Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity 2021
The song that Jesus sings is a redemptive song—a song of love and mercy.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Precentor
Sunday, 25th July 2021 at 11.15 AM
You will have noticed we are bringing back congregational singing in a rather gradual and cautious way, but I am more than a little pleased that the first word we sang together was Alleluia! Praise God for these little steps, but pray God to give us patience to take them as safely and responsibly as we can.
Some might suggest that we have little cause to praise God, given the difficulties we are still wrestling with, but, in truth, that could be said at any point in human history. Human lives are never without struggle and difficulty. We praise God, at all times, not because he makes things easy for us, but because of who God is and the unending hope that offers us.
Who God is, is revealed to us by the Gospel; by the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and his on-going life in us, his Church, by the Spirit. It is a story not without complexity and difficulty, and that is precisely why it can be a source of hope to us in our struggles. Jesus does not float through his life in a bubble of divine protection—he engages with this world just as we do. But what he reveals, through the complexity and difficulty of a human life, is what a former Dean, Michael Mayne, described as the cantus firmus—the enduring melody that plays constantly, deeply throughout our lives—the enduring melody underpinning the whole cosmos—the song of God’s faithfulness, love and mercy—the song to which the gospel opens our ears; the song which Jesus is.
Even here, of course, there is some difficulty. In the Scriptures, as in life, there are moments when the Song comes across very clearly, and others when it sounds obscure, faint, or even discordant in our ears.
Our epistle this morning is firmly within the former category; despite the difficulty of being in prison Paul is singing at his most mellifluous.
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
He is reminding the Ephesians of the hope they have in Christ through the Spirit—rooting and grounding them in love, strengthening them in their inner being. He is asking them to do nothing but to allow this song to be sung in them—this is what God is doing in Christ; what God has been doing since the beginning.
The writers of the New Testament, and especially the gospel writers, are at great pains to say that Jesus is the song, the Word that has been the cantus firmus since the beginning. John’s prologue spells this out most clearly. Matthew’s gospel expresses it in terms of Old Testament fulfilment. The feeding of the five thousand, in Matthew Chapter 14 bears remarkable similarity to the account we hear this morning of Elisha feeding a hundred; and deliberately so. The God who was at work in Moses, Elisha, and all the prophets is the same God we see in Jesus—the same song, yet now the song and singer are one and the same, fulfilled in the person of Jesus—God incarnate.
John has a slightly different agenda in his use of the story of the feeding of the multitude. This miracle, (or ‘sign’) sets up the whole Bread of Life controversy that rumbles through chapter 6. By the middle of this chapter, Jesus is telling his followers that just as their ancestors were given the Manna, the bread from heaven in the wilderness, so now they have the true bread from heaven in their midst—the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. I am the bread of life—Jesus says—and intensifies the controversy, in terms that are definitely not for the squeamish or faint-hearted, by saying: the bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh… whoever eats me will live because of me.
This proves to be too much for many of his followers, and, to be honest, I suspect it sometimes feels a bit too much for us. This teaching is difficult—the disciples say—and I am inclined to agree. The song that Jesus is singing, the song that he is, suddenly goes beyond our capacity to enjoy it—from eating bread in the wilderness to eating his flesh. It’s like switching from Mozart to Schoenberg—we are confused and slightly horrified.
Part of the horror, of course, is the invitation to what sounds like cannibalism. The religious voices ask, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’, and it is not a bad question.
Many commentators have reflected that Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel is effectively his institution narrative—this is John reflecting on the sharing of bread and wine in the Eucharist. So, to the question: ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’, we have the answer: in the Eucharist, in Holy Communion.
It is interesting that the Church, which certainly did face early accusations of cannibalism, didn’t just quietly drop this difficult teaching. It never abandoned the idea that in the Eucharist there was a real sharing in the body and blood of Christ, however challenging an idea that might be. For the church to maintain this practice, even at the risk of such rank misunderstanding, points to its importance—the intuition that in sharing the bread and wine we become part of the gospel song—joining the chorus of the cantus firmus underlying all creation. For all the apparent discord, there is a deeper melody that draws us in.
As the church reflected more deeply on the question ‘how can this man give us his flesh to eat?’, some medieval writers turned to ideas that have a striking contemporary resonance.
If this is not cannibalism, what other concept might help us reflect on the idea of one human being offering their own body for the sustenance of others? The obvious answer is motherhood—the body that offers shelter and nourishment to the developing child; the body that offers of itself even after birth so that the child can then grow and develop. So Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century, had no qualms about describing Jesus as our Mother. Julian of Norwich, in the fourteenth century, wrote:
Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him and this is where His Maternity starts And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us.
Gender fluidity turns out to be nothing new. Here is a man, Jesus the Christ, whose relation to us makes most sense in maternal, female gender terms; giving his body for the life of the world.
Early theologians, such as Origen in the third century, would describe the opening of Christ’s side on the Cross as allowing the birth of the Church; almost like a Caesarean section. The water and blood flowing from his wounded side represent the water of baptism and the wine of the Eucharist—the sacramental foundations for the Church’s life. We, the Church, are born out of Christ’s body, and that same body sustains the life of the Church. Again, this male body is behaving in a thoroughly un-male way.
This is challenging stuff—again, these notes may sound a little jarring—but it is important that we don’t imagine the incarnation as an entirely masculine endeavour. We might note from today’s gospel the distinctly un-alpha male behaviour displayed by Jesus in evading the attempts to make him King. In Jesus, God identifies himself with all humanity, of whatever sex or gender, and we need to be open to what is not stereotypically masculine in Jesus. Generations before us have not found this so difficult, as I have tried to suggest. This singer, this song, is not all bass-baritone and tenor—we need to also hear the alto, the mezzo, the soaring soprano.
Of course, we need to be careful not to conflate the feminine with the maternal. There has been too much of that, and not enough honouring of all the ways of being a woman that are not motherhood. We perhaps need to be better at articulating how God in Christ identifies with human femininity beyond the birthing and nurturing that we have been exploring. We might then begin to realise just what a poor model Jesus is for the kind of patriarchy and male dominance that has so often prevailed in his name.
The song that Jesus sings, the song that he is, the cantus firmus underpinning the cosmos, is a redemptive song—a song of love and mercy. It is a song of God who brings us to new birth in Christ and nourishes us with and within his own body. It is a song of God who identifies himself with creation, and specifically with humanity, with all of humanity in all its diversity, in the Incarnation. It is a song that, by the Spirit, we too are invited to sing, and it ends as it begins, with Alleluia.