Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: God’s open invitation

16 August 2015
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Revd Simon Cowling<
Ephesians 5. 15-20; John 6. 51-58

I’m beginning with poetry this morning. I hope you all have sight of the poem Agnus Dei, by R S Thomas. Here it is:

Agnus Dei
No longer the Lamb
but the idea of it.
Can an idea bleed?
Or on what altar
does one sacrifice an idea?

It gave its life
for the world? No
it is we give our life
for the idea that nourishes
itself on the dust in our veins.

God is love. Where
there is no love, no God?
There is only the gap between
word and deed we try
narrowing with an idea. 

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) comes from a late collection of poems called Mass for Hard Times. R S Thomas, an Anglican priest, wrote poetry that was largely religious. But the faith that emerges from his poetry is a faith rooted in relentless questioning rather than in easy answers: Rowan Williams has described him as a ‘great articulator of uneasy faith’. The poem we’ve just heard is typical of R S Thomas, and seems to me to offer a good route in to our reflections on today’s Gospel reading.

Imagine for a moment being part of the crowd in the synagogue in Capernaum that St John writes about. This is the same crowd that had witnessed, that had tasted, the miraculous sign of the loaves and fishes; the same crowd that had followed Jesus back across the lake eager to hear more from him; the same crowd that, as we may remember from last week, had begun to grumble at the apparently shocking things that Jesus was beginning to say.  But something even more shocking is to come. Today we have heard Jesus say to the crowd: my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.  The Dominican priest Timothy Radcliffe has commented that for faithful Jews these words must have seemed ‘disgusting and even sacrilegious’. After all, Jews were not, are not, permitted to drink the blood of animals, so how must they have received this strange and outlandish sermon in which Jesus speaks about eating his body and drinking his blood? And implicit in Jesus’s language is a new understanding of sacrifice: the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. A life-giving relationship with God is to be found not in the repetitive sacrifice of animals in the Temple, but in one human life that is to be given, self-sacrificed, for the whole world.

But here is another question. How do we receive Jesus’ sermon? How comfortable are we with his language? I think this is the question that RS Thomas is tackling in his poem Agnus Dei. The poet shows us that sometimes, often perhaps, there is a temptation for us to deal with Jesus’ shocking language of human self-sacrifice by turning it into an idea. Any attempt to grapple with the vividness of the language, to understand that we are nourished by eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood, can be buried by the complexities of our theology and the sometimes emotionally distancing effect of liturgical language; or it can be obscured by the polite rituals of our celebrations of the Eucharist, the all-too carefully tended beauty of our particular idea of holiness. The trouble is that in the end, as R S Thomas points out, an idea is not flesh and blood – it can’t bleed; nor can it be sacrificed. It exists only in the mind.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs includes a wonderful celebration of God personified as Wisdom. In this guise God offers an invitation: Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.  It is no coincidence that Jesus, who is after all described by St Paul as God’s wisdom, offers the crowd at Capernaum a similar invitation. Jesus does not make demands, or set rules, or include some at the expense of others. Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, extends an open invitation, gives himself, flesh and blood, to all who have the appetite to accept what he offers: to those who will worship today at the Jungle Church in Calais, as well as to those of us worshipping here in Bolton Priory; to those whose beliefs, appearance, or lifestyle are subject to the harsh judgement of others, as well as to those of us doing the judging. In Jesus’s words of invitation we learn the real meaning of the bread and the wine which we will share in a moment, a meaning that one writer has beautifully expressed in this way: the reality of Jesus – the reality of God – can be held in the hand and eaten and digested.  This is no idea. This is the promise of the God who offers to satisfy our deepest hungers with his very self, the inexhaustible source of life, unity, and peace. We thank God that we glimpse this life, unity, and peace in the Eucharist we share today; and we pray that through this Communion we may grow into maturity as God’s people – reconciled with God and with one another.