Sunday 19 August - Pentecost 13 - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

Pentecost 13 – Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6.51-58

+ ‘Be filled with the Spirit… giving thanks to God the Father at all times, and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Or, as I am preaching my last sermon at St John’s, another way would be using this platform to tell you what I really think of you. Some clergy use their last sermon to say all the critical stuff they were afraid to say to their congregation before. The problem is that Paul’s words to the Ephesians actually express what I feel, a sense of deep gratitude and thanks to God and to you all for almost five years of priestly ministry here at St John’s. It is a place where I have repeatedly said what I really think and heard what you really think… within the bounds of Edinburgh reserve and politeness. I therefore give thanks for this, for your friendship, your support in good times and bad, for convivial meals, robust discussion and constructive criticism.

And what a good day to do this, we not only have a festival feast of English church music but also a Baptism, for which we thank Yifan Marie, welcome her into the Church and wish her every blessing. Today, like busses, sacraments come in twos, and, as well as Baptism, we not only celebrate the Eucharist together but hear Jesus’ teaching about it in the gospel: ‘for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me’. A couple of years ago, in one of our ecumenical Pilgrim groups, people from St John’s and our two Presbyterian sister churches were studying the Eucharist. After reading through Jesus’ teaching in John 6, of which we heard a part today, ‘my flesh is true food’, one of the people there said, ‘well, if that’s what the gospel says, the Roman Catholics are right’.

My answer was a very Anglican one, ‘Yes and no’. Yes, Roman teaching on the Eucharist fits well with what Jesus and the early Christians say; no, this does not necessarily imply the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation (by which the eucharistic bread is not bread, it just looks like it); and no, this teaching that the bread and wine really are the flesh and blood of Christ is Christian teaching, not specifically Roman Catholic teaching. It’s what the Scottish Episcopal Church teaches. Look at the words we are about to use on p.17in the booklet: ‘send your Holy Spirit upon… this bread and this wine, that, overshadowed by his life-giving power, they may be the Body and Blood of your Son.’ ‘Be’, not ‘symbolise’ or ‘represent’. We don’t just eat a bit of bread and think about Jesus: ‘my flesh is real food’. This is what our Church believes, it is Roman Catholic teaching and it is the teaching of Martin Luther who once in a debate about the presence of Jesus in the blessed sacrament wrote on the table Jesus words, ‘This is my Body’ and refused to say any more.

Now, over the last few years here, people have heard me say things like this and said, ‘Stephen is high church, he says things like that’ or ‘you and Markus are too Catholic – you’re always banging on about the Trinity’. We might also say ‘Jane is a Tory’ or ‘John is a Nationalist’. Putting labels on people and ideas can help us make sense of the world, but it can also be the death of creative engagement. You might say, ‘the Rector is German, he is only saying that because he is German’, and then dismiss what he says from your mind. He might be saying something that will change your life, and you miss it because your thought is enclosed in boxes. 

‘Be filled with the Spirit… giving thanks to God the Father at all times, and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The Christian faith can itself become a box, but I want to suggest here that to get out of our mental boxes we need, not to push our faith to one side, but to embrace the mystery that is at its heart. Give thanks to the Father and the Son, be filled with the Spirit. The Holy Trinity. In a minute we will do what Jesus commanded us and baptise Yifan in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity. We will then do what Christ the Son commanded us with bread and wine, pray like him to the Father and call on the Spirit to transform the bread and wine into his flesh and blood. The Holy Trinity.

Our Trinitarian God is a communion of love and we are invited to enter into that communion. Jesus said, ‘unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.’ Baptised into the life of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit we begin our journey into the mystery of love, or rather we continue the journey that began at our conception. Baptism leads us directly to the table of the Eucharist where, with Yifan Marie today, we will share the life and nourishment of the love between Jesus and the Father, a love which has a name, the Holy Spirit.  

So, in this last sermon I say, ‘Be filled with the Spirit… giving thanks to God the Father at all times, and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ I make no apology for nearly five years of banging on about the Trinity and Jesus or pointing out what Jesus said about the Eucharist, because that is what I have been called by Jesus to do. I want to thank you, and especially Markus, for sharing this task with me. I also want to apologise to anyone I have offended. And I want to thank you for your love and support and to ask your prayers for Izzy and me as we start our new ministry in North Cornwall around Padstow. Finally I invite you to pray for Yifan Marie and her husband Rod as she is baptised and enters herself into this mystery of love we have been sharing together here for nearly five years.