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).