Reading the gospel accounts it is clear that Jesus spent a fair amount of his ministry eating. Whether he’s having private meals with his disciples, picnicking on a hillside with a few thousand listeners, inviting himself or getting himself invited to dinner, or barbecuing fish on a beach, the gospels record a substantial number of mealtime occasions. Clearly there must have been many, many more meals which are not specifically recorded, but which are part of the same pattern.
For Jesus some of these meals were teaching opportunities, occasions to share with his fellow diners a story or parable or some other teaching. But they were more than just this. Quite a few of the meals are in the houses of outcasts — tax collectors, collaborators, the ritually unclean, adulterers, and other sinners. Jesus preached the good news of joy, peace, social justice, freedom from our slaveries; that in God’s kingdom our sins can be forgiven, are forgiven.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray: ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’ (Matthew 6.12, Luke 11.4); and he also taught them: ‘if you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’ (John 20.23). Forgiveness and reconciliation happen when people forgive each other. When other people forgive us for the wrongs we have done to them then we are forgiven; and when we forgive others for the wrongs they have done us, they are forgiven. Jesus, in his life and death, in his teaching and in his actions, lived a life of forgiveness and reconciliation, even at the last, and inspires us to try and emulate that life: living in the kingdom, forgiving and being forgiven. In this way we are reconciled to one another and are at one with God. In God’s kingdom such forgiveness is freely available: all citizens of the kingdom will willingly and freely forgive the people who have wronged them, and no one will bear grudges or hurts. And everyone will be forgiven. (Of course, in God’s kingdom everyone will strive not to do wrong or cause hurt, but that’s another part of the story.)
So when Jesus sat down and ate with outcasts he showed — to everyone who was prepared to see it — how near God’s kingdom was, how it was already here among us. He showed how it was possible to live in God’s kingdom of social justice and reconciliation. Forgiveness was actualized. In the social aspect of sharing a meal together and being prepared to accept one another, to give and to receive forgiveness, to be reconciled to one another: in doing these things we can glimpse the kingdom, and indeed not just glimpse it but enjoy a foretaste — the kingdom in action, right here and now.
And that brings us back to the liturgy. Jesus’s disciples continued to share their meals as an enactment of the justice and peace of the kingdom of God, and in doing so they recognized the continuing presence of Jesus as they broke bread together. This meal continues to this day, whenever Christians gather together and share bread and wine in remembrance of Christ: Christ is present, forgiveness and reconciliation are given and received, the kingdom is brought into existence.
This then is our vision of the Eucharist. It is a vision that the Church sometimes seems to understand only very dimly, perhaps because the Eucharist — and Christianity in general — has become overlaid with so many ideas and practices that add ‘religious’, ‘ceremonial’ and ‘ideological’ complexity. Some of those layers can be helpful, and others may be less so. Here we are concerned primarily with liturgy, and how the kingdom of God is proclaimed and lived through the liturgy. How does the Eucharist exemplify the kingdom? What kinds of practice are useful? What do we need to recover, in our language and our ceremonial? What do we need to preserve, or enhance, what do we need to lessen or jettison? How has the liturgical revision of the last hundred years helped or hindered? Quite likely we shall conclude that there is no single answer, but different emphases in different contexts, with some limits, and suggestions for a range of ‘normal’ usage.
But this is our starting point: the proclamation of the good news and the recognition of the presence of Christ in the shared meal where all are welcome, where the hungry are fed, and where sins are forgiven.
‘Your kingdom come on earth, as in heaven: give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’
illustration by Leigh Hurlock, from Gathering for Worship, Canterbury Press, 2005, 2007; used with permission.