Sermon for Mattins on the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 16th August 2015
John 6:51-58

‘Whoso eatest my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.’ (v.54)

‘He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.’ (v. 56)

You might be a bit surprised to have this lesson at Mattins – you might think that we’ve got things mixed up and that this is more appropriate as a lesson at a communion service.

But I think that there is merit in our stepping back and looking carefully at exactly what it is we are doing when we receive Holy Communion, and in reflecting on it. That’s what I want to do now.

When he wrote the Book of Common Prayer first in 1549, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was heavily influenced by the Reformation, by the ideas of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer and others on the Continent, whose ideas had become known in Cambridge, where Cranmer had become a don following his MA degree in 1515.

Then Cranmer was exposed directly to the Continental reformers when he went round Europe visiting theologians in order to try to construct arguments – theological arguments – for Henry VIII’s divorce. By the time he came to draft the Book of Common Prayer a dozen years later, he was a convinced Protestant, full of the ideas of the Reformation. He wasn’t so successful with his task for Henry VIII.

One of the important battlegrounds of the Reformation concerned the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion. What is actually happening when we receive Holy Communion? Are the Roman Catholics right in saying that somehow the Holy Spirit comes down on the bread and the wine, making them into, transforming them into, the actual body and blood of Christ?

This process is called Transubstantiation, which means, becoming a different substance. If you want to see what Cranmer thought about this, look in the back of your little blue Prayer Book and turn to page 623, to Article XXVIII of the 39 Articles of Religion:

‘The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that such as rightly, worthily and with faith, receive the same, the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the blood of Christ.

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of bread and wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of scripture, overthroweth the nature of a sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith.’

The mediaeval view, which the Roman Catholics have carried on with, followed the writings of some of the early Christian Fathers: the Lateran Council, 1215, adopted what Cyril of Jerusalem had written in 348, to the effect that the Holy Spirit made the bread Christ’s body, and the wine, Christ’s blood.

We should remember that, as well as the words of Jesus quoted in St John’s Gospel in our lesson today, there is also the story of the Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.

‘Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave it to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them; …. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.’

And there is also the description in 1 Corinthians 11. So much for Transubstantiation being contrary to ‘the plain words of scripture’!

On the face of things, it does look as though Christianity even involves at least symbolic cannibalism – which was the accusation which the Roman emperor Nero used against the Christians, as reported by the Roman historian Tacitus.[Annals, 15:44 – see

In the Catholic ideas was the thought that, if indeed the bread and the wine turned into the actual body and blood of Christ, then the bread and wine were themselves very special and perhaps worthy of worship. If they were Jesus’ flesh and His blood, then they should be objects of veneration in themselves. If you visit a major Catholic church or cathedral, you’ll find ‘relics’, saints’ bones or other body parts, which are venerated: they are supposed to have the Holy Spirit in them, and therefore, they can almost be worshipped themselves.

The Reformers didn’t believe in relics. The other thing that that they, and Cranmer, were unhappy about in the traditional ideas of the Mass, was what the Mass, Holy Communion, was intended for. The practice had grown up that the Mass was itself a sort of sacrifice. So if you offered a Mass for the souls of the dead, or to obtain some cure or other benefit for someone alive, it stood for a very primitive and literal form of religion which was really only superstition.

But Cranmer and the reformers objected to this, on the basis that the only ‘sacrifice’ in Christianity was, is, Christ’s sacrifice of Himself on the cross: that He obtained salvation for everyone through His sacrifice. There is nothing that we can do, in order to be saved, except by having faith. So saying special masses for people is out; a Requiem Mass was not good theology if the worshippers believed that they were in some way giving a present to God or making a sacrifice, in return for which He would look favourably on them.

In the Prayer of Consecration in the communion service, if we use the Book of Common Prayer, we say

‘Almighty God our Heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself, once offered) a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world …’

The service goes against the idea, that you are in some sense ‘bribing’ God, giving Him something, making a sacrifice in His favour. That had turned into a rather shabby set of superstitions, and even worse, into a sort of trade, whereby the church sold masses for the dead and for the sick, sold them for a price. That was one of Martin Luther’s main targets.

Well, you can spend a lot of time going through history books of the Reformation researching this topic, whether in the Eucharist, in the Lord’s Supper, there is a ‘Real Presence’ of Jesus in the bread and wine; our tradition in the Church of England comes down from what Thomas Cranmer wrote in the sixteenth century. He wrote that ‘spiritual eating is with the heart, and not with the teeth’ [Thomas Cranmer, 1550, A Defence of the true and Catholic doctrine of the sacrament of the body and blood of our saviour Christ, quoted in MacCulloch, D., 1996,Thomas Cranmer, a Life: New Haven and London, Yale University Press, p464], so, fortunately, there is no actual or symbolic cannibalism involved.

I wonder whether today we really think about this. What does taking Holy Communion do? Are we still divided from the Roman Catholics here? This is, after all, a mystery, a sacrament, an ‘outward and visible sign’ of an inner, spiritual reality. The minister will say, as the bread and wine are distributed,

‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life’.

Surely that is the language of Transubstantiation. The words seem to say that you are eating and drinking the actual body and blood of Christ. So a Catholic would be happy with that.

Indeed, if you use the Common Worship service, (the more modern words), as we usually do at 10 o’clock, all the minister or the server usually says is, ‘The body of Christ’, and ‘The blood of Christ’. This is it, the very thing.

But if you use the full words of administration, either in traditional or modern form (‘you’ instead of ‘thee’), the second part is,

‘Take and eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving.’

Remember, the ‘spiritual eating is with the heart, and not with the teeth’. In receiving Holy Communion, even without being cannibals, we are receiving Jesus into us, internalising Him. As we say in the Prayer of Humble Access, ‘We do not presume to come to this thy table, ….’ and so on, ‘Grant us so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink His blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His body, and our souls washed by His most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in Him, and he in us.’

‘That we may evermore dwell in Him, and he in us’. It’s not a literal business. We aren’t literally eating human flesh and drinking blood, but it is a spiritual consumption. It’s a metaphor, a sacrament, an ‘outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’

I think that there is also the idea of a difference between bodies and souls, that there is a physical world and a spiritual world, that the body and blood of Christ in the communion are spiritual things, not physical ones.

That’s all good. But what if some of our fellow Christians – for instance the Roman Catholics – what if they still believe that the body and blood of Christ has come in them through the Eucharist, in a real sense? After all, St Paul often writes in his letters about being ‘in Christ’, meaning that Christ was in him.

I think that now, 500 years after the Reformation, we needn’t be quite so fierce as Cranmer was in the 39 Articles. Even as a metaphor, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper is to do something very significant and powerful. We are ‘in Christ’ as we receive the bread and the wine. What a wonderful entrance ticket that is – free admission to heaven!

When we are ‘in Christ’ we will be like the Ephesians to whom St Paul wrote. We are not to get drunk, but ‘be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.'[Eph. 5:18-19]

Let us pray that, when we receive the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, that the body and blood of Christ will be real to us, will be present: a present help in times of trouble. A real presence.