[Br Colin Wilfred SSF at St Peter’s, Canterbury, 23rd June 2011]
'This mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory' (Colossians 1.27)
There has been a recent spate of stories about the Dalai Lama. This is my favourite: after appearing on the BBC, the Dalai Lama is quietly sitting in the entrance hall, waiting for his transport. A London taxi driver enters and shouts 'Taxi for Mr Lama'.
Lama is of course not the family name of the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan Buddhist people – it's a description of his spiritual role.
This is a parallel to the use of 'Christ' in relation to Jesus of Nazareth, who would have been known as Yeshua ben Josef. 'Christ' is the Greek and English translation of the Hebrew word for 'Messiah' – 'the one who will save his people and lead them to freedom and peace'. Already in the New Testament in the writings of Paul we see the title 'Christ ' being used like a surname for Jesus.
'Corpus' is Latin for 'body', so the first of the three Corpus Christis we are celebrating tonight is the human body of Jesus, the first century Palestinian Jew of flesh and blood like you and me. In him we see most fully revealed how God has got under our skin, how God has become fully and truly human, so that we humans might become like God. From the baby at Bethlehem; to the body that goes down into the water of the Jordan river for baptism and then hungers and thirsts in the desert; to the body that walks the paths of Galilee, teaching and healing; to the body that goes up to Jerusalem and meets a hideous death by Roman crucifixion and yet, and yet... that body cannot be held captive by decay in the tomb but is transformed in a way that holds out the promise of glory in God's never-ending presence beyond death. 'This mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory'
The second Corpus Christi, the body of Christ we celebrate tonight, is the one we find in the Pauline writings of the New Testament, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Colossians and Ephesians, where it is extensively developed as an image of the Church. Why did it develop? Was it just someone's inventive mind? Probably it was because the Church had to find a way to describe this new community and society which had come into being through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ which was open to people of every race, both Jews and Gentiles, but which could not be defined by boundaries of race or geography. Possibly the idea came from pagan Roman writers who used a similar metaphor to describe 'unity in diversity' in the secular state – a rather more profound way of tackling the idea of the 'big society' perhaps?! In Romans and 1 Corinthians it's used to describe the local Christian community – about mutual respect and co-operation and teaching about the gifts given by God to each part and person of the local church – using your gifts is how you belong, and enriches the community's worship and enables Christians to grow both individually and together. Not a bad agenda for our three local churches represented here tonight, or indeed of any Christian community.
In Colossians and Ephesians this way of describing the church and its life is extended throughout the world, with Christ as its head so that the different manifestations of the local church are able to relate to each other and so fulfil God's purpose in creation. Here is the true pattern of unity, so often betrayed and damaged in Christian history whether in our own Anglican communion or the multitude of groups which lay claim to being the Body of Christ, the Corpus Christi: 'Thank God', as a Russian bishop once said, 'the walls of division do not reach up to heaven.' 'This mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.'
So we come to the third Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ we celebrate in this and every Eucharist when, together with baptism, the church as 'Corpus Christi' is at its most characteristic way of being united with its Lord, who has lived, died and risen, the Corpus Christi, and in communion with each other. Have you ever thought about the way in which, I suppose, most Anglicans world-wide receive Communion? It's one of the most individualistic ways of receiving communion in Christianity. We come individually to the rail, receive the consecrated bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, Corpus et Sanguis Christi, and then individually we go away. Even the many Methodists whose method is most similar to ours receive by rails – i.e. they kneel down together, receive communion and then wait until all have received and the Minister then says a short prayer and they go back to their places.
For when we receive the Body of Christ we enter into communion with our Lord, but also with our fellow members of the Body of Christ, invited by our common baptism into his dying and rising body and fed by the bread and wine in the way he chose,' the holy gifts for God's holy people', because Jesus says in that way 'you remember me' – not just a pious memory exercise but a re-hyphen-member , an action which puts back together with unity the separate and different members or parts of the Body of Christ.
It has always been my custom when I have the privilege of administering communion to hold the piece of bread, the Corpus Christi, between myself and the person who stretches out their hands for God's wonderful gift. I then say 'The Body of Christ' – which is a statement both about you and about me and the piece of bread and the Christ we long to be in communion with now and in eternity. Hopefully, you say ' Amen', 'So be it', 'I am' as a sign of your commitment and faith, and I place that precious gift in your hand.
An American writer, Annie Dillard, once wrote that if we realised what we were doing and who God is we would wear crash helmets in church! It is part of the humility of Jesus that he chooses food and drink rather than precious jewels or slaughtered animals to be present to us. He places himself in our hands that we may be his hands in serving and loving our neighbour. I’d like to finish with, I think, the beautiful words that St Augustine (not Canterbury, but Hippo in North Africa) wrote in the fourth century. He was a bishop and he’d just baptized a group of new members of the Body of Christ and now for the first time they will share in the Eucharist and Communion. He says ‘If you are the body and members of Christ, then what is laid on the Lord’s table is the sacrament of what you yourselves are, that you receive. It is to what you yourselves are that you answer: ‘Amen’.
‘This mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory’.
What a gift, what a promise!