Today's Epistle contains a word both difficult and unfamiliar, in the statement that God “loved us and sent His Son to be the *propitiation* for our sins.” This word propitiation occurs only twice in the NT; the only other occurrence is at 1 John 2:2, which we all know by heart as the last of the “Comfortable Words” (BCP p. 76). Paul uses a slightly different form of the same word at Romans 3:25, “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, by his blood.”
The word propitiate means to placate, to appease, to assuage wrath. Therefore the word has had a rough time with modern liberal religion. It is hard for non-Christians, semi-Christians, or lukewarm Christians to accept the idea that God is truly angry with sin. Modern translations of the Bible have tended to eliminate this word. The RSV replaces it with the more palatable term expiation (which means to drive out sin). Another translation uses the term “atoning sacrifice.” The 1979 Prayer Book has “perfect offering.” Those who reject the correct historic term propitiation cannot seem to find another word they like.
The word propitiation refers unmistakably to an essential Biblical idea, that is the reality of God's wrath. As Paul wrote, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). Or as St John wrote, “he that obeyeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him” (Jno 3:36).
What sort of a god would not be angry with sin? When we reflect on the violence and cruelty of this world, do we kid ourselves into thinking that God can be as indifferent and shallow as we are? When we recall the holocaust of Hitler's era, or give any thought to the holocaust of abortion in our own time, what sort of god could merely blink at this? Such a god would be a false god, an idol invented by modern liberal substitutes for the religion of the Bible.
Our faith never suggests that a vengeful god waits for his creatures to find some way of placating him, appeasing him, or assuaging his wrath. That is a caricature of what the Bible reveals. Such falsehood is a sorry excuse for suppressing a sound Biblical term. Each time this word "propitiation" appears, we are told clearly that the holy angry God Himself takes the initiative in providing the reconciling sacrifice. “He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” “We love Him, for He first loved us.” When we look upon the Cross drenched in the blood of sacrifice, there we see the love of God which subdued His wrath, the love which propitiated for our sins.
Our faith tells us that our Saviour has made perfect satisfaction, has paid the "uttermost farthing" of our penalty, has truly subdued the holy anger which our sin deserves. "There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus."
The name of today's feast is Latin for “the Body of Christ.” Like Holy Cross Day and a couple of other feasts we celebrate in this parish, it is not a Prayer Book holy day. For centuries in Roman Catholic countries, this holy day has been elaborately celebrated with outdoor processions. It is fairly new in Anglican worship but has gradually been making inroads in parishes of every stripe of churchmanship.
For many years your Rector (who likes the Prayer Book just as he finds it) was resistive to such an innovation. But finally it occurred to him that every priest should preach at least one sermon a year on the doctrine of the Real Presence and by the same token every congregation should hear such a sermon. What better way to guarantee this, than through the celebration of a truly Catholic (in the authentic sense of that word) holy day, in which we praise and bless our dear Lord for His wonderful gift of Himself, His very flesh and blood, soul and divinity, in the sacrament of the Altar?
When we reflect on the meaning of those mysterious yet powerful words, “This Is My Body,” there are two opposite errors we must avoid. On the one hand, we might be tempted to interpret these words in a magical or superstitious manner. We might take those words quite literally and forget that the Body and Blood which becomes present are His glorified, transfigured, post-Resurrection Body. On the other hand, we might be tempted to explain Jesus' words away and pretend that this sacrament is “only a symbol” which was intended to “remind” us of His body and blood which are no longer here. There are even those who describe the bread and wine as audio-visual aids to illustrate the sermon!
Of these two opposite errors, the first barely exists today. Hardly anyone takes this sacrament too seriously or too literally. Almost no one shows too much reverence or treats the sacrament as magic. But sad to say, many Christians fail to take Jesus at His Word and to believe His sacramental teaching. “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” What could be plainer than that?
This beautiful feast forces several questions upon us. Do we show proper reverence for the consecrated bread and wine in this sacrament? Do we remember that whenever we are inside the four walls of the church, we are in the presence of Jesus Himself? Do we take advantage of every opportunity to meet Him and feed upon His body and blood? Do we adore Him as truly present in the blessed sacrament?
In the words of Philip Doddridge, in a stanza deleted in our Hymnal:
"Hail, sacred feast which Jesus makes,
Rich banquet of his flesh and blood,
Thrice happy he, who here partakes
That sacred sream, that heavenly food."