A few days ago I was asked by a member of our church about a few words in our liturgy, namely from the Prayer of Humble Access, that beautiful prayer that begins with the words, “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O Merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies…” The specific words that I was asked about are these: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy 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…” It is significant that these words were removed from the version of this prayer that is found in the 1979 Book of many services that replaced the Book of Common Prayer in that ever decreasing denomination called the Episcopal Church. They were cut out, as were the words “miserable offenders” from the daily Morning and Evening Prayer, despite the excellent apologetic for them provided by C.S. Lewis many years earlier. Those words were removed because modern people are offended by them. The well known Charismatic priest in the Episcopal Church, Terry Fullam, once related the story of a woman who said to him, “I may be a sinner, but I am not a miserable offender.” I remember a man who derided us by claiming that all our religion could produce was “miserable offenders” unlike his Pentecostal church that produced “saints.”
People are offended by the term “miserable offenders” because it tells the truth. We are miserable offenders, and without the grace of God in Jesus Christ we would all be sent to the Hell we so richly deserve. But, this other part they cut out, “…that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood…” offends the modern mind, because the modern mind cannot comprehend- as well I understand and sympathize- how the body could possibly be sinful. After all, the body is just a house, and it is the mind that can reason and incur guilt, so we think. I understand only too well why modern people need to have this part of our prayer explained. Instead of explaining it the Episcopal Church removed it. But, if we do explain these words, these words that we shall be praying within only a few minutes, we will have a new and stronger appreciation for the Gospel, for the Incarnation and for the Blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion which is “generally necessary for salvation.”
First of all, let us consider today’s Gospel. In this Gospel reading we are given a clue about how the body is sinful. We see the Lord raising a dead man to life. Before we go any further, we ought to grasp a very important fact of Christian doctrine. When I was very young, and had only begun to read the Bible as a teen aged Christian (many years ago, somewhere between thirty some years and one hundred years ago), I was struck by the part of St. Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians in which he says: “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept (I Cor. 15:20).” I was wondering how Christ could be “the first fruits of them that slept” because he had on at least three occasions restored dead people to life. He had called Lazarus, the twelve year-old daughter of the synagogue ruler, and this man we read about today, back from death. And, in the Old Testament we read of the one child brought back from the dead by Elijah the prophet, and the child brought back by Elisha the prophet, and the young man restored to life by the bones of Elisha (which provides the biblical justification for relics). So, what did Paul mean by calling our Lord Jesus Christ “the first fruits of them that slept?” Simply this: All of those people who had been brought back from death were brought back into this world that has been contaminated by sin and death, and they had been restored to a life that must end in mortality. They were not risen as creatures who were no longer fallen into sin, and no longer subject to death. All of them did, eventually, find their way back to the grave where they must wait, with us, for “the manifestation of the sons of God.” But “Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God (Romans 6: 9, 10).” The Lord Jesus Christ, after dying for the sins of the whole world- for the sins of each of us, your sins and mine- became the first to enter into the immortal state and the glorified state that awaits us when he comes again in glory. Christ is the first fruits, and when he comes again we shall be the harvest: The general resurrection of the dead on the last day will destroy that last enemy to be destroyed, death. So says the Bible, as we find in St. Paul’s first letter to those in Corinth.
The Law of Moses teaches us that if a man so much as touched the dead body of any person, he was unclean and had to bring his sin offering to be cleansed. But, in the New Covenant that has been established in the blood of Jesus Christ, we see the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, so that even in death the body of a Christian is the dead body of a living person, a seed to be planted that will spring up as a glorified and eternal, indeed, a spiritual body. You can imagine that the soul and spirit of man might be liberated from the body of death to enter into a spiritual existence. But today’s Epistle tells you that God “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us.” And so it is that even the body will be granted immortality and glorification. Our hope and eternal destiny is the sure and certain hope of the resurrection on the last day. You will never be reincarnated, and you will not remain forever a bodiless spirit either. Your eternal hope is to be raised from the dead by the power of God when our Lord Jesus Christ returns in glory, to be patterned forever according to his immortality that he apprehended for us on that first Easter.
The body, as it is now, however, is affected by sin because it will die, and death itself is unclean. Death is not natural at all in the philosophical and theological sense. Death is the consequence of sin, not a good and natural part of God’s creation, but the last enemy of God and man that will be destroyed at Christ’s coming. So, how do we understand those words from our Prayer of Humble Access? “…that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood…” We must think about what we are about to do. After the sermon you will confess that you are a sinner like everybody else. The General Confession is the opposite of the proud Pharisee’s prayer. He thanked God that he was not like other men, like the sinners; that is because he deceived himself. But we will confess the very opposite: We will confess the truth, seeking to be cleansed by God through the Absolution (if we speak with “hearty repentance and true faith”), and so will approach, will draw near to take into ourselves the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember his words:
"Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever (John 6: 54-58).”
By eating this bread and drinking this cup our sinful bodies are made clean by his body, and our souls are washed through his most precious blood of the New Covenant. Springing from his Incarnation, from the Word made flesh, is this sacrament by which we feed on Christ, the Bread of Life, the food of eternal life.
Today’s Gospel demonstrates his power over death, his power to give life, and to do exceeding abundantly, above all that we ask or even think, according to power that worketh in us. When you approach today to receive the Bread of life, to eat his flesh and drink his blood, come with faith that your sinful body of death will be made clean by his risen body of life giving eternal life, and that your soul will be washed through his most precious blood of the new and eternal covenant.
Thanks for the mention of Lewis' "Miserable Offenders", Robert. I hadn't read it before, and enjoyed it. Here's a link to an online version of the short essay:
Miserable Offenders: An Interpretation of Prayer Book Language
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