Discerning the spirits, and communion.

This is the text of a sermon for the feast of Corpus Christi (Thanksgiving for the Holy Communion).   I was invited to be the guest preacher at a friend’s parish. The Scripture referenced is 1 Corinthians 10:14-21).

Today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, or as some would call it, of thanksgiving for the holy communion.  And while there are a great many positive and celebratory sorts of things I might say about that – and I promise I’ll get to some of them – I actually want to start in an odd, if not an almost negative place.  And that is Paul’s writing, in our epistle reading this morning, that “what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God.  I do not want you to be partners with demons.  You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.  You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”

It’s solemn stuff.  But so far removed from our own lives that it can be difficult to see any relevance.  After all, pagan sacrifice is hardly a feature of everyday life in the high street of this town, and demons have become more comic figures than serious representations of reality.  So what do we do with it?

Paul was convinced that the idols used in pagan worship were a block of wood or stone and nothing more; they were not anything in and of themselves.  At the same time he believed in the reality of an unseen spirit-world, and that idolatry was not merely meaningless but connected into that unseen realm in an unhealthy way.

It was unhealthy partly because it robbed the true God of the glory due to him alone, but also because it meant that human beings, engaged in a spiritual act and directing their worship toward something other than God, were brought into intimate relation with other, and evil, spiritual powers.

I should point out that the kind of sacrifice under discussion here is not necessarily just to “gods” as we might understand them (or just a religious function).  It could include rites intended to honour the emperor, or heroes and military generals, or even dead relatives, and so this kind of sacrifice had social and political functions just as much as spiritual.

So what do we make of demons, if we are not inclined to think of them in stereotypical terms and start checking if they’re hiding under the bed?  The ancient idea of demons was used here to explain the presence of an evil that is bigger than just you and me, that expressed itself through cultural or social or governmental or any other kind of institution or organisation or communal reality (and I might add, which could express itself as much in and through the church as any other such organisation).

Those communal realities can be said to have a spirituality, a real aspect of the institution even in places where spirituality is very much out of fashion.  Anyone who has ever dragged their feet into school or work because of a deadening environment (and hasn’t that been all of us, at one time or another?), has experienced that even if this isn’t the language we normally use to describe it.  The issue is not whether we “believe” in this kind of spiritual reality but whether we can learn to identify our actual, everyday encounters with it – the ancient discipline of “discerning the spirits.”

Paul’s statement then that idolatrous sacrifice is to demons, and his insistence on not being partners with demons, show how serious, how grave and solemn, how absolute, he regarded the statement that Jesus is Lord.  No other claim on our allegiance is allowed to stand beside Him.  The matter of serving God should not be understood too narrowly.  It shapes not only what happens here in church on Sunday but all of our priorities and decision making.

Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, described Jesus as setting us an example of “the one big thing that Christianity had brought into the world of human imagination.”  And that was – and is – the truth of what power is for.  Power exists, in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves.  Scripture is crystal clear that this is the standard by which the gospel of Jesus judges the powerful of this world.

Jesus gave us this startling idea that the goal of the supreme power in the universe is that we should be nurtured, respected and loved.  And it is the failure to meet this standard; any instance in which we see that people are being neglected, held in contempt, or hated, that we are able to recognize the concrete examples of what Paul would have described as demonic influence.  Demons are the name given the real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities and nations.

Which brings us back around, as it were, to the question of the holy communion.  Paul’s logic is that community and relationship hinge on participation.  There is a coherent and unbreakable union in which ‘bread,’ ‘body,’ ‘Christ,’ and ‘church,’ are inseparably identified together.  In a real sense the four have become one and cannot ever be separated.

The body of Christ can be understood, in the same spiritual terms that we have discussed demons, as the spiritual reality of the Christian community.  As the inner nature of the Church, Christ calls us forward into that hope for liberation, compassion and love which God presents anew in each moment.  The body of Christ is the human community that has committed itself to be the manifestation of Christ’s spirit in the world.

That’s why the Corinthians couldn’t sacrifice to idols and still take communion; it was a fundamental lack of integrity that would even think that would be possible.  It’s no less true for us; honouring or committing ourselves to power that is expressed in oppressive, abusive or destructive ways is utterly incompatible with everything this table stands for.  Rather, it is in the Eucharist – the central Christian proclamation of the power of God, made real for us, poured out in sacrifice for us – that we find sustenance, strength and hope, for transformation; ultimately not only of ourselves but of all the horizon of life, as idols are abandoned and power serves its true end: the glory of God, shown forth in human beings fully alive.

Trinity and exhilaration

This is the text of a sermon for Trinity Sunday, in the parish where I am now licensed. 

Sometimes I think the people who put together the lectionary – the guide to what the readings for church services each day should be – have a real sense of humour.  Here we are, on Trinity Sunday, and the epistle reading included Paul’s instruction to “agree with one another.”  And yet it took another four centuries or so – and plenty of not agreeing with one another – for the church to begin to feel that we had a satisfactory way of talking about God as Trinity, which took into account what the Bible has to say, as well as the lived experience of believers.

And I want to emphasise that lived experience as important.  For example, it was because Christians worshipped the Spirit, sang songs in praise of the Spirit, and prayed to the Spirit; because they recognised the Spirit as present and active in the church’s life, that they found they needed a way of speaking which recognised the Spirit as God, as much as the Father and the Son.

It raises the question in my mind; if we don’t use the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit to describe our experience of God, have we explored the potential of our faith as fully as possible?

Let me put that another way.  We talk about God as Trinity.  And I think it’s an important and valid question then to ask, “So What?”

I’d like to begin to scope out an answer to that question.

What is it that leads us to talk about God as Father?  Isn’t it that we celebrate the dignity, the value, and the wonder of each human being around us – and remember that these human beings are made in the image of God?  Isn’t it that we look at the heavens and the earth – everything from the vastness of space to the intricacy of a single living cell – and worship in awe at the wisdom which could conceive of this, and the might that could bring it into existence?  Isn’t it also that we are aware that in what we know, we are just playing in the waves on the edges of a vast ocean, and that we can only guess at the depth and breadth of the mysteries which are just too vast for us to grasp?

I suggest that every time we are mindful of these things, they bring us back to recognising God as Father, and to a profound reverence and awe in our worship and our lives.

And then, what is it to talk about God the Son?  The defining story of Christianity – of the God who emptied himself; who, as Philippians says, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but laid it aside, became human, and became our servant, even to the point of death – shows us an aspect of the life of God which is distinct from that of the Father.

There is, I think, something important consider here.  And that is that in no way can we consider Father and Son to be divided or opposites.  Sometimes in the way we think and talk about what Jesus did for us, in dying for us and opening a way back into intimate relationship with God, it sounds as if the Father and the Son were pulling something of a cosmic good cop-bad cop routine.  The Father is presented as the “bad cop” who holds judgement and damnation over our heads, and the Son as the “good cop” who steps in, placates the “bad cop” and makes everything alright for us, if only we comply with what is being asked of us.

I have to tell you, that kind of thinking about God doesn’t wash.  There is no difference in attitude towards us between Father and Son.  Both the Father and the Son love us; both the Father and the Son care for us, and the Father and the Son collaborated together in the costly work of our redemption.  In this, as much as in creation or any other work of God, they are united in purpose and action.

Yet we still need to ask, what is it for us to recognise the work of the Spirit in our lives, in our Church, and to be able to talk about that?  Some of us will have experienced, or known others who have experienced, “charismatic” expressions of the Spirit in the life of believers.  That is all well and good and to the glory of God.  But even for those of us who haven’t, the evidence of the Spirit’s work amongst us is still there to be seen.  As long as we can recognise in ourselves (or, more often it is easier to see it in others) the growth of a person, becoming more loving, patient, kind, generous and gentle; more wise, faithful, joyful, and peaceful; and more self-controlled – we can recognise the work of the Spirit in bringing about good fruit in our lives.

All of this is as much to say, the idea of the Trinity isn’t an intellectual puzzle to be solved. It is an idea which comes out of the lived experience of every Christian believer.  It is the Church’s communal shout of praise for a God whose richness of being overflows, in ways which stretch our language almost to breaking point, but only so as to make room for us to grow in love and worship Him more fully.  It is as we realise the truth of God’s being, for us, that we find ourselves growing more fully into His likeness; that we find God’s kingdom growing and transforming the world in which we live; and that we find our language unable to contain the full meaning of truth which ultimately we have to experience to know.

I came across a line which I very much liked from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that in speaking of the Trinity, we try to find, not the most exact but the least silly things to say; that we try to find language which will share the exhilaration of being drawn into the life of God.  It’s just possible that I’m a lot sillier than Rowan Williams.  But I hope that if I can say anything which is of use at all about the Trinity, it will be something which speaks of that exhilaration.  Of the abundance of God the Father, poured out in creation; of the generosity and selflessness of God the Son, shown in his life, death and resurrection; of the power and energy of the Spirit, renewing us, pushing at the world as God’s kingdom comes and grows in our midst.  Who wouldn’t be exhilarated?  Who wouldn’t be encouraged to glimpse something of this?

This brings me back around to Paul’s instruction to “agree with one another.”  All of us are here today because something about God has been deeply attractive to us.  The deeply creative, loving, overflowing life of God comes to live within us; to show itself within us, and to work through us to take hold of others around us.  Our life as a community should mirror something of the inner life of God; a life in which hierarchy and ego is not at issue; a life in which each is willing to be involved in work that is costly; a life which is not closed off and turned inward, but looking outward in overflowing abundant generosity, love and joy.  God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and we can hardly remain unchanged after that experience.

That is my answer to the question “So What?”  That is the least silly glimpse into the meaning of Trinity which I can offer you today.  And this is the vision in which I think Paul would encourage us to agree with one another, to join our hands and minds and voices in unity of purpose and direction.

The Lord be with you.