Rector's Reflections: What the Eucharist Means
Once my mom left the United Methodist Church, I grew up going to churches that did not serve communion EVER on a Sunday morning. Needless to say, I don’t know what they would have done with this reading, which is probably why I never heard it in church. We’ve mentioned before that John’s gospel does not feature the institution of the Lord’s Supper. One commentator put it well: "John does not include the story of the institution of the Last Supper; he assumes that his readers know it. He teaches what it means." In John, the Eucharist is pervasive, not described as happening just once or twice, and the deepest theological language about the Eucharist is found here.
The struggles about the meaning of the Eucharist continued in the early editions of our own prayer book. Some took a high Eucharistic theology, using terms like "priest," "altar," and "Mass." Others were insistent upon more Protestant understanding, using words like "minister," "table," and "Lord’s Supper," referring to communion as a "memorial meal" commemorating Jesus rather than an actual transformation of the bread and wine known into Christ’s body and blood- an understanding widely known as "transubstantiation." Until the Book of Common Prayer of 1979, many Episcopal Churches featured morning prayer as the main worship service of a Sunday, and usually without communion. Under the current rubrics, the Holy Communion is expected to be the main service of a Sunday, barring unforeseen circumstances like not having a priest on hand. Yet no less than Martin Luther adamantly denied that this passage had anything to do with the Sacrament of Communion in his Sermons of John.
Unlike the other gospels, John uses the word "flesh" instead of "body." That’s a much more blunt phrasing. Imagine how that might affect you if the priest administering the sacrament said, "The flesh of Christ…" instead of "The body of Christ…" Remember that to talk about drinking blood was particularly shocking: kosher meat had much of the blood drained out of it, for blood was considered to be the life force of a creature, and of humans (see Leviticus 17:10-14 and Deuteronomy 12:16 and 24). Hence, the woman with a hemorrhage we heard about a few weeks ago was perpetually unclean for 12 years due to her discharge of blood, and menstruating women were isolated from the rest of the group until they could undergo a ritual, purifying bath.
Last week, Jesus declared that he was the bread of life, and the crowd asked him for this bread, always. And we DO have it always, in the Eucharist. In our faith that lives and breathes through us, when we let it.
COVID19 has led us to re-evaluate what "communion" means, as we went 15 months without the Eucharist. Yet. we still gather at the same time and join together in worship-- and perhaps we have even learned some new ways of worshiping and helping others. And as we persevere, this question of what it means to be community when we can't gather as often as we like continues to vex us. Yet, even scattered, we are still Christians, and we are still members of St. Martin's. In what ways have you found ways to be together with those you love during this ongoing crisis?
Let us think on this: Jesus IS present with us when we gather whether in person or online. This is the heart of our talking about Jesus as risen and living right now. If we have faith in that, certainly we can have faith that we are still one and in communion with each other even as distance separates us.
In what ways can we grow our understanding of what Eucharist means?