552, following a few false starts in the previous decade. It was the fruit of the English Reformation – it, the church of England and (early in the 17th century) the Authorised Version of the Bible, commonly called the King James Version. Having been forged in the middle of religious controversy its words were pored over and fought over. None less so than the word ‘Amen’ that ends what we would now call the communion prayer, the prayer over the elements of bread and wine that leads towards us receiving communion.
Amen. That word didn’t used to be at the end of the Book of Common Prayer act of remembrance over the bread and wine. In the earliest versions of the prayer book the ‘Amen’ was left to be said as the believer received the bread and wine into their hands: the theological point is this: the bread and wine are just that (bread and wine) until they are received by faith by the communicant….Amen. If the service ended with the bread and wine not consumed the rubric (the service stage directions in italics) was blunt: the curate (the formal name for the person with the cure of souls: we would say ‘the Vicar’) could take the bread home for his breakfast and drink the wine.
But this view of the sacrament did not win through the argument in England as the Reformation gathered apace. Quite quickly the ‘Amen’ was moved to its current position at the end of the prayer. Why? Because, in this position the Amen signifies that the bread and wine, taken and blessed by the whole church, is more than just a symbol of Christ’s body and blood. The Church of England could not agree with the Roman Catholic doctrine known as transubstantiation but nor could it stick with Protestant ideas of symbol and sign. Jesus is truly present – the doctrine is known as that of the Real Presence – in the bread and wine, regardless of our reception of them in faith (however important that might be). The rubric was changed: the Curate could no longer spread marmalade over the bread or gulp down the wine – the elements are to be consumed reverently after communion.
A little history is all very well and it helps to know where we are coming from as a church community even if the Reformation controversies are now half a millennia behind us – but, with today’s gospel reading of the walk to Emmaus so clearly giving us a picture of those first disciples recognising Jesus as he took bread, broke it, and gave it to them are we not in the territory of the communion service and how it is that generations of Christians around the world meet with Jesus in the breaking of the bread?
When we first created a church web site I asked a number of parishioners to write for me a few sentences about what it was that they valued about worshipping here. Those sentences are no longer on our site but what struck me then was how the experience of receiving communion (and that was the context of their words) was so important: I don’t remember the exact words but a phrase like ‘something’s missing from the week if I’m not in church’ comes to mind. ‘I leave church feeling ‘lighter’ than when I came in’. At our Lent group the other week a member of the group tried to express how sometimes there is, in worship, a Presence that is more than the sum of a well-read lesson, more than the effect of our singing a favourite hymn or seeing the sun shine through the stained glass. Rowan Williams, in his little book Being Christian says ‘When we gather as God’s guests at God’s table, the Church becomes what it is meant to be – a community of strangers who have become guests together and are listening together to the invitation of God.’ That’s certainly there in our bible reading because Jesus, the stranger, becomes the host of the meal. It’s an interesting turn around. ‘Stay with us’ say the two disciples. They, initially are the hosts, they it is who should break bread and share it…but Jesus does so. Their relationship with Him and with one another is changed by this shift.
‘Sometimes’ says Rowan Williams ‘after receiving Holy Communion, as I look around a congregation, large or small, I have sensation I can only sum up as this is it – this is the moment when people see one another and the world properly: when they are filled with the Holy Spirit and when they are equipped to go and do God’s work.’ Here bread is broken and wine is poured out. Here Jesus offers his life to God and to us. Here we are caught up in the love that exists between the Father and the Son. I think it was Augustine that said of the communion ‘become what you see’ – we are invited to become part of this divine ‘giving’ that undergirds the whole of creation. Love that pours out from the inexhaustible heart of God.
And as we learn to see and receive the love of God in bread and wine we can learn to see and receive the love of God shared in his other gifts, in the rest of our lives. The reason that we set apart some places as ‘holy’ is to remind us that all places are holy – heaven and earth are full of God’s glory, there are no ‘no go’ paces for Him. The reason that we set apart bread and wine as holy is to remind us that all creation is holy: he comes to us again and again, reaching out to us in the people we meet, through touch and sight and sound and smell, through our work, through or recreation, through families and friends, through the news on the TV, in good times, bad times, joyous times, hard times…ever present, always giving, working to unite, to redeem, to make new.
Our response: ‘thanksgiving…eucharist.’ It is indeed good always and in all places to give you thanks and praise heavenly Father for you give us the bread of life and cup of salvation. Praise be to you, through Jesus, our risen Lord.