30 June 2010

Sermon for Corpus Christi

This is the text from a sermon for Corpus Christi at the Lancaster University Chaplaincy Centre, United Service, 2010. Sorry it's long! 

For an Anglican to be asked to preach at a Roman Catholic Mass on the Feast of Corpus Christi is something that can only happen somewhere like this! I’m honoured to have been asked, even though Father Hugh hadn’t realised what day it was when he asked me to preach.

As this is a united service, and as we all have a different experience of church, I thought it would be worth beginning with some explanation about the fairly Catholic feast day we celebrate today. Corpus Christi is a celebration of the importance and centrality of communion in the church. In some parts of the world, there are bright and boisterous processions of the blessed sacrament, and the day is a big deal! Here in the UK, it tends to be a more sober affair, if it is celebrated at all!

As a Philosophy graduate, I was tempted, for a very brief moment, to deal with some of the nitty gritty theology and philosophy of the eucharist, but common sense got the better of me, and I decided on a different tack.

Communion at Chaplaincy
By the time we leave Lancaster in September, it will be 13 years since I arrived at the university and discovered this rather odd expression of “church” on the campus. It’s very tempting to become acclimatised to Chaplaincy; to begin to think of it as normal. But it really isn’t!

One of the things that marks Lancaster’s Chaplaincy out against other ecumenical church communities is its approach to communion. In many ecumenical settings, communion is avoided at all costs, because it is felt to be a difficult area; a source of dispute and disagreement between the different traditions (and sometimes within individual denominations). At Lancaster, the ‘united service’ is a sign of hope for greater Christian unity, though I acknowledge that for some it is unsatisfactory and clumsy in theological terms. It gives an opportunity for each of us to see another way and a different approach, and it allows our views and opinions about communion to be challenged and refreshed. This has to be a good thing! For all of us. Even if it isn’t always a comfortable experience.

Meals and hospitality
I have a strong memory of A level English Literature classes. We were studying Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and we were asked to brainstorm on some of the key themes in the book. As we got further into the exercise, it became very clear that food was a very significant theme, and it got its own section of the whiteboard with an expanding spider diagram detailing the different references to food we could each recall.

I thought of this occasion when I began to think about writing this sermon. Like Great Expectations, food is a matter of great importance in the bible, and, more specifically, the act of eating together is something which is documented on many occasions, as we heard in our readings this morning. As well as the examples we’ve just heard, there are many famous occasions where Jesus takes time to eat with people: sinners, tax collectors, women with dubious reputations... the list goes on and on! According to one source on the internet, there are over 700 references to eating in the bible, and I can well believe it.

I could go on for some time recalling significant instances of meals in the bible, and my point here is that, just like Great Expectations, this isn’t a coincidence. The presentation of food and the sharing of meals is there for a reason.

Especially in the New Testament, the importance of sharing meals, and of hospitality, is that this is one of Jesus’ key ways of putting people at ease, and relating to them in a very natural way.

When we eat together, we tend not to do so in stony silence! We usually spend our time chatting, recalling common experiences and learning more about our dining companions. If you attend a dinner party with people you don’t know, you would usually hope to have made some new friends by the end of the evening. And so it is with Jesus. By inviting and enabling people to eat together, his primary concern is not with their dietary wellbeing! He’s not checking they’re getting their 5 a day or to see if they’re drinking too much wine! He wants his guests to spend time together, relating to each other and getting to know each other. And he wants to get to know them too! In all of these things, Jesus is setting a perfect example of building community and enacting communion.

In the communion service as we now know it, we are not invited to partake in an act of solitary dietary sustenance. Instead, we are invited to eat together and to share a meal with Jesus, where he enables us to get to know our neighbour and to spend some time building a community.

This is why communion at Chaplaincy has always been so important to me. It has given me a chance to become part of a community with a broader group of people than I could hope to meet in a ‘regular’ parish.

The cultural relevance of communion
Another observation which strikes me as significant here is a specific one about culture. In the Western Church, we get rather hung up on some of the specifics of communion. Whilst I understand and respect the reasons for tradition and customs in the church, perhaps we sometimes get a bit distracted from the most important issues. Let me explain further...

Rural Lancashire, despite the weather, has some striking similarities to the land Jesus occupied 2000 years ago:

We have a very large number of sheep and livestock dotted around our hillsides, and we have a cultural memory that extends back before the invention of quad bikes and tractors to shepherds and a more manual approach to agriculture.

Despite massive changes to the diet of the average Lancastrian, bread is still at the centre. Sandwiches for lunch, toast at breakfast, naan bread with your chicken tikka massala in the evening. Bread is still a staple of our diet as it was when Jesus ate and drank with friends and followers.

So why does any of that matter and what does it have to do with communion? Well it matters when it comes to working out the significance of the bible for us in 21st century Lancashire. The cultural references in the bible relate to a particular place and time, and by chance, they also relate to us today in a very direct way. We’re very fortunate in this respect.

Parables about shepherds and accounts of bread and wine speak directly to our cultural experience. This is great for us, but what about those places where sheep don’t live, where there’s no coastline and no fishermen, or where bread isn’t on the menu because rice is the staple food? How would we relate to the lessons and examples of the bible if we didn’t have some of the common items of culture that we take for granted?

It might seem trivial, but this issue cuts to the core of what we believe about communion.

‘the Lord Jesus took some bread, and thanked God for it and broke it, and he said, “this is my body, which is for you; do this as a memorial of me”’

What Jesus did was to take the everyday items of bread and wine (by the way, it probably wasn’t a vintage bottle of French red! It was more likely a rough and ready home-brew). He took these mundane, everyday items and he blessed them. In the same way he would have done at every meal time. He also said that when we do the same thing, we celebrate his memorial, and those basic elements become transformed somehow, to be for us, his body and his blood.

Jesus took an everyday act with everyday items, and began the sacrament we now know as communion, and which we celebrate today.

When Jesus set this phenomenon in motion, do you think he was hung-up on the specific ingredients of that meal as the template for communion for the next 2000 years? Most parts of the church take very seriously the aim to remain faithful to the particulars of the communion elements – bread and wine – and this goes down to very fine detail about what can and cannot be done! But what meaning, for the communicant, does this carry where bread and wine are not everyday items?

What I’m not saying here is that tradition and doctrine are not important. Of course they are, and I’m quite a traditionalist in many ways. I’m simply saying that we ought to take opportunities like this to explore what communion means in our place and time, and also in other places.

I’d like to teach you a song to which I was introduced a few months ago, and it says much of what I want to say in song. It talks of Jesus as the rice of life, and it comes from Malaysia, where rice is the staple food, and to think of Jesus as rice rather than bread is meaningful.

Teach song - The rice of life

In conclusion, I want to take us back to our gospel reading: ‘Jesus made the crowds welcome and talked to them about the Kingdom of God’. The example Jesus sets for us time and again in the New Testament is that a very real aspect of communion is to be found in people’s kitchens and round their dining tables, with meals, drinks and conversations. This doesn’t undermine the importance of Mass, or Communion, or the Lord’s Supper – however we know it – it simply challenges us to broaden or understanding about what Jesus was getting at when he broke bread and drank wine.

Maybe we need to readdress our approach to food and community on an everyday basis. Maybe we should consider saying grace before our meals if we don’t already. Maybe we should look at Jesus’ example a little more closely as we decide how best to perform our mission as a church.

It’s no coincidence that the fastest growing areas of the church in this country take food an hospitality to heart - I’m thinking of the Alpha model of meals and discussion.

We need to remember that Jesus used his ministry on earth to relate to people and to build communion and community. This is the example that should be at the heart of our lives as individuals and as the church.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure you'd be very good at writing and giving sermons. I would love to hear you preach.