A Sermon for 2nd August 2009
Note: There are lot's of half-educated assumptions about Presbyterianism in this sermon! I would be delighted to be corrected by anyone who knows more about this subject than me!
As most of you will be aware, my family and I have just returned from a two week holiday in Scotland. We’ve walked the hills and lochs, we’ve visited a safari park, we’ve retraced the steps of Robbie Burns, and we’ve sat by a warm fireside in the cold rain! One of the things we like to do when we go on holiday is to explore churches. It’s interesting to see how people in other parts of the country, or indeed the world, worship - and what memorials they feel it’s important to display. Regretfully, in Scotland, we were thwarted in that endeavour, because all the churches we tried to visit on our various walks were shut! Not, as we English sometimes do, out of a fear of vandalism - but for rather different reasons altogether.
The Church of Scotland is a very different organisation from the Church of England. For a start, it is ‘Presbyterian’ rather than Episcopal - which means that leadership rests in the hands of the local priest, or presbyter, rather than in the ‘episcope’ - or Bishop. Each congregation is therefore much more autonomous than we tend to be. Presbyterianism stems from a belief that the very first churches were much smaller entities than the huge dioceses that we in the catholic tradition have constructed. Scripture would seem to support that idea - there is clearly a sense that Timothy, (whom St Paul describes as a Bishop) was the leader of only one or maybe two congregations. In those terms, my role as Team Rector would be much closer to what the New Testament calls a Bishop... So you can call me Bishop Tom now if you like!!
Presbyterianism has its roots very firmly in the reformed tradition of the church. Their church buildings are very plain - just as one would see on the Continent. This comes from a strict interpretation of the Ten Commandments - the idea that we should not make graven images of anything on the earth or above the earth. In this sense, Presbyterians have a lot in common with Islam - which also prohibits the use of statues, images or icons. There is also a much reduced sense of a church being a holy place, as we tend to believe. Without religious art, Church of Scotland buildings are very plain...usually with clear or frosted glass at the windows, plain white walls, and very few memorials. The theological message being sent is that it is not the building which is holy, but the people. That is another reason why many of the churches are not left open for public visitors. Congregations want people to join them for worship, not simply to come and visit an empty ‘meeting house’.
The pews in Scottish churches are often turned sideways, to enhance the sense of togetherness, rather than long-ways as most of our English churches do. People face each other - not the altar - again re-enforcing the idea that the church is the people, not the building. Traditional Scottish churches tend to be focused on a central, raised pulpit...sometimes as much as 20 feet up in the air...as a sign that the preaching and exposition of the scriptures, for the edification of the people, is of prime importance. Long sermons are the norm for Presbyterians! Which is an idea I think we should establish here? What about you?!
The corollary to having such a prominent pulpit is that the Lord’s Table tends to have a secondary, lower position - still central, but at floor level. Always called the Lord’s Table rather than the Altar - on the basis that Jesus did away with altar-sacrifices by his one, perfect, oblation and satisfaction. In fact in many Church of Scotland churches, the service of Holy Communion is only held around four times a year. As I understand their history, this is partly to ensure that people rely on preaching rather than ceremony for their spiritual health - and partly so that the taking of Communion will be done reverently and carefully, and after serious thought and preparation. It is certainly the case that we in the Church of England can be guilty of going through the motions, week by week, without giving the whole concept of Communion very much thought.
The Church of Scotland is by no means the only national church to act in these ways. You will find churches like this all across the world - and especially in those countries which were most influenced by the teachings of John Calvin. I’ve worshipped in similar churches in Hungary and Romania - and I’ve seen many others around the world. There is much I think we can learn from their tradition; much that we would do well to ponder ourselves. Are we sometimes guilty of thinking of our building as the church, rather than its people? Do we place too much emphasis on art and iconography - the works of human beings - rather than the splendour of the works of God outside our walls? Do we give enough attention to the preaching of the scriptures? Should we sacrifice some of our rituals, in order to spend more time learning about the faith that we profess? Do we sometimes go through the motions of Holy Communion, without really engaging with the deep mystery that it presents us with?
It is that last question that I’d like to focus on for the remainder of this short sermon. Our readings this morning have reminded us of some of the layers of meaning that the early church attached to this simple ceremony. The reading from Exodus reminded us of the story of how God fed the Israelites with ‘manna’ from heaven during their time in the desert. What the reading didn’t make absolutely clear is that the word ‘manna’ meant ‘what is it?’ - the cry of incomprehension from the Israelites themselves when they first encountered it. That might be our question too - as we approach the mystery of Holy Communion. What is it? What’s it all about?
Let’s get some terminology out of the way first. Communion is called by many names - Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, and of course Communion. What do they mean? Well, Eucharist comes from a Greek word which essentially means ‘thanksgiving’. It reminds us that we come together to give thanks for all that God has done for us, by creating us, sustaining us by his Spirit, and healing, or redeeming, us by his Son. Technically speaking, the Eucharistic, or Thanksgiving, refers only to part of the service - to the prayer of Thanksgiving which comes just before the Consecration of the bread and wine...the prayer to which the congregation replies ‘Holy, Holy, Holy...’. But over time, like so many words, the word Eucharist has become expended to include the whole service - because there are so many elements of thanksgiving included...for example through our singing, through many of our prayers, and through our thankful giving of gifts.
The word Mass has its roots in a Latin word...’Messe’ - which means literally a ‘meal’. It is no more mysterious than that. And its where the armed services get the idea of calling their restaurants and canteens ’the mess’. To say that I am about to celebrate the Mass is to say that I am about to celebrate ‘The Meal’ - the meal, of the body of Christ, gathered together around the Lord’s Table.
The word ‘Communion’, or ‘Holy Communion’ is rather easier to digest. It comes from the same root word as our word ‘communal’ - and so it clearly points us to the idea that this is something significant which we do together. But it also brings into its shades of meaning the idea of being joined...that as we commune with each other, we also commune with God. Communion is essentially a communal event - it is the coming together of the people of God, and in doing so the people of God encounter God. You may not know this - but it is actually illegal for a priest to celebrate communion on their own. Or at least, if I were to do so, the church teaches that it would not be communion. The prayers of consecration would have no effect. Communion has to involve at least two people - who come together and encounter God in their togetherness.
The Lord’s Supper - as a phrase - is rather more meaningful, I think. It points us back to the historical event of Jesus sharing his last Passover supper with his disciples...and it reminds us of the layers of meaning that Jesus attached to the elements of that meal. “This is my body”. “This is my blood”.
In many ways, it’s my favourite title for what we are doing together today. It is a phrase which does two things - it points backwards to an historical event. But it is also said in the present tense. It’s not ‘the Memorial of the Lord’s Supper’ - but it is the ‘Lord’s Supper’ itself. By using that phrase, we become participants in that last supper. We become the disciples seated around that table - puzzling over precisely what he meant by labelling a loaf of bread as his body, and a cup of wine as his blood. Some people have taken it to mean that the bread and wine become the actual, physical, body and blood of Jesus - and indeed, wars have been fought over how to interpret His words.
I personally think that goes a bit far. I don’t know what the Church of Scotland teaches on that point, but the Church of England is clear that the only sense in which the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus is a spiritual sense. When we consume them, the bread remains bread, and the wine remains wine, but they are somehow, mysteriously suffused with God. By his ‘amazing grace’, he enters into these things even more deeply than He is already present in everything. They become not just tokens of the physical food that we all need to survive, and which God graciously gives us...but they become tokens of the spiritual food which we all need as well.
But there is a two-way process going on. The Lord’s Supper, the Communion, the Mass, the Eucharist is not just about God giving us ‘manna’ from heaven to sustain us on our spiritual journeys. It is also about us saying ‘yes’ to being part of God’s life on this planet. It is about us saying that we choose to be in communion with God, and with each other, and that we choose to be part of his plan for the healing of the World. This is not a memorial to a long distant event - even a memorial only of the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Jesus did not give us death by his death...he offered us life. When we eat and drink these things, we say ‘yes’, thankfully, eucharistically, to his offer of life...life for ourselves, and life for the world.
Each Sunday, then, as you approach this Lord’s Table, and participate in this Lord’s Supper, may you approach with a heart that is full of anticipation - full of thanksgiving, yes, but also full of excitement at the knowledge that God has invited you...yes you and me...to participate in His life, and in his plan to heal the World. As you take the bread, and drink the wine, may you silently state your ‘yes’ - your commitment to being part of all that God has in store for you, and for your family, and for your neighbours, and for our World.
And whether you do it every Sunday, or just four times a year as our Scottish brethren do, may you never lose that sense of excitement, wonder, and mystery that is at the heart of this simple meal.