As a new-minted priest I have been showered with gifts, greetings and blessings, for which I am profoundly grateful. One of the gifts you gave me as a church was The Widening Circle, the new book by Graham Tomlin (he of Provocative Church fame). It is an important book for any new priest to read, dealing as it does with the priestly ministry of blessing. However, as Tomlin makes clear, this ministry is not to be left to priests alone but is part of the calling of the whole church, and as my talk unfolds this morning you will see how your generosity to me returns to bless, if not to haunt, all of us.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between my former deaconly state and my new priestly one is my authority to preside at the Eucharist. In the spirit of Tomlin’s book, I thought I would invite you all to come with me as I explore the Eucharist ‘from this side of the table’, so for the next few weeks whenever I am presiding on a Thursday morning I propose to undertake what Thomas Cranmer, original architect of our Anglican form of the Eucharist, called ‘the pilgrimage of the heart’. We will pause at significant signposts to consider the territory through which we are walking.
My starting point is the very start of the service - the Gathering. “We meet in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of life.” But why do we meet? Why are we constantly gathering together?
Firstly, Christianity is not just a private matter for individuals. This is symbolized by the Trinitarian community at the heart of our faith - the community of Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whose divine life of mutual self-giving is opened up to us as human beings as a space within which to enjoy a relationship with God and with others.
Furthermore, the roots of our faith lie deep within the idea of what it means to be ‘a people’, a collective. In the Old Testament, God brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. The covenant he made with them was with a people, not with selected individuals. While they were still in the wilderness, God told Moses that the people of Israel will be ‘A priestly kingdom and a holy nation’ and ‘A treasured possession’ (Exodus 19 4 - 6).
The early church understood that through Christ this honour is extended to everyone - to the gentiles, to you and even to me, to be, as Peter puts it, “A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” So there you are - we are all called to be priestly, not just those of us who wear fancy vestments! 1 Peter 2. 10: “Once you were not a people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” We are a priestly people, then, who have received mercy.
And this receipt of mercy requires a response. A response from the heart. A response ‘as a people.’ A thanksgiving for mercy. And this is what the word Eucharist means - thanksgiving. As Paul says, as a people we are called to ‘give thanks at all times’ and to ‘rejoice always.’ That means that when we come together, we should expect there to be a spirit of joy. That does not mean, however, that we always feel happy. At the moment we are grieving the loss of one of our own - Peggy Wakefield - and grief is hard and sore. It can also make us afraid for ourselves. But there is through Christ the Redeemer a sure and certain hope of life in God, and so, even in death, through loving tears, we rejoice. We rejoice together. And it is the Spirit who sustains us in all these circumstances.
Finally then, we meet together because, as our tears and laughter tell us, we are embodied - not free-floating ghosts, but solid flesh. As you know, the body is used as an image of the church - Christ’s body. Will you think about that? We are all part of the body of Christ. We may all be different - different bits of the body - but together we have a unity. You may be a hand - to raise up someone who has fallen, to give a comforting touch to someone in pain; or a foot to walk the extra mile; or lips to speak words of reassurance and hope; or an ear to listen to someone ignored or marginalized by everyone else; or an eye, to see what needs doing; or a broad back to carry someone else’s load.
And that helps us to see that when we meet, we meet as a body - a living being, a church, not a building. And so we exist and we gather together to worship God as a people, to give thanks for mercy, and to be a blessing to others. “We meet in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of life.”
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