Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Corpus Christi 2017
Start Date 15th Jun 2017 5:00pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

St Luke in the Acts of the Apostles describes the life of the earliest Christians in Jerusalem. 3,000 people were converted on the Day of Pentecost and were baptised. Of them St Luke says, ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ These then are the four essential marks of the life of the Church: the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.

So, what does ‘the breaking of bread’ mean? Is it just eating together, an aspect of Christian fellowship? No. We can only understand this phrase in the light of what St Paul says when writing to the Christians in Corinth, ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’

So, ‘the breaking of bread’ means explicitly sharing in the body of Christ, in the light of what Jesus did and said at the Last Supper, when he took bread and blessed it and gave it to his disciples saying, as we heard in our second reading this evening, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’

From the very earliest time of the Church, from the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the apostles and then on those who were baptised, besides fellowship, and prayer and learning from the teaching of the apostles, the community has met together for the breaking of bread, for what we call Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, or the Mass, or the Lord’s Supper, for what we gather to do this evening.

A remarkable document, a rare survival, called the Didache, which means the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, generally thought to have been compiled towards the end of the first century AD, gives us an idea of how the Eucharist was celebrated at that time, sixty years or so after the Pentecostal outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The text tells us how the community first gave thanks over the Cup, ‘We give thanks to you, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David your child, which, you made known to us through Jesus your child; to you be glory for ever.’ Then concerning the broken Bread was said, ‘We give you thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your Child. To you be glory for ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom, for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.’

After having eaten, the community gave thanks like this, ‘We give thanks, O Holy Father, for your Holy Name which you made to dwell in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality which you made known to us through Jesus your Child. To you be glory for ever.’  Then the community gave thanks for the creation and for all God’s gifts and prayed for the Church, ‘Remember, Lord, your Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in your love, and gather it together in its holiness from the four winds to your kingdom which you have prepared for it.’ The prayer concluded, ‘If any man be holy, let him come! If any man be not, let him repent, Maranatha. Amen.’ Maranatha is Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, and means the Lord is coming.

Earlier this year I had a short sabbatical break and spent some of the time in Rome. I re-visited a church I had first visited some decades ago, near the Colosseum, called San Clemente al Laterano in the via Labicana. The beautiful 12th century church at ground level has some of the furnishings of an earlier church on the same site from the 4th century. It is possible to visit the structure of the 4th century church beneath the 12th century church. But most intriguingly it is also possible to go down further from there to visit structures from the 1st century built after the great Roman fire of AD 64 during the reign of the emperor Nero, which enabled him to re-plan the city of Rome and which, since he blamed the Christians for the fire, led to the persecution of the Church and the martyrdom of St Peter and St Paul.

We may imagine how terrible was the destruction and the loss of life all those years ago in Rome as we contemplate the horror of the fire at Grenfell Tower in north Kensington earlier this week and pray for the victims.

In the Church of San Clemente al Laterano, at the 1st century level, is, across an alleyway from a Mithraic temple, a surviving church building, the first on that site, achieved it seems by joining together several apartments of a mansion block. There, the Christian community would have met to devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. There, they would perhaps have used words very similar to those we have in the Didache as they celebrated the Eucharist.

We know little in detail of their lives. But we do know of their reputation. In those days Christians were a secret rather private community, known of but little understood or respected. Pliny the Younger, pro-consul in Bithynia, wrote to the emperor Trajan for instruction on how far he should pursue and punish Christians. One charge against them was that they were cannibals; another that they were incestuous. These show how seriously they were committed to the celebration of the Eucharist and to loving their brothers and sister in Christ.

Through all the changes and chances of the past two millennia, through the ups and downs of the Church, through persecution, through division, through Reformation, through expansion, through decline and recovery, as slowly but unsurely the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ has spread around the world, the celebration of the Eucharist, the breaking of bread, has been more or less central to the life of the Church, to the life of Christians.

Our Lord commanded us to ‘do this’ in remembrance of him. And, however we have interpreted what it is to do this, the Church has done it and will continue to do it. This evening, we too do this in remembrance of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ and we receive the blessing of his life in ours.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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