Eucharist Series 1

1 Peter 2:1-3 and John 6:32-40

There’s a story told about one of the early cosmonauts who went up into space, and on his return gave a press conference. A Russian journalist asked him: ‘When you were up there, did you see God?’ And as a good communist, the new hero answered ‘No, I did not see God.’

So when an American astronaut had returned to earth the press asked him the same question: ‘When you were up there, did you see God?’ ‘No,’ replied the astronaut, ‘but I would have done, if I’d taken my helmet off.’

It’s a question of discernment. Are you open to the God who calls us? God is there, can we accept him? Christianity believes in a God who reveals himself. He is not far off, not hidden, not secreted away through knowledge available only to the few, but God himself reaches out to us. This is one of the key Christian beliefs, not that humanity has to build up a pyramid that we ascend to reach God, but that he comes down to us. In our prayers and thinking we do not play hide and seek but he makes himself known to us, most of all through Jesus Christ.

So how do you meet God? Through prayer? Whether silent or out loud, forming words – one’s own or using someone else’s – or the wordless way of contemplation? Do you meet God through the Bible, reading, reflecting, holding, meditating, being inspired and challenged? Did you catch this morning morning’s glory, in the Arboretum or along the Cliff, caught up in praise and wonder for the beauty of God’s creation?

Such moments are like sparks of the divine, a flash of spiritual light, a shooting star falling that only the stargazer will see. Being open to God, seeking him, is like being that stargazer. Standing outside and looking up at the night sky does not make shooting stars appear, but it means that when they do come you’re in the right place to perceive them.

Similarly prayer and reading the Bible does not force God to make himself known. Spiritual disciplines are not mechanistic, we cannot manipulate God, what ‘worked’ yesterday may feel routine tomorrow, but those disciplines do create the space for us to be aware of him. Which is why it is so important that we continue to make time to pray, reflect and be open to God.

So how do you meet God? Do you find him amongst other people? The outer and corporate life as well as the inner and personal? Worship is so important for every Christian – of course there are different ways, and various styles which appeal to the whole range of personality types – but the give and take in worship is very important too, as is the sense of fellowship and community over a shared meal.

Many people find God through acts of service such as feeding the homeless, taking communion to the elderly or teaching the children. I often find that this is God’s way of taking us deeper in our faith. That people whose spiritual lives have got a bit dry can find renewal and great fulfilment by looking outwards and serving others.

And it’s important that we use as many ways of communing with God as we can. Look at the pillars and walls of this church – they hold up the roof together. No one pillar, however massive could bear the weight alone, nor could the walls hold the centre.

So it is with our spirituality. Someone who spends a lot of time in solitary prayer but does not meet for fellowship or serve others can easily end up with an inward looking religion which makes little difference to the world around them. But relying solely on service will leave you feeling drained with nothing left to give.

Or an approach to spirituality which relies on regularly receiving communion but does not put aside time to read God’s word will find it much harder to feed the mind, or encounter spiritual challenge, and is therefore unlikely to grow.

All these are necessary. All are means of communion with Christ, of experiencing God through Jesus. In our gospel reading from John 6, Jesus teaches that this relationship with him is at the heart of our faith.

The reading is set shortly after the feeding of the 5000, where Jesus breaks the loaves and fish to sustain an enormous hungry crowd. This sign is then used to explore how Jesus can feed us in a spiritual sense.

The people have been well fed. Can you keep on doing this, just like Moses did in the desert, they ask. Jesus has to remind them that it was not Moses who gave their ancestors manna, but God himself, and it is the sign of a much more profound food. In verse 33 ‘For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’

‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ They understand it as physical food, but Jesus says ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ He can sustain us for ever, and his offer is open to all: ‘whoever comes to me I will never drive away’ – what wonderful words those are when we doubt whether God’s mercy and love can really include us.

Indeed he will ‘lose no-one who comes to him’. When we commit ourselves to Jesus, we are secure in him and through him we have a promise of life that lasts forever, in verse 40: ‘This is indeed the will of the Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.’ Jesus is like spiritual bread. When we believe in him he nourishes us for eternity. And he gives us spiritual food each day 

The way that we abide in him is through those ways of meeting God. Prayer, the Bible, worship, service, all those things we thought about earlier. They are all forms of communion with God through Christ.

Which brings us to the Eucharist, which we’re thinking about in this sermon series through Advent. It’s important to see the Eucharist against that background – to appreciate that God makes himself known and does so in a variety of ways. The Eucharist itself is a special form.

It’s an act in which we receive the presence of Christ. When we eat the bread and drink the wine it’s a very physical act. The sacrament becomes part of us. There’s no more profound way of expressing your assent and your dependence on Christ than by physically receiving. It’s where we show that we are in him and he is in us.

Now of course Christians have argued for centuries over the exact way that Jesus is sacramentally present through the bread and wine. I don’t intend to think about that today. It’s far more helpful to acknowledge his presence and ask him to reveal himself and minister to us when we receive communion.

So what does communion tell us about God? God is the host, inviting and welcoming all to his table if they will receive. That sense of invitation and welcome should flow throughout our worship. Communion must never feel exclusive – so is it right to hold a Eucharist at times when lots of non-communicants are present? And if we do, how we do include them?

God reveals himself to us in bread and wine. This tells us he does not despise the physical. So when we worship Christ born in a stable our liturgy must connect with today’s world. If Eucharistic worship becomes distant, over spiritualised or inaccessible it ends up denying that Jesus came to the world as he found it. How can our style of worship be coherent with its central truth: that of incarnation?

The Eucharist tells us that God is self-giving and loving – Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins and through his love we are forgiven. As we follow in his footsteps we are called to be a community of love, giving and forgiving one another. When we share the peace, it is good to ask is there anyone with whom we’re not reconciled as we approach the altar? We’ll think about the community of faith more next week.

Finally, the Eucharist tells us that God is present with us on life’s journey. Christ is the bread of life on whom we feed. He has given us many ways to be in communion with him. So perhaps we can ask ourselves: How balanced is my spirituality? Am I over dependent on one or two means of grace? Where might God be calling me to grow?

As we come close to Christ and receive the bread and wine, let’s be thankful to a God who makes himself known and offers himself to us that we might live. Let us pray that we may discern his presence at communion and in the world around. Amen.

For this moment

Of all the Remembrance Sundays that I have been involved in, this is the one where I feel most anxious about the future. I’ve led Remembrance in the aftermath of 9/11 and the London bombings, at times when British forces have been at war on two fronts, yet at no time has the future seemed as uncertain as it does today.

Traditionally we give thanks for the blessings that we enjoy, and commemorate the sacrifices made by many so that we could be free. Yet it seems that the progress in made in rebuilding society in the aftermath of the second world war is going into reverse: barriers are being raised between nations, economies are becoming defensive, outsiders are viewed with suspicion, and demagogues are once again rising to power.

For those of us who have placed our hope in a positive view of human nature, in the triumph of reason over prejudice, in the ability of different countries to work together for the common good of all creation, these are deeply worrying times.

As I have prayed – for Donald Trump as he takes up the presidency, for the Brexit negotiations and climate change talks, for Iraq and Syria – as I have prayed I have also sensed the need to repent. I have felt God calling me back to a more Biblical faith in him.

I have sensed that I have put too much faith in our human ability to address our problems – despite our great sinfulness – and have not fully accepted that the Kingdom of God comes in God’s time and through his leading. Like many I have trusted that our society will steadily progress from good to better – whereas our Gospel reading (Luke 21:5-19) speaks of a great crisis before Jesus is revealed in glory.

Times like this can be a wake-up call, an opportunity to reflect on where our Christian values have become absorbed by the values of the world. Has Christianity in the West become too closely identified with a particular form of government, a certain philosophical view of historical and scientific progress?

As our Epistle reading (2 Thess 3:6-13) shows us, Christians have lived and thrived in societies which were profoundly undemocratic and unjust. All around the world today Christians bravely contend with great difficulties. Our privileged lives may be taking a step closer to theirs. We are still called to be salt and light, to transform the world around us, to give of ourselves sacrificially so that others may know Christ. We are called to make a difference in our world, not to give up on it, nor to see it as the ultimate end. God calls us to place our hope in Christ and to wait, with faith and action, for the coming of his Kingdom.

Is your imagination up to it?

‘Life after death’ said the barber. ‘I mean, nobody knows what happens do they? After all, it’s not like anyone’s been there and come back? The clergyman, who was in mufti at the time, swallowed hard and said a silent prayer: ‘Actually,’ he began…’ there was Jesus’

Last week we celebrated the feast of All Souls. We gave thanks for those who have died with faith in Christ, and we looked forward with hope to the day when we shall meet again. For many people, that’s a great source of hope. It gives us comfort when loved ones have died. I still remember feeling that when my grandfather died – he was the first person really close to me who died, he’d been a wonderful example of steadfast faith. This amazing sense of peace came that his long battle was now over and a real confidence that he is now with Christ.

And when someone close to you is constantly living on the boundary between this life and the next, believing that there is a resurrection enables you to cope with it all. I know some of you were at the the confirmation service on Wednesday. I think it was the closest I’ve ever been to heaven: a glorious celebration; friends and family from every stage of your life; all gathered together in joyful worship of our amazing God. When time stands still and eternity seems very close.

But I also know it doesn’t always feel like that. At some times and for some people it’s really difficult to believe in the resurrection. For some folks, the doctrine is more of a stumbling block, a difficulty for faith. Like the barber, they might ask: How can a dead body live? What if there’s nothing left to bring it back together from? What will we look like, what age will we be, will we know each other? How will it happen and when?

Undoubtedly it can be hard to imagine. Or maybe the imaginings that we do have don’t really seem up to the job. How many people have I spoken to who say that they can’t believe in an old guy with a long white beard sitting on a cloud! To which I reply: I don’t believe God and heaven are like that either! But we have to remember: just because we struggle to picture it, doesn’t mean the underlying belief isn’t true.

That was the mistake the Sadducees made in the gospel reading. When Jesus was on earth, there were two main religious groups in Israel: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees were working people who took the Old Testament law seriously. They believed that one day the dead would rise to life and God would make the world perfect. The Sadducees on the other hand were the priestly aristocracy. They believed that once you were dead, that was it.

There’s no reason for us to think that their beliefs weren’t honestly held. The Sadducees seem to have struggled with the resurrection on day-to-day grounds. If God will bring people back to life, what sort of lives will they lead? How are the practicalities going to work out? For instance, what about marriage?

Imagine, they say to Jesus, imagine a woman whose husband dies young. Now we all know that Moses commanded that she should marry the dead man’s brother. But before they can have children and carry on the family line, he too falls sick and dies. In order to pass on the inheritance, she marries the next brother. But he falls out of a tree picking olives. Hoping to be looked after in her old age, she marries no. 4. But he falls under a chariot. And so it goes on.

Finally no 7, who must have been a bit of a mug not to notice what’s going on, predeceased her. So, say the Sadducees, in v.33: imagine the resurrection. The woman climbs out of her grave, then her husbands rise too – all seven of them! So which of them is her husband now?

You see what happened? They’ve got carried away with their own rhetoric! They’ve set up a straw man and knocked it down. They’ve taken the idea of the resurrection and assumed that life after the resurrection would be just like this life. A continuation. And because there are obvious problems, and that doesn’t make sense, they said the whole concept is flawed. But nobody said the resurrection life is just like this life. It’s not a simple continuation. In the case of marriage, relationships are not the same in the resurrection. Marriage is a sign of the soul’s unity with God – and in the life to come the reality is fulfilled

Jesus then shows the Sadducees how the parts of the Old Testament that they accepted point to the Resurrection. The Sadducees only regarded the books of the Pentateuch as Scripture. But even there, points out Jesus, there is the story of Moses and the burning bush. Moses approaches the bush, God speaks to him, and when Moses asks who he is, God replies:

‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Not the God whom they worshipped when they were alive. Not I was their God. But I am their God – because they are living with God still. To him all are alive.

The mistake the Sadducees made is easily done and we do it all the time: Because I can’t imagine it, therefore it can’t be true. rpt.

This is not some kind of religious cop-out, or invitation to believe uncritically anything outrageous. Coping with the limitations of our imagination is an issue for scientists too: for instance in the book ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ Richard Dawkins says that the reason some people struggle with evolution is that they just can’t imagine it happening.

I wonder how many of our doubts are intellectual or moral, and how many are due to a simple lack of imagination?… I once read a physicist musing on eternal life – I’ll get bored he wrote. I’ll run out of things to do. I’ll get fed up with my own flaws. And as I get older I find I have a little more sympathy with that idea. You know that line in the hymn: ‘Amazing Grace’ – ‘when we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’ve first begun.’ Sometimes I sing that and it feels wonderful. Sometimes it feels a little unnerving – I don’t know what 50 years is like, let alone ten thousand. What about life without end?

That too is a lack of imagination. So how can we begin to dream of eternity? Look back to the very best holiday you’ve ever been on, one you never wanted to end – and imagine that the whole of creation is perfect, ready to be explored. Or how when you’re totally absorbed in good useful work you lose track of time. Remember being engrossed in conversation with friends, or completely lost in worship which lifts up the soul to the presence of God – and imagine that there is never any earthly weariness or sin to drag you back down again.  We’ll be made perfect in the world to come. The infinity of God is able to keep us occupied. And eternity isn’t the same thing as a very very long time.

That physicist should have known we don’t need to be able to visualise something in order to believe it. He would have studied quantum physics, and that’s a prime example of what I’m talking about. For nobody has seen a subatomic particle and they have strange properties like nothing we experience.

And yet that physicist was willing to believe that in physics there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Why not apply the same logic to faith? Our imaginations are limited. There are some things we may never be able to grasp, or we can only approach by using pictures.

Are we ever like those Sadducees? Do we struggle to believe in the return of Christ because the words St Paul uses are hard? The Biblical imagery of stars falling from the sky, is a sign that words and images are striving to portray a reality that no-one has set seen. The Biblical writers were stretching their imaginations to describe it. No surprise that we have to too.

Let’s therefore be honest with ourselves. Most people have doubts. Not about everything all the time, but occasionally on particular subjects we do doubt. Don’t feel bad about that. It’s only human. Don’t try and hide it from God though – no point because he knows everything, and it’s when we’re open and honest with God about doubts that he is most able to help us.

Do address doubts. They show us where we haven’t quite understood our faith, where there is space to grow, as long as we address them. So don’t let doubts fester. Bring them to God and pray about them. Think about them and reason them through. Find a helpful book, ask a minister, go on a course. Have we really understood what Christians actually believe, or are we trying to believe something the church has never actually taught? Allow God to renew your imagination and draw you closer to the unimaginable.

On this earth, we won’t understand what life after death is like. Not until we get there. It will hold wonderful surprises! There’ll be limitations we didn’t know we had that we’ll be free from, things we can do that we couldn’t have thought possible, experiences that are inconceivable to us now. For God is the God of the living, and to him all are alive.