“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
(Acts 2:42 ESV)
From the Acts of the Apostles, in NOMINE…
Today, we are taken directly into the heart of the early Church, given a view to the primacy of the Church’s encounter with the risen Christ in the breaking of bread, an encounter that continues to this day. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that after 3,000 souls were added to the number of the Church through baptism on the Day of Pentecost, they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” These four actions of the apostolic Church are not standalone actions, each relates to the other. The Church is Eucharistic because she is founded upon the apostolic teaching, what was delivered to the apostles by Jesus Christ Himself. The Church is devoted to prayer because she is one communion and fellowship, one with the Lord Jesus Christ who is continually devoted to prayer at the right hand of the Father, and in her eucharistic life, devotes herself to prayer for the life of the world. From the earliest days, the part of the liturgy which is explicitly Eucharistic always began with prayer, for the Church and for the world. These Christians, as we do today, understood their role as what Peter calls a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” to be that of a people devoted to prayer. In the same way, the fellowship of the Church depends upon her oneness with her Lord in the Eucharist, and her oneness in the proclamation of the apostolic faith. I could go on and on. The point is that the Church is not at one time merely devoted to teaching, or merely devoted to fellowship, but devoted to all of these actions at once.
The reason for this is nothing more, and absolutely nothing less than her union with the Lord Jesus Christ. The Church is apostolic according to the Lord’s own words “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Meaning - with power, with authority, with a mission to love and save lost humanity. The Church lives out a life that is a life of fellowship, as John puts it, “with the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3) The Church is one body with many members, and she is not a different body than that of Jesus, ascended to the right hand of the Father, but one body with Him, just as man and woman are joined in one flesh, so is Christ with His Bride.
The Church’s Eucharistic life stems from the very life of Jesus,
who in a continual priestly act,
pours out His life as God and Man before the Father,
and who simultaneously through this,
pours out His life for that of the world.
The Eucharist is nothing less than bodily participation in the Body and Blood of Jesus. One can expound upon this mystery, but at the end of the day, this is what the Breaking of Bread is: union with Jesus Christ. Lastly, ancient Christians understood what we often forget, that prayer is made valid in and through Jesus himself. Time and again in Holy Scripture, we are directed to offer our prayers to the Father through Jesus Christ. Paul especially uses this phrase, “through Jesus Christ,” meaning that the instrument, not only of our prayers, but our very salvation is Jesus Christ Himself.
In this season of Easter, we are continually drawn to remember the Lord’s essential unity with His Church, and I must say that much of the dissonance of this particular Eastertide has been the proclamation of the Church’s union with her Lord his death and resurrection through one Baptism, but her union with Him in One Body, One Bread. The Church’s Eucharistic Fellowship can only seem to have suffered during this time in which at this very moment, I am standing as are so many priests of the Church, in a pulpit connected only by the power of the internet. There is a temptation implicit in this to think that this virtual connection has now replaced the Apostles’ fellowship or the Breaking of Bread, and let me say that it is only temporary, and not at all ideal, but it is very hard to see how this has not been a disaster.
To this, I want to reply to myself as much as to you. The first thing to be said is that the Church’s Eucharistic life does not depend upon regular reception of the Eucharist as a first principle. The first principle is not receiving the Eucharist. The first principle is the very identity of Jesus Christ, at the right hand of the Father, the very Word of God who both creates and sustains the created world. It is in the person of Jesus Christ that all of creation subsists, and in the person of Jesus Christ that the Eucharistic life of both the world and the Church subsists. Is it a tragedy that we are in this predicament for a time? Yes! Of course it is! But, the basis upon which the Church rests her Eucharistic life has not faltered - and that is a message we very much need to hear.
In addition to that, I must say that you will note we have not ceased to celebrate the Eucharist at this altar. Many parishes have opted for praying Morning Prayer during this time. They ask: if people cannot receive, then what is the point? To this, I would say first, I will never, as a matter of principle and conscience, deny the Sacrament to communicants in good standing who ask. Not under any circumstances. While our public liturgies have been curtailed, this is a line I am not willing to cross. But, I must say, and will say this: even when only a few people gather at the Church’s altar the whole Church is constituted. That is the point, and it is not because of that gathering, but because of the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the breaking of bread, which does not depend upon the presence of our bodies, but upon His grace and mercy which He has promised.
Those disciples on the road to Emmaus met the Risen Christ in the breaking of bread, but it would be quite false to say that it was only those two. The whole Church meets the Risen Christ every time the Eucharist is celebrated. The Eucharist is the very means by which we can say that even though separated from one another, we are ontologically One Communion and Body, as the Church’s life pours forth from the side of Jesus at the Father’s Right Hand.
I am reminded of Teresa of Avila this morning, who was continually pestered by Satan in her prayers. One day, Satan disguised himself as Jesus. Teresa was not fooled. She looked for the wounds in His body and found none. Just as Thomas looked to the wounds of Jesus for confirmation of His identity, the Church continually looks to Jesus in the Eucharist for confirmation that we are His saints, that we have been bought with a price, that we have been offered a living communion with the Father through Him. Friends, this has not been diminished. You and I are partakers of the divine nature because of what we have become, not through the Eucharist, but through being joined to Jesus Christ as one Body through one Baptism.
So, I want to be clear about this: the Church’s Eucharistic Life is not hampered. What is hampered, and what has been the cause of our sadness, is not only not seeing one another, but not visibly sharing in this sacrament together. With the Wardens, I have outlined the reasons for this temporary alteration to our liturgical life, but I say all of this on this morning so that we can be clear what it is we have sacrificed.
All the while, I want to say that a sacrifice of our normal liturgical life
can be understood to have great power for the Church.
We can actually understand this to be a kind of priestly offering
on behalf of a suffering and dying world,
and we can understand that together.
One of the contemporary idols that has been outed during this time is our idol of radical individualism, which we are tempted to believe even overshadows our duty to uphold the common good. The Christian must see this as little more than a lie, and it is revealed to be such in the Church’s Eucharistic life, in her unity with her Lord. We are not, as members of the Body, individuals as much as we are members of a communion and fellowship, sent into the world together in a saving mission. We do well to remember that freedom, for the Christian, does not consist of doing what we desire, but in doing good. And, as both the apostle Paul and the apostle Peter point out, we are under authority as free people, so that we can do good, and if we suffer for it, then it is not shame, but glory.
That is the good news embedded in what we see in this appearance of the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus: an image of the Lord’s Kingdom glory.