16th August 2009
8.00 am and 10.30 am Communion – Woodchurch
9.00 Morning Worship / Mattins – Stone
Ephesians 5:15-20 (New International Version)
John 6:51-58 (New International Version)
Heavenly Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit may these my spoken words open to us something of your written word and so lead us to your Living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We all love a good mystery don’t we?
Agatha Christie is still one of the best selling writers of all time, and TV adaptations of her murder mysteries are still being made.
More recently we have had series like the Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Midsomer Murders and for the younger at heart, who like an extra-terrestrial element, the Sarah Jane Mysteries.
But although many of us are obviously intrigued by the idea of having a mystery after 55 minutes or after 200 pages we also like to be presented with the solution, and preferably one that ties up all the loose ends. We like to know that Colonel Mustard was killed by Reverend White in the drawing room with the revolver or that we can crack the mysterious code that defeats the Daleks and saves the earth.
Even the really grownup detective programs like Wallender still feel obliged to present us with a solution by the end of the episode or the end of the series. I can hardly imagine any writer or producer being brave enough to answer a “Whodunnit” with a “Dunno”, simply because of the howls of dissatisfaction it would produce – “We need to know the answer – solve this mystery for us so that we can get on with our lives without this big question mark hanging over us.”
There is something about our modern mindset that cannot cope with ambiguity, with unanswered questions. We need to know now, and if you cannot tell me the answer I will Google it and have 200,000 possible answers delivered to me in 0.2 of a second.
And of course, on the whole, this desire to unravel mysteries and to come up with a neat solution can often be a force for huge good in the world. Most scientific and medical advances happen because people grapple with mysteries such as how to kill bacteria or viruses or how to repair a faulty heart valve and they turn the question marks into the “Eureka” of exclamation marks and the sum of human knowledge is increased and, on the whole, the world becomes a better place.
But this largely Western and largely modern distrust of ambiguity and desire to solve every mystery is not always appropriate or helpful.
Today’s Gospel reading [set for Holy Communion although not Mattins] was John 6:51- 58 and I shall just remind you of the most pertinent and, in some senses, shocking, part:
“I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.”
If we find these words slightly shocking now we should realise that we are not alone because the Gospel writer himself says only a few verses later:
v. 60 “When many of his disciples heard it they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it” and v. 66 “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
And we still find this teaching difficult to understand – how can bread and wine be the body and blood of Christ? To what extent it is transformed, when and how is it transformed?
It is a mystery – but because we like to solve mysteries we also try and solve this mystery and this is something that theologians in the West, both Catholic and Protestant, have grappled with since the reformation.
Catholic scholars came up with the term “transubstantiation” which means that the substance, the underlying reality if you will, of the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ while their outward forms remain as bread and wine.
Martin Luther and his followers came up with “consubtantiation” which meant that neither the outward appearance nor the substance of the bread and wine were really changed but that Christ became united with the bread and wine in a purely spiritual sense through the power of the Holy Spirit.
More extreme reformed such as Zwingli said that Christ was not present in the elements of bread and wine at all, either physically or spiritually, and that the Communion service is no more than a memorial of the Last Supper with no sacramental content at all.
And whilst this may seem like scholars playing with words we should not forget that people went to the stake over these questions, or rather over this desire to answer the question about what happens in the sacrament, to unravel the mystery.
But whilst Catholics and Protestants in the West tussled over these questions and burnt each other at the stake for either coming up with or subscribing to different answers the Eastern Orthodox church has had an entirely different approach, and one that I find highly attractive.
Firstly the word they use for the sacraments of the church, including communion, is not sacrament but rather, they call them the Holy Mysteries. But, unlike Agatha Christie stories, these Holy Mysteries are not intended to be solved and categorised, rather they are to be entered into with the eyes of faith as a pure gift from God. So they believe firmly that Christ is really present in the elements of bread and wine but how is he present? It is a Mystery! In what form is he present, physically or spiritually? It is a Mystery! At what point during the communion service does he become present – you can probably guess – It is a Mystery!
Well, I want to propose this morning that our lives of faith in this part of the world and in this era have actually lost something important by being so ready to try and solve mysteries and to move on. I want to suggest that we have the humilty to learn a lesson from the Orthodox and to recapture a sense that we are truly participating here in a Holy Mystery.
And a Holy Mystery does not mean that Reverend White did it in the drawing room with a revolver, rather a Holy Mystery, in this case the Mystery or Sacrament of Holy Communion is a pure gift from God, given that we should be able to share in the body and blood of Christ as Christ himself said we should and thus enter into eternal life in communion with God.
This is not a mystery to be solved this is a mystery to be experienced and to be lived.
In a moment’s silence let’s offer up to Christ our desire to encounter him and to be fed by him here and in the whole of our lives.