A Sermon for Corpus Christi
One of the joys of having children is reliving bits of your own childhood, and my son and I have been enjoying an I-Spy book – The I-Spy book of History. As we go around new places, it gives us things to spot and claim points for. This weekend, we went to Cresswell Crags on the border with Nottinghamshire, and ticked off some of the things related to caves and hand axes and so on. You get ten points for a cave that people used to live in, and twenty for an axe and so on. In the gift shop, however, there was a new I-Spy book – The I-Spy book of Dinosaurs. Good luck with that one!
I mention this because today, as we celebrate Corpus Christi, we are involved in learning to see Jesus. Corpus Christi offers us, if you like, the I-Spy book of Jesus. There is an important spiritual task here – learning to see Jesus. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote that “I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.” He had grasped something of the spiritual discipline that there is in learning to recognise Christ when we see him. “I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.” That is the task for which this feast of Corpus Christi and this celebration of the Eucharist are training us.
We start, of course, with seeing Jesus in bread and wine. That is what we celebrate today, Christ present for us in bread and wine. Christ’s body broken for us, Christ’s blood poured out for us. As we come to the altar this evening, we come to receive Christ. That is why this is such a celebration. Here we meet with Christ. Here we touch him, hold him, smell him, taste him. But it is not an obvious thing, we needed to be taught to recognise Jesus in the bread and wine, not least by Jesus himself at the Last Supper.
And as we learn to see Jesus in the bread and wine, we learn also that Jesus is not just there. In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells his hearers that “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them”. As we receive the bread and wine, we are brought into the life of the risen Jesus, and he becomes part of us. Here too there is reason to celebrate. We are sinners, yet it is in us that Christ will dwell. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table”, as the prayer of humble access puts it. Yet it is in us that Christ abides.
So, if you’re keeping track of the I-Spy book of Jesus, then we have Jesus in two places – in bread and wine and in us. But we can’t stop there – there are more places where we must learn to see Jesus. Later in the service we will say “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.” We are one body – we are the Body of Christ. And not just us, not just here in Christ Church. In the Body of Christ, we are one with Christians throughout time and across the world. It is right that we are concerned when Christians are persecuted in Iraq or Pakistan, or abducted like the two Archbishops in Syria. We are concerned because we belong to one another in the Body of Christ. But, let’s be honest, sometimes that’s the easy bit. It’s the Christians who go to another church in Belper, or do different things in worship to us, they are the ones we find it difficult to believe that we belong to. But we do. “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.” It might be helpful to remember that we don’t need to agree with one another, just to belong to one another. But we need to learn to see Jesus in our fellow Christians, however different or difficult they may be.
We see Jesus in the bread and wine, in ourselves and in other Christians. So far so good. All that has its challenges, but it seems quite straightforward. And then, from nowhere, we have the story of Melchizedek. Melchizedek appears, as if from nowhere in the Book of Genesis. He offers Abraham bread and wine, blesses him and receives a tenth of everything Abraham has. Then he promptly vanishes again, never to be heard of again. He crops up again in the Psalms and the Letter to the Hebrews, but the human figure of Melchizedek only appears in these few verses in Genesis. Melchizedek is a stranger. More than that, Melchizedek is a representative of another faith – there are no priests of Israel at this time because there is no Israel. And yet we are invited to see in Melchizedek the presence of God and of Christ. We live in a world that desperately needs us to see the presence of Christ in strangers. In a world when we are invited by the media and politicians and interest groups to quickly draw lines that divide us from others, we need to learn to see how Christ is present with strangers and those of other faiths. On another occasion, Jesus said ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Matt. 25.35). Learning to see Jesus in strangers is another part of the spiritual work of this feast.
Bread and wine, ourselves, other Christians, strangers – all these are places that we must learn to see Jesus. I want to add one more before I finish. Christ is also found among those in need. St Matthew’s Gospel also records Jesus saying that “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink … I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matt. 25.35-36). Jesus spent his life among those in need, and he is still to be found there today. Today, Church Action on Poverty produced a report saying that half a million people are dependent on Food Banks. That’s not half a million people throughout the world, but half a million people in this country. That is where we can find Christ. Christian Aid are part of the IF campaign, which is saying that there is enough food to feed everyone in this world, if people pay their taxes, if people are transparent about their business, if people stop taking productive land away from food production and if people provide emergency aid to those in immediate need. Here we come full circle, from the bread of the Eucharist to the daily bread that is needed by all people, in this country and around the world, to survive. Christ is present in the bread of the Eucharist. Christ is also present in the need for bread.
As we celebrate Corpus Christi, we celebrate the ways in which Christ is present – in the bread and wine of the sacrament, in ourselves, in other Christians, in the stranger and in people in need. Let me urge you to take this as a spiritual discipline, to look back over the day and the week and see where you have met with Christ. And as we receive Christ at the altar this evening, let us ask him to open our eyes to see him in the coming days. Amen.
Given at Christ Church, Belper 30.5.13