A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Sr Clare-Louise SLG on Sunday 27 September 2020
First, I would like to say what a pleasure it is to be here with you; it is good to be able to share with you as Nikolaj celebrates his first Eucharist. I am also enjoying being able to go to Church live!
Sometimes, when you are preaching the readings from the lectionary are not all that helpful. I pondered the two sons, one who said yes and didn’t and the other who said no but did. I think we can all identify with both those brothers. There is lots to think about there!
However, I would like to use this opportunity to reflect on what we will all be doing during this service as we share this occasion with Nikolaj, and the Scripture text which sprang to my mind in relation to that is this very familiar one from elsewhere in St Matthew’s Gospel:
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.Matthew 18: 20
We have worried over the past months whether even two or three could safely gather; but here we are. We are not out of the woods in terms of Covid, but the nature of an occasion such as this reminds us of the importance of being able to gather as church, the Body of Christ, and to celebrate this central act of the life of the church.
Today we rejoice and join with Nikolaj at his first celebration of the Eucharist. Vocational journeys are marked by points of significance, whatever the nature of the vocation; ordination to the priesthood sees many such moments, and in the past week the newly ordained priests will have experienced two.
First there is the actual ordination service itself, in the presence of the Bishop and other clergy and members of the parishes to which the newly ordained priests belong. It is a moment for the church as a whole, the universal church.
And then there is the actual first eucharist with the priests own local congregation; important to the priest because it is the first time he or she will celebrate something which almost defines what a priest is. But important too for the priest and congregation together. This is the moment that the priest exercises his sacramental ministry for the first time for the congregation from which he comes and whom he will be serving. Priest and people belong together; the priest is drawn out of the church as a whole in response to a call of God, to undertake special training and commissioning in the form of ordination, in order to then return to serve and be part of that church. That makes of this a special moment for all of us.
When we celebrate the Eucharist together (and we do celebrate it together, the congregation are not spectators, or the audience for a performance), we do something which draws us together as the Body of Christ. As Christians, even with our own individual relationship with Jesus, we are always part of the Body of Christ and the Eucharist draws us together in this. As one of the responses puts it:
Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.
Jesus taught that: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Our faith isn’t an individual solitary affair; we affirm that every time we pray Our Father. When we gather together Jesus is present among us in a particular way.
There is a particular significance to this now of course. The Christian body is made up of individual persons in fellowship in Christ. But we are living in a time of Covid, when the (admittedly necessary) advice warns us that others may be infected and dangerous; maintain social distancing, don’t get too close, be wary of sharing food. This is necessary – we do live in a time of pandemic – but you can see how counter to the values of gathering and sharing it is.
Jesus was known for getting up close and touching those he wasn’t supposed to – think of the lepers or the dead son of the widow of Nain.
I’m not suggesting we do the same at this time – we have to be responsible and aware of the real issues – but there are ways that we can maintain the closeness of Christian fellowship even in a time of pandemic. We need to be aware of the implied messages of infection control, that the other may be dangerous, a potential source of disease. Balanced against that is the truth of the Gospel where the other is welcomed and we are members of one body in Christ. The wonderful thing is that, in Christ and through prayer, we are already close in a way that transcends either physical distancing or closeness. Perhaps now is a particularly important time to be affirming community.
The internet has been a wonderful tool over the past months, and congregations, such as yourselves, have found ways to gather virtually or in safe ways together. One of the challenges Nikolaj will face as he begins his ministry as a priest alongside the other clergy and the congregation, will be to discern how we go forward as the body of Christ. Jesus was flesh and blood, he ate, slept, touched, shed tears, he shared hugs. Hugs and handshakes are in short supply at the moment. The Eucharist is bread and wine, made by human hands from the products of the earth, blessed by human hands and transformed by God. We believe in the Incarnation; going forward we will need to find ways of witnessing to this. As 1 Corinthians 12: 26 reminds us:
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.
In this time of social distancing, one thing at least remains true: the necessity of prayer. Prayer enables us to hold the person we are physically separated from as well as the person sitting next to us. Prayer keeps us close to the Lord. It can happen anywhere at any time. Prayer for each other is one of our first duties as a Christian, and among the greatest support any one of us can give to our clergy. The priest has an especial commitment to pray for his or her people as we have to pray for our priests.
Social distancing offers challenges, but it doesn’t alter the truth of our communion with God and with each other. This Eucharist is a reminder of that fact, and a particularly celebratory occasion for all here.
And finally, a word from a Priest friend of the Community, shared on a day when he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination with us, which I address both to Nikolaj, but to the whole congregation as well:
Always celebrate the Eucharist as if it is the first time, the last time, and the only time that you will celebrate it.
That is to say, with the freshness of a first celebration, with the gratitude of a final celebration, and with the care of an only celebration.
Always celebrate the Eucharist as if …For all of us, frequency of attendance can lead to a certain staleness and lack of attention, a familiarity which blinds our sight to what is occurring. But in fact, what is occurring in the Eucharist is a marvel. God is making himself present to us in bread and wine and in the person of our fellow Christians. We are sharing table fellowship with our Lord and with each other, united by the Spirit. We may be doing it with masks and social distancing but, in the unity of that Spirit, that doesn’t take away the reality of the truth that we are one in Christ.
So, for us all, the celebration of the Eucharist should be a moment of attention and importance.This not easy to sustain in everyday life of course for priest or for people, but it is something to aspire to. Wonderfully, within the confines of social distancing we gather and celebrate that Christ is in us, that Christ died and rose for us, and that we are one body in him.