A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity
June 23, 2023 at Holy Communion
“We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
I had a few spare minutes on Friday evening, so I made a better choice than I often do and picked up a book instead of reading the news or watching a show. It was this book, Early Christian Fathers, a collection of some of the earliest Christian documents which are not in the Bible. I read two short works, the second of which was The Teaching of the Apostles, called The Didache.
Among other things, it gives instructions for celebrating the eucharist, and includes this prayer over the bread: “As this piece of bread was scattered over the hills and then brought together and made one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom” (Early Christian Fathers, Touchstone 1996, p 175). If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you recognize it from the Book of Alternative Services, as a sentence for breaking the bread: “Creator of all, you gave us golden fields of wheat, whose many grains we have gathered and made into this one bread. So may your Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom” (p 212).
The bread which we use in the eucharist is a symbol of Christ, and a symbol of us as human beings who are gathered together in Christ. This is possible because bread is a meeting-place between God and man. Why do we use bread at the eucharist? Because bread is human, and bread is divine.
Bread is human because it represents man’s need and his labour. When Adam falls from grace, he is cursed with toil. God promises him that ”by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground” (Genesis 3:19). Bread is Adam’s essential food, the source of his sustenance and joy. But it is also Adam’s essential sorrow that he has to break his back to get his bread. In exaltation and woe, man is bread.
But bread is also a “good and perfect gift, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). Psalm 104 says that God “maketh grass to grow for the cattle, and green herb for the service of men; That he may bring forth food out of the earth, and wine that maketh glad the heart of man; And oil to make him a cheerful countenance, and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (v 14–16). Adam may till the ground, but it is still by God’s blessing that the grain grows. Bread is divine; all bread is bread from heaven.
So bread is a meeting place between God and man. In the Roman Catholic Church, when the priest presents the bread at the altar, he prays, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you; fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.” Bread is the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands: therefore the priest, as a human being, blesses it; and he blesses it in the Name of God the Giver to become spiritual nourishment.
This is what Jesus does in our Gospel reading. First he gathers the bread his disciples have brought with them, for which they laboured. Then he blesses it, and divides it, and it becomes miraculous food for the entire assembly. Then the fragments are gathered back together, so that nothing is lost (see John 6:12).
The acts of dividing and gathering the bread have everything to do with how bread acts as a meeting place between us and God. The comment from the Teaching of the Apostles that got us started says that, even before we break the bread, it is already a sign of the church because we, like grains of wheat, have been gathered together into one loaf.
But more than that, the breaking and dividing of the bread the breaking of Christ’s body for the life of the world. We receive the fragments of Christ’s sacrifice, the crumbs which fall from his table, taking Christ into ourselves and feeding on him by faith.
But far from fragmenting us as we each eat our private share, partaking of one loaf draws us together. The loaf remains one, no matter how many people take a piece and eat. This is what St Paul says about eating from a single loaf: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” We are naturally divided from one another, but we find unity by eating from something that remains one even when it is divided. This is Christ, who remains whole and entire even though we each have our share in his Spirit. You might say that, like the bread for the four thousand, the Spirit of Christ multiplies rather than divides. And, like the seven baskets full of fragments, which replaced the seven loaves which were offered without any loss, we are gathered back together to Christ even after we have each individually eaten, and we remain one loaf.
Being gathered into one body in Christ is the purpose of the Christian faith. As we pray on All Saints Day, God has “knit together his elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of his Son Christ our Lord.” Communion with God is the goal of human life, but for us that life is revealed in Christ, the Way to the Father (John 14:6), and therefore sharing in him as a member of his body is indispensable. There is no Christian life apart from the church. The church is the community of salvation, the one loaf gathered from the hills of the world and blessed as a sign of the coming kingdom. So woe to us if we ever think that we can be saved by a faith which is not lived out in the church!
But living out our faith in the church means much more than coming to services, although it certainly means that. It means living as one body with your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Preachers love to tell people not to be Sunday Christians only. You’ve heard it before. But even if we try to be Christians seven days a week, we might still misunderstand something. It’s not just about trying to live according to the example of Jesus, and it’s not just about trying to make time for prayer. Being a Christian, a member of Christ’s loaf, means living all seven days in lively fellowship with the other members of Christ’s body. The genuineness of your faith is tested by whether you break bread with other Christians. Do you exercise hospitality? Do you share their joys and sorrows? Do you check up on people when they are absent? Do you let your brothers and sisters know when you are having a hard time? We break bread as a church on Sundays to teach us to break bread as a church on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.
A monk, St Silouan, said, “My life is in my neighbour.” Look around you: these are your neighbours, the other fragments of your loaf. Your life is in them.