The Eucharist and Unity

John 12: 1-8

A sermon preached by the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion at St Peter's Church, Nottingham on 1st April 2001

An army General moved forward and knelt at the communion rail. Close behind him was a young private. For a moment the young man hesitated, shy at the prospect of kneeling alongside his senior commander. Noticing, the General quickly got to his feet. "Soldier," he said, "do join me. We are all one when we come to Our Lord's table!"

Our theme today is the Eucharist and Unity. It is a great theme to explore as we approach Holy Week and as we look towards Holy Week, Easter and all the events surrounding the death and resurrection of our Lord.

It is also a somewhat topical theme, at least in church affairs. In 1998 the Roman Catholic bishops of Britain and Ireland issued a teaching on why non-Catholics should not be admitted to communion in Roman Catholic churches. Last week the bishops of the Church of England put out a document in which they sharply criticised their Catholic counterparts. Their statement affirms the long-standing Anglican conviction that all baptised persons who belong to churches that affirm the Holy Trinity are welcome at the Eucharist. The Eucharist should be the symbol of the unity of Christians, but sadly it has also been a point of division and discord.

The reading we have heard read from John's Gospel offers us some clues on how the Eucharist is an instrument of unity.

Jesus has ended his controversy with the religious authorities. If we were to read on, at the end of John 12, his judgement on the religious system will be pronounced. The High Priest and his cabal are set on killing him. For a short time Jesus has withdrawn to a place of peace, quiet and security. But his hour has come. He braces himself and returns to the fray, but on the way he takes a detour to Bethany.

"Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead."

There are two critical words in the first verse of the Gospel this morning that need to be considered when we think about Eucharist and the unity of the Church. Those two words are Passover and Bethany. Passover because that was the meal which Jesus celebrated with his disciples.

The second word is Bethany, the home of Lazarus, and the place where Jesus went to have a meal with Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Today a pilgrim travelling from the Galilee to Jerusalem, travels through Bethany to get to Jerusalem. However, the road we travel today is thanks to President Dwight David Eisenhower in the 50's, which was a gift from the United States to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. That road really has nothing to do with Jesus in the first century.

In the first century the road from Jericho to Jerusalem entered Jerusalem through a different valley system. To get to Bethany from Jericho one would have to go first to Jerusalem and then from Jerusalem one would have to walk yet another two kilometres along the ridge of Mount Scopus to get to Bethany.

By now I am sure you are asking, why am I spending so much time on the word Bethany. I am doing so because Bethany was not on the "beaten path", instead to get to Bethany, Jesus had to go out of his way two kilometres so he could sit at table with his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus to have a meal. Does this not show how important it was for Jesus to be with his friends, to break bread, to have a meal to share? Is this not exactly what the Passover which we celebrate, the Eucharist, is all about? The Eucharist brings us together as friends. At the Eucharist are we willing to go two kilometres out of our way so we can break bread together with Jesus's friends.

And at Bethany Jesus is indeed among friends. Here is the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus whose raising from the dead is recorded in the previous chapter of John. Naturally, these close friends arrange a supper, this time not in their own home but at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Then follows a wonderful scene. Mary instinctively knows that this is a most solemn moment. Jesus is returning to a place where his very life is in danger. Mary will show her devotion, she will show her gratitude. And, as Luke's Gospel records, Mary will, by this act, indicate that Jesus will be with his friends for only a few more days. His death will follow in quick, brutal succession.

But let us try to imagine the actual scene. One of the hallmarks of Jesus' ministry is what scholars call 'table fellowship'. Jesus loved to gather with his friends at table. But it was not a case of sitting on chairs around the table and taking care not to bump each other's elbows. Archaeological excavation from the period confirm that it would have been a low table with people sitting on pillows, very relaxed, and leaning against one another. We get a sense of that from John's record of the Last Supper where the disciple who Jesus loved leant on him as the disciples ate and talked.

And it is here, more than anywhere else, that we get the sense of what Jesus was experiencing in the Upper Room the evening before his death when he instituted the Eucharist. Here is the original love feast, what we usually call agapé. And we know from St Paul's letters to the Corinthians, that whatever liturgy was in play, this pattern of making the Eucharist the centrepiece of a community meal continued in the life of the early church.

But notice, too, that around this table in Bethany were adversaries as well as friends. Jesus is in the house of Simon the Pharisee. There is a good case for saying that Jesus himself began life as part of the Pharisee party within the Jewish faith of his day. In John's Gospel he dialogues with the Pharisees, notably Nicodemus. But soon the Pharisees, a largely rural and provincially based party, would close ranks with the Jerusalem-based Sadducees to put him to death.

Notice, too, that Judas Iscariot is at the table. It is Judas who chides Mary about the perfume she lavished on Jesus. The Gospel accounts call it spikenard, a lotion that scholars suggest was created from Pesticus or Pistachio oil. To this day it is a celebrated delicacy in the Middle East.

The Eucharist is a point of unity because saint and sinner, are welcome at the table.

Then in the Eucharist, human endeavour is unified in the very elements which when consecrated become to us the body and blood of Christ. In the Upper Room, when Jesus instituted the Eucharist by taking in hand bread and wine, he did not bless raw grain or raw grape juice. Bread and wine are not commodities; they are products of human work. So in the Eucharist, God brings together and affirms both the countryside and the town, the primary producer and the person whose labour and ingenuity adds value by the process of manufacture. That is a message that needs to be proclaimed loud and clear in a British community where city and town are divided by fierce debates over the vexed issue of hunting. It suggests, too, the interdependence of the city and the countryside in a nation coming to terms with the implications of foot and mouth disease outbreaks.

The Eucharist unites us as a world family.

The song that has become the signature tune of the worldwide Anglican Communion is J. Ellerton's hymn, 'The Day Thou Gavest'. One of its most memorable stanzas says:

As o'er each continent and island
the dawn leads on another day,
the voice of prayer is never silent,
nor dies the strain of praise away.

Right now it is 10.30am in Nottingham. In Khartoum it is two hours later in the day, in Mexico City it is only 4.30am, in Auckland, New Zealand it is already 10.30pm and soon they will be going to bed to be ready for work on Monday.

Then the Eucharist is a reminder to us of the poor and the marginalised who are there at the table too, and as Secretary General I have witnessed, as has your rector, the reality of the situation faced by many in the Communion.

Our Communications Director in the Anglican Communion Office, Jim Rosenthal, tells an incredible story when he visited Sudan, for the first time, with Archbishop Carey. The scenario was New Year's Eve, and the plane had arrived in Yambio, a remote Diocese. Over the trees, a cruciform Cathedral, which was a gift of the Australian Church to the Diocese, could be seen. What was exciting was the fact that there were thousands of people on hand to greet the Archbishop of Canterbury and his party, as he made this historic, unprecedented and dangerous visit. Everyone, although thin, gaunt and barely clothed, was singing, chanting, dancing, joyful in their expression of faith and their expression of love and their expression of thankfulness for their visitors. The reality we all know is that the Sudan is plagued by endless conflicts. People have to live under the most severe circumstances, year after year. Civil strife and civil war are the daily menu.

As the Archbishop's party, made their way to the Bishop's house, this is a land where there is no sanitation, basically no food, certainly no water, Jim asked the Bishop, "Sunday, tomorrow, is New Year's Day. I can't wait for the Eucharist. How many do you think will be attending?" "Ah", the Bishop said, "Well tomorrow we literally expect thousands of people to be here at the Cathedral." The Cathedral probably seated about 400. The next day the crowd estimated was nearly 20,000. The Bishop added, "Well, Jim, I 'm sorry to disappoint you, but there will be no celebration of the Holy Eucharist. No Holy Communion." Being curious, Jim asked, "Why?" The Bishop hung his head and said, humbly, "You see we have no bread or wine."

Then, the Eucharist is the place, supremely, where the Church is fuelled to be the life of the world.

For many the Eucharist has become a highly individualistic act. Churches that put great emphasis on the Eucharist have sometimes given the impression that it is first and foremost an act of intense, private meditation. Here the Eucharist becomes a ceremony performed within the Church for the benefit of its members. Yet there is more to it.

At the scene in Bethany, where there are outsiders and even foes at the table, reminds us of the missionary nature of the Eucharist. For the Eucharist is, as the late Bishop Stephen Neill has written, the great act “in which the Church continually offers itself for the life of the world.” Having tasted the body and blood of Christ, says Neill, “the worshippers, now constituted afresh as the broken, suffering body of Christ, go out into the world in which Jesus Christ was crucified.” Or as St Augustine of Hippo pointed out long ago, Christ may be in some special sense present in the bread and wine, but it is those who eat and drink who are his body.

We get a sense of this from a very moving story told of early Quaker settlement worship in Pennsylvania. The Friends were meeting in the open air, and sat long in silence, as was their custom. They became aware that Indians, those much feared by the settlers, had drawn near and that one of them had placed himself behind each of the worshipping friends. No-one moved, even though the danger was self-evident. When worship was over, the Friends arose and each shook hands with the person next to them. Then each turned round and solemnly shook hands with the Indian behind them. Then all returned peacefully to their homes. It is not often that the Church is given such a graphic opportunity to illustrate peace and solidarity within itself and dramatically offer it to an often hostile world.

John L. Peterson
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 2nd April 2001