Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 18th June 2017: The Feast of Corpus Christi
Readings: Genesis 14: 18 – 20; 1 Corinthians 11: 23 – 26; John 6: 51 – 58
Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.
If the eucharist matters to us, then today matters. If the eucharist is this gift beyond price, if it speaks, as the hymn says, of ‘God’s presence and his very self’, if it is at the heart of celebrating God’s love, if our Gospel speaks the truth when it says ‘the one who eats this bread will live for ever’, then Corpus Christi is a most precious day.
The important thing on this day is not to talk about the eucharist but to offer it. We meet, as we always do, as the people of God at the altar of God: we are the body of Christ receiving the body and blood of Christ: holy things for the holy common people of God. Today isn’t different from any other day of the year: today, as every day, we do what others have done for centuries before us and will do long after we are gone. It is not our eucharist and not the church’s eucharist. It is God’s eucharist, God’s feast, God’s gift to his world. Here at the altar we enter into the everlasting movement of his love towards us and all creation. And we in turn are part of creation’s response of gratitude that we are loved like this. Thankfulness is what the word eucharist means.
Today’s feast is simply a day that we are invited to be more conscious of this. Our awareness of what we are participating in is heightened; our feeling for the eternal dimension of the eucharist is made more explicit. We are doing what we always do with bread and wine, because it is what Jesus commanded us to do. But today there is a special sense that we plead before God the everlasting sacrifice of his dear Son; and that we offer it not only on our own behalf but for others, whether far off and near, living and departed. We know that in this sacrament we touch a presence that is both universal and particular. In the crucified and risen Christ shown to us in this life-changing way, we touch what belongs to all of time and every place. In ordinary things transformed and given back to us in a new way we glimpse the ultimate renewal of creation when God’s purposes are complete. But we also touch what belongs to us personally and intimately. John Wesley called the Eucharist a ‘converting ordinance’. It warms our hearts with the presence of Christ and gathers the fragments of our broken lives like bread scattered on the hillsides in renewed faith.
So Corpus Christi affirms us in the catholic instinct that is in the blood of every Christian, that the most profound words we can ever utter are the words ‘thank you’. Once we grasp this, we see life in a new way, a eucharistic way. The transformation of broken bread and poured out wine into heavenly food and drink becomes a symbol of renewed attitudes within us. G.K. Chesterton put it like this.
You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the play and the opera, and grace before the concert and the pantomime, and grace before I open the book, and grace before sketching and painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip pen in the ink.
And, I want to add, before I face the poor, the deprived, the people of Grenfell Tower, my suffering brother or sister in whom the image of Christ is most to be honoured. I am saying that the eucharistic food with which we are nourished changes me into someone capable of forgetting my own needs for a moment in order to find a spark of generosity that will feed and nourish those who cry out for their daily bread. The eucharist makes me Alter Christus, another Christ to my neighbour: I am to be Christ towards everyone, especially those most in need. Bishop Frank Weston was an Anglo-Catholic Bishop of Zanzibar and in a great Congress of Catholic Anglicans almost a century ago that beautiful liturgy, splendid music and all the dressing up that goes on in church (and I don’t just mean the clothes we wear to worship, I should add), Weston said these words which we should remind ourselves of if we are ever tempted to make beauty and ritual and end in themselves. He said:
You have got your Mass, you have got your Altar, you have begun to get your Tabernacle. Now go out into the highways and hedges, where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.
The Russian thinker Berdyaev said this, ‘Bread for myself is a material matter but bread for my neighbour is a spiritual matter.’ Corpus Christi has as its focus not only how God feeds us but how we feed others in the name of the One who speaks of himself as the Living Bread. Alan Ecclestone said: ‘What matters for praying is what we do next.’ What we do next, what we do when we have been nourished at this altar and go back across the church threshold into our ordinary days: that is the test of how far this eucharistic way is becoming a habit of the heart. What we do next is the test of how far we are being nourished by this living bread so that it becomes not only bread for ourselves but bread for our neighbour. This is what it means truly to become the body of Christ in the world, to become Corpus Christi.