Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 13 Sunday 26 August 2018
When I was 16 my parents and I went on holiday to Hong Kong, where they had lived and worked before I was born. We went to church in St Andrew’s Kowloon, the large church to which, as CMS missionaries, they had been attached. The service, which consisted mostly of a lengthy sermon and several choruses, would have been quickly forgotten by me if it weren’t for an encounter at the end. Near the door we were introduced to an English lady, the first actual English person I’d ever met. She fixed me with one of those terrible death’s head smiles which speaks of anything but joy or warmth and barked ‘Are you a Christian?’ I thought this an odd question to put to one of the very few people under 60 in the building, but just said ‘yes’. To which she replied in words which remain etched in my memory ‘Good. I do find it helps if one is’.
There were so many things wrong with that encounter. Not just to make, but also to articulate the assumption, that a fellow-worshipper might not be a Christian is just plain rude. To follow up with ‘I do find it helps if one is’ suggests, even if she didn’t mean it, a Christianity understood as part of the respectable fabric of life, which has little to do with Jesus or his Church; Christianity as the National Trust, something into which you buy to be comfortable, safe, and above all, better than other people. Anyway, I don’t know about you, but I don’t always feel that it exactly helps: more often it challenges and itches; more that it is essential.
But that question, if more appropriately put, is a good one. How would we know the answer? Are you, am I a Christian? There’s a sermon trope used by many evangelical preachers, the theme of which is “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
Respectable Christianity often sidelines the Eucharist, or interprets it to mean something bland, because it isn’t very nice; I can hear my questioner asking, ‘do you find the Mass helpful?’. If we truly believe what Jesus says, we have to accept that, however we dress this sacrament up, it is a challenging encounter; we should notice what we are doing, eating and drinking the body and blood of the Lord; consuming the life of God.
Christianity isn’t nice; it isn’t primarily about being nice, or helpful. It is either true or it isn’t, and the Eucharist lies at the heart of that question about truth. Today’s chapter of John’s gospel was written when Christians had been celebrating the Eucharist for decades. That is why John spends so much time relaying Jesus’ teaching. He knows that there is no Christian worship without the Eucharist (the response I should have made to the lady in Hong Kong, was ‘Oh, is this a Christian gathering? – I missed your Eucharist?).
It cannot be said often enough that Christianity is not, and never was, a religion of a book. One can almost say that the Christian bible is an adjunct to the Eucharist; our bible exists, the New Testament was written down, in order for us better to meet and worship: to meet one another and to meet God; to receive the body and blood of the Lord.
For three hundred and fifty years after the Resurrection the church met and celebrated the Eucharist, developed the ordained ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, cared for one another and shared the good news about Jesus without even agreeing on what was in the bible. The Christians of our first four centuries would have been astonished to think that we went first to a book to get our Christianity. They would have started by going to worship God and to meet and care for other Christians in relationship; they defined their Christianity by baptism and receiving this sacrament, the Eucharist. There is no authentic Christianity without it.
Some still find that challenging. And today’s gospel shows that Jesus met the same resistance:
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ …
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
Are you, am I a Christian? If we were put on trial for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict us? The first piece of evidence would be whether or not we recognise Jesus as Lord and Son of God, and whether we encounter him here in Holy Communion. The Eucharist is not only the sign of God’s presence with us; it is also the sign of our commitment to him. If we don’t place it at the forefront of our Christian life, if we don’t regularly attend it and receive communion, if it doesn’t define our worship and faith, we have missed Jesus’ point. We must love and value and share this sacramental faith.
The Church of England, like Jesus’ Father’s house, has many rooms, Catholic, evangelical, charismatic and, mostly, something in-between. In the past the Eucharist almost disappeared from some of them: even today the Eucharist challenges assumptions about boundaries which some hold dear; boundaries of class and economic success, of race and gender and sexuality, boundaries between what is nice and what threatens our comfort zones. But the Eucharist is that irreducible core of Christianity which will not allow any of us to be better than anyone else: at the altar, as before God our Father, we are all God’s children, brothers and sisters together. If we don’t want to kneel or stand, and share the chalice, with the person who is different – whether by colour, background, sexuality or even just personal hygiene – we have not yet learned our faith, because it is here that we are undoubtedly Christians: here is the primary evidence.
Of course it isn’t enough just to come and acknowledge the Lord and receive him in the sacrament. We have, as St James teaches us, to show our faith by what we do and how we live. But it starts here and it is nourished here.
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.