Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 12 Sunday 19 August 2018
Trinity 12 HM
When I preached on this gospel here three years ago I recalled a visit to Chile, reflecting on the value of bread and wine, but especially bread, as the staple of life in a country where simplicity of life is a necessity, not a choice. From that perspective the message of this gospel and those of the previous few weeks is very simple. I was thinking of a sermon in the church of S. Alberto Hurtado in which the priest simply explained that Jesus is as necessary to us as bread – the commodity which lies at the core of every meal, the food that is always available. The trouble for us, of course, is that we mostly don’t use bread like that. Many of us don’t even eat bread with every meal as one would in, say, France or Italy. So the communication becomes a self-conscious metaphor, self-consciousness being the hallmark of prosperous western societies.
As I approached the text again this year, something else suggested itself to me. Simplicity of life is not the only way in which my life differs from that in a country like Chile (or almost anywhere in South America or Africa). There is also the presumption of hospitality. The more sophisticated and prosperous a society, it seems, the more we find norms of hospitality and generosity eroded. The more we have the more we want to keep it to ourselves. In South Yorkshire I was often told ‘Oh yes, we’re good friends, but we don’t go into one another’s houses’. That statement would be incomprehensible in Chile, except among the very small very rich elite. Chile has a small rich elite (the old rich, the so-called hundred families, descendents of the Spanish conquerors, and the new rich, cronies of Pinochet: not much to choose between them in terms of barbarity and arrogance except the lapse of a few centuries). And they try, very hard, to be like us. One characteristic of that perceived likeness is to look down on the generosity and hospitality of the majority of their fellow citizens.
We often hear it suggested that virtual networking threatens the ability of people to relate socially (Archbishop Vincent Nichols wrote a predictable piece to this effect not so long ago). Even if we agree with that, and I do, there is little to be gained by complaining about it: this change in human behaviour has happened. The problem is larger: I think, if we’re honest, we don’t value that social relating much in the first place. In our society there is a presumption that it is right to avoid mixing with people who are not like us. Part of the Church of England’s ‘fresh expressions’ infection has been the setting up of ‘network churches’, so that people can join communities exactly like themselves. How very dull. But much worse, how very anti-Christian, and undermining of the gospel. We are called to gather as strangers and pilgrims, with any and all who have allegiance to Christ, not all who hold identical opinions to our own.
God’s priorities assume a breadth of welcome. In today’s first reading from Proverbs, ‘Wisdom’, introduced and personified as a host, lays a table and says, not to a pre-selected group of like minds but to the ignorant and foolish, ‘come and drink the wine that I have prepared’. In the gospel, Jesus, the Wisdom of God, as St Paul calls him, says. ‘I am the bread of life, whoever eats this bread will have eternal life’. Not those who think rightly about things as I see them, just ‘whoever eats…’ The message in both readings is unequivocal: welcome, whoever you are, come and eat.
Here we are reminded of our essential equality before God (God, who is our ultimate host); we are also reminded of our closeness in relationship with him, achieved for all by the action of Jesus. Relationship, as much as bread, is the nourishment of life. Here we see bread conveying relationship; the social act of eating becomes an act of relational communion, of being joined intimately to God.
There is another thing to notice. Jesus has, by now, been talking about bread, and himself as the bread of life, for some time. But now the shockingly concrete imagery of flesh and blood is emphasised. As I suggested in last week’s email, it is no longer shocking to us, because we have heard it so often, and most of us never see an animal killed for food, let alone sacrifice. But we aren’t just talking about a meal here; we’re talking about sacrifice and offering, something with which we’ve almost lost touch.
The Mass is not just about fellowship, it is a sacrifice. It unites us with the self-offering of Christ on the cross in such a way that we receive more nearly the fruits of that sacrifice. I unpacked a little of how that works in this week’s email if you’re interested. That is a topic for another sermon, or possibly a lecture, but please store it away as crucial information about Christianity – our relationship with God is based on sacrifice and we are united to him through the offering of this sacrifice at our altar, as a result of which we receive holy communion, the bread of life, the guarantee of our relationship with God.
George Herbert expressed it like this:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, you shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful: Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.