2 Corinthians 4.5-12, Mark 2.23 – 3.6
You don’t have to spend very long in church circles (and not just Church of England ones) before you hear the voice of Private Fraser from Dad’s Army lamenting in lugubrious tones that ‘we’re all doomed.’
Christianity is not very popular. God-botherers are ridiculed. Worse than that, the behaviour of some Christians – many of them in prominent positions – seems to betray all the values that Jesus stood for.
Churches that not so long ago had flourishing congregations and lively groups of young people are now struggling by with a faithful remnant of half a dozen old ladies and one or two old men. Around them the cathedral-like structures built with such faith by our forebears are crumbling and the roofs are leaking.
Now you will think that I’m succumbing to my inner Victor Meldrew and things aren’t that bad. We might be camping out in one corner of our vast Victorian barn, but at least half our congregation is under 70 and not everyone’s hair has gone grey or disappeared. Meanwhile across the city there are several churches with vibrant and growing congregations, not to mention the rest of the country and the rest of the world.
Of course. There are lots of positives. If you’d looked at your garden a couple of months ago in this seemingly endless winter, you might have thought it was never going to blossom. We’ve had a short spring but a splendid one, and life is all around us now in our parks and gardens.
Go to any of the struggling, apparently failing churches like the ones I’ve mentioned, and you will find lovely faithful people caring for their neighbours and spending time in deep prayer. God’s love is there in spite of appearances.
On the other hand, the most beautiful buildings or the most right-on sermons or splendid liturgies or enthusiastic singing can sometimes hide the realities. People can be so devoted to these idols that faith, hope and love take second place. Or maybe don’t even get a look-in.
At the Conservation Centre of Liverpool Museums they have a whole section devoted to restoring picture frames. There are some beautiful frames with lots of moulded decoration and covered in gold leaf. But I can imagine that if you’ve worked on one of those and then you visit the gallery your eyes are first of all drawn to the frame, your beautiful frame. Maybe you don’t give the picture a second glance.
Religion can be a beautiful frame but we can often miss what it is supposed to contain. In today’s gospel Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees because they are intent on preserving the frame: meticulous observance of the law with all its restrictions. That law, though, is preventing Jesus from his work; his work of making present the healing power of God, revealing new life and new hope and above all new love, as people are set free from hunger and disease and infirmity.
And that is what we are called to do. Last Thursday (or today in many parts of the church) was the feast of Corpus Christi. The Latin phrase simply means the Body of Christ, and the feast is a time for giving thanks to God for giving us his Body and Blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion. We receive this sacrament so regularly that we can tend to take it for granted. Yet what it means is something so mind-blowing, so overwhelming. As we are fed with this sacrament, as we receive the sacramental Body of Christ, we become what we receive. As the old Book of Common Prayer puts it, ‘we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of [God’s] Son.’
It doesn’t matter if we celebrate this sacrament in a great cathedral with splendid vestments and music and every pomp and ceremony, or on a packing case in some battle-field like the services in which this cross [referring to the wooden cross used by a former vicar when he was an army chaplain] was used. Or in a tent like this. We are the Body of Christ and we are fed, sustained and transformed by the Body and Blood of Christ which we receive. So that we can show the world the light of God’s love so that the world as a whole glows with the light of Christ and is transformed bit by bit into the Body of Christ.
Bishop Michael Curry, in his powerful address at the royal wedding, referred to the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He was not only a priest but a scientist, and one day he was on a scientific expedition into the middle of Asia and was not able to celebrate the Eucharist normally, in a church with bread and wine. So instead he offered a wonderful meditation in which he saw God transforming the whole of creation. ‘Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day say again the words: This is my Body. And over every death-force which waits in readiness to corrode, to wither, to cut down, speak again your commanding words which express the supreme mystery of faith: This is my Blood.’ The Body of Christ is not just the sacrament, not just members of the church, but potentially all people and all creation can and will be transformed in the likeness of the living Christ.
This is the treasure which we are entrusted with. The treasure, as St Paul puts it in our first reading, which is ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’
And as Paul says, ‘we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.’
The treasure of God is something so much more wonderful than human eloquence, or beautiful art and design, or vibrant congregations of earnest young people. The treasure of God is the love at the heart of creation. And we are the humble, imperfect and often not very beautiful containers of that treasure.
So there is no need to despair or get fed up because the church appears to be failing or we don’t seem to be achieving anything in life. Just be faithful to the light that is in you and let it shine!