John 6: Incarnation

Sunday 26th August 2012
Year B, The Twelth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
John 6:56-69

When God handed out 'his' abundant gifts at the beginning of time, I didn't receive the gift of sleep and so,  in the middle of a fateful night, I was listening to a BBC World Service re-broadcast of a Proms Brahms Symphony. When it finished there was a news flash that Princess Diana had been killed in Paris and my immediate reaction was: "That is convenient for a lot of people, particularly if she was pregnant." You see, I don't believe in coincidence. It may be notionally true that the proverbial monkey with the word processor could produce a Shakespeare play but I haven't seen such yet and don't expect to; the likelihood of the sum of all possibilities occurring is a theoretical construct but, as we often ignore at our cost, the key concept in predictability is probability, not possibility.

And this is why I am strongly inclined  to the view that it is no coincidence that the witness of an Incarnational Church centres on the Eucharist or, to put it another way, there is something pleasingly elegant (even isomorphic) about God made flesh in Jesus and the  flesh and blood of Jesus being  with us in the form of bread and wine in the Eucharist.

And how can one be more incredible or less credible than the other? Is it really possible to believe in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ but doubt Christ's presence in the Eucharist? Well, yes, some Christians have tried that route and come to grief, notably in the German churches which adopted what we call a 'liberal;' approach to Christianity. Impressed by the 18th Century 'enlightenment', by the new learning, and also to some extent influenced by the Romantic movement which began at the end of the 18th Century, many in the German Lutheran church saw the purpose of Jesus to be that of the enlightened teacher, the 'historic Jesus' as he came to be called, standing for liberal values. And then, when the Nazi crunch came, with honourable exceptions such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, they had nothing to fall back on. Time and again over the Centuries there has been a tension, which I noted in our discussion on how the Chosen People in the wilderness reacted to the gift of manna, between the mystery of God and the facility of mankind; and time and again we have opted for the mastery of fact over the humility of mystery; and, time and again, we have come to regret it.

Our starting point for  our worship in Eucharist must be the Incarnation itself, the defining event of world history which makes us Christians. Jesus came among us to express God's solidarity with necessarily imperfect humanity and, when he departed from our history in his bodily form, he left us himself for the rest of time; we might almost say that the primary purpose of the Incarnation was to stamp itself indelibly in us with the Eucharist as the sacred watermark of our existence; and no matter how hard humanity tries to cover it up, to deface it or to  rub it out, our Incarnational essence, the thing that makes us what we are, is inviolable. But between the Incarnational event itself and Jesus' departure in bodily form from human history, his life and death are played out as a spectacular sacramental drama, which is what it symbolises. Jesus gave his body and blood for us in murdered solidarity but he also gives his body and blood to us in Eucharist.

But let us remember that this life of Jesus is given for and to the whole world. If we think back to the mass feeding which began our consideration of John Chapter 6 four weeks ago, we will recall that the Disciples were not gate keepers, they were our representatives to be sent out into the world to proclaim Jesus, man and God for all time; and  although it is entirely within our human compass to enquire into, as many theologians have, the nature of the mystery of the Eucharist, what shames us is that the theological controversies over 'how' Eucharistic grace is effected has become entangled with quite another controversy which is who is the custodian of the Eucharist? Who is it that bears the right to effect the Sacrament and to make it available to the faithful? And to what faithful? And in what state of relationship with Christ? I remember many years ago when I worked in West Africa pleading for a drug company to release a sight saving drug to the general population. Everybody was agreed that the drug had no toxic side effects and that it was safe to consume even in accidentally large quantities; and yet the drug company and the scientists and the health officials insisted on going through two decades of ritualistic testing as a whole generation of people were stricken with river blindness. And there is a moral here for Christians: we do not own the Eucharist; it is not ours to dispense nor deny; the church which is Christ's gift to the world is not a private club for those who have gone through a strict doctrinal and moral vetting process before being initiated. Indeed, thinking back to the mass feeding and the Last Supper we might want to consider whether the meal in the field is not a better typology of Christ than the meal in the upper room which was, necessarily and properly, a family meal. There is time for family meals but we must remember how sharp Jesus was when those around him appealed to the biological family as the authentic source of solidarity; and we should extend that thought to our life in the church. There is proper room in our witness to Jesus to gather as a family for mutual support and comfort but our focus of Christian solidarity is the whole world. Happy are we who partake in the body and blood of Jesus Christ,  so happy that we should not be able to bear the thought that there are others who lack that happiness. We receive Christ within us as proxies for the whole world but happy are those who swell the ranks of those who receive and proclaim.

And, after all the words that I have said in the past weeks, you will  not be surprised at my conclusion as I hope that it has been implicit all along. Our church properly proclaims the solidarity of the Incarnational christ and properly proclaims his presence with us now in the  Eucharist; but our mission is hobbled by the hospitality of the knowing: we know precisely, down to the last detail, as we do in the pecking order of those  we will and will not invite to dinner, who is eligible to sit at Christ's table. We will by all means honour  those who go out into the highways and byways in search of new diners but they better wear the right clothes, say the right things and be the right kinds of people in their moral lives.  But where is this Christ who came to those who were sinners, to those who needed a physician, to those who were outcasts? Are we to behave like the American health system which leaves people to die if they don't have the right insurance papers? Or are we to be the people of God who proclaim his Incarnation and Eucharist for all, being his disciples, and leaving him to judge?