Thursday, 31 May 2018

'Bearers of Christ the Living Bread to a hungry world' A homily for Corpus Christi

A homily preached at Guildford Cathedral on the Feast of Corpus Christi, 31st May 2018.

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is one of those propitious days when two great celebrations of the Church Year converge. Today is the feast of Corpus Christi, the Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion, which always falls on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.

Today is also the 31 May, on which falls the celebration of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth. The actual celebration of that feast will come tomorrow, it having been bumped a day by Corpus Christi.

So how might the two connect, and each give an insight into the other?

I invite you to picture two images.

Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament at Croydon Minster
The first image for your mind is of the monstrance in which the Consecrated Host is placed for the Eucharistic procession and benediction. It is simply a receptacle – albeit a rather splendid one - that enables us to see and focus upon the intensity of the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist.

The second image is the one printed on the front of your order of service. It is the ancient image known as the Virgin of the Sign. It shows the Blessed Virgin Mary displaying Christ just like a medallion; you could almost say that in that icon Mary is a monstrance, displaying Christ so that people may see and believe.

'Virgin of the Sign' or 'Virgin Orans'
But Mary was more than a receptacle to carry or to display something. As St John’s gospel tells us ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’. God’s full presence dwelt in Mary’s womb, such that from her he receives the very humanity that each one of us shares.

The Word made Flesh dwelt in Mary’s womb: gestating; growing; and being nourished by her body.

Christ, the Living Bread, first knew nourishment from the body of his Mother, receiving her lifeblood through the umbilical cord; now he nourishes his Church through his body and blood, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So for nine months Christ was carried; Christ was hidden.

Whilst hidden in Mary’s womb Christ was nevertheless present. The account of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth makes this clear. Elizabeth greets Mary saying, ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. And John the Baptist - himself still hidden in his mother’s womb – dances for joy before Christ’s presence.

John’s leaping echoes the way in which King David danced and leapt before the Ark of the Covenant, which bore the presence of Yahweh, the LORD, which had preceded the Israelites on the sojourn of the exodus from Egypt. The ark was being brought into Jerusalem and ‘David danced before the LORD with all his might’ (1 Samuel 6.14).

In visiting Elizabeth Mary had out with haste to a Judean town in the hill country bearing Christ up hill and down dale to her cousin’s home (Luke 1.39). Christ in her had been recognised, honoured and adored.

Mary journeyed and tonight we process, as many will around the world, with Christ in our midst and visible in the Blessed Sacrament. The monstrance will be our ark.

Christ, in the Eucharist, will be carried through marble floored churches, across fields, around churchyards, down footpaths beside busy dual carriageways, as one church I know in Leeds will be doing tonight.

In some parts of the world that procession will be accompanied by dancing, some by formal processions, some by rose petals strewn along the way.

God moves and travels with his people, sometimes hidden, and sometimes made manifest and visible.

The challenge of all this is to see how we bear Christ in our lives in a world that oftentimes does not wish to see Christ, cannot see Christ or looks away at Christ’s presence: the world avoids Christ’s gaze.

The challenge of this is for us to see Christ both visible and hidden in the lives of other people.

The challenge for us in this is to be more than walking monstrances - simply receptacles - however splendid or beautiful we are, and to be more after the example of Mary: those who accept Christ into our lives, growing and taking form within us; to be like Mary of the icon, people from whom Christ shines out, with her, our hands lifted in prayer and praise of God. Therein lies human dignity and beauty.

‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Tonight we stretch out our hands to receive afresh the bread of life, the Body of Christ. The presence of the bread of life, hidden and made manifest in our lives, will transform us, help us to grow, open us to God and open to all people.

And then we move: bearers of Christ the Living Bread to a hungry world.

Monday, 21 May 2018

'A new heart I will give you'

A sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral 13th May, 2018, on the launch of the Cathedral's new mission & vision statement & annual meeting.

Ezekiel 36.24-28; Acts 1.15-17, 21-26; John 17.6-19

‘And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.’ Alleluia.
(Ezekiel 36.28b)

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Last Thursday, on the feast of the Ascension of the Lord, we recalled that Jesus Christ ascended into the heavens promising to ‘send power from on high’ upon the embryonic church comprising his mother, Mary, some other women and the eleven disciples.

The Ascension is the hinge moment between the life of Christ incarnate, crucified and risen and the era of the sovereignty of Christ, our King, who reigns in the power of the Holy Spirit – the power from on high - who brings Christ’s presence to us now.

The Ascension begs the question of what life in the ‘power from on high’ – life in the Spirit - looks like without Jesus physically present with us, his disciples.

This era of ‘life in the Spirit’ is not over! We still live equipped by power from on high. What each church has to discover is what that looks like here and now today, and not just in Jerusalem half way through the first century AD.

This time, living in the life in the Spirit, was then and is now always a time of discernment and openness to God’s will; a time of seeking what it means to say personally and corporately, ‘thy will be done’. It throws us to our knees; it opens our hands and hearts in prayer!

This way of discernment asks how particular gifts are nurtured within the church and ministries fulfilled. We see this in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Following the death of Judas a new member of the Twelve is chosen, Matthias, whose feast is tomorrow as it happens. Discernment in action.

This way of discernment opens us up to the searching of the Holy Spirit and seeing God’s movement in our lives, in the Church, and in our world.

So, to what is God calling you and me? It’s a question Canon Paul posed from the pulpit a couple of weeks ago and that we’re all following up now: what is the call and claim of the Good Shepherd upon your life? This is the question of discernment, not just in tasks we might do at church but who we are and how we are as disciples of Jesus Christ.

This time of living in the power from on high is always a time of transformation and re-creation: God’s people constantly being transformed into being God’s people. As St Paul puts it, it’s about being, ‘transformed into the [image of the Lord] from one degree of glory to another’ (2 Corinthians 3.18a).

This transformation is initiated principally on the Day of Pentecost – the day that we will celebrate next Sunday. After all, as St Paul continues to say, ‘this [transformation] comes from the Lord, the Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 3.18b).

Life in the Spirit is a time of growth. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the embryonic church of Mary and the Eleven grew: ‘and day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved’ (Acts 2.47b).

And the growth is seen too in the quality of life of the Church: ‘they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2.42).

Now is the time! Now is the time of discernment, of praying for the gifts of the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit’s fruit will be seen in the life of the Church.

Discernment. Prayer. Transformation. Growth.

These features of the early Church, along with worship, are in the Church’s DNA and we neglect them at our peril.

So, we have been responding to those features in our own context here in Guildford. Over the last few months we have pondered, in an enquiring and appreciative way, what characterises our life here and what we dream it might look like in the years to come.

The discernment has led us to speak of our aspiration, under God, that this Cathedral is a ‘warm-hearted community’. This draws directly from the language of the prophet Ezekiel - through whom God speaks in our first reading - ‘A new heart I will give you, and new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’. (Ezekiel 36.26)

That heart, pumping God’s life around this cathedral and her congregations, is brought us by the Spirit, so that, in Jesus’ Name, we are open to God and open to all; so that we are open to growth and open to transformation.

It is down to each one of us to make that a reality.

And discerning, praying, transforming, growing is a programme for the Christian life and the life of every church community including this one.

This is the challenge: to embrace and adopt - in every aspect of our life as a Cathedral Church community - what it means and what it looks like to be a warm-hearted person and church, what it really means to be open to God and open to all, open to growth and open to transformation.

Life in the Spirit means knowing Jesus Christ. It is what we pray for and appeal to every time we break bread, as we do now: ‘grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit these gifts of bread and wine may be to us his body and his blood’ (Eucharistic Prayer A). Here is the beginning of the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this sermon: what does life in the ‘power from on high’ – life in the Spirit - look like without Jesus physically present with us, his disciples?

It is seen in individual lives and in a community that knows Jesus Christ and makes Christ Jesus known to all. It is in knowing Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit that we share in the life of the Holy Trinity, that communion and fellowship of love.

That is the source of all Christian vision, life and hope. Let us embrace that here with ‘power from on high’.

‘A new heart I will give you,
and new spirit I will put within you;
and I will remove from your body the heart of stone
and give you a heart of flesh’.
(Ezekiel 36.26)