The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      23rd June 2019
A Sermon for Mother Ayla Lepine's First Mass
Andrew Hammond, Chaplain of King's College Cambrid

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.                                                                                        John 6.53

I pray to God that I speak to his glory, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This is an importantly wonderful moment. In particular, because it’s Mthr Ayla’s First Mass. She is now holding us together, by God’s grace, in this celebration of the Eucharist as a newly-minted priest: a priest whose once-in-a-generation calibre our Church really needs. Quite simply too, a priest we really need.

It’s also important because it is this beautiful Feast of Corpus Christi, this rejoicing in the gift of Christ’s very body and blood. We rejoice in his first self-giving two thousand years ago; and we rejoice in the gift of re-presenting it in the holy mass. 

The mass is a concentration, an essence, of Christian life, once we recognise that life as a passionate eating (and sharing) of the Bread of Life. His name is Jesus.  This we learn from that remarkable sixth chapter of John’s gospel. Jesus lets fly with ever-increasing rhetorical power and passion. He ends up driving away some of his listeners, so intense is the teaching. ‘This is serious’, he’s saying, ‘this really matters’. In every possible way we are to feed on Jesus. By the time he’s at the point we heard, even the language has intensified. We mustn’t just eat, but bite and chew as though our lives depended on it.

(Because, of course, they do.)

As he turns his homiletic kaleidoscope, Jesus anticipates the Eucharist. John’s listeners would have got it, having sat at the evangelist’s feet for years; perhaps decades. They had shared sacramental bread and wine with the one who had rested against Jesus the very night he gave them that sacrament. I’m not being sentimental. What Jesus began, what John’s community continued and what we are doing now are crucial. I use that word with obvious deliberateness.

Vital to Jesus’ teaching in John 6 is the idea that matter really matters. He is talking about belief and its content, for sure. But the physicality of his language, and the foreshadowing of the physical realities of the Eucharist, these tell us that the full physicality of our being human is fundamental in our being loved by God. In love God made us, made us in God’s image. And to seal his trust, to seal that divine delight in his creation, God embodied that delight in the human person who was and is Jesus. God thought being human was important enough to become one. He did it because we simply can’t do justice to such love on our own. In his cross and resurrection, in his glorification, Jesus did the justice. Out of the darkness of the cross, out of the emptiness of the tomb, comes a light by which we can see the road to God, and onto which we simply have to step. Again and again. 

It is in the sacramental life of the Church that we remind ourselves how much matter really matters. In Baptism and the Eucharist and the rest the ordinary stuff of this world becomes the extraordinary vector of God’s action in the world, of God’s action on us. In water and oil, bread and wine, even in the utterances of human lips, grace works her invisible work in the deepest and most real parts of us. Without this inner architecture, the life of the Church becomes ever less stable, ever more diminished.

The comprehensive fullness of what Jesus is saying in John 6 is captured in the comprehensive fullness of the mass itself. Every element has meaning and significance. We gather, we prepare, we confess, we listen to holy scripture, we listen to a sermon (that’s your penance), we pray, we share the peace, we share in the consecration of bread and wine, we make communion, we keep saying thank you – and eventually  we are sent away to be what we’ve been given, in a bleeding and needy world.   

The holy-making mystery of the Eucharist is, to re-purpose a 400-year-old phrase, a bit of heaven in ordinary. It should be the divine done daily, or at least done very regularly: a quotidian miracle. Without such a liturgy, without the sacramental, the Church will dwindle ever faster into sectarian desuetude. A rich and energetic sacramental life nourishes the kind of daring love and humble hope which the world needs, and always has needed.

When I went to King’s I assumed that most of the students would view Christian faith with derision, or even antagonism, Dawkins-style. In fact most are simply indifferent, and many unacquainted with it. More keenly, if a student notices anything about Christianity, it will be what catches their eye: and what most often catches their eye looks like misogyny or homophobia or transphobia or everything to do with child abuse. These are more media-magnetic than running foodbanks, environmental campaigning and all the fine but below-the-radar work in communities which churches quietly do. But that is the reality, and it generates sharp resistance. 

One way I try to meet this is in risky liturgy. Every so often we gather at the west (ie wrong) end of chapel late in the evening, sit on the floor and celebrate a short, simple Eucharist. ‘critical mass’, we call it, for the punning reasons which will occur to you. There is virtually no standing up; there are no service papers – texts are projected onto the west door through clouds of incense smoke; there’s no singing - ambient music plays in the background, occasionally interspersed with a bit of Aretha Franklin or Gloria Gaynor. And I talk about things which matter to students. And always, as one Christian Union critic put it, I ‘over-emphasise the love of God’. 

Sometimes that emphasis needs edge. Sometimes daring love and humble hope need to get a bit angry. We might need to learn from the courage and candour of those who pushed back against hate-filled violence fifty years ago, almost to the day, at the Stonewall Inn in New York. The poorest of trans, lesbian and gay people in that city, many who slept on park benches, finally had enough of police brutality and societal prejudice (not to mention rejection by the churches). So began the Pride movement, across the world. In some places great advances have been made, both in legal provision and social normalisation. In other places, legal and social repression remain viciously the norm, sometimes with the active, campaigning involvement of the Anglican Church. (They have their friends in this city). And even where things are so much better, it now feels as though the forces of bigotry and prejudice and taboo, often under the guise of religious commitment, are reasserting themselves. 

That includes in the Church, specifically the Church of England. What do we see? The hierarchy successfully lobbies the government to make same-sex marriage in church illegal. What do we see? ‘Shared conversations’, whatever unshared ones might be; or committees who, I’m told, may not consider that Church teaching might actually change; or the suggestion that ‘the tone should change’, which is nothing better than putting a softer velvet glove on your iron fist. One senior figure recently suggested to colleagues that gay Christians might best be encouraged to live in special communities. Our Jewish brothers and sisters know a word for such places.

A series of fine biblical scholars have argued in recent years that the prevailing social structure in which St Paul appears to anathematise homosexuality is what we now call, in shorthand, the patriarchy. If men are inherently superior to women, and women merely their property, any sexual encounter in which a man ‘plays the woman’ (or indeed a woman the man) is simply contrary to nature.

This sinful idea of nature is a hardy plant, a kind of anthropological knotweed: very hard to uproot. It lurks behind anti-LGBTQ prejudice; and it lives on in the experience of women, so many of whom have to endure harassment, assault and worse day after day. Hearing their stories is the most distressing part of my pastoral work at King’s.  The need to fight this arises from the same Christian fundamentals which eventually saw off slavery and racism (to the extent that they have). And we can do it best when our energy is eucharistic; when we take seriously what it means to be embodied, made and loved by God.

You may be thinking that I’ve wandered rather an un-festive long way from a first mass sermon on the Feast of Corpus Christi. But the times demand it. The feverishly negative obsession in some parts of the Church with sex and sexuality and gender identity often coincides with a puritanical resistance to the sacramental: it’s like a prudish gnosticism. But the visceral passion of Jesus we see in John 6 permits no such squeamishness. Matter matters, the body matters, desire matters. In them should be found holy delight, not neurotic shame.  

What Jesus began on the night of his betrayal, we do again now. It is the zenith of our worshipping life, wholly a gift of God, where we are given another chance to open ourselves to God’s infinite, merciful but also challenging love. That love comes to us in the words of scripture, in the bread and wine and even in each other. So let’s listen for God in the words we’ve heard; let’s reach hungrily for God in the sacrament placed in our hands and mouth.  And when we share the Peace, let’s look into each other’s eyes and see the eyes of Jesus: he is saying, as ever he did, ‘don’t be afraid’. He’s also saying, ‘now, what are we going to do?’       

Andrew Hammond

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