“And the bread I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh”.
One of the best reads on the subject of the Eucharist is called “For the life of the world” taken from that verse in John by an American Orthodox theologian and I was instructed to read it by none other than Rowan Williams just before he ordained me priest in Canterbury.
What the Eucharist is or is not has exercised my mind for a dozen years. It is what I do every Sunday. In the established churches it is the one thing that I can do and you can’t. So what on earth is it?
I have told everyone before that I come originally from a low evangelical church where we didn’t celebrate the Eucharist every week and where the churchwarden still complained that we had too many of them. From there I immersed myself in an Anglo catholic monastery for two years where every single day I had a tasteless piece of plastic pushed into my hand and told that this was the “body of Christ”. That concentrates the mind I can tell you.
Then I went East and in Orthodoxy I experienced a different approach yet again and now all these years later after all I have experienced, I ask myself again what is it really all about...... and I can only give you the benefit of my experience of all these different approaches and my own theological thinking and have arrived at a few conclusions that may help some people I hope.
“The life of the world” What does that mean?
For some, this life means “religious” or “spiritual” life
Lost and confused as most of us are we can be encouraged to take refuge in a purely spiritual life, in a journey inwards fed with spiritual food so enabling us to endure the “other” secular life with all its frustrations and tribulations, so we can keep smiling in a deep religious way.
This way of looking at life comes in all different shapes and sizes but the result is more or less the same. It makes the secular life, the life of eating and drinking play second fiddle, almost an irrelevance. It is clearly a second class way of living and less important than the spiritual life of prayer and contemplation.
In contemporary Christianity this spiritual emphasis is counterbalanced by those who understand these words “For the life of the world” as “for the better life of the world”. They are activists committed to the social gospel. Christianity is primarily a religion of action – action to change the world that has been lost to us. They will often feel aggrieved at the spiritual ones for spending too much time praying or in silence, and exhort them to get up and get stuck in.
Whichever avenue you go down the underlying problem remains the same. It is one of dualism.
It is Spiritual versus material, sacred versus profane, supernatural versus natural.
But in the Hebrew Bible these dichotomies never existed. In the Bible the food that man is given to eat in order to live is given by God and it is given as communion with God.
The world is not just “material” and limited to material functions, as opposed to specifically spiritual functions by which we relate to God.
All that exists is God’s gift to mankind, and it all exists to make God known to mankind. In the Hebrew bible God blesses everything he created and in Biblical language this means that he makes all creation the sign and means of his presence and wisdom, and love and revelation.
In the story of the garden of Eden, the fruit that Adam and eve ate only differed from all other things in that it was forbidden. It had not been given or blessed. Therefore It was food that was an end in itself, a world loved and enjoyed for itself and not as a vehicle for communion with God.
The world is a fallen world only in so far as it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. Our dependence and love for the world became a short circuit cut off from the life that created and sustains all things. So we still love, but we are still hungry because our love only extends to the world itself rather than a way of communion with God.
We forget that breathing is a communion with God, that eating can be receiving life from God in more than its purely physical sense.
In the truly Christian sense, when we see the world as an end in itself and devoid of God’s presence, we live in a flat two dimensional world because the world cut off from its source is a dying world and communion with it is a communion with death.
The life of the world devoid of presence of God is just the appearance of life. The figure of Adam sitting outside paradise weeping is a picture of mankind itself, hungry for communion with life, with God yet unable to satisfy that hunger because we have removed the source of life from our perception of the world.
Jesus saw and perceived this connection within himself and all things and referred to God as his father. In the Eucharist which he instituted we set right what has been lost.
In eating and drinking bread and wine we truly commune with God. It is no longer spiritual versus material, natural versus supernatural. They are one and the same thing. The material is a vehicle for the spirit, a carrier of God’s presence. As i said last week, this is why I am a Christian, but I am not religious.
I say this because In a sense, religion is only needed when there is a barrier between man and God and we need people to perform cultic acts to set up a meeting between the two. What we say about Christ is that he tore those barriers down don’t we? There is no division between man and God, between the spiritual and the material.
This is why the early church had such freedom. They had no need of scared geography, no temples, no interest in the places where Jesus had walked, no pilgrimages. That all came later. There were no need for temples because the new people gathered in his name was the only temple needed. The fact that Christ was present was far more important than the places where Jesus had been. Jesus is important because in Him is the answer to all religion, all hunger for God. He was and symbolised in his own body the communion with God that is innate in all creation.
When we eat bread and drink wine we are communing with the entire world and the source of the entire world. It is a bringing together of the material and the divine and in our communion what changes is not the bread and wine – the Eucharistic prayer is not a magic spell - but what is most needed is that our perception of the bread and wine changes and what it then symbolises. That changes our perception of ourselves and all life.