So, I’ve been sat in the coffeeshop this morning writing my sermon for tomorrow morning. It’s a sermon that takes into account a whole bunch of the things I’ve been thinking about this week as I’ve been working on my various assignments and engaging in various conversations, both online and offline. Part of that conversation was reading Sally Coleman’s post on her blog here, which gives 5 questions, and her answers, and then asks for others’ responses. So, this post is my response. You might want to think about the questions and then respond too – you can do so just for yourself or if you want to do so publicly you can comment on Sally’s blog, or here, or, if you’ve got one, on your own blog and so increase the range of people considering these questions even further.
1. What does the Lord’s supper/Holy Communion/ Eucharist mean to you?
I’ve found myself doing a lot of thinking over the last couple of years about sacraments and why I’ve always found them moving and important. For me two things stand out in my thinking:
a) The way my RC Church & Sacraments tutor put it when trying to describe the thinking of Catholic thinkers like Herbert McCabe (who, by the way, believed the Roman Church got it wrong when it tied itself to the term transubstantiation): “We are what we eat”. Receiving the Eucharistic elements is, for me, one of the key ways in which I re-orientate myself to God as seen in Christ and experienced through the Spirit. And for the metaphor to work fully I do believe the bread and wine truly become body & blood, but I’m not going argue over the metaphysics of how, because I’m happy to leave that as a mystery.
b) I note you do not refer to the Mass in your question. For me that term is a key one, not because I am tied up in the sacrificial theology of some (many? most?) who use the term (though Charles Wesley’s hymns suggest he was more than happy with it), but because I know where the name comes from. It comes from the dismissal, and that for me is vital – we are dismissed from the Mass to go and do God’s work in the world in the name of Christ. In South Africa we visited a church and on the inside, over the exit, was the phrase: “You are now entering the mission field” (and yes, I think the inside of a church can be the mission field as well!) Receiving the Mass regularly (oh to be in a place where I could do so daily!) gives me the re-orientation to Christ and strength in Christ to truly live out that dismissal to undertake God’s mission in the world, the self-sacrificing mission of salvation of the whole of creation as witnessed in the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of Christ.
2. How important is preparation for this, and what form does it take?
For me the preparation for receiving is in the worshiping together. If it’s in the morning, as we have here at Wesley on a Thursday, I often won’t eat beforehand, so that it is my true breakfast, but I don’t think that’s vital. I would wary of requiring preparation for receiving, or suggesting it vital, for I believe in a truly open table, and that means being able to offer it where others are, rather than requiring something more of them first – God did not wait for the world to be ready but came to it in Christ, and we can see that the world was not ready in the inevitability of its reaction to him, by nailing him to him to a cross. Yet even this was not enough to stop God continuing to reach out, through the speaking of Mary’s name, the breaking of bread with Cleopas and his friend, the showing of his wounds to Thomas, the cooking of breakfast on the lakeshore for Peter and John and the others, the appearance to Saul on the road to Damascus, and his continual appearing to us in Holy Communion and elsewhere in our lives if we would only look with eyes to see.
3. What does baptism mean to you?
For me, personally, it is the reality to which I can point and say “I am beloved of God”. Unlike many who tend towards a preference for adult baptism, my preference is for infant baptism, for the very reason that it is a sacrament of grace, of a grace so overflowing that it requires nothing of us to begin its work. Of course, such grace calls upon us to react, and I am happy to baptise adults in the understanding that it is demonstrative of a grace already responded to. But I believe Baptism is at its most potent as a missional sacrament when it is the baptism of infants – God’s grace is so phenomenal that it is at work in a child who can make absolutely no conscious acknowledgement of or reaction to it. “All may be saved” – In baptism, and the baptism of infants especially, I see a resounding demonstration of that truth!
4. How important is preparation for baptism and what form does it take?
I think preparation is important, but I’m not sure I would want to prescribe its form. Why? Because surely the form of preparation for an adult catechumen is vastly different to the preparation to be done with a parent or parents seeking baptism for their newborn and dying infant. In the end I think a certainty in the moment that either this is what you want for yourself or for your child is all one can ask for. Baptism is a sacrament of God’s prevenient grace. If we requires vast preparation that, to me, seems to make it a human work rather than a Divine Sacrament. The preparation, to me, pales into insignificance in comparison to the willingness to engage with the Sacrament itself in the moment that it is conducted.
5. A quote/ poem/ song that brings you before God in a sacramental way, and helps you to engage at a deeper level…
I have always found my engagement with God helped by music that is actually secular in its original context. Anyone who knows me would probably expect my choice to come from U2, or if not U2 then either Massive Attack or Faithless. And it is true that much of their music speaks deeply to me and my understanding of God. But in the end one phrase, one single line from a track by the Stone Roses is one that always comes to mind in these situations, a line so fully loaded with sacramental passion (though I doubt John Squires & Ian Brown thought in those terms when they wrote it), a sacramental passion I think is strengthened by the fact some might see it as blasphemous or heretical, that it never fails to move me closer to God. Actually I find the whole song deeply powerful and challenging, though I know others who would simply write it off as anything from simply good secular music to blasphemous, heretical nonsense, but it is the opening line that is the key for me:
“ Love spreads her arms, waits there for the nails. ‘I forgive you, boy, I will prevail.’ ”