a priest's musings on the journey

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Mystagogical Sermon on the Holy Eucharist

The head rector has decided that for Eastertide we will preach a mystagogical sermon series on the sacraments. Last week he preached on Baptism; this week I will preach on the Most Blessed sacrament of the Altar. I post it here, not because I think it is a great sermon, but because I've never preached a mystagogical sermon before- so I'd like to see your thoughts and comments about it before I preach on Sunday (don't be too harsh though, padrerob bleeds easily) ;)

thanks! Christos Anesti!!

Mystagogical Sermon Series: On the Sacraments
The Holy Eucharist
Third Easter, Year A 2008

In the Name of God by whose Spirit Christ is Risen +. Amen.

In the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, we renounce the world, the flesh and the devil- as the old prayer book put it- turn towards God in repentance of our sins, accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and are buried in the waters of baptism in the name of the Most Holy Trinity. In the waters of baptism we die to ourselves and to sin. By the power of the Holy Spirit we are raised to newness of life into the Risen Life of Jesus Christ, granted the forgiveness of sin, adopted as God’s children, and incorporated into the body of Christ. The Sacrament of Holy Baptism is the sacrament of new birth: the font is the womb of the Holy Spirit, by which we are born again as children of God. The Sacrament of Holy Baptism is the door through which we enter into the Household of Faith and find a place in the Communion of saints. The Sacrament of Holy Baptism is one of the two dominical sacraments- that is the sacraments instituted by our Lord himself. The Sacrament of Holy Baptism was instituted by our Lord when he commissioned the apostles to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The second dominical sacrament is the Most Blessed Sacrament- the Holy Eucharist- sometimes called Holy Communion and the Lord’s Supper. It is the sacrament that Christ instituted on the night before he suffered and commanded us to do as often as we could in remembrance of his life, death and resurrection, until his coming again. In the Holy Eucharist, we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, by giving of ourselves, and by offering to God bread and wine, in obedience to Christ’s command. In return, God receives the gifts that we offer, and by the power of the Holy Spirit they are transformed and become conduits through which we are united to Christ’s all sufficient offering of himself for us on the Cross. In union with him, we become partakers of the self-giving love of God , and we are given life through the life of Christ. Through the Holy Eucharist we are fed by Christ with his own body and blood- nourished and strengthened to live as children of God in the world. This spiritual food is the ‘medicine of immortality’- by which we are made more and more to be like Christ. This happens because our remembrance of Christ’s life, death and resurrection makes Christ present in the bread and the wine, and in the assembly of his gathered body. Our remembrance of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, however, is not a mere recollection of his story; it isn’t recalling to mind favorite scenes from his life’s story: much like we did in the Pentecostal Church of my youth, when we, seeing the bread and wine only as symbols of Christ’s body and blood, wept at the altar as we recalled visions of the Cross and Christ’s sufferings for our sins. No, this kind of remembering is best expressed by the Greek term anamnesis… anamnesis means to bring the past to the present and the present to the past. In the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, we truly experience Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and Christ is made present to us… and we are made present to him.

In classical Anglican theology- rooted in the faith of the church catholic- not meaning Roman Catholic, but to the catholic, universal faith believed by all people in all times and places- this is called the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Since the times of the earliest Christians, it has been believed that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. We believe in the Real Presence not only because in the words of Institution our Lord said of the bread. “this is my body” and of the wine, “this is my blood,” but also because the apostles experienced the Risen Christ in the breaking of the bread, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading, and because Jesus taught in other places that we could only receive the life of God and become members of God’s emerging Kingdom by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Take for example the words of Jesus in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of St John:

"I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever."

Of course there are some who interpret these sayings figuratively and want to say that Jesus is using symbolic language. But the Greek is pretty clear that Jesus LITERALLY means that his body is the food that offers us the life of God. I could translate this as “my body is real food; my blood is real drink, indeed.” And when Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees who are offended by his comment, he does not clarify his words by saying, “O, sorry, you didn’t get my point, I was speaking metaphorically.” No, instead Jesus intensifies the offense by reiterating four times that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. This was too hard a saying for some of his disciples, and because of this teaching they walked away.

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life within you…“: that’s a hard saying for us as well- but like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, many of us have also experienced the Risen Christ in the breaking of the bread- and many have before us. The witness of the Early Fathers strongly testifies to the real presence of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote: “I have no taste for corruptible food… I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ… and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible.” St Cyril of Jerusalem preached in his own mystagogical sermon on the Eucharist in the 4th century, “Do not, therefore, regard the Bread and the Wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master's declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but -- be fully assured by the faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the Body and Blood of Christ. And Tertullian wrote: “The flesh feeds on THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST, so that the SOUL TOO may fatten on God. ”

As Anglicans we believe that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist: In the First Book of Common Prayer, issued in 1549, the rubric in the prayer book instructed priests to communicate the baptized with these word: “the body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” These words were, of course, not Protestant enough for some of the Reformers in England, and Cranmer removed them in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer and inserted the words: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.” However, by 1558, Queen Elizabeth I wanted the original words reinstated. She is credited with having said: “Christ Jesus took the bread and brake it. He was the Word that spake it. And what that Word doth make it, that I believe, and take it.” There were, however, some bishops who objected to a return to the more catholic theology of the 1549 prayer book. In the end, in classical Anglican Via media fashion, a compromise was reached that would enable all to embrace the idea of the Real presence. The compromise merged the two together, creating an ambiguity and a sense of holy mystery that has come to define us as people fervent in our belief in the real presence, but not needing to know exactly how it is that Christ becomes present. We Anglicans do not have theologies that explain how it is that Christ is present in the bread, and what happens to the bread after it becomes the body of Christ. We do not need to explain at which moment the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We are comfortable with the assurance alone that he is present in the consecrated bread and wine- and we are comfortable to live within the mystery of how that can be possible. In fact, towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Anglican devotion for and adoration of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic mystery was already beginning to emerge. Richard Hooker would write: “what these elements are in themselves it skilleth not: It is enough that to me which takes them they are the body and blood of Christ… Why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant than this, O my God, thou art true; O my soul, thou art happy?”

By the 17th century, the Caroline Divines would further develop an Anglican Eucharistic theology which taught, in agreement with the teaching of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, that our participation in the mysteries of the Holy Eucharist enables us to partake in the divinity of Christ- since Christ has deified our humanity by his Incarnation. In other words, when we receive the body and blood of Christ, the Holy Spirit deepens the sanctification of our souls and we are made to be more like Christ. Which is what Paul was getting at in his instruction to the Corinthian Church about “discerning the Lord’s Body” when we eat this bread and drink this cup. Yes, there is something in that phrase about recognizing that we are receiving Christ himself when we receive the Blessed Sacrament of the altar- and that’s why some of us genuflect or bow deeply to reverence the Blessed Sacrament- but there is more. Discerning the Lord’s Body also means recognizing Christ present in others; discerning the body of Christ is seeking and serving Christ in those who gather at the table with us; discerning the body of Christ is recognizing that we ourselves are members of the Body of Christ- and as members of the Body of Christ, we are called to carry on the mission of Christ in the world- to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world- to offer to God and others the same sacrificial, self-giving love that enabled Jesus Christ to offer Himself for us on the Cross and to make himself ever present to us in the Eucharistic feast. We receive the body of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament so that we may become the Body of Christ. “If then,” as St Augustine of Hippo wrote, “you are the body of Christ and his members, it is your sacrament that reposes on the altar of the Lord… be what you see and receive who you are.”” There you are on the table, and there you are in the chalice.”

The miracle of transformation is not only in the bread and the wine: in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist we too are transformed by the Holy Spirit; the real presence of Christ also becomes manifest in us. This transformation is an echo and a continuation of the Incarnation - of God putting on flesh and dwelling among us and showing us the path of life. Christ feeds us his body and blood so that he might be present in us, and so that we might be the presence of Christ in the world and participants in God’s work of reconciliation in the world.

So, since the Holy Eucharist unites us all to Christ, transforms us all into members of Christ’s body and unites us to one another so that we can serve the world in self-giving love, it is also a conduit for unity. As we share the one bread and drink from the one cup, we receive grace from the one Spirit who is brooding over us and joining us together into one body and one united presence of Christ offering itself for the world. Of course unity does not mean uniformity: There is one body, but there are many members, St. Paul teaches. There is one Spirit, but a diversity of gifts. Through the Holy Eucharist we are made one body in Christ, and yet, the most casual observation of the Church shows that we are not united. Not only are we divided between various sects and denominations, but in our own Episcopal Church we grieve over divisions that undermine our unity and threaten to separate us from each other. Amid these divisions, the Holy Spirit calls us to gather around this holy table more and more in order to share more often the one bread and the one cup through which our bonds of affection and our unity in Christ is strengthened . Each time we share this Eucharistic meal, each time we experience the real presence of Christ among us, each time we receive the grace of this holy sacrament, we become closer to the dream God has for us to be agents of reconciliation in the world, and to the desire that Christ has that we would be one as he and the Father are one. Consequently, during times of disagreement and distress, we are not permitted to separate ourselves from the rest of the body, nor are we allowed to excise those with whom we disagree. Again St Paul writes:

As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

We are all a part of one another; we are bound to each other, because we all are bound to Christ. I like the dictum, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things love.” It is this Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist that enables us to live together according to the rule of love- and since God is love, that’s the only rule by which we can live and remain united to the life which God offers us. Hear again the words of St. Augustine, “There you are on the table, and there you are in the chalice.” “Be what you see and receive who you are.”

:: posted by Padre Rob+, 2:45 PM


I'm not sure what a "mystagogical sermon" is.
Blogger Huw, at 6:18 PM  
a mystagogical sermon is reflection on the holy mysteries intended to offer postbaptismal catechesis to the newly baptized. Two great mystagogicsl preachers: S Cyril and S Ambrose
Blogger Padre Rob+, at 7:01 PM  
Augustine and Cyril of Mopsuestia did it too :-).
Blogger Jane R, at 11:45 PM  
I think it's really wonderful. Maybe some parts are hard to hear for non-Anglo-Catholics, but if I were in your position, I'd not avoid saying them, for I have experienced several times the transforming power of partaking God's love through the Most Blessed Sacrament.

I loved it.
Blogger Luiz Coelho, at 6:12 PM  
Don't fuss about catholic vs. Catholic. It's just a distraction you don't need. If the Roman Catholic church is catholic, and the Anglican church is catholic then we're all catholic. Or Catholic. It's the same thing - after all, what does the Catholic part of 'Roman Catholic' mean?
Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:51 AM  
I actually agree with you, but let me explain why I made the comment. I am in a historically low church diocese. Anytime I use the word 'catholic', I am met with objections from parishioners "we're not catholic". The comment was my attempt to say catholic means the one universal church- and in this case- that the belief in the Real Presence is not Popish. (yes, these categories and labels still exist). I am open to other ideas regarding how to educate the congregation re: catholicity.

Thanks for the comment
Blogger Padre Rob+, at 10:24 AM  
I love this! Did you know that Grace Cathedral conflates the words of St. Augustine with the Invitation to Communion? "The Gifts of God for the People of God. Be what you see, and receive who you are."

Risen Lord, be known to us in the sharing of your gifts.
Blogger Screeching in the Angelic Choir, at 1:57 PM  
It's excellent but isn't a tad long?
Blogger John the organist, at 5:30 AM  
long??? ;) In the church in which I was raised the sermon could easily be an hour... 20 minutes isn't long. ;)
Blogger Padre Rob+, at 11:32 PM  

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