Eucharist: Hearts and Bread

A message on Ministry Sunday

The following is by way of introduction to an instructed Eucharist for Ministry Sunday. We celebrate the Eucharist Sunday by Sunday, often with little thought or awareness of what it means to do so. On Ministry Sunday we celebrate participation in the life of the Christian community at St Martin’s.

On Ministry Sunday it’s timely to ask the question who are we? The answer is we are the Christian people of God.  How do we demonstrate our identity? We do so through our gathering as a people – one body – to participate in the worship of God. Our identity as the Christian people of God in the world flows primarily from our participation in the worship of God! This line is worth repeating.

Our identity as the Christian people of God in the world flows primarily from our participation in the worship of God!

Through worship we become the body of Christ in the world. Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom’s coming by preaching and demonstrating through faith as present time action. Jesus’ work of proclaiming the kingdom’s coming – is the work now entrusted to the life of the Church – the Christian people of God – to carry forward in cooperation with God’s plan for the healing of creation.

Church is the name by which we as the Christian people of God – the body of Christ in the world are known. As the Church, we are engaged in many activities in the wider world. Works of compassion and mercy, speaking words of truth to power, striving through faith as present time action for justice and peace. These are all aspects of our proclamation of the Kingdom of God. However, these activities are not unique to us. The work and action of other service institutions and individual people of good will mirror Christian activity in the world. You don’t have to be a Christian to do good or to work for change. Therefore, the unique source of our identity flows from our participation in worship. All other aspects of our missionary involvement in the world, flow from here.

For Episcopalians, as for other Christians of the Apostolic Tradition of Christianity, the Eucharist – the breaking of bread – is our main act of worship. It is in the Eucharist that we discover our uniqueness as the body of Christ in the world. In the Eucharist we encounter the mystery of God’s presence among and around us. In the Eucharist ordinary things – bread, wine, and water become instruments of transformation. They become the symbols of spiritual food and nourishment.

In our Anglican tradition, we speak of the Real Presence of Christ -the transformation of bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ. This happens, we believe, through the power of the Holy Spirit’s action. While believing this to be so, we are reluctant to offer any explanation of the Holy Spirit’s action. We are not interested in the how of this transformation – only in the why of it.  

Our Anglican theology teaches that the purpose of the Holy Spirit’s transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is the transformation of hearts and minds. Through worship we participate in that process of transformation – fed and nourished by the body and blood of Christ we become the body of Christ in the world.

The main purpose of the Eucharist is not to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ but to change our hearts and minds to become the body of Christ in the world.

In the Eucharist we participate in a divine encounter. Through the liturgy of the Word, we receive and respond to the conversation God is calling us to have rather than the more limited conversation we would prefer to have with ourselves. Through the liturgy of the Table, Christ becomes our spiritual food so that we become the body of Christ in the world.

On ministry Sunday when our focus is on the many aspects of the work that sustains and enriches our community life – equipping us for our work in the world around us – we are reminded that the source of all our ministry flows from our participation in the worship of God through the Eucharist – our supreme act of thanksgiving.

We think of the Eucharist in terms of a series of words, but it’s really a sequence of actions.

The first action is preparation. We invoke the presence of the Holy Trinity. We offer our hearts to be cleansed so that we may more perfectly love God. We sing praise to God in the ancient hymn of the Gloria and we collect the themes for our worship in the collect prayer of the day.

The second action is invitation through reading from holy scripture God invites us as a community to enter into a conversation. Through the readings from scripture our attention is drawn to the themes that concern our relationship with God and with one another.

  • The Old Testament reading and the Psalm give us a picture of the historic struggles between God and his chosen people to remain faithful in relationship together. The New Testament reading offers a perspective on what it means to live the new life in Christ drawn from letters to early Christian communities. The gospel is the most central reading of the three – drawn from the four accounts of Jesus understanding of the kingdom’s coming and proclaimed from the body of the church, .

The third action is response. If the readings constitute God’s invitation to conversation what follows forms our response to what we have heard.

  • In the sermon the preacher contextualizes God’s concerns building a connection between the readings and the congregation’s lived experience in the here and now.
  • The creed continues our response by proclaiming in together what we as the Christian community have always and everywhere believed. The opening words: we believe are misleading. We believe means more than intellectual assent. It means an opening of our hearts God.
  • We don’t need to understand the language of the Creed. The Creed’s function is to protect the timeless articulation of Christian faith not to explain it.
  • The Prayers of the People continue to articulate our response to the conversation God has invited us into.
  • The confession is referred to as a general confession. It’s communal and not individual. We confess as a community our communal failure to mirror the full promise of our God-given humanity. The absolution declares God’s desire to always forgive. It is the authoritative declaration of the Church and therefore words reserved for the authorized representative of priest or bishop.

The actions of preparation, invitation, and response conclude with the sharing of Christ’s Peace between us. The Peace brings the first half of the Eucharist – known as the Ministry of the Word to completion.

We now begin the four-fold actions of the Ministry of the Table: taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing the elements of bread and wine.

We take bread and wine – the offering of the whole congregation. We bless them as the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving is said over the gifts of bread and wine. Although recited by the priest this prayer is the prayer of the whole congregation. Anglican tradition emphasises this by forbidding a priest from celebrating the Eucharist alone without the presence of at least one other person.

We have four official thanksgiving or Eucharistic Prayers, each with a different theological emphasis, but all following the same structure:

  •  The action of blessing begins with recalling the great acts of God in history: the creation of the world, our Calling to be God’s people, our human wandering, and God’s eternal faithfulness; culminating in God’s self-giving as a sign of love for the world. We look forward to the future hope for the fulfillment of all God hath promised to do.
  • In the Words of Institution, the priest takes bread and wine reciting over them the words Jesus used at the Last Supper. The congregation proclaims Jesus’ death and his resurrection as we look with hope for his return at the resurrection of the whole creation.
  • The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving is literally a re-membering as in re assembling time. The past is remembered an anticipation of future promise – collapsing past and future into the present time as we call upon the Holy Spirit to sanctify not only the bread and wine to become the body and blood of Christ but the whole congregation to become the body of Christ in the world.
  • And in the final great AMEN we emphasize the note of crescendo bringing the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving to a close.

Following the great AMEN, the community obeys Jesus’ command to pray using the words of the only prayer he taught his disciples to pray.

The third action is breaking, symbolizing Jesus’ offering of his body to be broken and his blood to be poured out for the life of the world.

Sharing is the final of the four-fold actions. The priest invites us to eat and drink the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood for these are the gifts of God for the people of God. Anglican theology is purposely vague at this point – believing in the real presence of the body and blood of Christ, but also allowing for a more symbolic interpretation as the bread of life, and the cup of salvation. But the emphasis in the invitation is on the people, now sanctified by the Holy Spirit to receive – eat and drink – with faith and heartfelt thanksgiving.

We make a concluding prayer after receiving the gifts of God for the people of God followed by the solemn blessing of the congregation. Now spiritually renewed we are dismissed – the Eucharist is ended. We are commissioned to go out into the world to proclaim and to live out the realities of the Kingdom’s coming.

Our identity as the Christian people of God in the world flows primarily from our participation in the worship of God!

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