Tuesday, June 27, 2017

What is the Eucharist?

Today we celebrate Corpus Christi, or the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus. It is an occasion to celebrate and meditate upon the miracle of Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist. As Episcopalians—and especially as Episcopalians in the catholic or high church tradition—the Holy Eucharist is absolutely central to our identity and our life together.

So what exactly is the Eucharist and why is it so important? It would be impossible to say everything that needs to be said about this holy feast in one homily, but I want to offer a three point definition of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, a sacrament, and a covenant.

First, why do we call the Eucharist a sacrifice? The entire context for Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in which he instituted the Eucharist is the Passover in which lambs were offered for the salvation of the people. The sacrificial lamb was consumed in the ceremony of the Passover meal celebrated in the homes of devout Jews.

But Jesus was not merely celebrating an ordinary Passover. He was proclaiming a new Passover sacrifice. There were similarities to the Passover meal, but there were also differences. For instance there is no reference to a lamb in the gospel descriptions of their meal. There may have been one present, but the emphasis is shifted away from it. Instead when Jesus explains the meaning of the unleavened bread, as it was the hosts’ duty to do, he took it and said, “This is my body.” When he took the cup of wine he told them, “This is my blood.” In doing so, he was proclaiming himself to be the Passover lamb, the sacrifice that would deliver them from sin and lead them out of bondage.

Is the Holy Eucharist then the new Passover in which Jesus Christ is sacrificed for our sins? Not exactly. Jesus offered that once and for all perfect sacrifice upon the cross. We are not re-sacrificing Christ again and again. That would imply that Jesus’ death was not enough to save us. Everything necessary for our forgiveness and reconciliation with God has already been accomplished. This should fill our heats with peace and gratitude.

The Eucharist is a sacrifice but it is not a bloody sacrifice. The scriptures speak of a number of different kinds of sacrifices, not all of them blood sacrifice. There are grain offerings, drink offerings, and also what is called a “wave offering.”  A gift would be symbolically presented to God as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. This is how we speak of the gifts of bread and wine in the Eucharist. They are presented to God as an act of thanksgiving for Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice upon the cross.

More than a simple offering of thanksgiving, however, the Eucharist is also a sacrament. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of a heavenly, spiritual, reality given as a sure and certain means through which we receive the grace of that heavenly, spiritual, reality.

The heavenly, spiritual, reality presented in the Holy Eucharist is described in our Epistle reading from Hebrews.  What the author is saying is that Jesus is our eternal priest interceding for us in heaven.

In the old testament times the high priest would enter the tabernacle in a cloud of incense to present God with an animal sacrifice, but  Jesus Christ passed through the clouds of Heaven, entered the true heavenly sanctuary and there, as our high priest, presented his body and blood before the Father as the one, perfect, all sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

Our offering of the bread and wine in the Eucharist is meant to be an outward and visible representation of that heavenly reality. Under the species of bread and wine we present Jesus’ body and blood before God.

It isn’t that God needs to be reminded of our salvation in Christ, but we do. We need to be reminded again and again that we have been redeemed by the cross and reconciled to God.

The Holy Eucharist is an assurance of God’s love and the peace we have with him. The once and for all sacrifice of Christ is represented in the Eucharist, but more than that, we also receive the benefit of that sacrifice. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, but we must remember that it is also a sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.  

In the Eucharist we receive the true body and blood of Christ. He gives himself to us there as surely as he gave himself to us on cavalry. Jesus is present in heaven for our sake as our eternal priest and he is present in the Eucharist for our sake as the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.

Finally the Eucharist is a covenant. A covenant is a solemn binding promise made between individuals or peoples. For instance, Marriage is a covenant. Two people stand up before God and their community and make a solemn commitment to love and care for one another.

In ancient times covenants were  made with a sacrifice. God made a covenant with us through Jesus Christ, and Christ sealed that covenant with his sacrifice. Christ promised to bring us into God’s kingdom and give us eternal life. We are called to respond to that promise in faith and to keep his commandments.

When Jesus gave us the Eucharist, he also gave us a commandment. He told us to love one another as he loved us.

Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we renew that covenant with God. We reaffirm our faith in him and we ask his assistance in helping us to keep his commandments.

The Holy Eucharist cements our fellowship. It brings us closer to God, but it also brings us closer to one another.  Because there is one bread and one cup, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread and one cup.