Monday, June 28, 2010

It is really wet here today and a rainstorm warning has just been posted.  Heavy rain always brings problems in older buildings such as ours.  We have already discovered a couple of new leaks.  They are a nightmare to get fixed especially in this weather.  I thought it might be fun to post the notes of the sermon on Communion and Confirmation I mentioned in my last post.  They are notes and I have resisted the temptation to edit them too much!

I am pleased to say that after some technical problems, it is possible to hear sermons form my Church again very clearly via the web-site (  Yesterday, I was preaching about the Law, Christian freedom and ethics!

Today is the First Sunday after Trinity.  The Church’s calendar is rather imbalanced! For the past few months, we have been celebrating all the major festivals of the Church:  Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and, last week, Trinity Sunday itself and with them the seasons around then.  Now we have stretched out before us the many Sundays of Trinity.  One poet wrote in a poem:

We have done with dogma and divinity
East(er) and Whitsun past,
The long, long, Sundays after Trinity
Are with us at last.

Before, however, we settle into counting the Sundays of Trinity over the Summer.  I want to delay the count by a week to think today of the meaning of a special day that was celebrated by many Christians on the Thursday just past.  If you lived in places like Brazil or Austria, on Thursday you would have had the day off work, because in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, Thursday was the Feast of Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi is Latin for the Body of Christ.  As the Church developed its liturgical Calendar for worship, it was obvious that there were going to be special days for celebrating of Lord’s birth, death, resurrection and ascension.  It was not until the middle of the Middle Ages that demand arose for a special day to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion. It is true that on the Thursday in Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Christians remembered how Jesus ate his last Supper with his disciples.  But we also remember how he washed the disciples’ feet and commanded us to love one another.  What Christians wanted was a day specifically to focus on the sacrament itself.

Not all Christians celebrate Corpus Christi, Roman Catholics do, some Anglicans do, the rest do not.  This perhaps illustrates the division and confusion amongst Christians about the meaning of what we call Holy Communion.  For us the Eucharist (another name for Holy Communion) is the central part of worship each week as it is in many Churches around the world.  For Roman Catholic Christians, the Mass (another name for Holy Communion or the Eucharist) is so important that it is celebrated daily.  Yet even for us who celebrate frequently, it is not always clear either why or what it means.

In the 16th, there was an attempt at Reforming the Church in Europe associated with names such as Luther, Zwingli and Calvin.  But even these reformers couldn’t agree with each other as to the meaning of Holy Communion.  Luther and Zwingli fell out bitterly over it and the division, sadly, remains today.  Even in the Anglican Church, there are real differences as to the meaning of Holy Communion.

There is not enough time to go into details this morning about the meaning of the Eucharist.  Although can I pause advertise the Lent Bible Studies next year, which I provisionally intend to be on this subject.  I am responding to a suggestion after this year’s Bible Studies!

Basically though, the differences are between those who think that something is actually happening in Communion and those who see it more as a visual aid to help us remember Christ’s death for us.  Roman Catholics, for example, believe that the bread and wine quite really do become the body and blood of Christ.  Many evangelicals think nothing happens at all.

What we can be absolutely certain of is that the last thing Jesus did before he was arrested was to have a meal with his disciples that he commanded them to continue.  It wasn’t the Church who came up with this idea, but our Lord himself.

And while there is much that we do not know about the Early Church, we do know that they took this command of our Lord’s ‘to do this in remembrance of him’ very seriously, so seriously that we also know that in the mid-50s just 20 years or so after our Lord gave the command to his disciples, Christians in Greece were keeping it and celebrating the Eucharist.  And so it continues today. 

We know then that this is something our Lord wanted us to do and that from the beginning it is something that Christians have done.  In the first few centuries of the Church, Christians look it so seriously that they excluded people from receiving Communion who weren’t baptized or in good standing with the Church.  So if someone was a known sinner, they would be excommunicated that is, forbidden communion.  The Roman Catholic Church still continues this practice.

Nowadays, Christians who take the Eucharist very seriously go out of their way to include people pointing out that Jesus himself ate with sinners.  Judas who was to betray Jesus wasn’t excluded from the first communion.

All of which brings me to Anglicans and to our own Church.  Historically, Anglicans have attempted a middle way in all this.  I will talk more about this in Lent next year.  We have sought to avoid extremes.  Anglicans in the past have said that anyone who is confirmed may receive Communion.

Let me pause for a moment to talk about Confirmation.  With the rise of infant baptism in the Church, the need was felt for a way for adults to confirm the faith into which they were baptized as a child.  At Confirmation, the Church confirmed God’s acceptance of that person.  It as at this point that people started receiving Communion.

Nowadays, the Church doesn’t demand Confirmation for a person to receive communion.  The trouble is this has led to confusion over the meaning of Confirmation and over when people can receive Communion.

Here at Christ Church many do not receive communion, but come forward to be blessed instead.  Also here at Christ Church, many have chosen not to be confirmed.  It so happens that we are now looking forward to our Confirmation service in the Autumn.

Now let me be clear.  Here at Christ Church we fully respect everyone’s privacy and right to decide for themselves whether and when they take Communion.  We also respect people’s right to decide for themselves whether they are confirmed or not.  Could I today as we remember Corpus Christi, however, ask this of you?

Please would you if you don’t receive Communion, think about why you don’t.  And if you haven’t been confirmed, could I encourage you to at least consider it.  Classes will be held before hand to help people think it through with no obligation to go through with it if they decide not to.  Communion and Confirmation are important to us and we would like to explain why.

For today I would to conclude simply by saying this.  Being a Christian is hard.  Life itself is hard.  Jesus knew this and gave us a means to find strength and sustenance.  We need physical food and we need spiritual food.  It is this that we believe God provides us at Communion as we receive the body and blood of our Lord.  Please think seriously about it and consider your own participation!

Monday, June 07, 2010

Communion and Confirmation

It is now very much the Summer season here in Hong Kong.  We get many visitors to Christ Church from all over the world and they often ask me how I like living in Hong Kong.  There is no problem answering.  Hong Kong is my home and the place I believe I am called to work and minister.  If, however, I was to be asked the one thing I find hardest to cope with living here, without hesitation I would reply: the heat and humidity of the Summer.  It really does get hot and even a short walk outdoors leaves you dripping wet!  Fortunately, nowadays, we have air-conditioning!  I have no idea how the British who came here in the days before air-conditioning coped, especially when I see pictures of them in very formal dress.

Yesterday, I was preaching on Communion and Confirmation.  It was Corpus Christi last Thursday and we are planning a Confirmation service for the Autumn.  One of the biggest issues for me before officially becoming an Anglican was the issue of infant baptism.  For years I struggled with the question of whether it was legitimate to baptize babies or not.  So much baptismal theology simply doesn't work when applied to infants.  In the end, I decided that historically the Church had baptised babies and that it shouldn't be an issue to keep me from being ordained an Anglican priest.

As I have wrestled with the issue in the years since ordination, while I have come to believe that it is valid to baptize babies, Biblically valid, paradoxically, I still don't think that what the Bible says about baptism can be applied to the baptism of infants.  To put it simply: adult baptism is not the same as infant baptism.  I don't think there can be any getting away from the fact that in the New Testament baptism is a choice made by the person being baptized, something that by definition isn't true when a baby is baptized.

It is to get over this that Churches such as my own have a Service of Confirmation when a person previously baptized can confirm for themselves the vows made on their behalf at baptism and when the Church can confirm God's acceptance of them.  The practical, pastoral problem here for me is that I can't persuade people to come to Confirmation.

To an extent this is a problem of our own making.  It used to be the case in Anglicanism that we would only admit to Communion those who had been confirmed.  There was then some incentive to be confirmed, although it is also true that we never saw many of those who were confirmed after they had been confirmed.  It was treated as a passing out parade.  Anyway, we decided as Anglicans, rightly in my opinion, that baptism was sufficient in order to receive Communion and so we now encourage anyone who has been baptized, whatever their age, to be receive Communion.

This means that many simply don't feel the need to go through Confirmation.  They confirm their faith each week by being part of the worshipping community and taking Communion.  The question then is, does it matter if people don't get confirmed?  It certainly matters to some in my Church who still think that Communion should only be given to the confirmed.  However, as I point out to them, that is now no longer an option. It also matters to Bishops for whom confirmation is one way of underlining their authority given that it is the Bishop who must confirm.  The actual answer, however, is, I think, yes and no!

Yes, it matters precisely because, as I said at the beginning of this post, infant baptism is not Biblical baptism.  It is perfectly valid on its own terms, but, in the New Testament, Christian faith requires a commitment - a public commitment at that.  Confirmation, then, provides a means to make up for what is lacking in infant baptism.  Indeed, it could be argued that Confirmation is New Testament baptism without the water.

But no, there is nothing to say that this is the only means for making the public commitment that the New Testament requires.  If a person has made a decisive decision to turn to Christ in faith and repentance and is open about that in their life and witness, it is very hard to see why Confirmation should be a requirement.  Of course, this doesn't mean it can't be encouraged by the Church as a way of demonstrating that commitment liturgically.

It does mean that it is quite difficult to persuade people to join the Confirmation Service we are planning in the Autumn!