Eucharist Sermon - 6 June 2021

The First Sunday after Trinity
2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1; Mark 3:20–end
The Revd Canon Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity
'Living the Invisible'

“[W]e look not to the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things that are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

Faith is not an easy ride. It comes across powerfully in Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians from which I have taken the text that I want us to reflect upon this morning. He talks there of affliction, persecution, the outward person perishing while inwardly being renewed. Down through the generations of those who have kept the faith a motto is handed on, from Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries to Anselm in the 12th: faith seeks understanding. What is crucial here is that action that goes along with faith: ‘seeking’. Seeking demands courage, patience and perseverance. It is not about intellectually grasping the teachings of Christianity. All theology and theologians fail in their attempts to intellectually grasp. The triune God simply slips away into what remains hidden and inaccessible. We grope; we don’t problem solve. And we grope because life is lived among all those things that are temporal and it throws at us circumstances that simply do not calculate when we turn to the gospel: the meek do not inherit the earth, the rich are, too frequently, not humbled; and the hungry are not fed nor the prisoner freed. And people die in atrocious situations, sometimes at the hands of other people, sometimes at the hands of natural forces. By all accounts of human fairness, the world fails the majority of its inhabitants. So, the ‘seeking’ that faith is engaged in isn’t intellectual on the whole; the seeking arises because the questions hit home, personally, collectively: the things seen compose a pretty dark picture even if some of us are doing okay thank you. Christian hope, as Paul says elsewhere, works beyond hope, beyond human optimism. In fact, as several Christian spiritual writers observe God seems to delight in working when all human options and actions have come to an end and the scene is at its bleakest. Grace works when humans are forced to come to terms with their failure, their inability, their weakness, and an utter dependence upon a redemption that comes without warning or engineering.

I recall staring into the eyes of my younger brother, who was struck down with Huntington’s Chorea in his late twenties: a genetic kink that could well have been mine, but wasn’t. Twenty years later, and after intolerable psychological and physical suffering, not just to him but to his wife and son, he lay on a water bed unable to move or speak. And his blue, blue eyes sparkled in the same way they had when I remember him being brought home as a baby. I have as a theologian, as a man with some faith (weak and halting), no answers to the questions those eyes posed to me as I gazed down at him. They made my life seem privileged to the point where privilege becomes irrelevant.

We have to grasp this. We have to face this. We are not living fantasies as Christians. This week we celebrated Corpus Christi: the great mediaeval feast of the Church that celebrates the Eucharist. In times past, large, gold monstrances, were held high, the consecrated host encased behind glass. They were paraded through cathedrals like this one and out into the streets, with maybe rose petals bestrewn before them and an acolyte swinging a bejewelled thurible smoking with incense. It was a great feast, marked throughout the Latin West. It still continues in Spain, Italy, Poland. In the Cadiz the whole town is covered in plants to create a giant maze, a labyrinth for reflection for the pilgrims who flock to Zahara de la Sierra. This week, things were much more muted here. But that maybe is not a bad thing. What is front and centre of the Eucharist is the crucifixion of Christ: the God who not only came to dwell among us but suffered on our behalf. On the cross, Christ drew into Himself the world’s wickedness. Nothing was concealed: the hatred, the scorn, the murderous intent, the fear and envy were all made manifest. All sin declared itself in the opposition that nailed Him there and watched Him die. Just as in our gospel reading this morning, the Temple officials raged against Jesus, claiming he was possessed with evil where the truth was the evil worked in and through them. Understanding how all this viciousness and pain could be transfigured into something we can celebrate is hidden in the depths of the Godhead. And that’s all ‘mystery’ means: we can’t see it. Left to what is simply seen and temporal, all human hope and aspiration perishes, utterly: the Saviour does not save Himself. He thirsts, He bleeds, He is extinguished, and a long dark night of total wretchedness descends.

One of Aquinas’s hymns composed for Corpus Christi, Sacris solemniis, ends with this prayer:

Three persons, yet one God,
be pleased to hear our prayer:
come down in power to seek your own,
dispel our night;
teach us your word of truth;
guide us along your way;
bring us at last to dwell with you in endless light.

I am reminded of a tradition in Celtic Christianity of what are called ‘Encompassing’ prayers. St. Patrick’s Breastplate is a good example. For months of the year, weather conditions on the western coasts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands are austere. The history of these Gaelic lands, from pillaging invasion to Clearances to Potato Famine, are stark in the details of suffering, and the subsistence living today is not at all easy for many – if they stay at all. These conditions have always prevailed and so the ‘Encompassing’ prayers wove a circle of words around the fragility of their predicament in which appeal to the protective power of the Trinity is paramount. The seen and the temporal is read and countered by an appeal to the unseen and eternal. This is faith seeking to go beyond what is self-evident, reading the world through Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. This is faith seeking to understand where God is found to be working in our very human and daily circumstances: where bread is more than bread and wine is more than wine, and one sunlit day by the river or the blue, blue of a harebell in a summer breeze can bring us not an intellectual understanding but a knowledge that God is here. And that can be enough. The questions are not necessarily answered; the questions remain. But the questions are quelled, and we are strengthened, like Paul, in our inner beings to continue.