Friday, 16 June 2017

Corpus Christi Sermon

May I speak in the name of the Father. And of the son and of the Holy Spirit Tonight we are celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi, or as the modern lectionary puts it the day of thanksgiving for the institution of holy communion, which personally I think is a bit of a mouthful. A liturgical act involving bread and wine has been part of the church's tradition since its earliest days. We know that the early Christians were referring to the bread and wine as the body and blood. Indeed one of the charges levelled against them by the Romans was that they were cannibals because they claimed to eat the body and blood. Lets face it on the surface it does sound a bit odd, we come to church each week to carry out a strange ritual and then claim that bread and wine have been turned into the body and blood of a dead man, and then we eat it. So what are we actually doing in church every week? Firstly, we are carrying on with a ritual that was begun by the very earliest Christians. It has its roots in the story of the Last Supper, some churches still refer to communion as the Lords supper, but its meaning goes beyond what happened in a room in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. At that first Lords supper, the disciples had no idea of how not just their world, but the whole world was about to be radically changed. Jesus may have been acting a bit odd and saying strange things that they didn't really fully understand, but that was just Jesus. We have the advantage of coming to the sacrament knowing the full story, not just the breaking of bread, but the breaking of the old world order. It is not just a recreation of the last supper, it is a celebration of the death and the resurrection. Within the mass is the very core of our faith, God became man, died and rose again. It should be something that unites all Christians. Yet, it has become something that can be a big marker of division between the denominations. Over the centuries different groups have developed different ways of thinking about the mass, even about what they call it, and about how important it is. To me as an anglo-catholic receiving the Eucharist on a weekly basis is a key foundation to my faith and my relationship with God. It's what I feel gives me the strength to go out into the world each week and try to live my life in God's way. To my Scottish Presbyterian mother in law, it's nice, but she can take it or leave it. If she never receives it again it she says it won't bother her. We also disagree about what it taking place when we celebrate mass, or the Lords supper. For her the bread is just bread and can be fed to the birds or used to make sandwiches afterwards, the grape juice is just grape juice and can be poured down the sink. The catholic tradition in the church takes a rather different view. The bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. Now, at first glance this doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. It still looks and tastes like bread and wine. I am sure if you carried out a scientific analysis, the results would show bread and wine. So how can it be the body and blood? At this point I am tempted by two easy answers, it's a holy mystery we will never understand in this life or it says so in the bible so it must be true. That would be an easy, but I feel unsatisfactory way out. In a time and place where more people are growing up without any knowledge of religious faith and belief being passed on, we need to try and find a way to articulate what it is we do in church and why it is so important, to explain to outsiders the things we say and do that to them might appear slightly weird. This is the point at which I start to think I've set myself an impossible task. However, I will try by looking at the philosophical terms of substance and accident. The substance is fundamentally what a thing is, accidents can be seen as the way things are sensed. So, an example which I hope might make is a bit clearer. I am a person, that is my substance. Nothing I can do will change that. The fact that I have white skin, brown hair and hazel eyes are all accidents. I can change any of those things and whilst the accidents or appearance has changed, the fundamental substance remains the same, I am still a person. So, how does this relate to the bread and wine at the mass? Well, this is where God, as He has a tendency of doing, turns things upside down. Usually it is the accidents, or appearances of things that change but the substance stays the same. At the mass it is argued that the opposite happens, the bread and wine keep their appearance of bread and wine but their substance changes to that of the body and blood. How it happens is indeed a divine mystery, as to why it happens, well, it is a gift from God that can revive and strengthen us when the burdens that we carry feel too heavy, when we look at the world around us and see so much pain and suffering that it seems almost impossible to go on. A sip of wine and a small piece of bread cannot give us the strengthen we need, but the body and blood of Christ can. I hope what I have said makes some sense, but I think the poet John Betjeman managed to say in a few lines what I have tried to say in rather more words tonight. The God who became man in Palestine Lives today in bread and wine. Amen