In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Some of you will remember the shocking news last month of an allegedly Christian cult in Kenya, whose pastor had led his people into the forest, and then commanded them to starve themselves to death. It’s hard to understand what could motivate such an act, but it is at least a clear illustration of the connection between beliefs and actions. Manipulated and controlled with a false version of Christian teaching, apparently derived from a morbid fixation with Satan and the end times, several hundred people were led into catastrophe. In an age in which it is fashionable to assert that all religions are essentially the same, this sad story provides an illustration that false beliefs can have disastrous consequences.
But it also seems to be an illustration of a problem that has afflicted Christianity since the very earliest days – hints of it can be found even in the New Testament. That problem is the place of the physical, material world in Christian belief. Reading between the lines in the New Testament, and reading church history and such evidence we have of the doctrinal disputes of the first Christian centuries, we can see that there was a persistent tendency for a minority of Christians to regard the material world as either irrelevant or even utterly evil. This version of what is often called dualism came into Christianity from Platonic philosophy, which was very influential among the educated classes in the ancient world.
And this view often had catastrophic consequences. In some cases it seems to have led to the kind of radical flight from the world and extreme asceticism that we saw in that tragic story from Kenya. In other cases it seems to have had the opposite effect, as people concluded that the body and the material world were so unimportant that it was just fine to indulge in the sort of private life that would have made the Marquis de Sade blush. Again we see that false beliefs have damaging consequences.
Mainstream Christianity has of course always insisted on the importance of the material world and the human body. We believe after all in the Word made flesh. We give thanks to God for God’s good gifts in creation. And at the heart of our life together there is the Sacrament of Holy Communion, in which we offer back to God His gifts to us in creation, and through the work of the Holy Spirit we are nourished by the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
But the tendency to disparage the material world has bubbled up within Christianity off and on through the centuries. The example I particularly want to draw to your attention today is that of the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli denounced the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Mass, on the grounds that it was impossible for anyone to receive a spiritual benefit through the flesh. This drew him into conflict with Martin Luther, who when arguing with Zwingli is said to have banged his fist down on the table and repeated the words of Jesus: “this is my body”.
The denial of traditional belief in the sacrament of Holy Communion by at least some of the reformers seems to me to be a critically important moment in the history of ideas in the western world. It was perhaps the most successful assertion of dualism in Christian history: Christian faith increasingly became seen as a matter of mind and spirit, something that could quite happily be detached from the material world and from human economic relationships. Although this was certainly not the intention of the reformers, the Reformation can be seen as an important step on the road to the modern age of materialism, as the world of faith became separated from the everyday material world. God’s creation was seen by many medieval theologians and philosophers as being another source of revelation alongside the Bible, both in its beauty and in its complex relationships of mutual dependence. But what used to be called creation increasingly became seen merely as natural resources, to be freely exploited and manipulated by human beings for their own purposes.
This is of necessity a rather crude whistle-stop tour of a complex period of a few hundred years of European religious and intellectual history, but hopefully I am succeeding in communicating the key idea: the traditional belief that in Holy Communion, our offering of the fruit of the earth, God’s gifts in creation, results in our receiving the Body and Blood of Christ; this traditional belief that we celebrate today in this feast of Corpus Christi is amongst other things a profound affirmation of the spiritual value of the material world. God’s creation is not just indifferent stuff for us to use as we see fit. Understood in the right way, God’s creation is a vehicle for the most profound spiritual gifts to God’s people.
As I said at the beginning, false beliefs have dangerous consequences. And just as the idea of a radical separation of the material and spiritual realms led at least some early Christians into difficulties, so too the modern post-Reformation separation of the material and spiritual realms has led humanity into disaster. I’ve said before that it is my view that the current environmental crisis is first and foremost a spiritual crisis. It is a crisis in humanity’s relationship with God, with God’s Creation, and a crisis too of relationships within humanity itself. This is not something that can be fixed simply though political strategies or improvements in technology, important as those things doubtless are; it requires a deep shift, an inner transformation, even a movement of repentance and redemption, in the way we look at the world around us.
The Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer describes a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. And in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, given to us by the Lord Jesus Himself at the Last Supper, the outward and visible sign is the bread and wine, gifts of God in Creation. And the inward and spiritual grace is described in the Prayerbook as “the Body and Blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper”. But we can also look on the whole creation as a sort of sacrament, also instituted by the Lord Jesus, through whom all things were made. Through creation, God reveals His love for us and for all God’s creatures through beauty and order and balance and relationships of mutual dependence. The cycles of nature point us to the possibilities of renewal and resurrection; the vast spaces and forces of the oceans and the skies help to put ourselves into a bigger perspective. It is so much more than mere stuff for us to use and exploit.
The celebration of the Eucharist starts with the offering of bread and wine—fruits of the earth, God’s gifts in creation. The gathered congregation offers this bread and wine to the priest, who accepts it on their behalf and places it on the altar. God responds to our offering with abundant generosity, returning our offerings to us with His presence in the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus. We receive the Creator of all, so that we and all creation may be healed and restored.
At every Eucharist, we offer creation to the Creator. At every Eucharist, the Creator comes to us to heal and raise up us His creatures, and through us to restore the whole creation to its original goodness. As we draw near in faith to receive these holy mysteries, let us pray that we may reverence the inward and spiritual grace of the Body and Blood of Christ under the outward form of bread and wine. And let us pray too that through our participation in these holy mysteries, we may learn to cherish the whole creation as the primal sacrament of the love of God, to whom, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be all praise and glory, now and unto ages of ages.