(preached at St. Mary’s, Wolverton, Stratford. 12/08/2018)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning everyone and thank you for inviting me to come and preach this morning. It’s a real treat to come and visit Richard and his family – in which of course I include you, we are all one family and I always feel that in coming to a church I’ve not been to before – in coming amongst a new congregation I am rediscovering a branch of my family that I’ve always known, but not yet go to know. We are – one bread, one body.
Each week millions of Christians around the world come to church to seek nourishment. We pretty much all do it in different ways, but we are united by the sacraments of baptism and of the eucharist. Today, Jesus tells us quite explicitly that He is the bread of life. But what does that mean to us in our journey towards Him and towards a deeper relationship with Him?
Let’s start with that word – nourishment. It’s used a lot in Christian circles. We seek nourishment from the scriptures, we seek nourishment from the eucharist, we seek nourishment from prayer – we seek nourishment in the biscuits after the service, from our bring-and-share meals at festivals and Holy Days – we seek to nourish others – feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the broken.
We often drive a differentiation between those two things however don’t we. We nourish ourselves with scripture, the eucharist and prayer – but we nourish others with food, shelter and care. This isn’t deliberate. We come to church and we chose to receive the nourishment of the sacraments but do those who seek out our help seek only to be nourished with earthly food.
Do we really believe that those who seek our earthly help do not seek the nourishment of our Lord? Have we become so cowed by the secular world and its desire to see us confine our Love of Christ to our pretty buildings on Sundays that we cannot nourish all?
No! Of course not!
We know from Jesus that our life in Him – our relationship with him – is born of two parts.
First – ‘No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me’. This can be controversial. We love a bit of controversy in the pulpit of a Sunday morning don’t we! What is Jesus saying? Is He saying that our desire alone to know Him is not sufficient?
Yes! We do not come to Jesus through our own reasoning, through our own thought-out deductions and some personal insight that we gain through years of experience and reading. We are drawn. We are invited. We are wooed, and we are cajoled. It is not through our religious experience, our philosophical insight or the fact that our parents brought us to church every Sunday that results in our own decision to say ‘I Believe’. It is the Father who invites us – who draws us to Him. It’s what we do at that invitation that matters.
Let’s pull that apart a little. What is that invitation? Is it – as Wesley put it – a sense that our heart is strangely warmed? Well yes, that can be it – that can certainly be the physical manifestation of an invitation. We’ve all felt something that like when the person we like, that perhaps we love – first smiles at us right!?
Well, we don’t need to reach for the ephemeral to understand where invitation happens. We don’t need to wait for bits of our body to feel strangely warmed. We as the body of Christ – as His Church – lay this invitation in front of people every single day all over the world in His sacraments.
What is a sacrament? The simplest – and for me – the most compelling understanding is this:
In worship we reach for Christ. We praise his name and we give gracious thanks through song, through prayer, through gathering together in his name.
In a sacrament Christ reaches for US! Christ reaches out in the sacrament and grabs hold of our hearts and says ‘you are mine!’. Each and every time you approach the altar rail to receive the body and blood of Christ prepare yourselves to be claimed! Again and again and again! Understand that Christ is present and be prepared for that Awesome invitation! That wooing, that cajoling. Don’t approach it as if it’s just another part of the service, of your worship! Be ready to be open to the invitation so that when it does arrive you are ready to turn to Him!
There’s that language again – turn to Him. Where else do we hear that language?
Do you turn away from sin?
Do you reject evil?
Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?
Do you trust in him as Lord?
And so, Christ offers us an invitation (we do not come to him through our own strength, knowledge and power) and we accept that invitation. Our faith is born through a two-wayrelationship with the Father and that relationship is renewed, strengthened and encouraged through the constant re-offering of the nourishment that only the Church can offer. Through the sacraments, through teaching, and through prayer.
And that brings me to the second part of our relationship with Jesus – that it can only grow and can only deepen through the Church. The Church is the body of Christ. It is the only path through which the sacraments are offered. Without this nourishment we will go hungry. We will go thirsty we will be denied the living bread.
Now, I know that sounds harsh. We live in a culturally egalitarian world – at least here in the West. But this is what the bible teaches us, this is what our reading today tells us. That salvation comes through Grace – that invitation – that we turn towards that Grace and through that Grace alone comes our salvation.
That invitation (that Grace) is presented to us through the sacraments – and the sacraments are born of Christ in his body – of His blood – of His Church and only through his body do we see salvation.
We are fed what we need to live – not just through physical nourishment – but through the sacrament of the eucharist, which is only offered through the Church.
And so, knowing this – knowing this tough reality that sits against the grain of the modern world. Understanding this. How does that play out in our daily lives?
Allow me to give you an example from All Saints in Hereford. Those of you who saw the TV series ‘A Vicar’s Life’ will know that is where I spend a great deal of my time. It is a church that 25 years ago was literally about the fall down. The spire was considered so dangerous that a 400-metre exclusion zone was put up around it. Now Hereford is a small city and that knocked out a significant part of it! The church was given 72 hours to make it safe – and they did. In fact, over the next few years they not only made it safe but they completed a multi-million-pound re-ordering that resulted in a medieval church in a city centre that contained a modern commercial café intermingled with the church in such an effective way as to encourage all to enter. A physical invitation to come in, to take that first step.
Each day we say Mass in the Lady Chapel – surrounded by the noise and bustle of a very successful commercial café. The Priest leaves the vestry on one side of the church – rings the sanctuary bell three times (at which point the café noise dims as all turn to watch the Priest walk across the Church, bow at the high altar and continue his journey towards the Lady Chapel. As he disappears the hubbub returns, and the congregation stands). Our second invitation to join us.
‘The Lord be with you’ the Priest declares – nice and loud so that all can hear him. All can hear the invitation. The Mass is introduced, the congregation sit, and our prayers begin.
At our intercessions within the Mass we pray each day for the prayers left at the foot of Mary – those prayers that reach out in desperation, in thanks, in love, in the full diversity of human emotion and we pray that Christ reaches for them in return.
We pray – as loudly as I can! – that those who seek nourishment in this place – find it. That those that we seek to nourish with food – via the homeless hostel, the daily homeless breakfasts, lunches, dinners the café etc – find the spiritual nourishment that they also need – that we all need.
What I am saying is that as a Church and as the body of Christ we cannot simply offer people bread when they need bread to fill their stomachs. But that we must offer everyonethe bread of life – all the time – over and over and over again at every opportunity – and that those things are not separate but are the same.
We must push back against a world that tells us that our faith must be confined to our buildings. That when we step out into the world to feed the hungry we are doing so not just in body, but also in the Spirit. We are making Christ’s love known in the world so that people may be drawn to Him and may hear his invitation. When I step out into the world as a Street Pastor – I wear my collar because although we’re not allowed to talk about God with people – my collar tells them that I am here as part of the Church, as part of the body of Christ and I tell them – without words – that there is an invitation there for them to join that body. And sometimes that’s as much as we can do – be a physical and obvious presence of the Church in the secular world. And that’s okay.
Through these actions we save nobody. Only God does that. But we who have been invited to eat the living bread, and to drink from the healing, life-giving stream can bear witness. We bear witness to the abundant life that we have in Christ – ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’.
Yes, the Gospel is exclusive. Yes, there is choice to be made – but it is not ours alone. Yes we must hear the invitation, yes we must invite, woo and cajole others so that they may also hear – if the Father choses – the invitation. Then, if accepted, it is our job to feed those who have turned to Him. Nourish them with the sacraments, with prayer, with love and encourage them to bring others to hear the invitation of the Father.
Prepare yourselves. Prepare to receive Christ, to be open as he once again reaches for your hearts at the altar rail. Then take Him in to the world an bring others to come to know him.