Augustine Sermon 272: on the Nature of the Sacrament of the Eucharist

What you see on God’s altar, you’ve already observed during the night that has now ended. But you’ve heard nothing about just what it might be, or what it might mean, or what great thing it might be said to symbolize. For what you see is simply bread and a cup – this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ’s body, the cup is Christ’s blood. Faith can grasp the fundamentals quickly, succinctly, yet it hungers for a fuller account of the matter. As the prophet says, “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” [Is. 7.9; Septuagint] So you can say to me, “You urged us to believe; now explain, so we can understand.” Inside each of you, thoughts like these are rising: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, we know the source of his flesh; he took it from the virgin Mary. Like any infant, he was nursed and nourished; he grew; became a youngster; suffered persecution from his own people. To the wood he was nailed; on the wood he died; from the wood, his body was taken down and buried. On the third day (as he willed) he rose; he ascended bodily into heaven whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. There he dwells even now, seated at God’s right. So how can bread be his body? And what about the cup? How can it (or what it contains) be his blood?” My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit. So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: “You are the body of Christ, member for member.” [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true! But what role does the bread play? We have no theory of our own to propose here; listen, instead, to what Paul says about this sacrament: “The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body.” [1 Cor. 10.17] Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. “One bread,” he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were “ground.” When you were baptized, you were “leavened.” When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were “baked.” Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread. So too, what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. In the visible object of bread, many grains are gathered into one just as the faithful (so Scripture says) form “a single heart and mind in God” [Acts 4.32]. And thus it is with the wine. Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew. This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated. All who fail to keep the bond of peace after entering this mystery receive not a sacrament that benefits them, but an indictment that condemns them. So let us give God our sincere and deepest gratitude, and, as far as human weakness will permit, let us turn to the Lord with pure hearts. With all our strength, let us seek God’s singular mercy, for then the Divine Goodness will surely hear our prayers. God’s power will drive the Evil One from our acts and thoughts; it will deepen our faith, govern our minds, grant us holy thoughts, and lead us, finally, to share the divine happiness through God’s own son Jesus Christ. Amen!

Trinity Sunday — Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17

As Christians we worship One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: they are not three Gods, but one God. That the three persons of the Trinity are one God is itself a mystery. The mystery of God’s very self: a Trinity of Persons, consubstantial, co-equal and co-eternal. We know God most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who died upon the Cross for our sins, and was raised to New Life at Easter, who sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In Christ God discloses who and what he is, we know Him as someone who pours out LOVE, who is interested in reconciliation. 

We celebrate the Feast of the Holy Trinity today because in 1334 Pope John XXII decided that on the Sunday after Pentecost the Western Church would celebrate the mystery of the Trinity. It was already a popular feast, and had been kept in some form since the triumph of Orthodoxy over the followers of Arius in the 4th century. Nearly two hundred years before the Pope ordered that the feast be kept by the Universal Church, Thomas Becket was consecrated a bishop on this day, and kept the feast. Its popularity in the British Isles is shown by the fact that in the Prayerbook we number the Sundays between now and Advent not ‘after Pentecost’ but ‘after Trinity’. It defines the majority of the liturgical year for us.

This morning, at the very beginning of our service, the following words were said, ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ We said, ‘Amen’ to signify our assent and many Christians make the sign of the Cross as the words are said. At the end of the Eucharist I, as a priest, will pray that God will bless you as I invoke the name of the Trinity and make the sign of the Cross. These words and gestures are not random, or the result of a whim, but are part of our tradition of worship as Christians. This is how we express and declare our faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; through our words and actions. We say these words because they express our faith.These help us to reinforce what we believe and help us to live out our faith.We make the sign of the Cross, the thing that saves us, the centre of our faith.

In this morning’s Gospel we see Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, and after a discussion of baptism, and the new life which God in Christ offers Jesus says, ‘And as Moses lifted up the Serpent in the wilderness so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (Jn 3:14-15 ESV). Jesus refers to an incident in the Book of Numbers: ‘Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.’ (Numbers 21:6-9 ESV) Jesus uses this story to help us to understand His coming Crucifixion. It will save whoever believes in Him, it is the supreme demonstration of HOW MUCH God loves us. The Love of God is such that He gave His only Son ‘that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.’ (Jn 3:16-17 ESV). God does not send Jesus to condemn humanity for its sin, its disobedience, but to save humanity THROUGH LOVE, through selfless, sacrificial, redemptive LOVE: dying for us, bearing the burden of our sin, and reconciling us to God, and each other, making the Kingdom of God a reality, and so that we can have a relationship with God, and each other which is rooted in LOVE, a love which is the very nature of God, how God is. 

The Love of God sees Jesus take flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, preach repentance and the nearness of the Kingdom of God, and die for us on the Cross. Then he rose again, ascended, sent the Holy Spirit to us at Pentecost, and promised to come again as our Judge. Fellowship, or Communion is what the persons of the Trinity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — have between each other, and which we the Church are invited to share, with them and each other. It is the imparting of the grace, the undeserved kindness of God, of a God who dies to give us LIFE with Him forever. In the act of Holy Communion we are fed by Christ with the Body and Blood of Christ, so that we might share in the divine life here on earth, and share it with others.

We can do this because we have been baptised. In this morning’s Gospel Jesus tells Nicodemus, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ (Jn 3:5 ESV) In our baptism we share in Christ’s death and resurrection, we put on Christ, we are clothed with Him, we become part of His Body, the Church. We are re-born, born again. It is how we enter the Church; how we are saved. It defines us as Christians — we are baptised in the name of the God who saves us, and we are His.

Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and others cannot accept the fact that as Christians we say that we do not worship three Gods, but One God. They cannot accept that we believe that the Son is God, not less than the Father, likewise the Holy Spirit, and yet there are not three Gods but one God. These are not manifestations, but persons which share the same divine essence and yet they are distinct. The Father uncreated; the Son begotten; the Spirit proceeding. It is why we stand up and state our beliefs when we worship God. It matters. We do it regardless of the cost. Simply believing the Christian faith and declaring it publicly can lead to imprisonment or death in some countries around the world today. It is a serious business being a Christian, and wonderful, because we follow a God who shows that His very nature is LOVE. We are filled with that love, and share it with others.

Our faith matters. It can change lives. It can change the world, one soul at a time. It isn’t simply a private concern, something to be brought out for an hour on a Sunday morning and then hid away politely. It is the most important thing there is. It is something to fill us with joy. It is something that we should share with others, so that they might believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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An Easter Homily ascribed to John Chrysostom [PG 59:721-4]

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Εἴ τις εὐσεβὴς καὶ φιλόθεος, ἀπολαυέτω τῆς καλῆς ταύτης πανηγύρεως· εἴ τις δοῦλος εὐγνώμων, εἰσελθέτω χαίρων εἰς τὴν χαρὰν τοῦ Κυρίου αὐτοῦ· εἴ τις ἔκαμενηστεύων, ἀπολαβέτω νῦν τὸ δηνάριον· εἴ τις ἀπὸ πρώτης ὥρας εἰργάσατο, δεχέσθω σήμερον τὸ δίκαιον ὄφλημα· εἴ τις μετὰ τὴν τρίτην ἦλθεν, εὐχαριστῶν ἑορτάσῃ· εἴ τις μετὰ τὴν ἕκτην ἔφθασε, μηδὲν ἀμφιβαλλέτω· καὶ γὰρ οὐδὲν ζημιοῦται· εἴ τις ὑστέρησεν εἰς τὴν ἐννάτην, προσελθέτω μηδὲν ἐνδοιάζων· εἴ τις εἰς μόνην ἔφθασε τὴν ἑνδεκάτην, μὴ φοβηθῇ τὴν βραδυτῆτα. Φιλότιμος γὰρ ὢν ὁ Δεσπότης δέχεται τὸν ἔσχατον, καθάπερ καὶ τὸν πρῶτον· ἀναπαύει τὸν τῆς ἑνδεκάτης,ὡς τὸν ἐργασάμενον ἀπὸ τῆς πρώτης· καὶ τὸν ὕστερον ἐλεεῖ, καὶ τὸν πρῶτον θεραπεύει· κἀκείνῳ δίδωσι, καὶ τούτῳ χαρίζεται. Καὶ τὴν πρᾶξιν τιμᾷ, καὶ τὴν πρόθεσιν ἐπαινεῖ. Οὐκοῦν εἰσέλθητε πάντες εἰς τὴν χαρὰν τοῦ Κυρίου ἡμῶν, καὶ πρῶτοι καὶ δεύτεροι τὸν μισθὸν ἀπολάβετε, πλούσιοι καὶ πένητες μετὰ ἀλλήλων χορεύσατε, ἐγκρατεῖς καὶ ῥᾴθυμοι τὴν ἡμέραν τιμήσατε, νηστεύσαντες καὶ μὴ νηστεύσαντες εὐφράνθητε σήμερον. Ἡ τράπεζα γέμει, τρυφήσατε πάντες· ὁ μόσχος πολὺς, μηδεὶς ἐξέλθοι πεινῶν. Πάντες ἀπολαύσατε τοῦ πλούτου τῆς χρηστότητος. Μηδεὶς θρηνείτω πενίαν· ἐφάνη γὰρ ἡ κοινὴ βασιλεία· μηδεὶς ὀδυρέσθω τὰ πταίσματα· συγγνώμη γὰρ ἐκ τοῦ τάφου ἀνέτειλε· μηδεὶς φοβείσθω τὸν θάνατον· ἠλευθέρωσε γὰρ ἡμᾶς ὁ τοῦ Σωτῆρος θάνατος· ἔσβεσεν αὐτὸν ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ κατεχόμενος· ἐκόλασε τὸν ᾅδην κατελθὼν εἰς τὸν ᾅδην· ἐπίκρανεν αὐτὸν γευσάμενον τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ. Καὶ τοῦτο προλαβὼν Ἡσαΐας ἐβόησεν· Ὁ ᾅδης, φησὶν, ἐπικράνθη. Συναντήσας σοι κάτω ἐπικράνθη· καὶ γὰρ καθῃρέθη· ἐπικράνθη· καὶ γὰρ ἐνεπαίχθη. Ἔλαβε σῶμα, καὶ Θεῷ περιέτυχεν· ἔλαβε γῆν, καὶ συνήντησεν οὐρανῷ· ἔλαβεν ὅπερ ἔβλεπε, καὶ πέπτωκεν ὅθεν οὐκ ἔβλεπε. Ποῦ σου, θάνατε, τὸ κέντρον; ποῦ σου, ᾅδη, τὸ νῖκος; Ἀνέστη Χριστὸς, καὶ σὺ καταβέβλησαι· ἀνέστη Χριστὸς, καὶ πεπτώκασι δαίμονες· ἀνέστη Χριστὸς, καὶ χαίρουσιν ἄγγελοι· ἀνέστη Χριστὸς, καὶ νεκρὸς οὐδεὶς ἐπὶ μνήματος. Χριστὸς γὰρ ἐγερθεὶς ἐκ νεκρῶν, ἀπαρχὴ τῶν κεκοιμημένων ἐγένετο· αὐτῷ ἡ δόξα καὶ τὸ κράτος εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων. Ἀμήν.  
If anyone is a devout lover of God, let them rejoice in this beautiful radiant feast. If anyone is a faithful servant, let them gladly enter into the joy of their Lord. If any are wearied with fasting, let them now reap their reward. If any have laboured since the first hour, let them receive today their just reward. If any have come after the third hour, let them celebrate the feast with thankfulness. If any have arrived after the sixth hour, let them not doubt, for they will sustain no loss. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let them not hesitate but draw near. If any have arrived at the eleventh hour, let them not fear their lateness. For the Master is gracious and welcomes the last no less than the first. He gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour just as kindly as those who have laboured since the first hour. The first he fills to overflowing: on the last he has compassion. To the one he grants his favour, to the other pardon. He does not look only at the work: he looks into the intention of the heart. Enter then, all of you, into the joy of your Master. First and Last, receive alike your reward. Rich and poor dance together. You who have fasted and you who have not, rejoice today. The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it. The fatted calf is served: let no-one go away hungry. Come all of you, share in the banquet of faith: draw on the wealth of his mercy. Let no-one lament their poverty; for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no-one weep for their sins; for the light of the forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no-one fear death; for the death of the Saviour has set us free. He has destroyed death by undergoing hell. He has despoiled hell by descending into hell. Hell was filled with bitterness when it tasted his flesh, as Isaiah foretold: ‘Hell was filled with bitterness when it met you face-to-face below’ – filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing; filled with bitterness, for it was mocked; filled with bitterness, for it was overthrown; filled with bitterness, for it was destroyed; filled with bitterness, for it was put in chains. It received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven. It received what it saw, and was overpowered by what it did not see. O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns in freedom. Christ is risen, and the grave is emptied of the dead. For Christ being raised from the dead has become the first-fruits of those who sleep. To him be glory and dominion to the ages of ages. Amen.

A thought for the day from St Athanasius

Like many people I have found the images in CharlieHebdo which mock religion, and in particular Christianity, somewhat difficult and troubling. The following words of St Athanasius are, however, both a help and a comfort:

Come now, blessed one and true lover of Christ, let us, with the faith of our religion relate things concerning the Incarnation of the Word and expound his divine manifestation to us which the Jews slander and the Greeks mock, but which we ourselves venerate, so that all the more from his apparent degradation, you may have even greater and fuller piety towards him, for the more he is mocked by unbelievers by so much he provides a greater witness of his divinity, because what human beings cannot understand as impossible, these he shows to be possible (cf. Mt 19:26), and what human beings mock as unseemly, these he renders fitting by his own goodnessand what human beings through sophistry laugh at as merely humanthese by his power he shows to be divine, overturning the illusion of idols by his own apparent degradation through the crossinvisibly persuading those who mock and disbelieve to recognise his divinity and his power.

Athanasius de Incarnatione Dei Verbi 1
tr. J. Behr (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press : 2011)

The Power of the Cross

Judgement would hold nothing but terror for us if we had no sure hope of forgiveness. And the gift of forgiveness itself is implicit in God’s and people’s love. Yet it is not enough to be granted forgiveness, we must be prepared to accept it. We must consent to be forgiven by an act of daring faith and generous hope, welcome the gift humbly, as a miracle which love alone, love human and divine, can work, and forever be grateful for its gratuity, its restoring, healing, reintegrating power. We must never confuse forgiving with forgetting, or imagine that these two things go together. Not only do they not belong together, they are mutually exclusive. To wipe out the past has little to do with constructive, imaginative, fruitful forgiveness; the only thing that must go, be erased from the past, is its venom; the bitterness, the resentment, the estrangement; but not the memory. 
How do we live as a Church? How do we live out our faith in lives in an authentic and authoritative way? These are questions which trouble us in the Church, and so they should, for they lie at the heart of what it is to be a Christian, to follow Jesus; and they help us to understand that how we live our lives affects how we proclaim the Good News, the saving truth of Jesus Christ to the world and for the world.
It goes without saying that we, as human beings sin, we say and think and do things which estrange us from each other and from God. Recognising this is part of one might like to term Spiritual Maturity – recognising that we miss the mark, and fall short of what God wants us to be. If this was all that there was then we could quite rightly wallow in a pit of misery and regret, out of which we could never climb by our own efforts.
Thankfully the solution can be found encapsulated in this morning’s Gospel: Peter asks Our Lord how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him – seven? Jesus reply, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’ looks back to the establishment of the jubilee year in Leviticus 25:8 – ‘You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years.’ The jubilee of the Old Covenant is made real in Jesus – here is the forgiveness and the renewal for which Israel longs. It is radical, and powerful, and can transform us, and the world.
Jesus explains his message of forgiveness with the use of a parable, that of the dishonest servant: he owes a debt which he cannot pay, and begs for the chance to try. Yet, when faced with a debtor of his won, he fails to exhibit the mercy, the kindness which has been shown to him. For this he is rightly and justly punished, to show us who hear the parable that as we beg God to forgive our sins, so we need to forgive the sins of others.
It really is that simple, it is why when Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray he says ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. As Christians this is how we pray, but these cannot simply be words that we say with our lips, they need rather to be actions in our lives – we need to live out the forgiveness which we have received. Thus the Kingdom of God is a place where God’s healing love can be poured out upon the world – to restore our human nature, to heal our wounds, and to build us up in love, for our own sake, and for the sake of the Kingdom.
We see this forgiveness in Paul’s Letter to the Romans – here are people learning not to judge others, learning to live as people of love, freed from all that hinders our common life together. If we consider for a second the fact that for three centuries Christians were persecuted for their faith – they were sentenced to death for preferring Christ to the ways of the world, and yet they were not angry, but rather lived out the love and the forgiveness which they had received, it was this powerful witness which brought others to believe and follow Christ.
We have to follow their example and try to live authentic lives together, forgiving each other, and living in love – putting aside the petty rivalries, the squabbles, the slights, all the little everyday annoyances. For how can we ask God for forgiveness and not be ready, willing and able to show the same forgiveness to our brothers and sisters? We would be hypocrites: more to be pitied than blamed for failing to grasp the fact the heart of the Gospel is love, and failing to live this truth out in our lives.
That is why we celebrate the Cross of Christ – the simple fact that for love of us Jesus bore the weight of our sins upon himself, and suffered and died for us, to show that there was no length to which God would not go to demonstrate once and for all what love and forgiveness truly mean. It is our only hope, the one thing that can save us from ourselves, from that which divides, and wounds, which separates from each other and from God.

It may seem utterly ridiculous that the Gospel promises unlimited forgiveness to the penitent, but how can we learn to forgive others without first coming to terms with the fact that we are forgiven. The slate is wiped clean, but this does not mean we can sit back and say ‘I’m alright Jack’ – we cannot be complacent, instead we are humble knowing that we rely upon God for dealing with things. Sin matters, it matters so much that Christ died for it, and rose again, to show us that as the Church we are to have new life in him. The Kingdom is here, now, amongst us – it is up to us to live it, as a community of truth and reconciliation, showing that same costly love which our Lord exhibits upon the Cross, and proclaiming that same truth to the world.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh on Forgiveness

Judgement would hold nothing but terror for us if we had no sure hope of forgiveness. And the gift of forgiveness itself is implicit in God’s and people’s love. Yet it is not enough to be granted forgiveness, we must be prepared to accept it. We must consent to be forgiven by an act of daring faith and generous hope, welcome the gift humbly, as a miracle which love alone, love human and divine, can work, and forever be grateful for its gratuity, its restoring, healing, reintegrating power. We must never confuse forgiving with forgetting, or imagine that these  two things go together. Not only do they not belong together, they are mutually exclusive. To wipe out the past has little to do with constructive, imaginative, fruitful forgiveness; the only thing that must go, be erased from the past, is its venom; the bitterness, the resentment, the estrangement; but not the memory.