The Concrete Trinity

Sunday 13th August 2006
Year B, The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist and Baptism
Psalm 34:1-8
John 6:35; 6:41-51

An old man lay dying and when the doctor came downstairs for the final time he said to the wife: "He won't last long now. You might as well give him anything he wants; it can do no harm". So the wife asked the man what he wanted and he said, in a non Kosher version of Isaac, that he would like her to roast a piece of his favourite ham. The smell wafted up the stairs and he feebly called down: "Oh, how good that smells"; and his wife retorted: "Well, you will have to be content with the smell because that ham's for your funeral!"

The smell of the ham is a good deal better than a picture; but it's still not the real thing. That is what makes Christianity different; our God took human flesh in history and became a child. We call this the incarnation which makes it sound more mysterious, more sacred, less fleshy.

We have inherited such a deep anti-flesh feeling that it is really difficult to overcome. So, we can talk quite easily about listening to God or hearing God; we are quite comfortable about the idea of seeing God, although we think too much of heaven instead of seeing God in ourselves and our neighbour; we have a New Testament record of people touching Jesus. We can see pictures and hear sounds but tasting and smelling are unavoidably physical.

Throughout Christian history we have had this problem. We have had this tendency to think of God in a very abstract way and to think of physical things as separate and inferior. Time and again the church has had to fight off this self-loathing kind of puritanism, to defend the reality of the Blessed Trinity physically among us.

First, God the Creator is among us in the world that is all around us. The creator made the flowers and the trees, the sheep and the people, our thoughts and our feelings; as the Creed says, without our Creator nothing was made, visible and invisible. And as our Creator made us as human beings, who are we to divide ourselves and say that some attribute or other is superior to some other? To that extent I am rather suspicious of the word "Soul" in the sense of something separate from the body, as in the song title "Body and soul".

As the Creator is seen in every aspect of creation, so the Holy Spirit is real to us as the Sanctifier in the concrete entity of the Church. We do have individual and small group spiritual experiences of enormous importance but to be a Christian is to be corporate in the presence of the Holy Spirit in Her particular Sacrament of the Church. That is why the two ideas of the Holy Spirit and the Church are linked so closely in the Creed.

Thirdly, and most relevant to today's Gospel, just as Jesus, our Redeemer, was historically present in Roman Palestine, so He is present with us now in the Eucharist. We are prepared to live with the Jesus of history but we have a problem with the flesh and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist today. For some of us this may be a doctrinal wash-down from some obscure Reformation controversy but I suspect that for many of us the problem is thinking that holiness involves a denial of the physical. For the Jews what Jesus said was scandalous because their tradition was of an unseen, highly abstract God, but for us who live in the presence of the risen Lord who was child and man, the idea should be much less extreme. God left messages for the Jews through His prophets; and He left messages for Muslims through His Prophet Mahomet; but only our Christian religion of the Abramic trio believes that God in Jesus left Himself. Except for answering a question from His Apostles by teaching them the Lord's Prayer, Jesus, unlike God in the Old Testament and Allah with Mahomet, didn't tell people what they needed to write down. He said the Holy Spirit would take care of that. Instead Jesus said that we were to remember Him through feasting on His body and His Blood. This is not, as is sometimes said, a strange ritualistic form of cannibalism; we are not feasting on flesh like our own, the human flesh of Jesus, we are feasting on the divinity of Jesus made immediately present in the consecrated bread and wine.

So much of the controversy over the Eucharist is about mechanics, about how it happens rather than about what happens. If we were to apply this kind of test to our daily lives we would be in a very difficult position. Imagine if we only allowed ourselves to use electricity if we knew how it worked, or would not drive a car unless we understood what is under the bonnet. Almost every day I find there is something that I don't know; during this hot Summer I have been wondering how fridges cool things down. I know how things are heated but I can't get my head round the reversed process; but I still enjoy a cold beer!

When we were in the Holy Land it was fascinating to visit places which now have a dual Christian Muslim significance. The place that struck me most was the summit of the Mount of Olives from which Jesus ascended into heaven; but at the same place there is a rocky footprint supposed to mark the spot where Mahomet, Allah's Prophet, left the earth.

We are the religion of the real presence. Today Rufus has joined us in sharing the faith of the fulfilled through the water of life; we remember Christ's physical passion; we are children of the Resurrection which Mary Magdalene and the Apostles saw; and throughout our lives we are brothers and sisters of Christ in the Eucharist. Put all the metaphors to one side, all the fine, poetic imaginings, the theological formulations; and we are left with the promise, under-written by the Resurrection; if we eat the flesh of Jesus and drink His blood, here and now, we will have eternal life. Unlike the dying man, we can taste Jesus while we are still here. O taste and see how gracious the Lord is!