(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
Text: John 6:51-58
[They] started arguing with one another:
‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (John 6:52)
In 1263 the small Italian town of Bolsena became the backdrop for one of the most famous miracles of the Middle Ages when, in the ancient church of Saint Christina, the consecrated host inexplicably began to bleed during Mass. The host, the Bread of the Eucharist, bled over the priest’s hands and over the corporal – the square linen placed on the altar. The corporal stained with Lord’s blood was taken to the city of Orvieto and enshrined as a relic in the cathedral where it attracted both pilgrims and sceptics who wanted to see this wonder for themselves. Almost 800 years later that corporal is still there on display; still the cause of much devotion for believers and of speculation for sceptics. Perhaps more remarkable (and relevant for us) than the miracle itself is the back story of the priest who was celebrating Mass when all this took place; the man whose hands were touched by the blood flowing from the host. He himself wasn’t the stuff of miracles or a famous wonderworker; he was just a pilgrim on his way to Rome named Peter of Prague. He was devout and committed priest but, as the story goes, Pater also harboured doubts that the Lord Jesus could be truly present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. And so, this miracle that touched him so literally was soon perceived by people as God’s own intervention to restore the faith of one of his doubting servants. But it didn’t stop there; news of this baffling event spread like wildfire and the Miracle of Bolsena became the cause of much devotion and catalyst for renewed faith in the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
Today the lectionary presents us with the most important instalment of the Bread of Life discourse from John’s gospel. And as we listen to the Lord Jesus saying, ‘I am the living bread which has come down from heaven’ (John 6:51), we too might start to feel a little like Pater of Prague. In fact, we might be tempted to dismiss the entirety of John 6 as nonsense or as a convoluted metaphor, by echoing the words of Jesus’ opposers who say, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
For three-quarters of the Church’s history the vast majority of Christians have believed that Jesus comes to be really and truly present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist; have believed that the bread and the wine offered on the altar are permanently changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord; and have believed that through participation at the altar (by receiving Holy Communion) soul and body are nourished with Christ himself. Then came the various waves and controversies of the Reformation, and with them arrived terrible confusion for the average person in the pew as well as doubts about the presence of the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. Ironically, it was precisely those reformers who advocated a form of Christianity based simply on literal teachings of the Bible who brought many Christians to doubt the very words of Christ himself and to ask sceptically once again, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
The result of this dreadful confusion is that so many devout and committed Christians nowadays harbour doubts like Peter of Prague; so many are left confused. They stay away from the Mass, regarding Holy Communion as an optional extra, rather than a necessary, personal, and intimate encounter with the Lord Jesus. A repeat of the Miracle of Bolsena would be a great blessing from God, and it may help Christians to recover faith in the Eucharist. But where would it leave us in the long run? Do we really need another Eucharistic miracle in order to reaffirm the belief that Jesus is present for us on the altar? The truth is that we don’t. If we needed miracles, then God would provide them. We have something greater than miracles here; we have the word of the Lord Jesus… and if we can’t trust the word of Christ, who could we trust?
‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ People might ask, but to this question Jesus simply and unequivocally replies, “the bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Cf. John 6:51) and,
‘my flesh is real food
and my blood is real drink’ (John 6:55).
Whenever we approach the altar rail at Holy Communion, or whenever we approach the tabernacle, Jesus is there for us – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The one who loves us, is here for us. The one feeds us, is here for us. The one who saves us, is here for us.
Though the lowliest form doth veil thee
as of old in Bethlehem,
here, as there, thine angels hail thee…
…here for faith's discernment pray we,
lest we fail to know thee now.
Thou art here, we ask not how.
(from Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour)
One of the synagogue officials came up, Jairus by name, and seeing him, fell at his feet and pleaded with him earnestly. (Mark 5:22)
This morning’s gospel could be interpreted in different ways. For example, the connection which the lectionary makes between the reading from the book of Wisdom and Mark 5 highlights the fact the death and illness are not part of God’s design for creation, and that as a consequence God destroys these conditions every time he meets them in Christ. Instead, I would like to reflect with you on a broader theme which runs through the whole story; the theme of faith in the Lord Jesus.
Mark introduces two characters who approach Jesus to find healing; their situations are desperate and it would be easy to think that they both have lost all hope and so they go to Jesus thinking “Well, what do I have to lose!” But if we look closely to the text we see that this is not the case; and instead each character makes a statement of faith in Christ as soon as they approach the Lord. ‘Do come and lay your hands on her to make her better and save her life.’ (Mark 5:23) says Jairus; and ‘If I can touch even his clothes, I shall be well again.’ (Mark 5:28) says the woman to herself. For both Jairus and the woman faith is manifested by their words of trust in Jesus and by their actions. In other words their faith is manifested by the choice of approaching the Lord and trying to find healing through him. So, both characters give us an idea of what faith is; an assent and affirmation, a willing and intentional “yes” to the person of Jesus Christ and to his ministry.
As you probably know, I have never been overly fond of evangelical hymns, but there is one which fits this story very well. It sings, ‘O happy day that fixed my choice on Thee my Saviour and my God’ and indeed, this was a happy day for Jairus and the woman who, by opening the doors to Christ, by willingly and intentionally placing their faith in the Lord Jesus, find in him more than they could have ever hoped for. Certainly, their assent is somehow costly in both cases. Jairus, a synagogue official, has to humble himself before a man who was often at odds with the Jewish establishment, and he must face the peer pressure of more orthodox groups. The woman with the haemorrhage must brave rejection and insults from the crowds who knew her to be ritually unclean due to her illness. Yet, whatever the personal cost they faced at the time, by intentionally placing their faith in the Lord both characters are soon rewarded for their decision; for their choice, as it were.
So, how is it with us? Do we express our faith in similar terms? And when is the last time we have knelt and we have made and affirmation of faith like Jairus' and the woman's? When was the last time we said in prayer “Jesus, I trust in you”?
In the old rite for the Mass, and in the Book of Common Prayer, when the congregation stands to say or sing the Creed, they begin with the words “I believe in one God”. In this church we say “We believe in one God”. Yet, when we say the Creed, Sunday after Sunday, we often blurt out the words without really thinking about what we are actually doing.
The Creed is a powerful affirmation of faith, which should be a weekly renewal of our intentional “yes” to Christ… We stand we assume the posture of those who are ready and willing, and we reaffirm together both our individual and our corporate faith; we place our faith squarely and solely again in the one true God. In a sense, we could say, through the Creed we make a statement of faith much in the same way Jairus and the woman did in the gospel. If we do this in all honesty our faith will be genuinely revived, and we will find in God more than we could have ever hoped for. Each Sunday then, would be the “happy day that fixed our choice on our Saviour and our God”.
1 John 5:1-6
Who can overcome the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God: Jesus Christ who came by water and blood, not with water only, but with water and blood. (1 John 5:5-6)
During Eastertide we begin the Parish Mass with the sprinkling with Holy Water which replaces the usual introduction and prayers of penitence. As we receive the water we are reminded of our Baptism and we sing praises to Christ, who says in John’s Gospel, ‘The water that I will give will become in [believers] a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14b). This rite of sprinkling is properly called the “Vidi Aquam” (Latin for “I saw water”) because the chant that usually accompanies it sings,
‘I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple, alleluia;
and all they to whom that water came were saved,
and they shall say, alleluia, alleluia.’
This chant and the sprinkling are clears echo of the words of the prophet Ezekiel which we read during the Easter Vigil where the prophet has a vision of the Temple at Jerusalem and says this, ‘there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple … south of the altar’ (Ezekiel 47:1), and that water brought life and healing to all.
This idea of flowing, life-giving water finds its fulfilment on the Cross. The first three gospels describe the moment when Jesus died as the moment in which the curtain of the Temple is torn from top to bottom. As this barrier rips we can glimpse directly inside the sanctuary, inside the holiest part of the Temple, and look, as it were, upon God and his mercy. However, this dramatic moment is not reported be the evangelist John, who at that time was standing near the Cross of Jesus; instead he focuses his attention on something else; the piercing of the side of Jesus with a spear. For John this is the very moment when the true curtain of the true temple is torn. As the skin and flesh of Jesus are cut by the spear blood and water pour out, and here we can genuinely look upon God and upon his mercy.
Time and again the gospels tell us that Jesus himself, his very body, is the true Temple in which we are able to encounter God – because in that body divine nature meets and joins our human nature. The Letter to the Hebrews testifies to this saying, ‘we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)’ (Hebrews 10:20). And as the spear cuts into the side of Jesus it is as if the tide of God’s mercy and love is released over the whole world purifying and giving life to all whom it reaches. This is the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s vision, and this is what our sprinkling during Eastertide celebrates.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure…
This Sunday in particular, the second Sunday of Easter, is sometimes called “Divine Mercy Sunday” and, among other things, it leads us to reflect on the marks of the crucifixion, which the Lord Jesus bears of his body even after the resurrection. These are the “visible identification marks” by which the disciples are filled with joy in recognising the Lord, but more importantly, these are the points from which Divine Mercy streams for us, the springs of God’s love.
Are we struggling with something? Let us look at those marks and see the wounds through which every strife has been overcome. Are we suffering? Let us approach those scars which have inflicted a fatal blow to every sorrow. Are we weighed down by guilt or feeling undeserving of love? Let us approach those marks which have brought us divine mercy and love.
Jesus said to Thomas: ‘Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.’ (John 20:27b) The apostle Thomas approached the marks of Jesus’ passion as a way of testing the Lord, but just by seeing them he was restored to faith. We should approach them with full trust in Jesus, knowing that it is through those wounds that we are saved.
Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide,
wash me with water flowing from thy side.
…deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,
so shall I never, never part from thee.
‘Christ himself, innocent though he was, had died once for sins, died for the guilty, to lead us to God.’ (1Peter 3:18)
Lent has been, from its beginning, the time in which catechumens, the candidates for Baptism, prepared to be welcomed in the Church at Easter. And on this first Sunday of Lent our readings lead us to consider this sacrament as the beginning of the new life we share as Christians. Our second reading compares the sacrament of Baptism to the time when God saved Noah and his family in the ark, and gave them new life in the world he has cleansed from evil through the great flood. So too, at our Baptism the Cross of Jesus was our ark, and God saved us through waters of the font, giving us new life – but not new life in a world purified from evil as in the times of Noah, rather new life in his Son. Since our Baptism the life of Christ has been grafted in us and we have become part of that new creation God brings about in and through the Lord Jesus. This is why Saint Paul writing to the Corinthians says, ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’ (2Corinthians 5:17). So Lent should teach us that, if we are receptive to the grace of God, this new creation, this new life, will keep growing in us, transforming us into ever better likenesses, images of Jesus. Many aspects of Lenten liturgy (the colour purple, the sombre hymns, the silencing of the alleluias) call us to think about our failings asking God’s forgiveness for our sins and strength to rectify, if possible, our wrong decisions. But this is only the beginning of our Lenten journey; because essentially these forty days are given to us by God and by the Church to re-establish more firmly the life of Christ within us. We are not meant to metaphorically sit on a pile of ashes wearing sackcloth for six weeks feeling sorry for ourselves but actually do nothing to reverse our condition… Lent is a time to be active in the spirit and in the service of others.
There are various schools of thought about Lent and about what one should or shouldn’t do during this season. The Church of England, being a broad church, keeps it nice and loose telling us that this should be a time of self-denial. But the substance of the matter is that the time-honoured practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer can be the source of great and unnumbered blessings as we enter the mystery of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection and we prepare to renew our Baptismal commitments Easter.
Through fasting, abstinence from certain foods, prayer, and charitable giving we do not exercise self-loathing or try to reproduce what Jesus went through on Calvary in some measly way. This should be quite clear to everyone – even though people outside these walls might make fun of the whole Lenten enterprise, or think of us a bit dim for denying ourselves things we like. Rather, by fasting and abstinence we aim to refresh the spirit and focus on our spiritual needs; by deeper prayer we aim to reconnect more clearly with Jesus; by giving to charity we aim to imitate the generosity of the Lord himself. And through all these Lenten practices together we aim to free ourselves of those old habits that have taken hold on us; we aim to spiritually die to sin in order to give space for the life of Christ to grow vigorously once again, until we can say with Paul, ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20).
There is a beautiful hymn, “And now, O Father, mindful of that love” which puts these thoughts about being one with Christ in a neat verse. It says,
Look, Father, look on His anointed face,
And only look on us as found in Him;
Look not on our misusings of Thy grace,
Our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim;
For lo! between our sins and their reward,
We set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.
Through Baptism we have become one with Christ. Lent calls us to make a genuine effort to move beyond ourselves, to rediscover our Baptism to find ourselves, our true identities, in Christ – in the one who leads us to the Father.
‘…falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ (Matthew 2:11)
The story of the Magi has captured the imagination of countless generations of Christians, and why wouldn’t it? The Wise Men appear mysteriously on the scene lead by a star; they turn up to the house of the Holy Family unannounced; they bring with them precious gifts, they worship Jesus as Saviour and God, and then they leave as quickly as they arrived… Rivers of ink have been spilled about these star-gazers from the East, and there is so much we could talk about after reading their story. But perhaps the most important thing we can do this morning is to travel in spirit to Bethlehem with the Magi, and to learn something about worship from the way in which they greet the Christ-child and the gifts they bring. We read that the Magi ‘fell to their knees’ – or as the Greek text puts it, they prostrated themselves before the Christ-child. This is the way people acknowledged the presence of God in ancient times, and the way in which followers of other religions still worship now. Yet, we seem to suffer with stiff knees, don’t we? And when we cannot avoid kneeling we do so begrudgingly. Yet, the Wise Men teach us that kneeling in prayer and greeting the Lord is this way is an act of devotion, of love, which – if we are able – we should imitate.
The Magi offered gold. Tradition associates this gift with the Kingship of Christ, because in ancient times only rulers and members of royal households could afford to wear gold, and only the palaces of kings or the temples of the gods could be decorated with it. But there is more. Gold was also a currency – as it still is today, and in offering it to Jesus the Magi offered financial support to the Holy Family who found themselves far from Nazareth, and on the brink of a perilous journey into Egypt. It is as if by worshipping Jesus with gifts of gold, the Wise Men were the first to put into practice the commands Jesus will give to assist those in difficulty. Likewise, the gifts we ourselves offer to the Lord – both to make his house a beautiful and resplendent place fit for the King, and to lift the poor out of misery – are an essential part of the Christian life. And the Wise Men teach us that giving is an important aspect of the way we worship God.
The Magi offered frankincense. Tradition associates this gift with the Divinity of Christ, because in ancient times incense was offered only to the gods. In the Jerusalem Temple an altar was dedicated to this purpose alone, and in the house of Bethlehem the Magi offer incense to the Christ-child, to our God-made-flesh. Likewise, the incense we offer in this place (and more generally the beauty and the ritual of our liturgy) is part of the Christian life.
The Magi offered myrrh. Tradition associates this gift with the Passion and Death of Christ, because in ancient times myrrh was often used to preserve the body from the effects of death and stay its decay. And in this sense it is a gift we cannot offer to the Lord anymore, because he has risen from the dead and death does not have power over him. But there is another meaning behind this gift. Myrrh was mixed with oil for anointing and consecration, so through their gift the Magi honoured the Lord Jesus as the Eternal High Priest who sacrificed himself for us. We too have been anointed with oil mixed with perfume at our Baptism and Confirmation, then – like myrrh – our life are ought to be a fragrant gift to God through the Lord Jesus
‘…falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ (Matthew 2:11)
We may not be able to follow a star to Bethlehem like that Magi, but every time we approach the altar we too come into the presence of the Lord Jesus, so our worship and love of him should be inspired by theirs. These mysterious travellers teach us that the worship of Christ is something beautiful and all-encompassing; including our emotions, our senses, our posture, and our possessions. Or as a Passiontide hymn puts it,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.