Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Corpus Christi
June 23, 2014, 6:10 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at St John’s, Bathwick, on Thursday June 19th, 2014 corpus-christi

“He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna… that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.” (Deut 8.4)

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.” (John 6.48ff)

Our Lord was speaking to a crowd familiar with the Scriptures, a fact that puts us (who do not so regularly read our Bibles) at a disadvantage. It was Passover time, and Jesus had led the people out into the wilderness. He had set up a situation in which it was very easy for a Jewish crowd to identify themselves with their ancestors, and to see him as a new Moses, the divinely appointed leader who would fulfil the ancient prophecies and establish the reign of God. They hungered not just for bread, but for freedom- for redemption. The miracle of the loaves confirmed them in their belief, and, “When they saw the sign which he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew.” (John 6.14f) Now, the next day, he speaks to them again in the synagogue at Capernaum, in order to correct and deepen their understanding of what it was all about.

The whole story of Israel is a kind of parable, representing the wider story of the whole human race. The tragedy of humanity is outlined in the first chapters of Genesis. Mankind, made in the image of God, seeks to be God-like in the wrong way, and becomes estranged from the Creator and from the rest of creation. There is even estrangement within humanity itself, nation against nation, individual against individual, and conflict within individuals themselves. How can God put this right? The short answer is: by taking human form himself, and dying on the cross. He re-establishes his sovereignty by first abandoning it, and then regaining it the hard way, by his own suffering and death. No short cuts.

The story of Israel led up to this point, and the tragedy of Israel is that many (especially in the leadership of the nation) failed to recognise this. We too may miss the full meaning if we fail to see the story of Israel as the image of our own story. And the story of Israel does not jump straight from Exodus to Jesus, it is the middle section, full of politics and priests and prophets, of heresies and schisms and muddle of every kind, that most vividly provides us with a mirror in which to see ourselves and the church of today.

If you plough through the Pentateuch- especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy- you will be struck by how much of the old Law was concerned with worship. Israel was supposed to be a worshipping community. The priesthood, and later the kingship, was there to enable the People as a whole to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Israel was, essentially, a sacramental society, and a sacrificial society. At the heart of it was the Temple, the meeting-place of heaven and earth, the place where humanity (focussed in Israel) might express its gratitude to the Creator for all his blessings by offering him the first-fruits; and express its penitence to the Creator for all the ways human beings rebel and disobey: again, by symbolically offering their very life to God.

We are familiar with the idea of ancient peoples, including the Israelites, killing animals and offering the life-blood in worship. We sometimes forget that, in most sacrificial rites, the climax was roasting the meat and sharing it in a feast, a joyful occasion in which, symbolically, God and worshipper feasted together. Also, an equally important offering was that of cereals and fruit, especially in the form of corn and wine and oil. As well as the altar, the Temple contained a gold-plated table, on which fresh loaves of bread were presented every week, the Bread of the Presence, so holy that only the priests were allowed to eat it when it was replaced by the next batch. The offerings of oil supplied the lamp-stand which burnt perpetually.

All these things pointed towards the Sacrifice of Christ; and the fact that the human ministers who served the Temple were often narrow-minded and sinful does not take away the function of the ancient rites. The Letter to the Hebrews (and much else of the New Testament) presupposes the validity of what went before as a foreshadowing of the fulfilment by our Lord.

In the same way, the Church and Sacraments which our Lord instituted also reflect the saving mystery of Christ. It is far too simple to say, as some do, that the old was simply abolished, that the new has nothing in common with it. Old and new ways of worship are images of the one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice of Christ: it is hardly surprising, then, that they have a close resemblance, the one to the other.

In calling himself “the Bread of Life,” our Lord referred back to the manna in the desert and the Bread of the Presence in the Temple; and forward to the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. As manna, he is the Gift of God, coming down to feed the people without any effort of their own, save in gathering it up and receiving it. As Bread of the Presence, he represents the offering of the fruits of human work, baked in the fire of the Passion, set out before God and received by him, and only to be shared by the Priestly People, the Church of God.

The mysteries of the faith are too profound to be expressed in one way only. On this great festival we focus on the sacramental imagery of bread. In the new Rite, the Bread of the Presence takes on as well the function of the Lamb that is slain. The imagery of slaughter and blood has been exhausted in the cross itself, so that we do not now have animal sacrifice; but the abiding presence and reality of our Lord’s self-oblation continues:

Once, only once, and once for all,
His precious life he gave;
Before the Cross in faith we fall,
And own it strong to save.

‘One offering, single and complete,’
With lips and hearts we say;
But what he never can repeat
He shows forth day by day.

The sacrificial lamb represented the once-for-all death of Christ that was to come. The Eucharistic Bread now not only represents but actually is the Christ who has died and has risen and now for ever lives. His death at one historic time is over and done; but the effects of that death continue and are eternal. Day by day, week by week and year by year, those who entrust their lives to Christ recognise him in the breaking of bread, and are fed by him with his own life.

Theology is a risky business, because it is always trying to express realities that are of their nature unique and inexpressible, in the language of generalities. The God we worship is not just one instance of the species “God”; the Incarnation is not just one instance of something God does all the time; the Blessed Sacrament is not just one instance of a set of signs and symbols we call “sacraments”.

When we kneel before the Blessed Sacrament, we acknowledge the real presence of the incarnate Lord among us. None of our senses- sight, taste, smell- help us. As St Thomas wrote,

“Faith alone the true heart waketh
to behold the mystery.”

We believe and trust in the word of the Lord, “My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.”

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded, for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary, as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture- in the Body and the Blood-
He will give to all the faithful his own Self for heavenly Food.

In a few moments time the Mystery will be renewed, in this place and time. The Jesus who, as God, is always with us will be with us, though veiled, in his sacred humanity as well. The God who made us from the dust of the earth and breathed his own life into us, will confirm the value he places on our bodily nature. He took flesh, because the material world is good. It is good that we are body and soul. Our destiny is the resurrection of the body, not simply the immortality of the soul. The Blessed Sacrament is our guarantee of that. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

Let us adore our Lord, who has died and risen for us, and who calls us his friends. Let us praise him and glorify him for ever. Amen.

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