Preacher Canon Robert Titley
You will have heard of the so-called Trojan Horse controversy, and the allegations that conservative Muslims have taken over the governing bodies of several schools in Birmingham and have been applying a certain reading of Islamic social practices to all their pupils. Ofsted reports have used the word ‘extremist’. This has prompted a debate about practices in other schools that some might see as extremist. Here is a cartoon from Tuesday’s Guardian:
This cartoon tells us something about the Guardian’s neuralgic reaction to Christianity, but it is also a reminder of how something that is second nature to insiders can look most strange when viewed from the outside.
It’s a new version of an old accusation. From the second century onwards, we hear opponents of Christianity portraying the eucharist – this ‘sweet sacrament divine’, as our hymn has just called it – as a kind of cannibalism. In fact, a rather clever and semi-detached member of the congregation in a parish where I once worked said much the same thing to me as recently as 1998. And if you read tonight’s words from John’s gospel – ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’ – you can see where they get impression.
Why, on the night he was betrayed, did Jesus take bread? Just hours before he died, why did Jesus leave us this to remember him? He could have left a book of rules for us to follow – convenient in lots of ways if he had – but he left a meal. He could have left a detailed explanation of why he had to die and what it would accomplish – that would have saved us a lot of trouble – but he left a meal. Why?
It must be because there is something about this act of eating and drinking, of taking food and liquid into yourself and doing it in the company of others, that comes closer than anything else could to expressing what Jesus lived to proclaim and died to make possible. Many things flow from that. Let me mention just two – the way we see the world and the way God changes us.
First, how do we see the world? If this is what defines us, if we are above all a eucharistic community, people who break bread together, it means that we are fundamentally in the hospitality business: we see the purpose of human society as one of conviviality, a vision we have in common with Isaiah and our Jewish brothers a sisters – heaven as a banquet, a shared meal. This means that we see other men and women and children – potentially, at least – as companions – literally, people you share bread with.
I’m not romantic about this – I am not, for instance, a complete pacifist – but Jesus in this meal shows us what is really at stake when we treat others as dispensable: when (for instance) our trade policies treat others in poor places simply as producers for our convenience, or when our attitudes towards the climate treat those yet unborn as irrelevant. We humans are made to sit at table together, and when Jesus broke bread before dying to save the world he made every soul for whom he was to die my companion.
Second, how does God change us? We know now the immense effect that food has on us. But that effect, aside from cases like food poisoning, is not immediate: you can skip a meal and not collapse, you can have the odd binge and not wreck your health. Yet week by week, little by little, what you eat shapes the person you are.
If Jesus, who makes God known to us, is the living bread, then that image points to the way we are likely to know the effects of God in our lives: not, usually, in the sudden transformation, as if a life-saving drug were injected into you, but rather by a gradual yet deep changing that comes when you eat healthily.
It is the daily and weekly diet of feeding on God – the snatched moment to pray or read the Bible, the times when you fail yet again but yet again open your heart to God and say ‘Please help me’ – it is these things that are summed up in what we do here with the bread and wine, it is these things which (if we do them) will gradually ‘feed and train us up for heaven’, and help us to live a life that death can only change, not take away. For ‘the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’
Feed and train us up for heaven from Charles Wesley’s hymn
Author of life divine,
who hast a table spread,
furnished with mystic wine
and everlasting bread,
preserve the life thyself hast given,
and feed and train us up for heaven.
Isaiah’s banquet Isaiah 25.6-9