‘Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Matthew 26:26
Broke, broken, brokenness. Jesus offers his broken body for the people whom he loves. Brokenness is what Jesus offers and brokenness is what he seeks in those who want to be his followers. Jesus could not speak much more plainly than he does in Saint Matthew Chapter 16 Verse 24, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”.
Jesus knows that brokenness is not going to be a popular option; he knows that the cross will be a symbol and an event that were not respectable. The Cross is not nice; in fact, when we think about it, it’s scandalous and it’s horrible. This is the very point that Saint Paul was trying to make when he wrote to the Christians at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:23), “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles .”
The word we translate as ‘stumbling block’ also translates as ‘scandal’. Christians in the first centuries were not troubled by being scandalous. They were on the edge of society. Around 85 AD, a prayer cursing Christians was introduced to the daily prayers of the synagogues, and the Christians were pushed out. No longer enjoying the protection of being part of a semi-official religion tolerated by the Roman Empire, they became a radical and underground group. They faced a series of persecutions because of their refusal to deny Jesus, but the Christian Gospel was so strong that no persecution was ever going to be successful.
By the time of the emperor Constantine at the beginning of the Fourth Century, Christianity was well-established. Constantine’s conversion in 313 AD and the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire was a recognition of the reality that already existed; that Christianity had become dominant. Christianity became the religion of the powerful and the respectable. They did not wish to be reminded of the scandalous roots of their faith; they certainly did not want to be broken, they wanted power and wealth.
By the time of the Crusades, the Cross had become not an emblem of suffering and shame, but of dominance and power; to Moslems in the Holy Land it was a symbol of aggression and merciless violence.
Christians forgot that word ‘broke’; they forgot the roots of their faith; they forgot the Jesus who was an outcast and a reject and whose death was a scandal; they forgot the faith that Saint Paul proclaimed that was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”.
Christendom became the order of things, Church and state seamlessly together. Even when the Reformation took place in Europe, a Catholic Christendom was simply replaced by a Protestant Christendom. The Church was about power and influence and respectability, it was not about a Galilean carpenter hanging on a Cross. We have continued in that vein, being respectable and accommodating ourselves to the powers of the state in order that we retain our influence.
It is extraordinary that the church around the world has celebrated the Holy Communion down through the centuries and has, for the most part, managed to ignore that word ’broke’, ignored Jesus’ words that those who say they are his friends should follow his example.
If we look at the history of church in recent centuries: once church attendance ceases to be obligatory, then the first people to disappear from the pews are the poor people and the working class people. In England, the decline of the church was said to date from the Second World War, or perhaps the First World War, but look back to the Eighteenth Century and the Wesleys and other evangelists were speaking to thousands who never attended church. In Ireland, because of our different history, churches held on to their membership until much more recently, but if one goes to the cities, the lowest level of attendance is invariably in the poorest areas; the highest, in the affluent suburbs.
If we want to look at how the church might rebuild, we must look at that word ‘broke’; look at how claiming to be a follower of Jesus means making sacrifices and serving others. There are two processes that have taken us further and further from brokenness, from being people who are here to serve others.
Churches became ‘gentrified’, dominated by those who were better off and better educated, and the whole life and worship of the church was shaped by people whose ways and ideas were very different from those of ordinary, working people. This is not a criticism, people have their own ways of thinking and doing things and it was easy for those who were more literate, more articulate, to shape things the way that they wanted them.
If we look at church worship and language now, it is quite intellectual. There are generations of people for whom the sort of words used in church services have little or no meaning. Church and people have grown apart.
The professionalization of church leaders went along with the gentrification of the church. Clergy became a separate caste of people—the priest the doctor and the schoolmaster were the leading members of many local communities. Where was the brokenness of Jesus in that process? In the Anglican tradition, where was there brokenness in demanding tithes from people who had no connection with our church? Where was the brokenness in the fine glebe houses when the majority of the population were living in very humble circumstances?
The ‘professionalization’ has now reached the point where some clergy regard themselves as having office hours, leaving the answering machine to deal with later calls. Where is the example of the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his flock, in an attitude that leaves the flock to fend for itself after six in the evening?
Each time we celebrate the Holy Communion, each time we break the bread, it is a reminder of Jesus’ brokenness for us, a reminder that he calls us to brokenness, he calls us to follow him.
Visiting Africa, amongst the madness of much of church life there, where churches are built in imitation of medieval Europe and clergy dress in outfits designed for colder climes; amongst the wrong examples learned from the West; there is a genuine saintliness in many, many communities. There is the church sharing in the brokenness of the life of the people. When they break bread there, they understand what it is that Jesus is saying.
Broke—that single word from the Communion prayer should be a weekly reminder to us about what it really means to be a Christian; a weekly challenge to us about how we live our lives to serve other people. Ignore it and the church will die because it will have nothing to do with Jesus.