Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
26th Aug 2018
13th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life”. John 6.60.
St John’s Gospel is the Gospel which is written for the Church, and which raises practical issues of basic understanding and faith. And this morning’s Gospel Reading confronts us with what John has called ‘the message of eternal life’ and of the challenge of its falling on deaf ears, and the possibility of its being lost. ‘The simple question/plea ‘To whom shall we go?’ suggests that God is at the heart of human life’s meaning and that we are to come to him and not seek him ‘elsewhere’. God is never lost, though we may sometimes feel he is far away.
I well remember as a young child on holiday in August 1966 taking a new orange ball onto the beach. As I got to the sea’s edge I threw the ball into the sea and swam after it, the waves soon took it out, and then came the sad admission of its being irrecoverable. The sea had taken it away from me. It was awful to see it float away, so visible among the blue/grey sea, seemingly quite happy to bob up and down and to be on its way, being carried out on the current, further and further away. Something of me was there with it! And then much later I imagined that it might arrive in another place and that someone might find it and take it, delighted at the thought of a lovely orange ball having arrived out of the blue. I wondered though, if my voice would be loud enough to say “Would you please give me my ball back?”
As I write about this, over fifty years later, I realise both then and now, I am ’hotwired’ to place an imagined and reflective interpretation on what was at base a child’s real loss and a disappointment. And this opens up the meaning of what John calls ‘the message of eternal life’. This is not an empty phrase, or indeed like many phrases in holy scripture, which begets an immediate understanding.
John offers us a clue as to the direction in which we are being taken when he tells us that ‘the flesh has nothing to offer; it is the spirit that gives life’. This is the difference between life’s brute or sad or hopeful and joyful particulars and the hope which lies beyond it and which is imperishable. It is that spirit of God which, residing in us and outside of us, can provide the deeper sea, the broader scope and endless horizon for our spiritual navigation:
Thou art a sea without a shore
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore,
Thy place is everywhere
This is the challenge of the teaching of Christ for John and for us. God is everywhere. God is reality. The message of Christ is not all ‘sweetness and light’. In John, if there is light, it is the light of Christ, his attention, which enters the individual consciousness as life and which leaves its indelible mark. This is also God’s light which searches us out and knows us. Echoes of Simeon’s words are heard, namely that Jesus is the one in whom ‘the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare’. Jesus is concerned not with exteriors but his gaze is the one which shines a light into the deep places of the heart and mind, and this has left some seekers after God with an all too real sense of their own vulnerability. ‘This is intolerable language’ says one of the followers, defensively, ‘How could anyone accept it?’ We must stay in this difficult place if the alternative is to place the Christian teaching as nothing more than a kind of romance or wistful thinking.
For John’s Gospel, Christ, God’s Word made Flesh and our lives, and even the air we breathe, are one. And yet God’s gaze is also a loving gaze, which longs for our spiritual homecoming, for that which lies true for us and for what will last, for that which is ‘eternal life’ in the here and now. We know we are in need of healing and yet we draw back, all too often defensively. And yet the ‘message of eternal life’ is loving and confiding. It longs to provide for our future. John sets up in the Gospel the tension between that which pertains to the flesh (life ‘without’ God) and the spirit (vulnerable belief and trust in the promises of Christ). There is, in coming to Christian Faith. (we ‘come to faith’ of course at every moment) the realisation in the words of the Psalmist: ‘Thou hast searched me out and known me; thou knowest my down seating and my uprising, thou knowest my thoughts long before’ (Psalm 139). There is nothing to fear.
Only believe and thou shalt see
That Christ is all in all to thee…
There are many who come to King’s Cross seeking something. It is the magnetic draw of the station. The massive inflow and outflow of human traffic speaks of life as connected and yet also as an impersonal tidal wave. But contained in this sea of humanity, flowing in and around this place, are the lives of the many with their hopes and dreams, their joys and disappointments, their stresses and their anxieties. And each person in the sea of humanity is a whole life, with its desires and its longings, containing within that life that eternal phrase of Christ about the flesh and the spirit. They know, each one of them, that there is something more to life than the timetable and the getting to the next place and to life’s brute particulars. There is in each person the unspoken prayer which is their hopefulness and their life’s truer purpose, and it is from this place that eternal life receives its human echo, in the words of Peter:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.”
St Augustine of Hippo:
“Therefore, my God, I would not exist at all, unless you were in me; or rather, I would not exist unless I were in you ‘from whom and by whom all things exist….” (The Confessions, I.2).
Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
“Someone said to me this week, I don’t want you to sell me the Christian Faith like an insurance policy. I don’t want you to tell me that Christianity can make me stronger and better than I might be at present. I want you to tell me of the Christ who comes to me at my weakest and most vulnerable moments, who is with me when it feels like all others have deserted me…who is my way, my truth and my life. It is in this observation that the message of Christ lies, inviting acceptance of this word and belief in it. In it is implied the already known idea of selling all you have to buy the pearl of great price…”