Friday, July 31, 2015

The Mass, the Eucharist, the Holy Communion or the Lord's Supper?

Today, I want to focus on something that we do, every week, year in and year out.  I'm speaking of course, about the Mass, or the Holy Communion, or the Lord's Supper, or the Eucharist....whatever your favourite name for this service is!

Actually, all these different names are important...because they spring out of the ongoing debates in the church, all around the world, about the primary meaning of this liturgy.  Those who use the word 'Eucharist' are drawing from the Greek word 'eucharistia' which means 'thanksgiving'.  For them, the key moment of this service is the eucharistic, or thanksgiving prayer, during which the people of God are reminded of God's actions in the world and in their lives through Christ and the Holy Spirit.  The Eucharist is where we give thanks to God for the sacrificial death of Christ, and commit ourselves to live new lives following his example.

For those who prefer the term Holy Communion, it is the more 'communal' aspects of the service which are important.  Through the liturgy, the 'community' comes together, and communes with God and one another, before going out to love and serve the Lord in the community.  It is that 'communal' emphasis that has led the Church of England to mainly prefer the title 'Holy Communion' than some of the other options.  We are a parish church, called to serve a certain parish, in a certain community.  We invite others to an ever more Holy Way of being in communion, and in community.

The Lord's Supper is a term mainly used by the 'non-conformist' churches - those who do not conform to all the teachings of the orthodox and catholic versions of Christianity.  Most Lord's Suppers are a very stripped-back, bare version of the liturgy.  The main focus is the meal of bread and wine, which is consumed (mainly) as a memorial of Christ's death.  A ‘Lord's Supper’ tends to focus on the meal as a historical event, rather than (as the traditional churches teach) something which is still happening today. 

For a non-conformist, (and for most evangelicals) the bread and the wine are merely tokens, rather than something which by the Holy Spirit, is mysteriously transformed into the body and blood of Jesus - whether that is meant spiritually or literally.  The piece of furniture on which this happens is called the Lord's Table, rather than an Altar - because non-conformists prefer to believe that what happened once cannot be repeated again.  For them, the sacrifice of Christ was made once for all, and cannot be repeated.  Those who prefer the term Altar claim that in some spiritual sense Christ continues to sacrifice himself again and again for the life of the world...and therefore, the place on which this Sacrifice is made present would be called an Altar.

There are many, many other names for this central feast of the Christian Church, and many many ways of interpreting all the different elements that it includes.  For example, some Christians call this 'The Table of the Lord' - the 'Mensa Domini'.  Some call it 'the Lord's Body' - the Corpus Domini.  Some call it the 'Holy of Holies' - the 'Sanctissimum', or the 'Eulogia' (the Blessing) or the Synaxis (the Assembly).  And there are others! 

The main alternative that I suspect you have all heard is of course ‘The Mass’.  There are debates around where that particular title came from.  One idea is that the word comes from the same root as the word 'Mess' - as is used on ships all over the world.  It’s the place of 'the Meal' - so the The Mass is The Meal.  Another suggestion is that ‘Mass’ comes from the Latin words of dismissal, at the end of the service:  "Ite, Missa Est', which directly translates as 'Go, the dismissal is made'.  In other words…'You are sent' - emphasising that having received the spiritual nourishment of the Eucharist, we are sent out into the world 'to love and serve the Lord'.

And all of this is very interesting...especially to a geek like me!  But of course, the real question is this:  what is the Service for?!  What is its fundamental purpose?  Why do we do it, and why should we continue doing it?

Surprisingly, one of the most profound answers that I've found to these questions comes from an Atheist… 
The philosopher Alain de Botton has written a description of what he calls 'the Mass', which is well worth hearing.  (This is part of his book "Religion for Athiests: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion").  He argues that Atheists need to learn from the Church.   For example, he praises the Mass for the way that it brings people together in community around a meal.  He points out that with declining church attendance we have seen an exponential rise in Restaurants - But, he points out, Restaurants fail to "introduce patrons to one another, to dispel their mutual suspicions, to break up the clans into which people chronically segregate themselves”.  The focus is on the food and the decor, never on opportunities for extending and deepening affections”.

In contrast, de Botton says these things about the Mass...” Those in attendance tend not to be uniformly of the same age, race, profession or educational or income level; they are a random sampling of souls united only by their shared commitment to certain values"

The Mass "should inspire visitors to suspend their customary frightened egoism in favour of joyful immersion in a collective spirit - an unlikely scenario in the majority of modern community centres"

These are all brilliant observations, I think.  De Botton goes on to suggest the formation of Agape Restaurants, where patrons are mixed up, and forced to sit with people they don’t normally mix with.  They should be places where people are challenged to think about life, and their place in it.  

I rather like the idea of Agape Restaurant.  In fact such restaurants already exist in many churches.  We have one, just like that, in Havant, in the Pastoral Centre with the Methodist Church.  So does the Portsdown Community Church, at the Beacon. There’s also the Meeting Place at the URC.  This is what Authentic Christians do - we take a simple idea from the normal plane of modern our case, the idea of eating together.  Then we transform it, with God's help, into something holy, by introducing the idea of community - teaching people to love their neighbour as they love themselves.  We give every visitor a warm welcome, and the chance, if they wish, to think about the deep questions of existence.

And that is what the Mass, or the Holy Communion, is ultimately about.  It's the place where people from all walks of life can come together, united by a common Vision of what the world could be like.  We are united by a common understanding that none of us is free of sin, and we all need to give and receive forgiveness...from God and each other.  We are united by a common meal, in which we take into ourselves the very stuff of God, in bread and wine; we take in sustenance for the next stage of our life...whether that be the next day, or the next month. 

And we do other vital things too.  Together, we recite historic words of faith, like the Creed.  Many of us might struggle with the actual theology  of some of the words we recite, but nevertheless they tie us to the previous generations who have believed before us. Together we offer up the world, in all its chaos and pain, and challenge ourselves to be part of the solution to the world's problems.  We share peace with each other...even with people who we would normally not think of as friends.  And together, we commit ourselves to going out in the name of Christ, to love and serve the world.

What could be a more appropriate and magnificent thing for followers of Jesus - to do?


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Death of John the Baptist

The Death of John the Baptist

(Amos 7.7-15, Ephesians 1.3-14, Mark 6, 14-29)

Putting your head above the parapet is a very dangerous thing to do.  You’re quite likely to lose it.  And yet, that is what God has consistently called his people to do throughout the centuries. 

In the early days of recorded human history, the Jewish nation came to believe that God had called them to put their heads above the parapet.  They believed that through Patriarchs like Moses, God had called them to be a people through which the whole world would be changed, redeemed and saved.  This was to be a way of life that was completely at odds with the way people used to live in those days.  It was a way of life which included ideas like,

welcoming the stranger

sharing of wealth

a prohibition on usury (or the charging of interest).

and the very notion of charity

God called his people to willingly surrender some of their wealth for the good of the whole community.  Widows, orphans, strangers, the sick – all could be embraced and cared-for.  No-one would be exploited through the charging of interest.  All would be welcome.

And they were to do all this despite the pressures and the temptations of the world and the nations around them… nations who sought to conquer them and take over Jewish lands.  God promised them that if they would live according to his laws, they would prosper, despite the pressure on their borders.

But, the Jews were (and are) made of the same stuff as you and me.  Time and time again, they, like us, failed to live up to God’s call to be radically different to the rest of the world.  They were tempted by the allure of gold and power, and gave up the laws of God.  They failed to abide by the rules of Jubilee and Charity and purity.  The rich and powerful grew fatter, while the poor went hungry. 

God, however, did not give up on his people.  He sent them prophets, men who put their heads above the parapet, to remind people of God’s laws, and to call the people to repent.  We heard just now a small snippet of the book of Amos, who was one such prophet.  Amos lived about 750 years before Christ, at a time when the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah were peaking in prosperity.  The rulers of the Kingdoms at that time had never had it so good.  International commerce was flourishing.   But as a result, the peasant farmers were being forced to grow crops that would make more money for their masters – like wine and olive oil for the rich to consume, instead of grain for bread. The rich oppressed the poor.  Might was right.  Profit was king.

Amos was himself a farmer and a herdsman.  Out of his own experience, God calls him to go to the capital city – and there he puts his head above the parapet – loudly proclaiming the iniquity of the current economic system.  He became a Prophet against profit.  (Did you see what I did there?) 

But, as you might imagine, this doesn’t go down very well with the people who have the power.  Amaziah, for example, was a priest of the Temple of the Golden Calf…and he was particularly upset.  The Golden Calf was a symbol of the wealth of the nation.  People prayed to the Calf for their own wealth…praying to be raised out of their own poverty.  It was rather like the way that people today buy lottery tickets in the hope of great wealth.  The people of Israel sacrificed desperately to the Golden Calf…and the priests lived off the sacrifices.  Amaziah was their priest – and he didn’t want Amos to upset his rather comfortable apple-cart.  He incited the crowd to beat Amos up.  Amaziah ridiculed the prophet, and warned him to get out of town.

Prophets against profit are never very popular.  And that was the pattern throughout the Bible’s history.  Time and time again, the prophets called the people back to the ways of God.  John the Baptist was the last in this long line of ancient prophets.  He too stood up against the powerful elites of his day – especially the vassal King Herod.  Herod was a puppet of the Roman authorities, but he lived in a fine palace, held lavish parties, and kept on partying while his people suffered and squirmed under the ‘might is right’ domination of Rome.  John the Baptist cried out against Herod…against his lifestyle, his love of wealth and profit and his iniquitous inter-marriage to his brother’s wife. He put his head above the parapet…and for his trouble, got himself locked up in Herod’s dungeon, then had his head removed.

There are of course many other juicy themes I’d like to explore about the death of John the Baptist.  The whole topic of the use of sex and seduction to obtain immoral ends is particularly juicy!  But I don’t want to over-stay my welcome.

Let me just conclude with these thoughts.  When the Bible speaks about the human beings of history, it describes us too. It reads us.  Human nature does not change.  There will always be wealthy elites, who will manipulate the power they have been given, or that they have taken, to oppress the poor. 

And, while it reads us, the Bible also calls to us…the modern day people of God…the new Israel.  We are the people who, as Paul said (while writing to the Ephesians in our second lesson) have had “made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ”. (Eph 1.9).  We cannot be in any doubt about this.  God has made abundantly clear, through the pages of the Bible the ‘mystery of his will’.  We cannot be in any doubt that the way the world is structured is absolutely and fundamentally flawed.  Wealthy elites have sway in our world – perhaps even more than in biblical times.  Something like 90% of the world’s wealth is owned by 10% of its population.  The poor are trampled on, or turned into slaves to work in the seat-shops and factories that support the wealthy elite.  Golden Calves are erected to give people hope.  They are called things like ‘the American Dream’, or given fancy labels like ‘equality of opportunity’…when in reality, all the opportunity is exclusively reserved for the sons and daughters of the elite. 

Into this sinful, depraved, iniquitous system…the Bible speaks loudly and clearly the ‘mystery of God’s will’ – his mysterious upside down view of the way the world should be.  Blessed are the poor…for theirs is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are the meek…for they will, ultimately, inherit the earth when the Great Day of the Lord comes.  Blessed are the peacemakers…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  We have the words of Mary, echoing Hannah the mother of another prophet, Samuel…”He will put down the mighty from their seats, and exalt the humble and meek.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away”. 

Our task…our fundamental task…our mission…our calling is crystal clear.  We are called to co-operate with God in the building of a completely different way of life…establishing a Kingdom in which all can flourish, and everyone can thrive.  That’s what it means to be a follower of Christ.  In Paul’s words, we have been “adopted as his children through Jesus Christ” – we are the new people of Israel.  We, like Israel before us, are called to live holy and blameless lives.  We are called to declare the promises of God to the whole world, living by the light of “him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will”.  The great Day of Lord that Amos foretold will come.  The rich will be sent empty away.  The poor will be raised up and the meek will inherit the earth. 

But what does this calling actually mean for us?  What does it mean, as we considered last week, for us to ‘act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God’? 

On a personal level, you need to work that out for yourself.  What is God calling you to do differently as a result of understanding this calling?  What power do you hold over others that he calls you to relinquish?  How can you be more self-emptying, more uplifting of the poor and the down-trodden people you encounter in your life?  We need to work these things out for ourselves.  We need to take time to listen to God’s call on our individual lives.  Many of us live remarkably comfortable lives, don’t we?  Could it be that God is stirring us up to more fully ‘live for the praise of his glory’ (in the words of St Paul - Eph 1.12)?  Could you bring a tin of food for the food-bank?  Could you offer to visit one of the lonely and housebound members of this community?  Could you give up some sofa-time to improve our community facilities?  Could you sacrifice some of your personal financial resources for the work of the Kingdom? You need to answer these questions for yourself.

But as a community, I think God is speaking loudly and clearly.  Through our Mission Development Plan, he is calling us to build community structures that speak loudly and clearly of Kingdom Values.  There are physical spaces like our church building and our community halls in which the lives of the very poorest can be transformed into something at least approaching God’s counsel and will.  That’s why we are bending ourselves towards the task of restoring our church hall.  That’s why we are improving our church building. 

But as well as physical structures, I believe God is calling us to build new ways of being a community too.  We need to adapt the way we worship and worship spaces – so that they welcome and embrace the young, and those for whom traditional forms of worship don’t speak so clearly.  We need to get serious about learning what the Bible has to teach us, and about what it means to truly Follow Jesus – hence the new course we are starting in the Spring.  Our Mission Development Plan invites us to devote ourselves to:
  • ·        worship of God and to service of our community
  • ·        to discipleship for ourselves and encouragement and support of others
  • ·        to nurture the young – who are largely absent at the moment
  • ·        to enhance our environment – our piece of the planet which we’ve been given to care for
  • ·        and to care for our buildings

We need to become, in short, the kind of people who put their heads above the parapet and who declare through our lives, our words and our actions, that God is at work, and the world will be changed. 


Friday, July 3, 2015

What's Your Vocation?

Last night, at Portsmouth Cathedral, I experienced the enormous pleasure of attending the ordination of someone from my former parish. If you've never attended an ordination, you really should make a mental note to go at some point.  They are quite remarkable occasions, where someone who has gone through years of struggle with God, more years of study at college, many sleepless nights and buckets of 'formational' training finally stands before the Bishop.  At the ordination of priests, other priests gather round and together with the Bishop we all lay hands on the ordinand - praying for God's Spirit to fill them anew for their vocation.  It can be a very emotional moment indeed!

It also, happens to be the 10th Anniversary of my own ordination this weekend.  10 years since I had the hands of other clergy placed on me.  10 years since I was commissioned for a particular role within the Church.

I have to confess that I'm rather grateful to God that my commissioning didn't take the same pattern as the ordination of the Twelve Disciples in today's Gospel.  Jesus sent them out, two by two - and he forbade them to take anything with them for the journey, except a staff:  no bread, no bag, no money - and only one tunic.  It seems that Jesus wanted his disciples to be wholly reliant on God, and on the hospitality of others.  He called them to live on the charity of others - having no wealth that could be used to draw people to themselves.  Even today, there is still something of that in the way the church commissions its leaders.  Even Bishops are only modestly paid.  Many vicars and rectors live in lovely houses - with big rooms and gardens that can be used for parish events.  But we don't own them.  Our allowances are carefully calculated to give us enough to pay the bills, but not so much that we find it easy to save anything.  Most retired clergy end up living in rented accommodation, and have to cover services just to make ends meet.  

In setting this pattern, the Church is trying to follow the pattern of Jesus.  He understood that possessing too much wealth can be a very tricky thing for a human being to get right. Wealth can very quickly make friends for us.  If we are wealthy enough to host parties, or give lavish gifts to our friends, then we will always have people who want to be around us.  Wealth can be used - intentionally or not - as means of obtaining power over other people.  The wonderful Billie Holiday reflected this idea in her song 'God Bless the Child', when she sang:

When you've got money, you've got lots of friends,
They're crowding round your door
But when the money's gone, and all the spending ends
They don't come round anymore

But Jesus didn't want his Disciples to go out with presents, or to put on dinner parties to invite people - tricking them into sitting down to hear the Gospel.  His radical new way of living was not going to be based on using money as a lever to faith.  Neither did he want to present the idea that his followers would somehow live more easily than other people.  Following God, as most of us know only too well, is not a guarantee of wealth, or of good health.  The kind of preachers who tell you that if you follow God, he will shower you with a new car and the end of all financial worries are wrong.  Utterly wrong.  

In fact, over and over again, Jesus warned his followers about the false promises of wealth.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom.  He told the stories of wealthy landowners who lost their lives just at the point at which they had gathered all their riches into barns.

Jesus called his followers into a very different way of life.  It was a way of life, as Paul discovered, in which weakness would be the path to perfection.  It was a way of life, as Ezekiel found out, in which there would be rebellion and hardship from a society which has stopped listening to God.  And, as The Twelve discovered, as Jesus sent them out, it would be a way of life in which dependence on one another, charity, poverty, a refusal to claim ownership of anything, would be the ways to performing miracles and changing lives.

We still struggle with these ideas, don't we?  These are counter-intuitive ideas.  Every day, through our newspapers, magazines and TV sets, powerful forces are at work underminding this idea of Jesus.   Through the media, we get a very different picture of what success looks like.  Even when we hear the occasional story of the miserable millionaire, or the suicidal pop-star, we brush them off as being exceptions that prove the rule.

But Jesus continues to call us to a new vocation.  He called me, 10 years ago, to give up a rather nice Government salary in favour of a church stipend.  He calls Bishops, often some of the most talented men (and now women!) of their generation to similar financial restraint.  And, I believe, Jesus calls all his followers to think very carefully - very carefully indeed - about how they use the wealth and opportunities that they have been fortunate enough to accumulate.

The word ‘vocation’ of course has the same roots as the world ‘vocal’.  Our vocation is our ‘calling’.  Some receive very special callings – perhaps to serve the church in an ordained or licensed ministry.  But all God’s people are called.  All of us have a vocation…a shared, general, universal vocation.  All of us who own the title of Christ-ian are called to live in a way – in fact in The Way – that Jesus outlined.  It’s a way of self-sacrifice.  It’s a way of receiving, through giving.  It’s a way of choosing the life of the community over the temptations of the individual.  It’s the kind of way of life that draws people out of their homes, and into fellowship with one another.  It’s the way of life that welcomes the stranger, and rejoices in difference.

The prophet Micah perhaps summed these ideas up with the greatest succinctness:

Micah 6:8:  (God) has shown you O mortal, what is good:  and what does the LORD require of you?  To act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

How can we act justly, when billions around us are starving and we fail to help?
How can we act mercifully, when we close our borders and our hearts to those who need our help?
How can we walk humbly with God, when we don’t pay any attention to the teachings of his Son?

This, then, is our calling and our vocation:  all of us.  Who knows where such a calling will lead us.  Some may be inspired to take up new responsibilities and challenges in the church or in the workplace and world.  Some may find new ways of using the gift of wealth they have been given to bless their community.  Some may even find themselves wearing a clerical collar!  All we can say, is that this is The Way of God:  to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.  


(Scriptures referenced:  Micah 6.8, Ezekiel 2.1-5, 2 Corinthians 12.2-10, Mark 6.1-13)