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Sermon at the eucharist

Saturday evening, 26 July 2003, Mondo Migliore – Martin Reardon

It was clear in our discussions this morning that many of us here are concerned about two things:
i. the unity of Christ’s Church, and
ii. the possibility of receiving communion together.

These are not new concerns. The pages of the New Tstament have many references to both, and the problems then were very considerable. They presented themselves differently, but were perhsps more difficult than our own.

Jesus came to preach the Kingdom of God to the People of God, the Jews. When a Gentile woman from Tyre and Sidon asked Jesus for help, he replied: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ Nevertheless, when she persisted, ha admired her faith and did what she asked (Matthew 15:24). In the sermon on the mount he told his Jewish hearers: ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfil … Not one jot nor one tittle shall pass from the law until all is accomplished’ (Matthew 5:18).

Christianity began firmly within Judaism, and it seems that some early Jewish Christians expected it to stay there.

But after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and after Pentecost, Peter discovered that God senthis Holy Spirit on Gentiles as well as Jews (Acts 10:45). Paul had a vision on the Damascus road, and it was revealed to Ananias that the Lord would send Paul to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). During the following years Paul pondered this call, and came to the conclusion that God would not want Gentiles to be circumcised and to keep the whole Jewish law. And so he came to the conclusion recorded in the epistle for this week in the Revised Common Lectionary:

‘[Christ Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both [Jews and Gentiles] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two, thus making peace’ (Ephesians 2:4).

We are all familiar with this. It all seems so obvious to us today; but it wasn’t so obvious to everyone in the early church. Far from it. The Jewish Christians did not at first know what to do with Gentile believers (Acts 6:1). Even Paul had the Gentile Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3) so as not to upset Jewish Christians.

Acts records a Council at Jerusalem which tried to settle the matter. Should all Gentiles become Jews and keep the whole law before being baptised as Christians? They analysed the problem. A good Jew could not eat with a Gentile if he suspected that the Gentile or his food was unclean, lest he himself might be contaminated by the contact. And so the Council of Jerusalem settled the matter by asking Gentile Christians to keep those parts of the Jewish law which would render them clean in Jewish eyes, so that Jewish and Gentile Christians could eat together and therefore celebrate eucharist together; but this Council did not make any other demands of Gentile Christians.

The account in Acts 15 sounds all very sensible and amicable. As Ephesians puts it: ‘the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile was broken down.’

But St Paul’s other letters show that it was not always sweetness and luight, and that it took a long time for Jewish Christians to accept Gentiles. Indeed it seems very likely that not all of them did. Even Peter and beloved Barnabas refused on one occasion to eat with Gentile Christians in Antioch lest they offended the Jewish Christians that were with them (Galatians 2:11-14); and Paul said some unmentionable things about some Jewish Christians (Galatians 5:12).

When you think about it, this sharp division between Paul and some Jewish Christians is not so surprising. According to Matthew, Jesus had said that not one jot or tittle should pass from the law until all was fulfilled; that he was not abolishing the law. And here in the epistle to the Ephesians the writer claims that Jesus has ‘abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances’. It is not surprising that some Jewish and Gentile Christians were at enmity with one another and refused to receive communion together; and that this conflict lasted many years.

Thank God for Barnabas and Peter who saw the needs of the Gentile Christians, but also understood the scruples of some Jewish Christians. Thank God for Paul who stuuck to his fundamental beliefs, but was willing to compromise a little when it served the Kingdom. Above all thank God for the risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit who will lead us all into all the truth in the end.

Does it all sound familiar in our own conflict over communion today – between those wgho believe we should share communion now and those who believe we are not yet sufficiently united?

In our modern conflict over communion, let each of us abide by our own conscience, and witness without fear to what we believe; but at the same time let us listen to others in our churches who take a different view, and try to understand and appreciate what is positive in their witness.

That great Anglican bishop, Oliver Tomkins, at first Director and later Moderator of Faith and Order, was once approached by a Roman Catholic priest who was agonising over whe6ther he should receive communion at an Anglican eucharist in a particular situation. Oliver Tomkins said to him: ‘If you do receive communion, you will be witnessing to the unity we have already been given in Christ. If you do not receive, you will be witnessing to the great work of reconciliation that is yet to be achieved – and both are gospel witnesses.’

This modern disagreement over communion may take time to settle, as did the disagreement in the early church. It will call for patience, understanding and love, as well as persistence and integrity.