Psalm 34:1-8, 1 Kings 19: 4-8, Ephesians 4:25 -5:2, John 6: 35, 41-51
If you haven’t already noticed, the gospel readings throughout August are about Jesus as the bread of life. It started a couple of weeks ago with the story of the feeding of the 5000 when 5 loaves of bread were broken and shared.
It is not hard to see this as a story of the Eucharist – a mass gathering of 5000 sharing the same pieces of bread with 12 basketfuls left over.
Breaking and sharing. Sounds fairly undramatic, fairly normal. Well it is, but breaking and sharing is key to the whole of the Eucharist not just the bit towards the end before we receive communion. So let’s take a closer look at this service we share in each week.
The Eucharist is divided into 4 parts – the Gathering, the Word, the meal or Sacrament as it is often called, and the Dismissal. All four parts are about shaping us, forming us into followers of Christ.
I want to us to look particularly at the first part of the service this morning.
The Gathering sounds a fairly obvious title. We come to church, we gather together in order to have a service of worship. But think about this a bit more. We arrive as individuals, having left home with all sorts of other thoughts in our heads – maybe an argument with the children about homework, maybe a half finished discussion about what to do in the afternoon, whatever. We often arrive in body but with our minds elsewhere and the start of the service is about gradually gathering us together into one community. And there is even a prayer for this at the end of this beginning part. It is called the Collect where the Collect is the collecting together of us all.
But in this first part of the service while our thoughts may have been distracted we also recognise something much deeper – our spiritual brokenness. We make confession, we confess our sins. And confessing our sins is about recognising our brokenness. We are broken people and we offer this brokenness to God for healing, making whole, through forgiveness.
Worship is about opening ourselves up to become more Christ-like. This is called Christian formation. A formation which comes about from allowing ourselves to be broken and the broken pieces put back together into a more Christ-like shape – that is, our Christian identity.
So you see, right from the very beginning there is a theme of brokenness and sharing.
And, having gathered together in the Collect, we go on to the next part of the service – the Ministry of the Word.
So let us look at the details of this. We begin with a reading from the OT and/or an epistle. And we also have a psalm. The OT stories are our heritage, they were the scriptures known to Jesus and which shaped his teaching. The psalm is a very ancient song of that faith just like a canticle, such as the Gloria we have just sung together. A canticle is a hymn of the early church. When we sing psalms and canticles we are saying we belong to the same worshipping community that goes back hundreds and thousands of years. And in the case of psalms, we are also remembering the very particular faith heritage of this country, namely, the Book of Common Prayer. I think we can safely say that psalms as sung by King David sounded nothing like Anglican chant!
If the reading is from an epistle – which may be a letter of Paul, Peter, John or James – we are receiving wisdom and advice from a faith leader or teacher who is further ahead on the faith journey than we are. Today’s epistle – a letter to the church community in Ephesus – urges us to be ‘imitators of God’. This is our formation, and our life together is meant to show our family likeness. This is why, to quote Ephesians again, actions of ours that damage our common life: ‘grieve the Holy Spirit’ whose task and goal is to build us into the likeness of the Son, so that we too can love the Father.
Following this reading we have the Gradual hymn. A strange name but Gradual means taking down the steps, down the gradient so, in this way, the Gospel, which comes from on high is often processed down to the people. As it says at the beginning of John’s gospel ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’, the gospel is taken down and read among us.
Then we have the sermon and the sermon is where the readings are broken apart, and hopefully offered in smaller digestible chunks – ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ as it says in a very famous collect from the BCP. Or as in today’s Gospel, the Word, which is John’s description of Jesus, the Word says ‘I am the bread of life’. The bread, the word that is meant to be eaten just as in the OT story where the prophet Ezekiel eats a rolled up scroll of scripture in the public square. An act that Jesus copied in his own way in the synagogue, when he rolled up the scroll of scripture and then began teaching the people. This was what the rabbis were for. Rabbis were teachers whose job was to bring old writings alive in the context of their time and culture, just as the Word, the scriptures, are meant to come alive in our daily lives. In mediaeval times when few people could read, people quite literally immersed themselves in scripture in the acting out of mystery plays. We too are meant to feel as much a part of the story as a mediaeval peasant was part of a mystery play, when the audience walked amongst the cast as the play was performed around them.
And in a way worship is a sort of acting out of a mystery play. It is something in which we all take part, we know the script and we know our parts. Every church building is decorated in its own way with different symbols and these tell a story too.
The sermon is then followed by the Creed. This is meant to symbolise some continuity – the readings may change each week but the Creed remains the same.
But the Creed too is a mighty symbol of brokenness – brokenness within the church ever since the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. When it was first composed the Creed was intended as a magnificent symbol of unity. The early church had grown so fast that Christianity took on a different shape in almost every place it took root. The result was a huge variety of customs, beliefs and practices which the early bishops sought to try and regulate. After much wrangling and bitterness – like we still witness in church synods today – the Nicene Creed was born. It was written in Greek and united the church until somebody translated it into Latin 200 years later. The Eastern Greek-speaking part of the church claimed that the Latin-speaking Western church had changed the meaning of one phrase in a highly significant and unacceptable way. The phrase concerned is known as the filioque clause. In the original, the Holy Spirit comes from God the Father whereas the Latin version added that the Holy Spirit came both from God the Father and from God the Son. The dispute affected the whole understanding of the Trinity. I will leave it there save to say the global church split in two – schism. And, sadly, there have been more schisms since. We are indeed a broken church.
Finally, this section of the liturgy called the Word ends with the intercessions. God speaks to us in scripture and now we speak back to God offering God the brokenness of our world for healing. It is a conversation. We are in our Father’s house and so we are at home.
And for the rest of the service the theme of brokenness and making whole again is repeated. This time quite literally as we hear in the words usually said just before communion when the priest raises the wafer saying ‘we break this bread to share in the body of Christ’ and then holds the broken halves together again as we respond ‘Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’
And finally there is the Dismissal where we are bidden to go out and be Christ in a broken world. Amen Rev Elisabeth Morse