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.

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