A sermon preached by Martin Carr for Corpus Christi at St John the Baptist - 7 June 2015
Genesis 14.18-20; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 6.51-58
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said: Do this in remembrance of me
Shakespeare’s King Henry the Fifth said: what have kings, that privates have not too, save ceremony, save general ceremony.
On my bookshelf at home I have a somewhat battered, extremely naff looking statue of St Teresa of Avila. If you hold her next to a bright lamp, then turn the light off, for a few minutes she will glow a rather sickly green before fading. If my house were to be cleared, I doubt even the charity shop would want her. I suppose I must have bought her about 18 years ago in Walsingham or some other centre of religious kitsch. I remember her sitting on the windowsill of my student room in Oxford, enjoying parties with us, and entertaining visitors with her glow-in-the dark abilities. She even has a chip in her base after being thrown from an upper window at a post-exam celebration. Though if others might gaze upon her in bafflement, when I see her, I perceive not a tawdry icon of poor taste, but through her to the memory of events, relationships and experiences which have formed my past.
Think of your own home. Do you have an equivalent of my St Teresa? A picture bought as a child, a holiday souvenir, a gift from a friend, parent or lover?
This ability of a physical memento to evoke memories and feelings from the past and realise them in the present has the nature of what the Christian might call a sacrament. In Protestant churches, two sacraments are recognised, those commanded by our Lord; the first baptism, the second, which we celebrate most especially tonight, the Eucharist. Do this in remembrance of me, said Jesus. A piece of bread, a sip of wine - prefigured in our first reading by the offering of the priest Melchizedek - these become not simply food and drink but transport us in a myriad of emotions to that Upper Room where we meet our Lord, in fellowship, but also in sorrow, knowing that this meal will be his last.
For Catholics and many Anglicans, there are seven sacraments; in addition to baptism and the Eucharist, we add confirmation, ordination, confession, anointing of the sick, and marriage. But as I have already hinted, for those with eyes to perceive, there are not two sacraments, or seven but potentially innumerable such moments where the physical can evoke the spiritual and emotional.
A classic Anglican definition of a sacrament is this: an outward and physical sign of an inner and spiritual grace. One of the exercises I like to do with confirmation candidates is to think through what the physical signs are, and what spiritual realities they convey. To take a simple example, baptism takes place under the physical form of water. But behind this one physicality lie many spiritual truths: the washing away of sin, purification, death and resurrection, new birth. We should not forget that baptism also includes anointing with oil, blessed on Maundy Thursday in the cathedral. The physical sign of oil signifies the chosenness of the believer, the seal of the Spirit, and the claim of Christ. And as we ponder on the meaning of the signs, often further and further levels of meaning can emerge.
In Shakespeare’s play Henry V, the king muses before the battle of Agincourt on what sets a monarch apart from ordinary men or women. I began with this quote: what have kings, that privates have not too, save ceremony, save general ceremony. There is much which could be said about the role of ceremony in human culture, but it is worth noting that ceremony in the Christian religion has much in common with Sacrament. We create and evoke meaning through ritual – the words of our prayers, the sharing of communion, processions, vestments, and so on. None of these things have meaning in themselves, and the Protestants were of course right to call many of the excesses of ritual observance into question. But through ritual, ceremony and sacrament we forge a link between the present and the past, and become open to what is ultimately real.
Tonight is a night for ceremony and sacrament – the sharing of a Passover meal reinterpreted with the startling words, this is my body, this is my blood, a procession to the high altar, a vigil of watch as we adore our incarnate Lord, and finally the bestowal of his blessing on us, manifested in the physicality of his abiding presence. Through these ritual observances we have access to the core truths of the Christian faith, among which are liberation, self-sacrifice, and obedience to one’s vocation. Yet the beauty of a sacrament is that its meaning is never exhausted or proscribed. Though we may celebrate the Eucharist weekly, or perhaps even more often, new meanings and resonances can emerge as we enter more deeply into the act of remembering. This Corpus Christi is not simply a repeat of last year’s, because we bring to this altar the experiences of a year of joy, of pain, and much more, and see those experiences reflected in the mirror of that which is of ultimate significance.
At the first Eucharist, Jesus knew that he faced his end. But instead of giving in to fear or anguish, he calmly did what he had done so many times before. As he sat at supper, did he recall all those previous meals the disciples had shared during his ministry? As he shared bread, did he remember the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, or his teaching that he himself was the bread of life? As he drank wine and shared the cup, did he recall the wine of the wedding feast of Cana, or that he had told his disciples that he was the true vine? Tonight Jesus invites us to share in his remembrance. And so let us, as we participate in these holy mysteries, reflect on those things which are of the greatest significance to us, and bring them to God in prayer. Amen.