Sunday, 4 July 2010

Sermon on ‘The Heavenly Party’, I Corinthians 11: 17-34 and Luke 14: 12-24, St Matthew’s, 4th July 2010

This sermon is entitled ‘The Heavenly Party’ because Bishop John, at Steve’s institution – which some of us attended back in March or there abouts – said that what we as a church needed was ‘more prayer and parties’. And this got me thinking It also seemed appropriate to preach on the subject of parties the day after our Parish Day – and of course Steve is just back from his sabbatical - a cause for celebration – an excuse for a party even.

Now parties are generally held to celebrate significant events in people’s lives such as births, weddings, a change of job, the move to a new house, even death – both the day itself but also the anniversary of the day. Parties are also held to celebrate significant events in the lives of communities and not just individuals. The opening of a new building, the appointment of a new leader, etc. And some of the most astute of you will have noticed that this is the 4th July – the day the Americans have parties to celebrate their independence as a nation.

And of course – even in our secularised world - we also celebrate the events of the life of Jesus by holding parties. Most of us will go to at least one Christmas party – more if we are lucky. Some of us will hold a Christmas party and by doing so of course we are marking the birth of Jesus – in a way that I think he would personally very much like. We don’t seem to have Easter parties as much as we used to. Even when I was a child Easter was much more of a celebration than it is now.

But what is a party? Well parties have – in my views - three essential ingredients. Firstly: an event to celebrate (which I have already touched on). Secondly: a gathering together of people. You clearly can’t have a party by yourself. Thirdly: a sharing of food and drink? Perhaps this reminds you of something?. Yes Holy Communion has all the basic features of a party. And this is what I want us to think about today: Holy Communion as a party.

Now this might sound a bit strange to some because we are used to celebrating Communion in a quiet, contained, solemn sort of way. Parties in contrast are noisy, unconstrained even boisterous. I am not saying that we entirely abandon quiet, solemn Communions but today I wasn’t to suggest that at some Communions we might be more party-like.

So to get us in the mood for a more party-like Communion I thought we should make a bit of a noise. There are lots of psalms which start with, or at least contain, the line ‘Let us sing to the Lord’. But there are also a few which urge us to shout. For example Psalm 100 begins: ‘Shout to the Lord all the earth’, which can also be translated as ‘Make a joyful noise’ or ‘Make a loud noise unto the Lord’. So today I thought we would do just this by letting off some party poppers.

[Give party poppers to everyone as they come in.]

For the rest of this sermon I want to look some good biblical reasons – from the Gospels - why we might think of the Communion as a party. And then I want to look at the Epistle reading to show why the Communion is more than just an ordinary party.

My first reason for thinking of the Communion as a party is that Jesus clearly enjoyed a good party. And perhaps this is one reason why he came up with the idea of a party to commemorate the events of his life: both his death and his resurrection. As I said a party needs something to celebrate.

There are lots of Gospel stories of Jesus attending parties. He went to parties held for special occasions such as weddings. And we thought about the Wedding at Cana a few weeks back: at the first of our Zone services. But he also went to seemingly spontaneous parties such as the one held in Bethany which we thought about last week. Perhaps this was held to celebrate Lazarus return from the dead. But John remembers the party because Mary poured a bottle of expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet.

Both of these parties remind us that you shouldn’t stint at a party. When, at the wedding feast at Cana, Jesus learnt that the alcohol was running out he didn’t just produce some ordinary plonk but the best vintage wine. When Mary poured perfume over Jesus feet it wasn’t cheap, it was expensive nard from India or China. And note that the fragrance wasn’t just for Jesus benefit - it filled the whole house. Of course spending money on a party doesn’t guarantee that it will go well but perhaps some extravagance is in order. Accordingly for the Communion today I have bought a special bottle of Cote du Rhone – which the women who sold it to me assures me tastes a little bit like ginger bread. And the bread I have made for Communion is not ordinary bread but slightly sweeter brioche bread with butter and eggs in it: a bit more celebratory than ordinary white bread.

My second reason for thinking of the Communion as a party is that Jesus told lots of stories about parties. Parties to celebrate particular things like weddings. Or as in the story Michael Mitton talked about yesterday – a party to celebrate the homecoming of wayward or prodigal son. Jesus even tells a story of a women holding a party to celebrate the finding of a lost coin.

In the Gospel reading compares the Kingdom of God to a great banquet. Now as I think I have said many times before – a great banquet at the end of all time – a heavenly party if you kike - is a theme that runs throughout the Bible from the prophecies of Isaiah[1] to the prophecies of John in Revelation. The particular thing I think to note in today’s reading is the guest list for this heavenly party. This is an extraordinary party to which – in the end – all are invited including the poor, and maimed, blind and lame.

But as - Michael Mitton noted yesterday - one of the amazing things Jesus claims about the Kingdom of God is that – yes it is in the future – but it also breaks through to the here and now. This is why Jesus – before he starts his story about the great banquet – prefaces it with instructions to a the man – a leader of the Pharisees – who has invited him to dine with him – about who to invite to parties here and now. Jesus says ‘When you give a dinner or a banquet do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbours…but when you give a feast invite the poor, the maimed, the lame the blind’ Just the people who are invited to the heavenly party at the end of all time. And the Communion that we will be celebrating today is a feast to which all are invited.

The shortest sermon I have ever heard – and one that I can remember not just because it is short but also, I think very profound was preached by my friend Alan Garrow who used to come to this church. His sermon was just six words and was this. ‘The Eucharist is not a rehearsal’. That is to say the Communion we are about to celebrate is in some mysterious way the very same banquet that we will be sharing with Jesus at the end of time.

The third reason for thinking of the Communion as a party is the sharing of food and drink. As I said at the beginning these are essential ingredients of a party. We are the only species of animal that sits down and shares food at a meal. Claude Levi Strauss – the famous anthropologist - argues that what separates us from animals is not tool-making (many other animals such as chimpanzees make and use tools) nor language (dolphins and whales have complicated languages) but cooking. We alone of all animals use fire to cook food. The cooking and sharing of food is fundamental to being human. In sharing foods at a meal round a hearth we are forced into looking into one another’s’ eyes - into communicating – from which of course we get the word Communion.

And this brings me to the Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 11 (page1152). This is Paul’s account of what Jesus said to his disciples about celebrating Communion. It is very similar to the accounts in Mark, Matthew and particularly Luke. It clearly contains words which the church has incorporated into the Communion service liturgy and which Steve will be saying shortly. There is lots that might be said about this passage. But there is one particular verse that deserves looking at today in particular – in connection looking at the Communion as a party - and this is verse 29 which reads ‘For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eat and drinks judgment upon himself.’ What does this mean?

Of course on one level Paul is saying that, at the Communion, it is important to remember that the bread and wine that we receive at communion is in some mysterious way the body and blood of Jesus. But remember Paul often talks about the Church as the body of Christ. So he is also saying that when we eat the bread at communion we need to ‘discern’, remember, be conscious that we too part of the body of Christ. We will remember this when we say – as we will do shortly – ‘Though we are many we are one body because we all share in one bread’.

But perhaps it’s also worth remembering that when the administrant at communion gives you the bread and says ‘the body of Christ’ he/she means both the bread in their hand and you the receiver of the bread.

So to sum up. And bring things together. Reflecting on the Communion meal as a party might, I hope, have shed new light on its meaning. In particular let us remember that it’s not just or even mainly an individual act of worship – but a coming together of the Body of Christ – in this place – where we all share in food and drink to celebrate – with joy and happiness (even a few loud noises) both the cross and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ
[1] Isaiah 25: 5-10