Sermon for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi
Sunday June 10, 2012 | St. Paul’s Parish, K Street, Washington D.C.
Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, 16-17, John 6:47-58
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“For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”
Today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, when we give thanks and praise to God for the gift of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Jesus Christ’s own Body and Blood. Where, under the visible forms of bread and wine, we encounter the living presence of Jesus Christ Himself.
It is an astonishing gift. It is astonishing to take seriously Jesus’ declaration that this apparent bread and wine is His own Body and Blood. And it is a great joy and delight to know, then, that Christ is present in the Sacrament just as He was present in His human form at the Incarnation.
Many of us here may have had moments when we felt this presence profoundly. This may be why many of us are here this morning in this particular place, this community that speaks with such conviction of the encounter we have with our God in the Sacrament.
And when we discern Christ’s presence in the Sacrament of His Body, then we receive a second blessing – we discover that Christ must then be present in each member of the Church gathered at the Eucharist.
We may look to our God on the altar in adoration. And as we receive communion and God enters within us and makes His dwelling in our hearts, we may adore Him there. And then we also may adore Christ as we watch each of our brothers and sisters return from the altar – we may adore Him dwelling in each one of their hearts as well.
For myself, these two aspects of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament and in each of us were conveyed most powerfully to me together in one single moment, when I was a junior is college:
I had long believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist – that I encountered my God in the Sacrament as I would encounter Jesus Christ in His human body when he was born on earth.
But faith, I believe, has
a cyclical rhythm, an ebb and flow, and I was in a dry place when I came back to college from Christmas break my junior year.
I had been active in the Episcopal campus ministry at my school and often served as an acolyte at the Sunday evening mass we celebrated, and on that particular day we had many new freshman acolytes, and so I was asked for the first time to bear the chalice during communion.
It did not seem to be the right moment. I was feeling shaky and uncertain in my faith, and I was greatly dismayed by the thought of being a chalice bearer for the first time in such a spiritual state. But I was needed, and no one else was ready or willing to be trained so I agreed to do it. And I approached the altar without the deep conviction that I had previously experienced and would have wanted at such a moment.
And I received Jesus Christ Himself, in the Blessed Sacrament, and the chalice was placed in my hands, but God, whose presence is often subtle, seemed so distant.
And I walked from person to person, and I said, “The Blood of Christ”, and I wondered what it was that I was doing, and thought how very unworthy I was to be doing it, in such a moment of confusion.
And then, as I moved along the altar rail, something shifted.
“The Blood of Christ,” I said, “The Blood of Christ”. And suddenly I was overcome, with an utterly overwhelming sense of the presence of God. It pressed upon me and left me trembling. The fog of my confusion and my uncertainty, was flung back and I was filled with this deep sense of conviction, of faith. I knew that what I held in my hand was God Himself. I knew that what I was helping share with the people was God Himself.
And I realized that each person walked away from that altar rail, flaws and all, replete, filled with the presence God. He had pervaded us all, and we were immersed in Him. And it was trembling and speechless that I returned from the altar that day, with God enfleshed all around me. And I couldn’t fully separate God present in the Eucharist from God present in His people – these two truths were joined.
Sometimes discerning the presence of Christ is that overwhelmingly clear. But not too often. We worship a God whose presence is often subtle. But He has made known to us where His presence may be found. And so as we seek and celebrate our Lord present and encountered in the Sacrament we receive week after week, we must also seek and celebrate Him dwelling in our hearts, and dwelling in the hearts of every brother and sister who comes to the altar.
And we must also seek and celebrate Christ’s presence hidden in the heart of every single man and woman – all – for whom He died.
This is a Mystery as great as the Mystery of Christ present in His Sacrifice on the altar – that Jesus is also present in each human being made in His image. He tells us plainly that this is particularly true of those of his brothers and sisters who are poor, sick, hungry, suffering, and alone. And just as we are drawn to worship and adore Him here in this place, we must go and seek Him out and adore Him in all those human beings in need – as all human beings are, at one time or another. We are called to seek and serve Christ in all people, as we promise at our baptisms.
And I think this often sounds easier than it actually is. I think we all find ourselves at times moved with compassion for suffering people. And we may, if we look, find it quite possible to glimpse our crucified savior in them. But this is usually a lot more romantic in theory than in practice.
Among the weak, the poor, and the suffering we can find the same flaws and sin we discover in our own hearts – the same selfish drives, the same lack of empathy or concern for others, the same resistance to taking responsibility for the things we have done. And these discordant sins do not feel like the crucified and glorified Christ we are trying to discern in these our brothers and sisters.
And yet, for all the ways we humans work so hard to hide the image and presence of our God within us, Christ declares that He is there. And just as we carry the Sacrament from this building to share Him with the sick, the homebound, and the lonely, we also carry Him present within ourselves to all those we encounter, and we find Him there in them as well. God is enfleshed all around us.
This truth was beautifully stated by Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar in 1923, to the Anglo-Catholic Congress that year. He declared:
“If you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.”
And so, on this day as we celebrate the Body of Christ truly present to us in the astounding gift of the Blessed Sacrament, and as we worship and adore Him there, let us recommit ourselves also to seeking out and worshipping Christ present in all those in need – be they hungry, or homeless, or sick, or poor, or uneducated, or unemployed, or outcast, or lonely. Let us recommit ourselves to seeking and serving Christ in all those near to us – in the persons of fellow parishioners, family, coworkers, and all our neighbors. And let us seek His presence in those far from us – across the country and across the world.
My husband Ben and I are going to follow the path of Bishop Weston himself, and travel to what is now the country of Tanzania, to seek and serve Christ among the people of that country who are preparing for lay and ordained leadership in the Church. It is a poor country, where education is scarce, and we go to offer our service as teachers of theology, Scripture, and computer use. It is a country in need of trained people to help lead the ministry of the Church, which is the only access to the Gospel, and also to health care, education, and aid that many Tanzanians ever experience, and so we will be teaching at a seminary and serving at local parishes, and after this service we will be speaking about some of the ways that you can join us in this mission and help love and serve Christ among his brothers and sisters across the world.
But the need is great in this community as well, and as the doors here say, the mission field begins at the very threshold of this building (or even within its walls!) and Christ is present beside us in the subway, on the street, in classrooms and offices and hospitals and prisons and in our own homes. So as we find Jesus Christ here at the altar today, let us love Him. And then let us go seek out and love Him in the heart of every beloved child of God whose path crosses ours.
Photographs: Corpus Christi Procession 2012, St. Paul’s K Street
Photos by Janet Wamsley