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August 23, 2009

Denise Kelsall

Pentecost 12     1 Kings 8 (1,6,10-11) 22-30, 41-43     John 6:56-69


Imagine you are in outer space looking at our planet Earth. Imagine you are alien to the ways of our world – you are a space-woman – or a space man - think I’ll go for spacechick! You are coming to this incredible planet for the first time. Imagine your spacecraft hovering over this very place – St Matthew in the City, downtown Auckland, New Zealand. Just imagine.


There are these earthlings sitting in rows paying attention to some other earthlings up in front of them, and they are looking down at funny little bits of white stuff in their hands with black marks on it. They make noises together – sometimes the noise changes when that earthling who sits at a special box runs his fingers over the box and a different noise comes out. They stand up and then they sit down together. And so on.


It’s a bit like a scene from ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ for those who remember that crazy zany and fun book or the TV series. But all fun, wacky imagery and sci-fi aside, this scenario presents very real demands upon us because it asks us to explain and to try to give voice to what we do here in church and why.


Here we all are in church about to share in the unique and primary sacrament of our faith. We are about to kneel down - perhaps we draw strange sorts of lines across our chest - one way across and the other way going down. Sometimes our head is bowed. We open our hands into a cradle or cup ready to receive something precious. We take a metal receptacle from an unusually dressed person and raise it to our lips. Often we stay there for a few seconds with our heads bowed and our eyes closed. Then we get up and go back to where we were sitting before in this big space.


So what’s the deal here that space-chick would be sure to ask.


We call it Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Heavenly Banquet, the Eucharistic Feast. Here we embrace and affirm the incarnational mystery of our faith. It is a thanksgiving for all of creation, the universe and for our unique relationship with Jesus Christ. We believe that by participating in this rite that we are part of something powerful wonderful and miraculous, something that defies normal human rational understandings, something that affects us all profoundly at a level that is deeper than our thoughts.


Eucharist translates as ‘thanksgiving,’ communion is a translation of the Greek ’koinonia,’ which in other contexts means fellowship.[1] Thanksgiving and community are the basis of what we enact today.


We have been reading the 6th chapter from John’s gospel over the last five Sundays. The final verses that we heard today allude to this great and unfathomable yet intensely real mystery. As you heard in these verses, Jesus tells us that it is his flesh and his blood that will give us life. We eat the bread which signifies his flesh and we drink wine which signifies his blood.


The space-chick, with a look of consternation would certainly ask - how does this work?


There are various understandings of what happens. Historically and to this day Roman Catholics and some high Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics believe in transubstantiation where the consecrated elements of bread and wine change into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus as they receive them. In general the range of understandings in our Anglican tradition is broad. Some hold to the idea of remembrance or a memorial of the death of Jesus - the life he lost and his blood that was spilt on our behalf. Many others believe in a real spiritual presence of Christ by the power of the Spirit. It is very personal and I am sure that even here in our gathering today there are a variety of understandings of what happens and more importantly what it means in our own lives. Ones understanding and experience can also change as we travel along our particular faith journeys and as we move through the various stages of our lives. For myself I do not hold with transubstantiation but in presence – the presence and the place or space into which I willingly enter to honour and to receive that which touches me and resonates in my life at a very profound and deep level. At times this has given incredible solace and hope, sometimes a piercing revelation - always a giving over to something mysterious and real that gives and offers me more than I will ever understand. As we are different our experiences are also different.


Traditionally and up until the middle of last century Eucharist was not something that we did every Sunday – it was at various times only celebrated by the upper classes (while the hoi polloi drank gin no doubt), or perhaps irregularly throughout the year, and for some a monthly celebration. This might intimate that it was, therefore, not as important as it is now.


But that is not so. Eucharist has always been crucial and utterly central to faith from its apostolic beginnings. In churches where it is an infrequent celebration, Eucharist can be seen to become even more significant as it maintains a sort of ‘scarcity value.’[2] Closed communion, where only members of the church or the baptized can partake, is still common. But here at St Matthews we lavishly practice open communion where anyone who wishes to commemorate the life and teachings of Christ are welcome regardless of faith or affiliation.


The vital ingredients of Eucharist are the Ministry of the Word and the Ministry of the Sacrament: the former prepares for the latter. They are both critical to the celebration for without the Word we are left with a mystical enactment which could degenerate into pure subjectivity and without the Sacrament we remain in our conscious minds. Together they culminate in what I believe is a ‘kairos moment.’[3] It is a sacred moment, a movement of the heart towards God, where the past, the present and the future fuse and there is only ‘now.’ This is where the mystery resides – in that moment when everything stands still, when we participate in this living instance of God’s invisible grace. Eucharistic worship is renewing and healing to our minds and souls, it transforms and gives hope and rest, we emerge refreshed and revived again and again and again.


As for space chicks and the like – I believe that these ‘kairos’ moments are there for everyone just as we practice here at St Matthews. And just maybe that space chick might, if she came along, get a glimpse of another space, another universe, another world – one filled with the grace and mystery of a moment that gives life and hope, where we connect with something mysterious and holy, where hearts are opened and we glimpse our God.


[1] I Corinthians 10:16


[2] Hugh Montefiore, Credible Christianity. 260.


[3] From the Greek, biblically we inhabit two kinds of time – chronos, which is the linear clock time we inhabit, and kairos, which are special existential moments in time. In Eastern traditions, when a person meditates upon a holy Icon, losing oneself in the Icon is to enter eternity, which is kairos time or God’s time. Kairos time is common among mystics and poets.

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