10th November - Mark Nelson
Many years ago, I used to have a boss when I worked in a Botanic Garden who would sometimes use a phrase that has always stuck in my mind. Whenever she used to have run-ins with people that she saw as being deliberately or wilfully antagonistic towards her she would say that “You should never wrestle with a pig because the guaranteed outcome is that you both get covered in mud and the pig may end up enjoying it.” I have always liked the saying because although it's ridiculous I could really see her point in it. Richard Dawkins, a man that you don’t normally hear being referred to in this pulpit would say something similar, “Never get into an argument with an idiot, because the most you can hope for is that you win an argument with an idiot."
On reading the Gospel passage today, it appears that Jesus may have found himself in just such a scenario. Not that I am not calling the Sadducees idiots but they were not all interested in communicating with him, in fact what they were doing was to wilfully try to undermine the message that Jesus was conveying. Jesus was spreading the idea that God loves us all, so boundless in the generosity of that love that even death cannot conquer it. The Sadducees didn’t believe that as it wiped out the notion of their privileged status. It wasn’t about God, it was about them.
This small passage comes at the end of a Chapter where Jesus has had to fend off the increasingly hostile questions of the authorities in the Temple. As the Chapter progresses you can feel the sense of hostility that just keeps ramping up and up. As you read it you can almost see the picture of them coming in with a question, then Jesus dealing with it, them all leaving to gather their thoughts before storming back in with an, “And another thing...”. I have no doubt that our Lord and saviour would have been exercising a certain amount of eye rolling and thinking to himself, “What now?”. It is not entirely dissimilar to the endless arguments that adults have with children about why they can’t eat more than their own bodyweight in chocolate 10 minutes before they are about to have their dinner. Jesus was a model of restraint in this, he dealt with them all calmly and clearly.
This sort of question that the Sadducees employed is an old trick and one that displayed their desperation to be proved right at any cost. They didn’t want to share ideas, The Sadducees were entrenched, they felt as though they had nothing to learn from Christ, they considered themselves to be superior and felt undermined by Jesus’ radical teaching so they, in turn, were determined to teach him a thing or two.
This question was meant as a put down. They weren’t interested in listening, they wanted to tie Jesus in knots and that is at the heart of this and where I feel that we have most to learn from this encounter.
It is important that we all listen to each other, to properly engage because if we don’t we are guaranteed to miss something, you don’t have to look very far in the news to see the devastating effects that people not listening can have.
Every morning I pray and the Northumbrian community’s morning prayer asks God to, “Be in the heart of each to whom we speak and in the mouth of each who speaks to us” and we forget that at our peril. Openness is much more powerful than being closed. To be Christian should mean that we have a desire to be transformed, to grow and flourish, but that flourishing is not at the expense of each other but it enables each other. But how can that happen if we don’t take the time to listen. We may never agree with some people, and that is ok, but we can’t go around with the attitude that the Sadducees had, because that will get us nowhere.
Sometimes it happens that when people believe in something (and I am as guilty of it as anybody else) that ends up being it, the journey stops there. They don’t have to think or consider it any longer, they have a position and everybody else that disagrees with them is just plain wrong.
So let us all be more like Christ, abundant in love until it flows over, generous in our habits, let us share our stories and listen to others because that is where the Kingdom of God will be found.
Celebrating Eucharist: Proverbs 9, 1-6 & Mark 26, 26-20
Today we come to the end of our teaching series, our journey. Or at least we come to the end of the first section of our journey. Our journey started with celebrating baptism, the inaugural sacrament, the sacrament Jesus had to receive in order to begin his ministry. Our journey finishes, at least for today, by celebrating Eucharist, the sacrament that Jesus gave to his church as the ongoing, perpetual and sustaining sacrament.
Jesus of, course, gave the Sacrament of the Eucharist to what was to become the church on the day we call Maundy Thursday stressing to his followers that they were to ‘do this in remembrance of me.’ We do however need to be slightly careful over the word remembrance, for what Jesus is suggesting is that what we are doing every time we take Holy Communion is allowing ourselves to be re-membered, united and brought into Holy Communion with Jesus, our neighbours, and of course the ‘entire company of heaven.’ To be re-membered is to be united with; made a member of.
There is a bitter Christian irony to the notion of re-remembering as an act of unification, for throughout Christian history acrimonious, sometimes life-ending, battles have been fought over the Sacrament of the Eucharist; too often far being a source of unity it has been, tragically, a source of division and conflict. Again, tragically, it continues to do so in so many ways.
When we think of the arguments surrounding the Eucharist it is perhaps inevitable that we start our reflections with the Reformation, but to do so is to miss out on approximately 1,200 years of Christian history. During the Reformation the great debate was over the real presence of Christ at the Eucharist, but for the early church the great debate was over something seemingly far less serious: bodily posture! Or, more specifically, whether communion should be celebrated standing up or kneeling down. Bodily posture in public prayer was a central concern at the Council of Nicea; that great church council which provided the words to the creed we use to this day.
So what do you think they decided? Well, they decided that standing up was the appropriate posture for all public prayer on Sundays. In fact the council issued a canon, or mandate, insisting that the Eucharist should be celebrated and received standing.
The rationale for this was basic and straightforward: Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection, and that when we come to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist we should do so standing tall and proud as already absolved and redeemed children of God. Kneeling at the Eucharist only really became popular again in medieval times and in some ways was a political response by the emerging Protestant churches to differentiate themselves from the Roman Catholic church.
My own belief is that it is important to receive communion both standing and kneeling, although I can’t remember, for obvious reasons, when I last knelt! I also think it’s sacramentally enriching to celebrate the Eucharist using different altars. When we use the nave altar the focus is on the resurrected Christ who continues to make His pilgrimage journey down into our very midst, to welcome us and feed us. When we use the high altar the focus is on the pilgrimage we make upwards towards the ascended Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father. It’s not that one is high and the other low, or one is formal and the other less formal, it’s about celebrating the totality of Eucharistic experience.
Anyway enough of history and liturgical practice, let’s turn to the present and think about why celebrate communion in this church each and every week:
The most simple answer is this: we celebrate the Eucharist because Jesus very straightforwardly said ‘do this.’ Celebrating Holy Communion, participating in the Sacrament of the Eucharist is therefore not some form of religious choice, but an obligation and a duty. Being and obligation shouldn’t however imply a lack of enthusiasm or joy, the very word Eucharist does, after all, mean thanksgiving. Celebrating and receiving communion, as the Book of Common Prayer insists, is both a duty and a delight. It is a delight for a very basic reason: ‘in Holy Communion Christ wants our company,’ (Rowan Williams): he wants nothing more that for us to be present with him and for him. That is why each and every week I start the Eucharistic Prayer with the words ‘the Lord is here.’
In and through the Eucharist what we are invited to experience is the very true, and very real, hospitality of the resurrected Jesus. The effect of this should hopefully be that the spiritual food that we consume should in turn make us more hospitable, more inclusive, more equipped to share our table story with others. Put simply if we aren’t open to the possibility of being both transfigured and transformed by the very act of participating in the Eucharist then why on earth bother with it all, for the very point of receiving Holy Communion is that we should be transformed into a Holy Communion of God’s chosen people? Holy Communion, in the words of Rowan Williams ‘is not only about our redemption but our re (my addition) creation.’
My own theology of the Eucharist is far more small c Catholic than Protestant for I would, and do, affirm the real presence of the Lord who is here and I would never want to reduce the Eucharist to a straightforward recollection of the Last Supper. For me Holy Communion, or Eucharist, comprises the following characteristics:
It is a commemoration of the Last Supper, but it is also an affirmation of the resurrection and an anticipation of that which is to come. Commemoration, affirmation, and anticipation, these three, are what makes the Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, so enriching and re-creative. It is through combination of these three sacramental virtues – which comprise our act of remembrance - that we ourselves become re-membered.
As you come forward to receive communion today can I ask you to reflect on two things:
Firstly, you come because you are wanted by God – the Lord (who) is here and secondly, that we receive Holy Communion in order that we might become a Holy Communion.
Come and receive just as you are. Not because you are worthy but because Jesus wants to meet you, feed you, transform you and re-member you, Amen.
The Unjust Structures of Society and Reconciliation
I wonder whether anyone has ever said to you ‘you are not going to like what I am going to say but.....’ or indeed whether you have felt the need to say something similar to someone else? I think today’s readings, both the Old Testament reading and the gospel, might have started with ‘you are not going to like it but....’
In some ways it might be a little easier to accept what I am saying in relation to the Old Testament reading. After all, we might feel ourselves justified if someone came up to us during the service, maybe at the juncture between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament, where we share the peace and said loudly for all to hear, ‘I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.’ I suspect were this to occur we would feel both embarrassed and angry. We would very possibly also offer a quick prayer asking that this sort of incident wouldn’t happen again in the future. I suspect that it is highly unlikely that we would say to ourselves, and to those around us, ‘Aha I see that we have a true prophet in our midst!’
I sometimes think that the church has a problem with the Beatitudes, for such is the majesty of the language that we tend to sanitise them. But listen closely once more to some of what Jesus has to say:
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil falsely against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’
What I take from this is that our vocation as Christians is not to seek reward in the here and now, nor to curry favour from the great and the good, but to dare to speak truth to power, just as the prophets did and just as Jesus did. We are, after all, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, to be the ‘Church Militant;’ we do pray each and every day for the breaking in of the Kingdom of God ‘here on earth as in heaven.’
As baptised and communicant members of the Church, fed each week through both word and sacrament, and sent at the end of every Eucharist to ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord,’ we have a basic obligation to seek to bring peace and justice into the here and now and where there is an absence of peace and justice to speak truth to power: our faith without both works and words is, to paraphrase James,‘quite dead.’ We should also take to heart the words of Amos, for in the absence of a commitment to seek justice, peace and reconciliation, our worship will be unrequited.
A true missionary church is a church which cares deeply about justice. A true missionary church is one that offers the hand of friendship and love to those in need whilst also looking upstream to identify the causes of injustice. Desmond Tutu makes this point, beautifully, on the quote on your pew sheet. Desmond Tutu is, of course, a modern day icon for Anglicanism’s, fourth Mark of Mission.
Here in Winslow we are blessed by having a patron, St. Laurence, who exemplifies the ability to offer the hand of friendship and love to those in need, whilst speaking truth to power and they ‘reviled’ him for it; in fact they put him to a brutal death for it, but his story is still told, his impact is still experienced. Laurence, the Deacon, dared to say to the Roman Imperial Powers that the poor are the treasures of the church. Who in this day and age to do we need to so treasure? Where and how we do we need to argue for justice and righteousness? If we are serious about mission and evangelism these are some of the questions we must ask of ourselves.
A small group of people have pledged to think through some of these issues so that we can become a ‘Church militant,’ a church which honours our patronage, pays heed to the prophecy of Amos and lives out the Beatitudes, a church which plays its own small part in ‘seeking to transform the unjust structures of society, challenging violence of every kind and seeking to pursue peace and reconciliation?’ If you would like to contribute to our thinking in this area please do speak to George Hooper.
In the meantime let us pray:
Loving Lord, show us how to challenge injustice and seek righteousness, for your name’s sake, Amen.
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