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Preacher: The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Title of sermon: We are ‘Corpus Christi’
Date/time/service: Thursday 20th June 5.15pm – Corpus Christi
Passage of scripture: 1 Corinthians 11.23-26 & John 6.51-58
Imagine that you have never been in a church before and that you know very little, if anything, about Jesus and the bible. Then, for one reason or another, you end up here, on the Feast of Corpus Christi. You are in awe of the building, amused by the people at the front swanning about in funny clothes and nervous about doing the wrong thing. Then you hear the reading in which Jesus tells his followers that the bread they are to eat is his body and the wine that they drink his blood. That is disturbing enough but then you hear the next reading where Jesus says ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.’ Surely that would be enough to send you running away from here thinking that we are all mad?
We know a little bit of theology. We know that the sacrament of the Eucharist is steeped in layers of meaning to do with the ancient Jewish Passover, the sacrificial death of Jesus on a cross and 2,000 years of reflection and tradition. We know that Jesus promised to be with us when we share bread and wine and that we are sustained on our spiritual journey by this sacred meal. For us, it is the most natural thing in the world to hear these words and to partake of this meal, but for others looking on it must seem crazy and perhaps even evil.
So – what is to be done? Do we stop this peculiar ritual because it is so easily misunderstood? Do we re-invent it with Ribena and crisps to make it seem more ‘relevant’? Do we carry on regardless, arrogantly ignoring those for whom it makes no sense? Or, do we carry on and do all that we can to give what we do some context and to connect what we do with the lives that we lead every day?
Let’s go back to where I started. This time imagine you are you and the one who knows nothing about Jesus and the bible is sitting along the same row as you. Despite the fact that our friend feels that they have stumbled on a weird, cannibalistic cult they haven’t actually run screaming from the building. When the service is over our friend leans over to you and asks, ‘what was all that about?’ What are you going to say? How are you going to respond?
Gone are the days when we can believe that we religious types are the normal ones and what we do in places like this is normal. The balance has tipped, in fact it probably tipped quite a while ago. We are odd and what we do here is odd by most people’s standards. Maybe that is a little harsh, perhaps I should say, to most people we seem odd and to most people, what we do here, must seem very odd indeed.
I preached a sermon here a few years ago about rhubarb. There is an area near Wakefield which is a centre of excellence in the growing of rhubarb. When rhubarb cannot be grown outside in the winter because of the weather, it is grown in forcing sheds in which the environment is tightly controlled, minimal light, just enough water and the rhubarb grows quickly (if you stand quietly in the sheds you can actually hear it growing) and is tender and sweet. Churches can become like those forcing sheds. We can be so consumed in what we are and what we believe, we can control our environment to just suit us so that we can feel great and sometimes actually seem to thrive …. the only problem is that we are not connecting in any way with the real world.
We have to do all that we can not to become a church like those enclosed rhubarb forcing sheds, controlled and only good at one thing. We all need to be able to survive and thrive in a world where we are thought to be deeply peculiar and that means every single one of us thinking things through and being able to respond positively to the visitor who leans over to us at the end of a service like this and asks, ‘what was all that about?’
For what it is worth, if someone came up to me after this service and asked, ‘what was all that about?’ I would start by talking to them about Jesus. In my experience, that is always the best place to start. Today I would talk about our belief that Jesus is God’s son and point out that when he was talking about himself and trying to give people an insight into who he was, he always compared himself to something very ordinary and every day, in today’s gospel he compares himself to bread, in other places he compares himself to a vine, the door of a sheepfold, a good shepherd. These sound odd to us but when he was speaking these were images that everyone would know and understand. The message is that Jesus is not other-worldly, he is not separate and distant from our normal human experience of life, he is part of it, indeed, he is at the heart of ordinary everyday life. And when he wanted to assure his closest friends that he would remain with them, he didn’t give them a strange sophisticated ritual to follow, he again took something simple and everyday, the sharing of food with people that we love, and said, whenever you share bread and wine in memory of me, I will be with you. So, a response to the question, ‘what was all that about?’ after this service, to someone who is totally unchurched, is that it is all about celebrating that the God we believe in is present with us in our ordinary, everyday lives and that the simplest things and simplest experiences are where God is encountered. Yes, we dress things up in church with funny clothes, magnificent buildings, beautiful music and even a dramatic smoke machine, but essentially, what we are doing is rejoicing in God being with us in the simple sharing of food. As the great poet George Herbert might have said – this is all about encountering something of ‘heaven in ordinary’.
As we sit and pray and reflect here in church at services like this on days like this, let us all spend some time preparing ourselves to talk to anyone who might turn to us and ask, ‘what was all that about?’
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