St Bride's: Sermons

Corpus Christi

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Back in 2014, during the season of Lent, I travelled to Manchester to experience a rather unusual art exhibition - the city's 'Passion Art Trail'.  The exhibits, all of which engaged with some aspect of the Passion (or 'suffering') of Christ, were located in various venues across Manchester city centre - starting (predictably enough) at Manchester Art Gallery, and ending (rather more unexpectedly) at the National Football Museum.  So, armed with our trusty guide book, we had to find each of these venues in turn, and then in each place, locate the five or six art works - from different centuries, and representing a wide range of different media - that were featured there.

And one of those exhibits was so striking, that more than three years later I still find myself haunted by the image, the story behind it, and what it represents.

This particular exhibit was located in a part of the Manchester Art Gallery that normally I would have actively avoided - because it was in a room full of C17 Dutch still-life paintings - and I'm afraid that however skilful the artistry, endless depictions of vases of flowers and bowls of fruit really do not do it for me.  And I have to say that I was baffled to find myself directed there in the first place - what on earth could a bowl of fruit have to do with the Passion of Christ?

It was so cleverly done, that it took a few moments for me to be able to see what was in front of me, but suddenly the penny dropped.  Because placed in and around the standard (and for me rather tedious) C17 oil paintings, was a series of other images by the contemporary artist Mat Collishaw.  On closer inspection, these proved to be not paintings at all, but rather a series of colour photographs, so skilfully set-up, and so cleverly lit, that they looked exactly like traditional still-life paintings.

They were a series of photographs of different kinds of food - which was still rather perplexing.  But I then discovered their significance.  Because each one of these images was a photograph of the actual last meal chosen by a prisoner on death row in the United States, prior to his execution by lethal injection.

Every meal was, of course, different.  One of them featured fresh meat and fruit; another was a cheeseburger and chips; there was pizza; a bar of chocolate; a bunch of grapes.  And alongside each of the images was the name of the prisoner who had chosen this as his final meal - names that were, for the most part, startling in their sheer ordinariness: 'Gary'; 'Frank'; 'Paul'.  And amongst this sequence of already powerful and emotionally-charged images, was the most startling and memorable and unexpected photograph of all - a picture I shall never ever forget.

Jonathan Nobles was a young man who had been introduced to drugs at the age of eight.  By his early twenties he was spending most of his life in a drug-fuelled haze.  And it would seem that he was in that kind of state on the day in 1986 when he broke into a house armed with a knife, murdered the two young women he found there, and caused grievous bodily harm to the boyfriend of one of them.

When he was first jailed for his terrible crime, Jonathan Nobles was a violent and dangerous man, aggressive and abusive both to his captors and his fellow prisoners alike.  But during the course of his twelve years on death row, something changed.  He became interested in the Christian faith and began attending the masses that were held in the prison by the Catholic Chaplains.  Eventually he became a lay member of the Dominican Order, and he started ministering amongst his fellow prisoners.  And, remarkably, not only was his own life transformed - but, according to the testimony of those who knew him, he began to have a real impact upon the lives of those around him.

On the day of his execution, Jonathan Nobles fasted.  He expressed his abject and heartfelt regret for what he had done, and he asked the forgiveness of each member of his victims' families who were present to witness his death.  He expressed his love for those who had supported him, and for those whom he had wronged so grievously.  And finally, when strapped to the trolley, as the lethal injection was administered, he recited words from 1 Corinthians that he had struggled to learn by heart for this purpose, and he died singing the words of the carol, 'Silent Night'.

And what did Jonathan Nobles choose as his final meal on death row?  That was the image that was so devastating in its power and its stark simplicity.  Because in the dimly-lit photograph what you see is a bare wooden table on which you can just make out two items: a small glass of red wine; and a communion wafer.

Thursday was the feast of Corpus Christi - a day of thanksgiving for the institution of Holy Communion - the sacrament we are celebrating here this morning, in which we share in the broken body and shed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and participate in that story, and in that reality, in a very physical, and intimate, and visceral way. 

For those of us who receive Holy Communion regularly, it can become easy to lose sight of the full significance of what we are doing, and what it is that we are receiving, when we respond to the invitation to draw near with faith, and with open hands to accept the gift that we are offered here at the altar.

Because Holy Communion takes us, not only to the very heart of the life and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ - but also into the very heart of all the turbulence, and brokenness, and sinfulness, and despair, and hopelessness, and darkness, and guilt, and sheer appalling suffering of the precious and wonderful but at times heart-breaking reality of human life.  And this wonderful city of ours has seen far more than its share of that heart-break in recent times.

And for those of us who receive Communion often, it can be easy to lose sight of what Holy Communion also represents in terms of the love, and the grace and the mercy of God - a God who shares our pain, and knows our despair, and who weeps with us, and for us - it can be easy for us to lose sight of what that truly means.

But Jonathan Nobles knew.

Amen.

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