Firstly, and primarily we are here to worship God together as a community of the baptised, and the focus for our worship today is the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Feast of the Body of Christ.
As Feasts in the Church go, Corpus Christi is a relatively new one, it really only came to prominence about 700 years ago, and it was lost in our own tradition for a time after the Reformation, only to be restored again recently under the new name of the Festival of Thanksgiving for Holy Communion. In times past it included outdoor processions and banners, and most significantly the ceremonial carrying around of the communion wafer, as a symbol of the body of Christ, and as a sign of God’s blessing on the local community.
Well times have changed, and it is unlikely that that message would be communicated effectively if we processed around the local streets of Greenwood with communion wafers this morning. Nevertheless, this Feast of the Body of Christ provides an opportunity for us to focus again on the sacrament which is central to our liturgy week by week here at St John’s. So that’s the first thing which is going on this morning, and that is the most important.
Secondly, because this is the Sunday nearest to the day that we commemorate the life of St Augustine, this is also Anglican Communion Sunday, and this is an even newer celebration in the life of Anglicans everywhere. It is the day when we are asked to particularly remind ourselves of our connection as Anglicans with seventy million other members of our church in almost every country of the world. Our common bond with millions of other Anglicans really should be a cause for us to celebrate together today.
It reminds us that we are part of something much bigger than those who are gathered here this morning, it reminds us that we are part of a living, growing, vibrant Church with many wonderful and different expressions of what that means in the many cultures in which it finds itself. And if you are struggling to imagine what that means, one tangible sign of our Anglican Communion is the two large and growing Anglican Sudanese congregations in our Region. They remind us that the average age of Anglicans around the world is not 50 or 60 but somewhere nearer to 20: and that should be a great relief to us all. But some of you will know that this wider network of churches, of which we are a part, which trace their common history back to the Church of England, is a family on the brink of separation at the current time.
We disagree on the role of women, we disagree on the place of gay and lesbian people in our church, and behind it all, we have an increasingly wide range of attitudes and beliefs about how we should approach scripture, and tradition and all of the issues that contemporary secular understandings raise for us. There has been much debate about these issues in our own Diocese’s newspaper, the Anglican Messenger, over the past few months, and that is just a small part of the wider debates which are going on around our Communion.
One of the saddest moments in the recent history of the Anglican Communion, was when the senior Archbishops of our church, meeting together in Northern Ireland to try and resolve some of these tensions back in February, were unable to share Eucharistic fellowship with each other, as we will do in a few moments this morning. Because of their many differences some of the Conservative Archbishops felt that they could not share the sacrament of communion, the Body and Blood of Christ, with some of the more progressive Archbishops who were there with them. So as we celebrate together today the Feast of the Body of Christ, we do so knowing that within our own small part of the Church, our Anglican Communion, there is deep division within that body. If that alerts us to nothing else, it calls us to examine ourselves, and to pray for the Anglican Church this week.
Our Gospel reading this morning transports our minds back to the final events of the life of Jesus. And so we have to place ourselves with him and his disciples way back before his trial and crucifixion, and death and resurrection. All that we have been celebrating together since Easter Day has not yet taken place in the scene which is presented to us this morning. The authors of the Gospel of Mark want to ensure that it is absolutely clear to us who read this account, that the drama of the Last Supper does not take place by chance, but on the contrary is very deliberate. Jesus sends two of his disciples into the city, with the assurance that they will be met by a man carrying a water jar, who will show them to the place where the supper will be held. And as the disciples do what they have been told, they find that everything is as Jesus has predicted: the scene is set for something very important to take place. So Jesus, who is of course a Jewish teacher, shares the Passover meal with his Jewish friends.
That meal had been celebrated for many hundreds of years by all Jews, and it is still celebrated each year by Jews around the world, including those in our city of Perth. It is a symbolic ritualised meal in which food is eaten and stories are told to remember the freedom of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, the story that we find in the Book of Exodus. It was then (in the time of Jesus), and it is still now, an opportunity for Jews to remember all that God did for their ancestors, freeing them through the plagues which were sent upon the Egyptians, and opening for them, (as they left their slavery in Egypt under the direction of Moses), the new opportunity of travelling towards the Promised Land which God had prepared for them. But this time, at this Last Passover supper which Jesus shared with his friends, he enacted a new ritual at the end of the meal. It is a ritual which is at the heart of our worship, and which we know very well. He took some unleavened bread, (unleavened because it reminded the Jews that there was not time for their ancestors to bake the bread properly, such was the speed with which they had to leave Egypt), and he blessed the bread in front of them, thanking God for it, and then he passed it around the table, with the simple words, “Take – this is my body.” And then he took a cup of wine, and again he blessed it and passed the cup around telling them that this was his blood, the blood of the covenant which would be poured out for all of them.
So Jesus used as the stage for this final teaching to his disciples, a meal which was already deeply symbolic to them, but instead of pointing them back to the freedom which had been given to their ancestors from that Egyptian slavery, he pointed forwards, to a new freedom which would be offered to all through his body and life blood. It is that hope in Christ which we celebrate week by week together here in our celebration of the Mass.
Last week we were thinking together about “moments of grace” in our lives: ways in which God breaks in to the ordinary events of what we do; ways in which God brings good news into our lives. And I hope that those of you who were here last Sunday have been able to evidence in your own lives this week some of those personal moments of grace for yourselves. In a sense our weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, (when we remember again and again these events from today’s Gospel reading), is the ultimate “moment of grace” for us each week. Because through it we not only look back to all that God has done for us in Jesus, we look forward to the new hope which we have in him. We don’t just shape the Mass each week around the altar because otherwise we would have no focus for we do, we shape our liturgy around this meal precisely because it is the focus for our life together.
Which leads me on to the third thing which we are here to do this morning. Not only are we here to celebrate the Feast of the Body of Christ, not only are we here to celebrate the diversity and life of the body of Christ in the Anglican Communion of which we are a part, we are going to be celebrating the life of our own Church this morning at our Annual Meeting of Parishioners, at the meeting which each year gives us the opportunity to receive formally the reports of what has been going on in our faith community over the 12 months. And that meeting, at 11 o’clock will also provide us with the opportunity to elect officers and to ratify the appointment of ministry co-ordinators who will lead us forward in the next year, in all that God has in store for us. It is right that these three things should be taking place together today: as we celebrate the Body of Christ through the sacrament of Communion, we are reminded that we ourselves are the body of Christ: Christ’s body the Church.
We remember too (through our celebration of Anglican Communion Sunday) that we are not Christ’s body alone, we are joined by millions of others in our own tradition, and billions of others in other Christian traditions who share the privilege of living out what it means to be the Body of Christ around the world. But as we look at our Anglican Communion around the world and see the divisions which are tearing it apart, we are reminded that at our Annual Meeting today we have both a responsibility to speak honestly to each other about how we feel (and that may lead to differences emerging among us), but we have a responsibility too, to act like the Body of Christ which we celebrate today. To act out our calling as the Body of Christ, means I think, that we must be totally open and honest with each other today, within the boundary that there is much more that unites us in Christ than separates us, after all, if that is not the case then we are not the body of Christ.
It will be this holding together in loving understanding the many differences in our Anglican Communion, which will cause us to celebrate in the future our membership of that Communion ever more enthusiastically. And it will be this living of our own lives as the visible united (albeit diverse) sign of the Body of Christ here at St John’s which will ultimately be the greatest celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi.