(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
Luke 1:57-66, 80
‘His name is John.’ Luke 1:63
I guess that for many people, including the evangelists Matthew and Mark, St John the Baptist is more easily remembered in connection with his death, when his severed head was delivered on a platter by King Herod to his stepdaughter. But, taking our inspiration form Luke’s gospel, today we celebrate his birth of St John, the only other saint apart from the Virgin Mary, whose birthday is kept by the Church as a solemnity. This is because John’s birth, like that of Our Lady, signalled the end of the Old Testament era, and the beginning of the New Covenant between God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.
From its very beginning John’s story assumes various similarities with previous Old Testament texts. For example, we have just read in the gospel that John is born from elderly parents, who many considered forgotten by God on account of their childlessness. His birth comes as a vindication of Zachariah and Elizabeth’s trust in God, much as the births of Isaac and Samuel did for their parents before them; a vindication expressed in the child’s own name, John, meaning “God is gracious” or “God has shown favour”.
But this is not all. Even as an infant, John challenges the social norms of his time when these become a distraction from God; for example, the name “John” is not in line with the traditions of the elders – something that, as we have read, causes much perplexity. Later on, John does not follow in his father’s and ancestors’ footsteps as a priest at the Jerusalem Temple, but he goes off – probably at a young age – to live in the desert in order to devote himself more fully to God and to prepare himself to be ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord”’ (Mark 1:3). As an adult, John embraces his call to prepare the people of Israel for the arrival of Jesus. He continues to be an almost contradictory figure, who at the same time challenges injustice and immorality with really tough words, but who also offers God’s loving forgiveness, and a second chance, to all those who step into the Jordan to be baptised. However, perhaps John’s most striking features are his personal humility and deep commitment to his vocation. We see this most clearly later in the gospels. When people begin to wonder whether or not John is the Christ he simply dismisses their speculations, and he points people towards Jesus. He says,
‘Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal’ (John 1:27).
St John the Baptist holds a place of special honour in the church; he is acknowledged as the last of the prophets – standing, as he did, on the watershed between the Old and the New Testaments – and, more importantly, he is the precursor, the forerunner, the one who went ahead to prepare the way for Jesus and his Kingdom. Indeed, the fourth gospel describes him, as a ‘man sent by God… who came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him’ (John 1:6-7). But perhaps because of this, John could be easily set aside as one of those key saintly figures that have little to teach us in practice. Yet, his example of faith should inspire all Christians to prepare the way for the Lord in our world – to be the ones sent by God as witnesses to the light, so that all might believe through us. This is all the more true now than ever before, when in our post-Christian society so many people do not know the Lord at all.
Our vocation then, like John’s, is to challenge the injustice of our times, to subvert those popular customs that distract from God, to embrace the Christian life to which we were all called, and to point people towards Jesus Christ – the only source of true life.
‘My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’, says the Lord,
‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them.’ John 6:55-56
On the Thursday after Trinity Sunday the Church of England keeps the ‘Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion’ and this is the solemnity we celebrate transferred to today under the more common name of Corpus Christi.
Churches in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England tend to stand out a little bit more than the others during this feast; but while it would be easy to think that this is all down to the solemnity of our liturgy, or the ancient customs that we observe today, the thing that make churches like ours to stand out is, in fact, the faith and devotion that should inspire our celebration. In other words, what should motivates us to pull out all the stops for this feast is the fact that today we make the point to reaffirm our belief in the most precious of all the gifts we have ever received from the Lord Jesus; the gift of his own very self – body, blood, soul, and divinity – under the simple and very ordinary forms of bread and wine. Faith in what is called the “Real Presence” of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is what makes us stand out today from others Christian communities where the Eucharist is considered a disposable add-on to the faith.
But in today’s gospel we hear how a number people at the time of Jesus were already uncomfortable and sceptic about this teaching, and how some of them were even scandalised by it, and because of it they stopped following the Lord.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they said (John 6:52). A legitimate question from non-believers that prompted Jesus to affirm many times how his own body and blood are true nourishment from those who receive them, and the principal means of union with him. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them’ (John 6: 56), say Jesus, and the Lord’s own word, should be enough for us.
Again, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that, although we cannot see him face to face in this present age, he is always going to be with us. And the Church has come to interpret his words to be a promise that the Lord is indeed always with us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in the consecrated elements of Holy Communion.
In the Blessed Sacrament, in the Host we place on the altar after Mass Jesus truly dwells with us; his silent and unassuming presence brings comfort and healing to those who approach him; his humble self-giving to us under the appearance of Bread teaches us to give ourselves for others… A traditional hymn says, ‘Thou art here, we ask not how’ and yes, although we cannot fully contemplate or express this mystery, I do hope that those who took part in the 40 Hours of Prayer two weeks ago, managed to experience what it means to spend time in the presence of the Lord Jesus, the Prince of Peace, in the Blessed Sacrament.
The past weeks have borne witness to a considerable number of needless tragedies culminating with the harrowing disaster of Grenfell Tower in the last few days. Confronted by these events, where it seems that it always the poor or innocent people to pay the highest price, it would be easy to despair, to lose heart, or worse, to let sorrow fester into violent anger. But as we sit in this place we should remind ourselves of the words of a beautiful hymn about the Eucharist,
Sweet Sacrament of rest,
ark from the ocean's roar,
within thy shelter blest
soon may we reach the shore;
save us, for still the tempest raves,
save, lest we sink beneath the waves:
sweet Sacrament of rest.
Here, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, is the very place where the Lord wants us to be so that by feeding on him and adoring his presence among us, we may go out and be strengthened to work in diffusing anger, striving for justice, begging for mercy, fostering love, and bring the life and peace of this Sacrament to a suffering world.
Lord Jesus Christ, we worship you living among us
in the sacrament of your Body and Blood.
May we offer to our Father in heaven
a solemn pledge of undivided love.
May we offer our brothers and sisters
a life poured out in loving service of your kingdom
where you live with the Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
on God, for ever and ever. Amen.