Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
22nd Aug 2021
12th 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, especially in the face of human conflict. 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 of the disciples, ‘Where shall we go to?’ suggests that God is at the heart of human life’s meaning and that we are to come to him as the source of life. I well remember as a young child on holiday in August 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, but the waves soon took it out, and then there was 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. And then I imagined that it might arrive in another place and that someone might find it and have 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?” But it might be received by another as a gift from the sea…
So much for my little bereavement. But as I remember this, over fifty five years later, I realise that it opens up a message in a bottle – the meaning of what John calls ‘the message of eternal life’. This is not a phrase, like many phrases in holy scripture, which begets immediate understanding. And so 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 particulars and the hope which lies beyond them which is imperishable and everlasting. It is that spirit of God which, residing in us, can provide the deeper sea, the broader scope and endless horizon for our spiritual navigation here on this earth:
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 the disciples find this teaching difficult and we can sympathise with them, but the call to Christian Faith is never easy or synthetic. It is all too challenging and it calls us to embrace the full-on reality of our human condition. This is especially true especially when it feels that life itself and life’s hope is being countermanded by forces which seem to be killing of our trust in its goodness. Jesus summons his disciples us to the life which is the hope that God holds out for all of us. For it is God who is reality itself. God is the light which may shine in the darkest of human experience.
The events of the last two weeks have revealed too much evil, of the gunning down of by a deranged killer of his own mother and of a father and daughter out on a walk; the random killing of passers-by as they go about their lives in Plymouth, as well as the guns held aloft in by the Taliban at the airport in Kabul and the fear of the trapped people there – both have revealed a little more of the darker side of things. In the numbed confusion of reactive feelings we hear this morning the words of the disciples as they are encouraged either to hold fast or deny their teacher:
“Lord, to whom should we go? You have the message of eternal life!”
The message of Christ is certainly not all ‘sweetness and light’. In John, if there is light, it is the light of Christ, his attention, which enters the individual consciousness 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 shines a light into the deep places of the heart and mind. He may come to us when there feels when there is nowhere else to go. He has left seekers after God with an all too real sense of their own vulnerability and the seemingly impossible task of keeping the faith. ‘This is intolerable language’ says one of the followers, ‘How could anyone accept it?’ …We must stay in this difficult place of brave, committed and persistent faith which Jesus teaches as God’s own ‘way forward’. For it is the spirit of God which brings life…
God’s gaze, both upon his world and upon us, is 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 now of our existence. 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 and discreet. It longs to provide for all that is truly needful for us. John sets up in the Gospel the tension between that which pertains to the flesh (life ‘without’ God) and the spirit (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, in holding on to that faith which God has given, nothing to fear. The call to advance on the life of faith is a call both to courage and to the embrace of all that we have to bear as we say; ‘Honest to God’.
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).
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
1st Aug 2021
9th Sunday of Trinity
Jesus said to them “I am the bread of Life”. John 6.35
Our Gospel from John explores the theme of Jesus as the ‘Bread of Life’ John’s Gospel surrounds Jesus’ identity with the so-called ‘I am’ sayings. The ‘I am’ phrase had previously only been used a way of identifying with God the Father, who could not be directly named. When Jesus proclaims ‘I am the Bread of Life’ he promises the Church a sustenance which had in the past only been given as manna in the desert. Jesus is now our ‘Bread of life’ and his offering of himself, his ‘flesh’ is given for the life of the world. In Christ our lives find their true belonging and their sustenance. It feeds us and sustains us even when we do not know it.
I was drawn some years ago and entering upon the ministry here at Holy Cross to a little book ‘I am Somewhere Else’ by a Methodist Minister, Rev. Barbara Glasson. She was given the opportunity to put this ‘bread of life’ theology into practice. Given by the Methodist Church a small old shop in a derelict part of Central Liverpool she was asked to ‘make something of the situation’ and to create around this unpromising situation a new and different kind of church. She was an experienced pastor, but had always worked within church situations that were formal and predictable, and that had structure, services, formal duties. Now she was pitched into the unknown. But given that this was Liverpool, and lying somewhere close to the heart of Liverpool’s shopping district this was a place where all sorts of wanderers, all kinds of different people passed by. The derelict shop was refurbished and set up as a drop in. Most of those who came in were homeless and on the margins and in dire need of that same ‘Bread of Life’ of which today’s Gospel speaks.
It was some time before Barbara realised that the situation (God) was calling her to a ministry divested of its usual structures and stripped down to the bare essentials. God was to be discovered through every human encounter – through the meeting of strangers and fellow travellers. This wasn’t just a ‘drop in’ but a church whose minister was found to be there at all hours watching and praying and waiting. This was a an ‘inside out’ kind of church. One day she she was offered a bread oven by a nearby bakery which had closed down she had it set up. Each day she and her followers made bread. And the bread was shared over a soup lunch and a few loaves distributed to those who needed them. And it was in the making and the sharing and the eating of the bread which told you all you needed to know about the provisionality of life, and the importance of finding our life in the lives of others in others in the welcome of the stranger. The provisional is a key word which speaks of course of a provider but also of the unpredictability of things and so the importance of the present moment and the need not to act for the fulfilment of God’s promise and to enact his eucharistic life today.
In contemporary life, many promises are made for the consumer which cannot possibly be satisfied, particularly the buying into the illusion of a life oblivious to its brevity. In this vein a Company of Funeral Directors offers a funeral pre-payment plan entitled ‘Dignity in Destiny Limited’. My mother was shocked to discover that as she ordered a burial plot for my dead father, she had also to face the fact of its providing a second ready-made space for her own remains. Dreadful that in the death of another you come face to face with your own mortality. Barbara Glasson reminds us that “….life dawns on us as we grow in self-awareness. We do not know why we are alive but with every breath we breathe we experience life as a given. Sometimes we are thankful for it and sometimes it scares us witless”. But we must always act as though new life in the present was entirely needful.
If Jesus, ‘The Bread of Life’ is our sustenance, it must be a sustenance that is given ‘just as we are’. And in the middle of where we are and of how things actually are. Life is not all black and white, ready-made as a kind of pre-planned insurance policy. It contains so much is unpredictable, confusing, difficult to bear and to understand, and containing far less fixity and security than we would wish. It is, in short, provisional. It was with this in mind that Barbara advanced the idea of her bread-baking church. The Church which had turned itself inside out was the church which lay open to the elements and took a risk on its own existence, but which was confident and bold in its expression.
In such a way we at Holy Cross we are nourished and empowered as we receive the God’s bread in Jesus – his ‘Bread of Life’ in the Holy Sacrament at this altar. We come both to be fed and to acknowledge our need of God’s feeding. We come to receive life from the source of all life:
Bread of Heav’n on Thee we feed,
For Thy flesh is meat indeed:
Ever may our souls be fed
With this true and living Bread;
Day by day with strength supplied,
Through the life of Him Who died.
And coming as we do from an Anglo-Catholic tradition we remember that the restoration of the sacramental tradition in the 1850s was purposeful. At its heart lay the embrace of the experience of being fed sacramentally with the body and blood of Christ. It was to re-establish something felt to be lost : that before our worship was ever ceremonial or occasional it was first and foremost a living encounter with a God, who in Jesus Christ – the life of the world – feeds us now and ever more, wherever and with whomsoever we find ourselves.
As this broken bread was scattered as grain upon the mountains, and, being gathered together, became one, so may thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom; for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
From The Didache