At this stage of my life, I find it disturbing to have to preach on Corpus Christi because I can no longer sign up to an orthodox interpretation of the doctrine.
The trouble is that my view of Christianity is changing. As I get older—68 next Wednesday—my view of the world develops. The death of my elder son not yet three years ago causes me to look at many of its teachings in a sceptical, even cynical, light. I am only just beginning to be able to articulate the results of this continuing process.
Added to this, I was not brought up with any kind of sacramental understanding—unless singing hymns in rural Methodist chapels is a sacrament (which it is). The mystery came in my teenage years through what one might call beauty in its widest sense, specifically music and the arts, and since then I have come to the view that there is an infinite number of sacraments, not just two or seven.
To prepare a sermon for Corpus Christi therefore has caused real emotional turmoil, since I vowed when I was ordained that I would never say anything from the pulpit that wasn’t true for me. The Hebrews knew a thing or two when they sited the emotions in the bowels. Mine have been in an uproar.
So what can I say? First, some questions.
What did Jesus think he was doing at the last supper? What was in his mind when he said “this is my body” and “this is my blood”? Did he mean it literally, transubstantiation? Did he mean it metaphorically? Jesus was well capable of speaking metaphorically—we heard in the gospel last Sunday how Jesus was narky with Nicodemus for taking “you must be born again” literally.
You may have been brought up to believe what preachers told you. I certainly was. But pretty soon I came to realise that some of them were stupider than me, so I began to think for myself. I encourage you to do likewise. Unlock your imaginations—imagination is resurrection—and think.
Jesus and his disciples are together for the Passover meal. Jesus says “friends, you know how the powers that be have been after me for a good while now. I’m for the high jump. This is probably the last time we’ll be together, so can I ask that when you share food and drink in the days to come, you remember me and what we’ve done together, so that you can continue the work we started.”
That’s the link that strikes me: the meal is linked to the tasks ahead. In sharing the food and drink Jesus is passing them something. He is passing them responsibility for the message he’s taught them and the lifestyle he’s shown them. He’s asking them, and giving them authority, to pass it on to others. He is letting his disciples see that what he did, they can do. He is telling them by word and symbol that they can become what he has been. And so it is for us.
For me, Holy Communion is not about personal spiritual refreshment—I come wearing my spiritual cosmetics, I receive, I feel better, I go home more holy (whatever that means). That would be Holy Communion as a kind-of sucky-rug, a soother. It’s selfish, it’s all about me, me, me. It’s sanctimonious.
For me, Holy Communion is far from soothing. It’s the real I, the naked I, the I full of anger and frustration and perplexity. But I set aside this I. I receive, and therefore I have a duty to pass on what has been given to me. This is a great responsibility.
In the Eucharistic prayer we hear the Jesus story in a nutshell. At the moment of consecration the entire Divine history is forced, like sand through the narrow hole of an egg timer, into the world by means of you and me who receive. We become Jesus in action: his body, his hands, his feet, his eyes, his ears, his voice.
This is the theology of the incarnation. The Wesley hymn we shall sing in a few minutes is a hymn of the incarnation that talks of exactly this in the most marvellous ways:
- Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made Man;
- He deigns in flesh to appear, widest extremes to join; to bring our vileness near, and make us all divine (vile to Charles Wesley meant ‘of little worth’, not what it means to us);
- And we the life of God shall know;
- His love shall then be fully showed, and man shall all be lost in God.
As we become lost in God, as we approach the Divine, we recognise our responsibility to pass on to others the power of the bread and wine we have received.
In more words of Charles Wesley: “made like him, like him we rise”.
A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with Justin Welby. I said how much I appreciated knowing a certain gentlemen, and he (JW) said how much he did too. He added “he’s a truly godly man”. I said “knickers to that, more importantly he’s human with a good sense of humour”. Justin looked me straight in the eyes and said “it’s the same thing”. And so it is. To be fully human is to be godly. To be fully human is to approach the Divine. That is what Jesus is saying by sharing bread and wine with the twelve—he’s letting them know that they can and should do what he himself has done.
At the Easter vigil mass at Horninglow I said that if you celebrate Easter and then return to a life in which you moan, you belittle others, you spread malicious gossip, you are two-faced, and you stifle initiative, then you are not living the Easter story of new life. You are a hypocrite. My message today is pretty much the same. If you receive Holy Communion and go from church to be negative and malicious, you are a hypocrite.
If you are serious about Holy Communion, you will leave every Mass in order to do all in your power to increase the amount of delight in the world. You will follow in the footsteps of someone who comforted the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable. That is no easy task.
Corpus Christi is a festival of the incarnation, and today it coincides with another such festival—the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth at which fetal John dances in Elizabeth’s uterus at the presence of fetal Jesus in Mary’s.
Corpus Christi is about enabling the whole world to dance to the music of love.