The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Maundy Thursday      9th April 2020
Making the Kingdom Present
Jim Walters

In the history of the early church that we call the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, Christian fellowship is described as a devotion to the apostles teaching and the breaking of bread. That breaking of bread might not be quite yet be the liturgical event that we now call the Eucharist. But we do know from this passage in the first letter to the Christians in Corinth that what Jesus did and said at the meal he shared with his disciples on the night before he died very quickly gave profound significance to the sharing of bread and wine between followers of Jesus. It wasn’t of course until much later that words like “transubstantiation” came to be used to describe the particular way in which Christ becomes present at this meal, and Christians have come to think about it in a number of different ways. In the Church of England we have most of those views represented, but there are very few Anglican churches who will just throw the leftovers away. And that indicates our conviction that something very meaningful and special takes place in this sacramental action. Receiving the wafer and the wine, week by week, is experienced as a very real participation of the believer in God’s life and purposes for the world. 

So we celebrate the institution of that sacrament this Maundy Thursday in the very painful and paradoxical circumstances of not being able to share in it. Some may gain some benefit from seeing the priest preside at the consecration over a live stream. Other denominations might allow lay people to have a sort of mini-communion service at home, but that doesn’t quite hold true to what we believe the Eucharist is about. 

So for us, this year, there is no avoiding the reality that our celebration of the presence of God in the Eucharist is marked by an absence – an absence of one another and an absence of the consecrated elements for us to receive. But the way in which some have struggled with this over the last few weeks does make me wonder whether we are perhaps missing something of the point of participating in communion. It is not an end in itself. It’s not, as I once heard a theologian say, a “salvation tablet” that we take once a week to keep us spiritually healthy. And although we refer to it as the “real presence” it is still characterised by the absence of what it points us towards. 

Sacraments are signs and instruments of God’s kingdom which is among us but which is also yet to come. We are in a fallen world of suffering and loss, both manmade and (as this virus is reminding us) inherent in the worldSo when we receive communion, yes we receive Christ. But we do so as a sign and foretaste of a time when the reign of Christ and God’s purposes for all creation are complete and where our communion with God and one another is unimpaired by sin. 

So in this Holy Week in which we are seeking to renew our life of private prayer, I think we should embrace that absence and ask ourselves, not just why we are missing the Eucharist, but what the Eucharist points us towards that we long for in our world. 

Some theologians have seen in the Eucharist a fourfold action of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing. In our liturgy those four actions are seen in the offertory, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Fraction (the breaking of the bread) and the distribution. So perhaps those are four themes we can explore in our prayer lives in relation to God’ purposes for the world and for our lives. 

So first, taking: “the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread”. We seem to live in a world of taking, consuming, owning. But Jesus takes this bread and wine with the intention of realising God’s intent for them. We might think of this less as “taking control of” so much as “taking a loving responsibility for”. So what, in our prayer lives, might we reflect upon that we need, not to take control of, but take some responsibility for? What situations or people do we need to have some loving intention for, in a spirit of healing, justice-seeking or peacemaking? 

Second, Jesus gave thanks, he blessed the bread and the cup. How can we bless the earth? How can we bless one another? In the Eucharistic Prayer this act of blessing takes the form of the telling of the story of salvation. The coming of Christ, his death and resurrection, and the institution of the Eucharist are all narrated as the telling of the story of God’s love for the world. So we should think about how our prayer lives form the stories we tell, about ourselves and our society, about our hopes and aspirations. How will we tell the story of COVID-19? Will it be a story of division, scapegoating and fear? Or will it be a story of the coming together of humanity, a story where we come to appreciate the undervalued and vulnerable in our society? Can we tell a story that will be a blessing to the world when this is over? 

Third is the breaking of the bread. Breaking things isn’t usually very good. We might think Christian life is more about fixing and healing things. But on Tuesday we were reflecting on what needs to die in our lives and in our world in order to allow new life. Breaking things down – or deconstruction to use an academic word – is important to allow us new ways of imagining ourselves and our world. This pandemic may feel, at times, like it is breaking us. But let’s hope it’s breaking down old ways of doing things so that we can think again and live lives more in accordance with the ways of the Spirit. 

And finally the bread and the wine are shared. Perhaps this is the most countercultural dimension of the Eucharist. In a world where people are inclined to hoard or accumulate at the expense of others, the bread and wine of the Eucharist are shared with all, regardless of wealth, status, race or anything else. But again, this is just a sign of God’s purposes for a redeemed creation where none will go without and all will be included. So we should reflect in our private prayer on who is excluded in this world and how we can contribute to the sharing of resource and opportunity that will cause all God’s people to flourish. 

And ultimately, if prayer is really about allowing God agency in our lives, then we should be asking Christ to consecrate us as he does the bread and the wine – to take us with loving intent, to bless us with a story of our redemption, to break us from our habits of sin and self-obsession and to share us as agents of his Kingdom in the world. 

So this Maundy Thursday, the Eucharist is strangely absent. But the Eucharist always functions within the absence of the fullness of God in our fallen world. So as we wait for the real presence of the Eucharist to be present to us again, let us reflect in prayer on all we can do to make the Kingdom of God and the fullness of Christ present in our world today. 

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