Canon Prof Simon Oliver preaches at St Thomas for our Corpus Christi Celebration

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St Thomas' Celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi on Sunday 2nd June at the Parish Eucharist. We were privileged in having Dr. Simon Oliver as our preacher. Fr. Simon is Head of Theology and Religous Studies Department at the University of Nottingham and Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham.

Below is his sermon.

Corpus Christi 2013

Genesis 14.18-20; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; Luke 9.11-17

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’d like you to imagine the following scene. A woman lies in a hospice bed in the final hours of her life. Her husband of forty years wipes her mouth with a moist sponge and strokes her soft, thinning hair. He leans in to kiss her softly on the cheek. She senses the warmth of his breath on her face and tastes a single salty tear as it rolls from his eyes onto her lips. With no strength to open her eyes, the woman recognises her beloved husband only by his smell. She gathers all her failing strength to draw his essence deep into her lungs, delighting in all the now fading but joyous memories his presence evokes. Her body, so completely familiar in its textures and contours for the last four decades, seems more beautiful than ever to this distraught but quiet man. As he recites psalms of anguish and hope, the woman slips gently from this realm to another, a simple wooden cross held between the palms of gentle hands, once a lover’s hands who had caressed and blessed her beloved. As life’s last whisper faded from this woman’s mouth, her body lay still but tended with greatest care. She was kissed one last time, laid to rest, and passed into the arms of Jesus her Lord.

This is a very physical description of the end of a physical life. All our deepest human intuitions tell us that the body, even in the last hours of life and in death, is something deeply sacred, something beyond value. The Bible tells us as much. St. Paul writes: ‘Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.’  The Bible also tells us that the body of Jesus Christ is treated as deeply sacred, as beyond value. While eating at the house of Simon the Pharisee, a woman comes to anoint Jesus with oil, to wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. In death, a woman rushes to the tomb of Jesus on the first day of the week to rub oil and spices into his lifeless body. And Jesus, in his earthly ministry, treats the bodies of others as deeply sacred and beyond value. He heals by touch, by spitting into the eyes of the blind, pulling the lame to their feet, stopping the haemorrhaging of a woman, giving food to the physically starving and hope to the disease-ridden outcasts. This physical, material, bodily, beautiful world created by God is healed and blessed, for it shows God’s goodness and God’s grace.

But it would be easy to think that God’s done his work in Jesus Christ in the mess of the physical world and now, having ascended, has gone back to the purity of heaven. But no. The physical, material, bodily blessing of God in Jesus Christ is still ours. St. Paul tells us that, on the night that Jesus was betrayed, he ate the simplest of meals with his friends. He broke bread and gave it to his disciples. Jesus says something very strange. It’s as if he displaces his bodily identity into bread and wine at a meal. ‘This is my body’, he says. He doesn’t say ‘This looks like my body’, nor even ‘this represents my body’. ‘This is my body’. He took wine and said ‘This is my blood’. Through this ceremony, this practice, this meal, they were to take the very life of Jesus, the presence of Jesus, the body and blood of Jesus, into their own bodies. The life of Jesus was to become their life, so that their bodies could become truly temples of the Holy Spirit. The only thing we know about the life of the first Christians in the first years after the death and resurrection of Jesus – the only thing we know – is that they came together probably daily to break bread, share a cup of wine, and by these physical, material things, consecrated in the name of Jesus Christ to draw into themselves his risen life and presence. So it’s not the case that God dipped his toe into creation, sorted out the mess and has now disappeared back to heaven. The physical, material reality of the incarnation remains real in the meal we celebrate this morning. The gift of the body of Christ is given again and again, placed into our hands, so that, as St. Paul puts it when he writes to the Christians in Ephesus, Christ might ‘fill all in all’.

Our Christian faith, which has at its heart the outrageous claim that God became a physical human person and walked with us and continues to be present by the materials of bread and wine, our faith is a very physical, material faith. The spiritual is not detached from the material. Our bodies are blessed and sacred; our bodies are part of creation in the image and likeness of God himself.  But we live in a culture where bodies are abused, mutilated, commodified and traded, desecrated. The horrific murder of April Jones is made all the more horrific because her family do not have her body. They cannot yet attend to, bless, re-hallow, re-sanctify her desecrated body. The murder of Lee Rigby is again all the more horrific because he could only be identified by his dental records. Another body desecrated which will be sanctified again at his burial.

In far more utterly mundane ways, we find it hard truly to bless, hallow and value our bodily material existence. This might seem daft, but think about the way that we eat. The other day I was rushing across the campus at the University in Nottingham from one meeting to another. It was lunchtime and there was barely time to eat. I grabbed a sandwich at one of the shops in one building and ate it on my way to another meeting. When I arrived at the meeting, I couldn’t remember eating that sandwich. I could tell you what was in it. It meant nothing. That’s so often how we eat – we stuff ourselves and recognise no significance to the food that we eat, no delight. But contrast that with my experience of eating with Fr. Robert and Sarah last night…

The culture in which we live tends, I think, to see only an instrumental value to material, physical reality. Our bodies are machines for consumption and trade, open to abuse and misuse. But everything material in this service today – the beautiful building, the candles, the vestments, the carrying of books and the reading of the Word, the water, wine and bread, the physical material things have meaning and purpose. They are symbols. They shine with the blessing and presence of God. This means that this is a physical place and a hallowed place. And at its heart lies the body of Christ, for at the high point of this service we are, like the first apostles, fed with Christ himself, to take his life into our sacred bodies. This utterly simply, daily meal shows us the very meaning of food: a gift of God for our blessing, nourishment and delight.

In this morning’s Gospel we hear the familiar story of the feeding of the five thousand. Look at the context of this miracle: St. Luke writes, ‘The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.” They were in a deserted, desolate place. The people were hungry and there was no food. Our modern culture can, at times, feel like a desolate place in which, despite the abundance of food in the developed world, we feel hungry for something more, something with significance and meaning. Jesus fed his disciples in that desolate place and he feeds us today to slake our own hunger. He feeds us with himself, with his body and blood, that his life may be taken deep into our bodies and souls, that our life might be his life. In hallowing the body of Jesus of Nazareth, and in hallowing our bodies by our feeding on Christ, we come to know that the whole of God’s material creation, the beauty of nature, the delight of food and the sanctity of the human body, these things tell us of nothing less than the love and glory of God. At the heart of this lies the mystery of the Eucharist, the gift of the body of Christ.