On The Body of Christ

Sunday 16th August 2015
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
John 6.51-58

Nobody got rich on Manna, as rich and yet as elusive as mist: it couldn't be hoarded and there was no futures market in it; there were no peaks and troughs in production on which to speculate; its dole was the same for the richest tribal chief and the humblest slave. Manna, God's currency, perfectly reflects our equality before our creator.

Many have seen Chapter 6 of John's Gospel, the fourth consecutive extract of which we have heard today,  as a homily on the Eucharist and it is difficult to avoid this conclusion, with graphic statements from Jesus about eating his flesh and drinking his blood to achieve eternal life; but this is surely a starting point and not the place to finish. The Chapter opens with an account of the "Feeding of the 5,000" which is, contrasted with Christian practice, both simple and comprehensive: there is no evidence in any of the Gospel accounts that those who received the bread and fish had to pass a theology exam or even repent of their sins; and so, if this Chapter is about the Eucharist, then it tells us that it is open to all, totally egalitarian, based on the manna strategy; but, in this case, the distribution concerns the life of Christ himself who lived and died and rose again, equally for all.

Over the Centuries the Eucharist has remained technically open to all but has in many ways become conditional; to receive it: you have to be baptised; you have to be instructed in its meaning; you have to repent of your sins; and in some Christian denominations you have to be a member of the one, true denomination; and, of course, you have to receive it through the offices of an ecclesiastical gate-keeper called a Priest. So, no Priest, no Eucharist.

I should say at this point that this is not a rant for Lay Presidency at the Eucharist, an issue which is quite salient in some parts of the Anglican Communion, but it is a plea for us to think back to the beginning so that we can ask ourselves what Chapter 6 of John is all about. It is correct, in my view, that designated followers of Jesus, whom we call clergy, should be responsible for what is, after Baptism, the most important sacred rite in Christianity, in just the same way that we would want precious art to be curated and beneficial but dangerous drugs to be dispensed with professional care. But to curate and to care should not involve judgments about reception: just as art should be viewed by all, and just as beneficial drugs should be open to all, so, we must ask ourselves, on what grounds might we exclude somebody who comes to the altar to share the body and blood of Jesus? If the Greek Orthodox Church gives the Eucharist to babes in arms, why don't we?

The short answer is that we have developed a sequential process. It always starts with Baptism, which is logical, as this is the initiation rite; there then follow access to the Eucharist and Confirmation or vice versa which, again, is logical: the initiate is gradually admitted to mysteries, acquiring knowledge and understanding.

But God isn't logical. And so, as humans, we are always faced with the problem of trying to apprehend God through human means and, more often than not, we do this by attaching human attributes to God rather than by concentrating on what is essential to God. We often try to solve our problems by pursuing the Greek methodology of asking what something is and giving it a name rather than by using the much more effective technique of observing what something does. Only a couple of weeks ago we could have used a whole meeting on children and young people to argue about the name for the Sunday morning activity which might replace "Sunday School"; but it's God's action in the world that counts, not the ability of philosophers and theologians to come to grips with abstruse definitions.

So here we are. God created everything, including us. God created us so that we might freely love and worship God and our equality in creation is beautifully shown in the manna given to God's Chosen People in the desert. God confirmed solidarity with necessary human imperfection in the Incarnation, death and Resurrection  of Jesus and, to sustain us, sent The Holy Spirit into the followers of Jesus both individually and collectively in the Christian Church which was the gift of Jesus to the earth.

It is important to be serious about theology but its main purpose should be to simplify and not to complicate. I find myself in the extremely paradoxical position that I am addicted to the Sacrament of the Eucharist but that I believe, like Christians before Saint Augustine in the first half of the 5th Century, and like the great theologian Henri de Lubac, that we are the body of Christ; and what I take from Chapter 6 of John is not that it is a homily on the Eucharist but is, rather, a homily on the Body of Christ which leads to the rather awkward question of who can be counted as and not counted as part of that body. Christian theology talks a great deal about God choosing followers through the medium of the Holy Spirit or of people committing themselves to Jesus. This all looks too processy to  me. I'm really not sure what the mechanism is for deciding who's part of the body of Christ and  who isn't. The conventional answer has something to do with sin but, again, as God created us imperfect so that we could love freely, I don't see how being imperfect excludes us from the body.

Overall, thinking about a piece of Scripture as rich and complex as John 6 should produce difficult questions; and we should always be deeply suspicious of our own and anybody else's answers, including mine.