‘Corporate Communion’ occurs once a term in Corpus Christi, Cambridge and is a chance for Christians who usually worship elsewhere to join together to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. This year, as a new venture, I organised it in my rooms in Corpus, around 15 attended and the Eucharist was celebrated by the Dean of Chapel.
(Gospel Reading: Mark 9.33-41)
Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him… whoever is not against us is for us’
It was a rather daunting privilege to organise this service. Not just because it’s rather strange to see your room as a pseudo-oratory, but also because I’m aware that there are tensions between us as Christians. However, preparing for this homily and reflecting on the Gospel reading the church gives for Eucharists focussed on the unity of the Church has made me realise that one of the things I am most grateful for is that I have always had wonderful Christians around me, who have shown me what it is to be Jesus’ disciple. Friends, priests and bishops, spiritual directors, fellow Christians: I have been blessed with a wonderful array of people who have made Christianity credible to me. People who, by their love, forgiveness, faithfulness, perseverance, joy, compassion and integrity have shown me what God is like. Of course, there are also Christians who have made faith more challenging – those who have told me I am bound for hell, those who’ve said a gay man can’t be a priest; those who have hurt me and damaged my trust. It does not always follow that we Christians are good witnesses to the One whose name we bear.
And of course Christians can and do disagree passionately about what it means to be faithful to the name of Christ. This is not new: even in today’s Gospel reading, before the Church has come into being, we see the disciples seeking to draw the boundaries. ‘Someone was casting out demons in your name’, they tell Jesus. ‘And we tried to stop him, because he was not with us’.
Here is the perennial attempt to pre-empt God and decide who’s out and who’s in. What determines who may act in the name of Jesus? For John, speaking for the disciples, it’s membership of their group. They are the ones able to speak and act with authority. Others should be stopped. Later on, others will seek to make distinctions based on ethnicity, on
loyalty to a particular apostle, on assent to a particular formulation of doctrine or interpretation of Scripture.
But Jesus refuses to restrict his authority to the Twelve. ‘Whoever is not against us if for us’ he says. What the disciples need to learn, and what I certainly need to learn, is that they don’t need to be afraid, cautious about sharing what Jesus has given them, fearful lest it fall into the wrong hands. Hands that are willing to do Jesus’ work are never the wrong hands. The authority of Jesus can only be used to further his purposes in reconciling all things to the Father. It may be untidy, it may be surprising, it may put you in the company of people you might prefer to keep at arms’ length, it will probably be unsafe to those who prefer their religion institutionalised, but it will not endanger the kingdom.
In fact, says Jesus, it is rather the opposite that will threaten his purposes. Anything that puts a stumbling block in the way of others’ belief is to be avoided. And that includes wrangling about who is a real Christian, and the divisions that beset the Church. We have the capacity to be channels of Christ’s grace, to draw others to him and sometimes this can feel like altogether too much responsibility. If the advancement of the kingdom of God is dependent on people as fallible and fickle as me, then that seems a very flimsy basis on which God should work. And yet this is the way God has chosen: by entrusting to the Church the ministry of Christ, and empowering us with the Holy Spirit.
It’s tempting to be like the disciples, and to want to tidy the Church up and draw clear lines around it: those I agree with and like on this side, and those who I think believe the wrong things, or act in a way I find difficult, on the other. But that line has the potential to go right through the middle of us. If we spend too much drawing lines between ‘real’ Christians and others, our witness is threatened and those children who will be so great in the kingdom fall away in disgust at a broken Church – this is the point of corporate communion, to remind us that, when all is said and done, there is one Lord, one faith and one baptism.
Don’t hinder those who are working in my name, says Jesus.
Don’t hinder those who are working in my name, says Jesus to the disciples. And don’t be a hindrance to others’ faith. But hindrances to faith come in all sorts of ways. The kingdom of God is made attractive, or not, by the ways in which we speak and act for God. Our words are hollow if they are not matched by the reality of our lives. We can’t talk about being a “Christian country” if we are not prepared to welcome the stranger. We betray the God of love if our speech and our actions are unloving and designed to exclude or diminish others. We fail to embody the kingdom as Christians if we only mix with and welcome those who are like us and agree with us. We can’t talk about God’s particular care for the poor and vulnerable and blithely neglect the needy amongst us.
To each of us, and to all of us together, is given the call to make Christ known and visible, to prepare the way so that others may come to know him, too. Christ uses people: ordinary, fallible human beings like you and me, to help others know him. Extraordinarily, he makes our lives vehicles of his grace. And this challenges us to look at the ways in which we show his love, and in which we obstruct it. If we are tempted to draw the boundaries of who belongs too tight, perhaps it’s the time for all of us to practise extending our embrace. Jesus is clear that there are consequences when we act as hindrances to his work, you only need to read on from our Gospel reading today to hear Jesus’ harsh words to those who would be stumbling blocks to others.
Christ entrusts his own ministry to us. And there is a proper shrinking before so daunting a task. Most of us know we’re not really up to it. At times the idea that people might look at us and see Christ seems preposterous. And yet this is what God makes possible. I know I’m not unusual in knowing people who have shown me, by their lives, more of what God is like. And this is the vocation given to each of us, in our own way in this place, to bring to fullness the image of Christ that is in us; to co-operate with the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. We go out from this Holy Meal empowered by that Spirit and fed by Christ’s own body and blood, and with the promise that our lives, our messy, broken, busy, ordinary lives, have the potential to be a sign of grace for others, as the Word takes on our flesh.