August 12, 2018, Let Us Keep the Feast – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000093
A man named Dom Gregory Dix wrote a book called The Shape of the Liturgy, all about the history of how we celebrate the Eucharist. He describes what the Church was like in its earliest days – as far back as the time when there were still people alive who had seen the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ with their own eyes. And he tells a story of a typical Sunday morning in the ancient Church – but he modernizes it a little. Instead of a community of first-century Christians in Roman-occupied Palestine, he sets the story in twentieth-century London. Instead of Roman soldiers, he has London policemen. In a creative way, he paints a vivid picture of what it was like to be a Christian two thousand years ago.
Suppose you were a grocer in Brondesbury, a tradesman in a small way of business,” he writes, “as so many of the early Roman christians were. Week by week at half-past four or five o’clock on Sunday morning (an ordinary working day in pagan Rome) before most people were stirring, you would set out through the silent streets, with something in your pocket very like what we should call a bun or a scone. You would slip in through the back alley behind a big house, owned by a wealthy christian woman. There in her big drawing-room, you would find the ‘church’ assembling – a mix of social classes, rich and poor alike. You mostly know one another well, you exchange greetings and nod and smile; (people who are risking life in prison, at the very least, for what they are doing generally make certain that they know their associates.) At the other end of the drawing-room, sitting in the best arm-chair is an elderly man, a gentleman by his clothes but nothing out of the ordinary – the bishop of London. On either side of the bishop are two men, who are the deacons. On chairs in a semicircle facing down the room sit the presbyters. In front of them is a small drawing-room table.
The Eucharist is about to begin. The bishop stands and greets the church. At once there is silence and order, and the church replies. Then each man turns and grasps his neighbor strongly and warmly by both hands. (In the ancient church they would have greeted one another with a kiss.) The deacons spread a white table-cloth on the table, and then stand in front of it, one holding a silver tray and the other a two-handled silver cup. One by one you all file up and put your little scones on the tray and pour a little wine into the cup. Then the scones are piled together before the bishop on the cloth, and he adds another for himself, while water is poured into the wine in the cup and it is set before him. In silence he and the presbyters stand with their hands outstretched over the offerings, and then follow the dialogue and the chanted prayer lasting perhaps five minutes or rather less. You all answer ‘Amen’ and there follows a pause as the bishop breaks one of the scones and eats a piece. He stands a moment in prayer and then takes three sips from the cup, while the deacons break the other scones into pieces. To each of those around him he gives a small piece and three sips from the cup. Then with the broken bread piled on the tray he comes forward and stands before the table with one of the deacons standing beside him with the cup. One by one you file up again to receive in your hands ‘The Bread of Heaven in Christ Jesus’, and pass on to take three sips from the cup held by the deacon, “In God the Father Almighty and in the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit in the holy church’, to which you answer ‘Amen’; then you all file back again to where you were standing before. There is a moment’s pause when all have finished, and then most of you go up to the bishop again with a little silver box into which he places some fragments of the Bread. You stow it in an inside pocket, remembering a fellow church member, Tarcisius, who was lynched six months ago for being caught with one of those little boxes upon him. There is another pause while the vessels are washed, and them someone says loudly, ‘That’s all. Good morning, everybody.’ And in twos and threes you slip out again through the back door and go home – twenty minutes after you came in. That is all there is to it, externally. It would be absolutely meaningless to an outsider, and quite unimpressive.
But perhaps it did not all end quite so easily. Perhaps the bishop stopped to speak to someone on the front-door steps as he went out, and was recognized by a casual passer-by who set up a great shout of ‘Christian! Christian!’ And before anyone quite realized what was happening a small jostling crowd had collected from nowhere and someone had thrown a brick through one of the windows; doors and windows were opening all down the street and there was a hubbub of jeers and yells, till a policeman arrived majestically, demanding, ‘Wot’s all this ‘ere?’ ‘It’s those – christians again!’ shouts someone, and the policeman gets out his notebook and looks severely at the bishop standing with the two deacons just behind him at the foot of the steps. ‘Wot’s all this about?’ And then comes the deadly challenge from the policeman, ‘Is that right that you’re a christian?’ And the bishop admits he is a christian. ‘There’s another of them’, says someone, pointing at one of the deacons. ‘There’s a whole gang of them in there.’ The deacons briefly admit their faith, and the policeman looks doubtfully at the house. It’s said that they always come quietly, but one never knows. He blows his whistle, more police arrive, the house is entered, and soon afterward twenty-two people, including the bishop and his deacons and the little grocer from Brondesbury, are marched off to the station.
They are all charged together ‘with being christians’, which is to say, members of an unlawful association. Each is asked in turn whether he pleads guilty or not guilty. If he answers ‘guilty’, his case is virtually decided. The judge is perfectly well aware of the christian rule of never denying their religion. One man’s courage fails at the critical moment and he falters ‘Not guilty.’ Then there is a simple further test to be applied. At the side of the court-room is hung a picture of the king. ‘Just go and kneel in front of that picture and say “Lord have mercy upon me”, will you?’ says the judge. Some of the accused go through the prescribed test with white faces and faltering lips. The judge, a reasonable man, again asks each of those who have pleaded guilty whether they will even now go through the little ceremony. They all refuse. There is no more to be done, no possible doubt as to the law on the matter: ‘christians may not exist.’ The legal penalty is death, and there is no ground of appeal. As a rule there is no delay; sentences on christians were usually carried out on the same day. So in our modern analogy fifteen christians were hanged on that Sunday afternoon.
We can’t even begin to understand what the eucharist meant to christians until we have understood the real danger that they faced every day. For the first two hundred and fifty years in the life of the Church, simply to be a christian was in itself a capital crime. Thousands of men and women were killed, tens of thousands suffered injury or loss of property, hundreds of thousands faced opposition and suspicion and rejection by their families and their neighbors. And the main offense of all these christians was the eucharist.
I read Dix’s book about eight years ago in seminary, and that story has stayed with me, even when so many other things have faded in my memory. I have always had a strong belief that the Eucharist is the one essential act of our corporate worship. When we gather together on Sunday morning we do a lot of good and important things. We offer prayers and sing hymns; we read the Word and hopefully we shine some light on it through the sermon. But the heart of what we do each week is when we come to the table and our Lord is present with us as he promised, in the bread and in the wine.
The men and women of the early Church – and countless Christians all around the world, even to the present day – risked their lives for a bite of bread and a sip of wine because they knew that the Eucharist is who we are as a people. First of all, the very word, eucharist, means to give thanks. We do what Jesus did, we take the bread and the wine and we give thanks. And our action shapes how we live every day. As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, we are becoming people who offer our lives daily as a Eucharist, giving thanks in all things.
Probably the greatest mystery of the Eucharist is that in receiving the bread of life that Jesus offers us, we participate in his death. The people of the ancient church risked death, week after week and year after year, for nothing more than a taste of the bread of Christ’s broken flesh and a sip of his spilled blood. We like to say that we are Easter people, that we glory in the joy of the Resurrection. And that’s true. But it is equally true of us as the disciples of Jesus Christ that we are sharers in his death. As often as we eat the bread and drink the cup, Paul wrote, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. And that means that in celebrating the Eucharist, our lives are being shaped by his cross. We are becoming people who know that it is only in giving up our lives for love of our neighbor that we find our lives. We are becoming people who know that if we lose everything – even our lives – and have Jesus Christ, then we have everything.
But most of all the Eucharist is who we are because our Lord appointed this meal of bread and wine as a sign of his presence with us. We hear all the time how important – and how rare – it is for families to take the time to sit down around the table and share a meal instead of everybody running hither and thither and grabbing fast food on their way. As the family of Jesus Christ, when we meet, we gather together around the table. Our Lord is present with us. And we are truly nourished, because his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink.
The Eucharist is a habit of thankfulness. It is a participation in death. It is family dinner, a time of God’s presence with us, and our presence with one another and with the communion of saints throughout all ages. And for the Christians of the first centuries, that was worth risking their lives for. We may never have to take that risk. But then again, we may.
Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;
Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia.