Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


The Prayer of Humble Access
March 18, 2016, 3:13 pm
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A sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, on Passion Sunday, 14 March 2016

Sacred Heart IconThis week the prayer we are looking at is the “Prayer of Humble Access”, the one which begins “We do not presume,” and which we say just before Communion. But before I talk about that, I would like to step back and look at what we might call “the big picture”, the whole landscape of the Christian Faith in which this prayer fits in as one small part.

It was not by accident that the first Easter, the Resurrection of our Lord, coincided with the Jewish Passover. About fifteen hundred years before Jesus, the People of Israel were freed from slavery in the land of Egypt. Two weeks ago we sang with gusto the words, “When Israel was in Egypt’s land… Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land, tell old Pharaoh: Let my people go.” Those words have a resonance today, especially among those here whose own ancestors suffered the indignity and oppression of slavery. Liberation- the Jewish people never forgot the meaning of the Exodus, how it was celebrated with the blood of a lamb, how it marked their journey through the desert to the land promised to their ancestors.

The journey was longer than they expected, because even when they arrived in the Promised Land, their troubles were not over. They fell away from their God, the human kings they trusted in let them down, even the Temple in which they believed God himself dwelt among them was destroyed. They suffered exile, and further oppression, and still hoped for a more complete liberation, a better King, a renewed Temple in The Age to Come.

In the fullness of time, the Messiah came: Jesus of Nazareth. But the deliverance he brought, and the victory he won, was not in the way they expected- in fact it looked more like defeat. He was crucified by the Romans, the mark (as it would have been seen) of a failed Messiah, not a victorious one. It was the Resurrection that proved that God had accepted his self-sacrifice. Because the true victory was not over the Romans, but over Satan, and sin, and death itself. Liberation was not just for one people and nation, but for all humanity.

The night before he suffered, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his friends; but instead of a lamb, he took bread and wine and said, “This is my Body which will be given for you; this is my blood which will be shed for you. Take and eat and drink.” This was to be the way in which his followers would unite themselves with him in his self-offering to God. In the traditional Prayer Book language, after recalling that on the cross our Lord made (by his one oblation of himself once made), “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice and oblation for the sins of the whole world,” we also “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto thee, humbly beseeching thee, that all we who are partakers of this holy Communion may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction.”

It is against this whole background that, as we draw near with faith, we pray: We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son, Jesus Christ and to drink his blood that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us. Amen.

What we are saying, here, is that in coming to the Table of the Lord, we are not relying on ourselves or our own powers and merits, but solely on the wonderful love and mercy of God, shown to us in Christ’s self-sacrifice on our behalf.

We don’t have to do anything ourselves to put ourselves right with God our Father. Jesus has done everything that is necessary. All we have to do is trust him, and follow him. We are weak and sinful, but God’s grace and compassion is far, far greater than our shortcomings. The souls and bodies that we offer and present to God are a pitifully inadequate gift in themselves; but as we unite ourselves with Jesus, with a real desire to become like him, then our souls and bodies are transformed and renewed. (The words don’t mean, by the way, that only our bodies are made clean by Christ’s body, only our souls washed by his blood- that is just the poetic way of speaking. Our whole selves are renewed by the whole self of Jesus.)

We eat and drink: simple human actions that express the truth that our lives are sustained and nourished by Jesus. Just in passing, I’ve been asked to make the point that “drink” does mean drink. In the Church of England we don’t believe in too much restriction on individual devotion. It is of course sufficient, in receiving the Sacrament, to receive under just one kind, in the hands or on the tongue, or to dip the Host into the chalice. But the Bible does speak of “drinking from this cup”, and that is preferable. But ultimately, the individual person must decide.

The whole point of what I am saying, however, is that when we say this beautiful prayer before communion, we are putting ourselves in God’s hands, not trusting in our own strength or virtue, but solely in his loving-kindness. The words “merciful” or “mercy” occur three times in the prayer. This is the Year of Mercy- but we should remember that being merciful does not mean being soft or indulgent. True mercy may involve a degree of strictness- it is not merciful to a drug-addict, for example, to give him the drug he craves. The surgeon may have to cut to remove the tumour. It is God’s very nature to be generous and compassionate. He is not out to punish us for our failings, he wants to heal our wounds. When we eat and drink in remembrance that Christ died for us, he comes to live in us, and we in him.

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