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Matter and paradox

Corpus Christi, 3 June, 2010
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

May the words of my mouth and meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

John Greenleaf Whittier was an heretick.

Now I know it sounds like I'm trying to win this year's award for the most unexpected sermon opening, but bear with me here.

John Greenleaf Whittier was an heretick.

Whittier was, of course, the 19th Century American Quaker and author of the hymn "Dear Lord and father of Mankind" which you can find at number 353 in your hymnal. Now I don't wish to be nasty to Whittier, who from all accounts was a very nice man and was certainly a pillar of the movement to abolish slavery in the USA, but I find this hymn profoundly irritating. To begin with, it is actually the final verse of a long and seldom-read poem called "The Brewing of Soma" — in which Whittier describes the ancient Hindu practice of the brewing and drinking of an intoxicating drink called "soma" as part of ritual worship. I mean, what an odd idea. Whoever would think of drinking a potentially intoxicating beverage as part of worship today?

So, although the line runs, "Dear Lord and Father of mankind/forgive our foolish ways", Whittier really means "Dear Lord and Father of mankind/forgive their foolish ways." There's a lot else in there I find irritating. The idea of the disciples "without a word" rising up and following Jesus doesn't seem to ring true. I wonder if Whittier had any idea about the Middle East or had ever met a Jewish person. And the hills above Galilee weren't all that calm either — then as now, they were the refuge of revolutionaries and terrorists.

So does this matter? Well, yes, it does. Despite our Tridentine trappings, we at St Peter's are still pretty Church of England at heart. And Anglicans, like Lutherans and Methodists, probably get more theology from the hymns they sing than they do from books, sermons or the BCP. So we need to take care what we sing.

So, what, I hear you ask, has this to do with the feast of Corpus Christi. The answer, of course, is "absolutely nothing". Which is precisely my point. Whittier envisages a religion stripped of ritual, ceremony, noise, bells, smells, colour and movement — where God is only encountered individually in a 'still small voice'. He was also, as were most American Quakers of his time, a Unitarian — he regarded Jesus as an inspired teacher but not as actually, you know, God. It's a religion that is controlled, intellectual, quiet, liberal, reasonable; and let's face it, smug, white and really, really middle-class. Which has obviously very little to do with Corpus Christi.

Celebrating this feast forces us to confront a number of possibly uncomfortable things about the Christian tradition. One of those things is that Christianity is not just the religion of intelligent, reasonable, educated, good looking, middle-class people such as ourselves but of poor, uneducated, credulous medieval peasants with bad teeth. And what's more that those peasants were not second-class Christians but members along with us of the Kingdom of God. But even more important is the fact that Corpus Christi brings us face to face with two key things about Christianity — Matter and paradox.

Firstly, this is the most material of festivals. We celebrate, not an event or an idea or a theological proposition, but a thing — the bread and wine transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. For at the heart of Christianity are not just ideas and words but things — bread, wine, flesh, blood. Our central doctrine is that in Jesus, God took on a material human body. And that he sustains us in the sacrament by material things, transformed for His purpose. God's sacrament cannot be experienced without its material elements. Our metaphysics cannot be detached from our physics. Even in death our credal hope is not in the idea of a disembodied Platonic eternal soul but in the resurrection of the body.

Which is why I'm not a Buddhist. Yes, that's right. After having maligned an inoffensive dead Quaker, he's now dissing (sic) the Dalai Lama. Ultimately for the Buddhist, the material world — our very body — is an illusion to be transcended. For the Christian there's nothing illusory about the body. And there's nothing despicable about it either — because, after all, it was good enough for God. Thus our materiality, our embodiedness — our blood, sugar, sex — in the words of those great contemporary theologians, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers — something holy.

But how do we reconcile this with our baptismal vows to reject the world the flesh and the devil? Aren't we heading into Dalai Lama territory here? Aren't we committing ourselves to transcending the world? I don't think so. Firstly, because, pretty obviously the baptismal promise accepts the world and the flesh as actually real and no illusion. But more importantly because, I suggest, that as Christians we are called not to transcend the world but to transform it. And that's a very different thing indeed.

Secondly, this festival holds forth some of the eternal paradoxes inherent in Christianity. The sacrament is both bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ. Jesus was both fully human and fully divine — what Hegel, who couldn't handle paradox unless he could turn it into dialectic, called the 'monstrosity of Christ'.

Still more paradoxes. God is three and God is one. God is lover and God is judge. And to return to a point I made earlier, Christianity contains both a complex theology and what might be called peasant superstition. If you can't handle paradox, you probably shouldn't be a Christian. If you want everything clear, unambiguous, black and white, cut and dried, there's a perfectly respectable religion open to you — you can become a Muslim.

So, all you intelligent, reasonable urban sophisticates out there. It's time to discover your inner medieval peasant. Time to forget your ironic postmodern detachment and celebrate the body and blood of our Lord, in all its scandalous materiality and paradox.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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