Sermon Preached by Reverend Stuart Langshaw on Sunday, 10 December 2023.
Today brings us to the Second Sunday in Advent. As you know I am departing from the usual tradition of a series of Advent sermons in favour of a series based on the statement about St Andrew’s Church that is printed on the cover of the pew sheet. This also means that we will not be having Advent hymns each Sunday. I hope that this is not too discombobulating for us who are used to the rhythm and rhyme of the traditional Church’s year and its observance.
There are lots of things we see and touch and feel that symbolise our membership of a club or a school or a clan. People who are “in the know” also can work out what important part of our life is caught up in whatever badge, tie, scarf, symbol or whatever we wear. Here at St Andrew’s I can tell if a person is a JP by the badge he may be wearing … or an old boy of a particular school by the tie he may be wearing. They are outward and visible signs of membership, of belonging, of fellowship. At Morning Tea this morning you could have a surreptitious look at badges and ties as you try not to be obvious about it.
Actions too can be outward and visible signs of something deeper, something spiritual. I know I bang on about the Catechism quite a lot – and not just here at St Andrew’s! But the catechism has a lot to say about what we do at our Sunday service week by week – about the sacrament. You may recall the Catechism’s definition of a Sacrament – an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given unto us and ordained … by Christ himself … as a means whereby we receive the same (that is, the inward and spiritual grace), and a pledge to assure us thereof … that is, and a really strong promise – God’s bond – that we will definitely receive that inward and spiritual grace.
A sacrament uses simple, everyday materials such as water, bread, wine, olive oil, to point us to a fuller understanding of God’s love for us.
The first mark of the Church that we spoke about last week was that the Church – St Andrew’s – is Christ-centred. The second mark is that the Church – St Andrews is sacramental.
It is true that we Anglicans make more of a deal of our sacramental life than some other Christian churches do. After all, we celebrate the Holy Communion every week, while some other denominations have it once a month, or perhaps less frequently. The Salvation Army is a Christian Church that does not observe sacraments at all.
But when we say that our church is “sacramental,” we are saying much, much more than that we have Holy Communion each week, and that we baptise people who are starting their journey through the Christian life as I did here last Sunday. There is some discussion about how many sacraments there are – are there two or are there seven? Some people hold that there are seven, and they are Baptism and Holy Communion (the familiar two), but that Confirmation, Confession/Reconciliation, Marriage, Anointing of the Sick, and Ordination into the ordained ministry are also Sacraments. I don’t want to spend time arguing the virtue of two or of seven Sacraments. But I draw attention to the fact that the catechism says that they were given unto us and ordained… by Christ himself. Marriage and setting apart for ministry and the other 3 pre-date Christ. So some people say therefore that we have 2 “dominical” (from Christ our Lord) sacraments and five “church” sacraments. That’s my point of view too. But enough of all that. Oh – except to say that in no Anglican Prayer Book anywhere in the world is Holy Communion called the “mass.” It’s not worth getting our candles into a knot about, but I just observe that this is the case. Let’s get onto more substantial, less political stuff.
If you have very, very long and good memories, you will recall that in 2017, Helen Gibson-White and I preached our way through the Communion Service here in a series of 19 sermons. The hymns that we are using in our service today are about the sacrament of Holy Communion too.
But what do we mean when we say that our Church – St Andrew’s – is “sacramental?” It means that what we see is not what we get. What we see is water and olive oil in Baptism, bread and wine in Holy Communion. But that’s not we get. What we see is a “ritual washing” and a marking of the sign of the cross in Baptism, and we see people consuming bread and wine in Holy Communion. But that’s not what we get. What we see are the outward and visible signs. What we get is … well, that’s up to us really.
The ideal is that every time we receive Holy Communion we get the “inward and spiritual grace.” In other words, our church – St Andrew’s – is a church with outward ceremony and ritual. It is right that we get that ceremony and ritual done properly and reverently. Slap-dash and “near-enough-is-good-enough” is hardly respectful to God or to the congregation. It may make us jolly good people and to some extent make the ceremony and ritual accessible to people who are not used to it. But it hardly makes for appropriate, helpful liturgy. So we are careful and thoughtful in the way we go about the “outward and visible sign” part of our sacramental life so that the receiving of the inward and spiritual grace is not hindered by badly-done outward things. And so we try to fulfil our part of the ideal.
God fulfils God’s part of the ideal. Every time we celebrate Holy Communion … every time we come forward to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion, God makes available the inward and spiritual grace. Every time. God consistently offers to us the inward and spiritual grace, using the bread and wine as tangible, gustatious, outward signs. The amount of bread and wine we receive at Holy Communion hardly feeds and fuels out bodies. But the amount of spiritual grace that’s on offer each time we receive the Holy Communion is generous, prodigal, and completely disproportionate to the small volume of bread and wine we receive.
What is this inward and spiritual grace? I did not find the catechism very satisfactory here. I wish I had words with which to tell you, to describe the inward and spiritual grace. But you know that sometimes – receiving the Holy Communion leaves us on a personal “high.” We experience something within our psyches or souls … in that place within us where our spirituality, our emotions, our psychology, our needs and desires all meet and merge and intertwine and interplay … in that spot within us we are lifted and fed and graced and strengthened and moved and assisted and elevated … I don’t know! Sometimes when we receive Holy Communion we could weep with the emotion of it all. I don’t get much theology from the Australian film “The Castle,” but it’s here that the hopeless solicitor Dennis Denuto’s expression helps a bit – It’s “the vibe” of the thing within our innermost being, within our souls, within our spirits. I really wish I had words for it. We’ve all experienced it from time to time. We know what it is and what it means to us, but we can’t clothe it with words. It’s the “inward and spiritual grace.”
It is this spiritual / emotional / psychological / thing … this vibe … that takes us to the heart of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We don’t experience it every time. We often receive the Holy Communion from liturgical and religious habit … and that’s not a bad thing at all. But that vibe from God is always offered to us when we are ready, when we are in need, when our hearts and souls and spirits reach out to God.
And sometimes the congregation itself – St Andrew’s and its people – do that for us too. The congregation itself is sacramental. What we see at church is people meeting, worshipping, fellowshipping, conversing, having Morning Tea, laughing, discussing seriously … and so on. What we get from time to time is that we experience the depth of friendship and fellowship and caring and sharing and concern and empathy that brings up that same spiritual vibe within us. This is why Morning Tea is so important. The biscuits and cake and tea and coffee (and sausage rolls) are excellent – but they are the outward and visible signs of our receiving that inward and spiritual grace – that vibe.
Let’s really work at making our whole church life sacramental for each other – and each one of us to be ministers of that inward and spiritual grace for others by our friendship and love and interest in others.
St Andrew’s is God-centred, sacramental … the church of God’s vibe.