Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing (a sermon on Mark 7:1-23)

One of my favourite quotes from Stephen Covey is ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!’ It always pulls me up short, because I recognize that so many times in my life I’ve failed to do that. I’ve allowed myself to get distracted, and so I’ve ended up spending my time and energy on stuff that’s not really important.

In our Gospel for today Jesus is invited by the Pharisees to get involved in an argument about stuff that’s not really important. At least, that’s what Jesus thought of it, but of course, one of the things Christians often disagree about is how important our particular disagreements are! One person will say, “That’s a fairly minor thing, isn’t it?” and the other will be astonished and say, “Minor! What are you talking about? It’s fundamental!”

It’s amazing how many of the arguments in Christian congregations are about things that God apparently has no opinion about. Should we sing old hymns accompanied by organs, or rock songs accompanied by electric guitars? Should ministers lead services in robes, or in ordinary clothes? What’s the proper way to observe Lent, and is it possible that God might be offended if he hears the word ‘Alleluia’ during that season? And so it goes on. You hear of Christian congregations who are torn apart by arguments about what colour the new sanctuary carpet should be. I even heard of one church where the youth took the offering one day wearing ball caps, and when the smoke had cleared from that one, seven families had left the church.

So we should not be surprised, perhaps, that the issue the Pharisees presented to Jesus was about something that seems trivial to us: washing your hands. Let’s be clear that this wasn’t about hygiene; it was about religious ritual. Before a meal, according to tradition, a person should first of all pour water over their hands with the fingers pointing upwards, and then repeat the process with the fingers pointing down. It was a part of the proper ceremonial at the beginning of a meal, which of course including giving thanks to God, or ‘saying grace’ as we call it.

In the Old Testament, this sort of ritual washing was required only of priests, but in the years before the time of Jesus it had spread to lay people as well – something that God had not commanded – and practising Jews in Jesus’ day were very strict about it. As Mark tells us,

‘For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots and bronze kettles’ (Mark 7:3-4).

So what these very religious Jews had done was to take a ritual custom for priests and make it an essential part of life for anyone who wanted to follow God’s ways. Now the Pharisees were applying this standard to Jesus and his disciples. “You tell us you’ve come to teach us about the Kingdom of God”, they were saying. “Well, surely the Kingdom of God is about obeying God as our King, and over the years our people have developed wise traditions about how to do that. So how come you aren’t following them? It looks as if you’re not speaking on behalf of God after all; you’re setting people a bad example and leading them astray!”

There are two things we need to notice about Jesus’ reply here. The first one is the distinction he makes between the commands of God and human traditions. Let me illustrate that for you by considering another Old Testament commandment: keeping the sabbath. In the Ten Commandments, number four says, ‘Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work’ (Exodus 20:8-10). The command of God is clear: one day in seven is to be kept free from labour so that the people could remember their dependence on God, and give thanks to him.

But of course, we all know how difficult it is to obey that command, and biblical people found it just as hard as we do. What exactly constituted work, they asked? If you cooked your supper, was that work? If you went for a walk on the sabbath, was that work, and if not, how far could you go from home before it was considered work? And how would you define your ‘home’? If you took a pile of your possessions on the day before the Sabbath and dumped them two miles down the road, could you reset the meter at that point and start again?

And so the conversations went on. The intention was good; teachers and scribes were genuinely trying to help people think through the question of how you applied the Law of God to the details of daily life. But gradually, in the minds of ordinary people, these traditions were elevated to the same status as God’s original commandments. And eventually, some people saw them as more important. In other words, they forgot that ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’!

It would be tempting – and deceptively easy – for us to say, “Well, the difference is that anything in the Bible is God’s commandment and anything outside is a tradition of men”. But there are a couple of problems with that answer. First, if you read the Old Testament carefully you can see evidence that the process of adding traditional interpretations to the original commandments is already present in the scriptures. In the Pentateuch, the first five books, laws are often restated two or three different times in different forms, and they don’t always agree with each other. For instance, laws given in the context of a journey through the desert often needed rethinking when the people were living a settled life in the Promised Land, and we can see evidence of that rethinking in the pages of the Pentateuch.

But an even greater problem is what Mark says in verse 19: ‘Thus Jesus declared all foods clean’. In the Old Testament, all foods were definitely not clean. The Book of Leviticus goes into great detail about the difference between clean and unclean animals; the most famous example of course is the pig, and we all know that to this day religious Jews will not eat pork or anything else that comes from pigs. But pigs are only one item on the list; there are many others, including camels, rock badgers, hares, eagles, vultures, ospreys, lobsters and other shellfish, and most winged insects. Leviticus says that eating these animals is an offence against God’s holiness; God calls us to be holy, but these animals are unclean, so we should avoid them.

But now, says Mark, Jesus ‘declared all foods clean’ – and this only a few sentences after he had condemned the Pharisees and scribes for ‘rejecting the commandment of God’! It’s clear to me that Jesus can’t possibly have seen the food laws in Leviticus as being ‘commandments of God’ on the same level as the Ten Commandments. So it’s not just a simple matter of saying “Stuff that’s in the Bible is God’s command, and later stuff is the tradition of men”. We have to go further than that, and identify what the core teachings of the Bible are. And we need to be honest and admit that it’s not always easy to do this, and Christians don’t always come to the same conclusions.

Jesus gives a particular example of how people in his day ‘rejected the commandment of God in order to keep their tradition’; it seems very obscure to us today, but apparently it was a live issue in his own time. The Fifth Commandment tells us to honour our father and mother, and obviously Jesus believed that this included the duty of looking after them when they are unable to look after themselves. However, there was apparently a way that children who wanted to avoid this responsibility could do so. They simply declared their wealth to be ‘Corban’, which means, ‘dedicated to God’. Once it was dedicated in this way it couldn’t be given to anyone else, even one’s parents. But obviously the people in Jesus’ time had contrived some legal formula by which they could still use it themselves, even though ostensibly it belonged to God. So in this way a human tradition – the ‘Corban’ idea – was being used as a way of wriggling out of one’s obligations under the clear commandment of God.

We’ve said that we need to ‘keep the main thing the main thing’. Jesus is telling us that this includes never allowing a human tradition, however hallowed it might be, to take precedence over a command of God. This is tough for us; any organisation that’s lasted for two thousand years, as the Christian church has done, is going to develop all kinds of traditions along the way, and some of them we particularly enjoy! Examples of that would include the cycle of the Christian Year – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter and Pentecost – and all the customs that have grown up about how we observe the various seasons and festivals. The scriptures have nothing to say about this, but most of us in the Anglican church enjoy it and find it helpful. Fasting during Lent, using an Advent wreath during Advent, using different coloured decorations in the different seasons and so on – these are all examples of the traditions that have evolved over the years.

And they’re fine in their place, as long as we ‘keep the main thing the main thing’! The purpose of these traditions is to help us lead the Gospel life – loving God and our neighbour, seeking first the Kingdom of God, avoiding greed and excessive wealth, caring for the poor and needy, loving our enemies and forgiving those who hate us, and so on. When our traditions help us do that, they are a blessing to us. But when they take on a life of their own – when they become ‘a thing’ in their own right – when they loom larger in our minds than spreading the gospel and caring for the poor – then they become a trap. And we need to be very careful about this.

But before we finish, I need to point out one other issue Jesus mentions in this reading: the issue of clean and unclean. It relates to the Pharisees’ original question: how come he and his disciples weren’t performing the hand washing rituals? How come, according to Jewish tradition, they were eating with ‘unclean’ hands?

To religious Jews, as I’ve said, this wasn’t just about hand washing; it extended to what you ate as well. The Old Testament has lists of foods that were considered ‘unclean’. It wasn’t just that they were unhygienic; there was something about them that made them unholy, so that a person who ate them had to go through elaborate cleansing rituals before they could go into the sanctuary to pray to God.

But this is not just about food; it’s much bigger than that. Judaism in the time of Jesus tended to see evil as something ‘out there’; religious people had to be careful to avoid it, or they might get infected. This even extended to human beings; you should stay away from sinners, because they might infect you. Sharing meals with prostitutes and tax collectors, as Jesus was doing, was a dangerous thing; bad company spoils good morals.

But Jesus had an entirely different attitude. Evil isn’t something that comes at me from ‘out there’; rather, evil comes from within. Look at verses 20-23:

And (Jesus) said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person”.

In other words, evil is not out there – it’s in here. The problem isn’t that I’m being infected by poison from outside; the problem is that I’ve got a poisoned well inside me that needs to be made clean.

This is what Christianity means by the doctrine of ‘original sin’. That doctrine often gets a bum wrap today, and perhaps ‘original sin’ isn’t the best way to describe it. Some people think it means that the original sin was sex; other people think it means that God holds the entire human race to blame for the original sin of taking fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But what it actually means is that since the first human beings chose to disobey God, evil and sin have infected all of us. It’s like a DNA fault – our coding has been damaged, and we all find ourselves behaving in ways we’re ashamed of. It’s as if sin has become natural to us, and holiness is very, very hard.

So how is that damaged coding going to be fixed?

It is the universal testimony of Christians down through the centuries that will-power alone can’t change fix it. You know what I mean. You say to yourself “Right! I know what my problem is! I need to forget about changing others and start changing myself! So I’m going to make some resolutions and keep them, and make myself into a different person”. That’s where the problem starts. It’s much easier to make resolutions than to keep them!

Jesus gives us a list of evils here: ‘fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly’. But there’s another list, that Saint Paul gives us in his letter to the Galatians. He says, ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’ (v.16). A bit later on in the same chapter he says ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (vv.22-23).

I like this list a lot better! I think if we were all growing in these qualities, the world would be a very different place! But notice that Paul calls them ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. In other words, they aren’t just a result of turning over a new leaf or trying our best to be good; rather, they come as we pray each day for the Holy Spirit to fill us and help us to do what we can’t do by ourselves. It’s not that we do nothing, of course; it’s just that we don’t try to do it by ourselves. Transformation of character is something that we need God’s help with, and God is ready and willing to give us that help.

The other thing about ‘fruit’, of course, is that it doesn’t grow instantly. I can’t give you three infallible keys to holiness that will produce results by next Friday. Fruit takes time to grow and ripen, and it’s the same with the fruit of the Spirit. Transformation of character is the work of a lifetime; we’re never going to get done with it until we see God face to face.

I started out by saying that ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’. What is the main thing? Jesus taught that the main thing is the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom spreads one heart at a time, as human beings come to God in faith, and as they ask him to heal them of evil and sin and help them live lives of love and compassion, of mercy and justice.

The problem is not out there; rather, the problem is in me. Leo Tolstoy once said ‘Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no-one thinks of changing himself’. Let us ask God to help us to change from the inside out, by a daily infilling of his Holy Spirit. Then instead of the world’s evil coming into us and polluting us, God’s goodness will spread out through us to change the world. And that, I’m quite sure, is ‘the main thing’.

What exactly is ‘Grace’?

If you go to, you will find ‘grace’ defined variously as (among other things) ‘elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action’, ‘a pleasing or attractive quality or endowment’, ‘favor or goodwill’, or ‘mercy; clemency; pardon’.

When we say someone is ‘graceful’, it’s usually ‘elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion or action’ that we have in mind. On the other hand, if we were to say, “It’s only through the dean’s grace that John wasn’t expelled from the program”, it would be ‘mercy, clemency, pardon’ that we were talking about.

I suspect that, although we’re aware of the other meanings and use them from time to time, it’s usually the first that we fall back on: elegance, beauty of form, manner or action. I know this, because when I start talking to people about the Christian idea of ‘grace’, I almost always have to start by saying “I’m not talking about ‘gracefulness’ or ‘elegance’ or anything like that”.

In the Bible, grace is first and foremost the love of God freely poured out on all who need it. We don’t have to earn it or deserve it; it simply comes to us as a free gift from God, because God is love. Jesus told us that God pours out his sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous; that’s the kind of God he is.

This morning when I was reading Joe Walker’s old blog ‘Felix Hominum‘ I came across this  section in one of the very first posts he wrote:

Jesus told a simple story about a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. Ninety-nine of them were safe and one got lost. The shepherd set out to look for the lost sheep. Simple story, simple point. The shepherd started looking for the sheep long before the sheep started looking for the shepherd, perhaps even long before the sheep realized it was lost. God starts looking for us long before we start looking for God – that is the beginning of what we mean by grace.

God loves us long before we ever love God. God comes looking for us long before we ever think of looking for God. God is working in our lives long before we’re aware of it. And it’s all a gift, a gift of love, because God is love. For us Christians, that’s what ‘the grace of God’ is all about.

It’s Not Always As Simple As We Wish (a sermon on John 6:60-71)

If I had a notebook full of ‘things I hear on a regular basis’, one of the sayings at the top of the list would be this one: ‘Jesus preached a simple message about love and brotherhood, and then the Church came along and made it complicated’. And I can understand why people would like to think this is true. After all, a simple Galilean carpenter who went around preaching peace and joy and flower power would be so much less demanding than the Son of God who says things we puzzle over and makes demands we have to come to terms with.

The problem is that the Jesus we read about in the gospels is not as simple as we might think. He says things that cause people to scratch their heads in confusion; he rarely gives a straight answer to a straight question, and when he does speak directly, his words are so challenging that people have been trying for two thousand years to find sophisticated ways of avoiding their obvious meaning. The fact is that Jesus is a challenge – he’s a challenge to understand, and he’s a challenge to follow – and people who are looking for a simple faith that makes few demands on them probably aren’t going to find Jesus very satisfying.

We can see this in our gospel for today, which comes right at the end of John chapter 6. In verse 60, some of Jesus’ disciples comment on what they’ve heard earlier in the chapter: ‘This teaching is difficult’, they say; ‘who can accept it?’ And a few verses later we read that ‘many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him’. The reason is clear: they found his teaching hard to understand, and when they did understand it, they found it so offensive that they didn’t want anything more to do with him.

Let’s take a quick look back at John chapter six, which we’ve been slowly making our way through these past few weeks. The chapter begins with two miracle stories: Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, and his walking on the water. John tells both of these stories in such a way as to give us a clue about Jesus’ identity. In the Old Testament God fed his people in the wilderness by giving them manna from heaven every day; now Jesus was out in the wilderness with his people, and he fed them in a supernatural way, multiplying the loaves and fishes so that everyone had enough. Later on that night, when he was walking on the water to met his disciples, he said to them, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid’. ‘It is I’ is literally in Greek ‘I am’, which is the name of God in Hebrew – ‘Yahweh’. So by these two miraculous signs John is pointing to Jesus’ identity: he isn’t just a rabbi or a carpenter, but in him the God of Israel has come to visit his people. The two miracles are meant to be signs pointing to this truth.

But the crowd don’t get it; they follow Jesus around the lake because they want a repeat performance of the feeding of the five thousand. They want to take Jesus and make him their king so that he can give them free bread every day. In other words, instead of coming to Jesus and asking him to show them God’s will, they want Jesus to do their will. But Jesus refuses, and he spends the next forty verses or so trying to explain to them the real meaning of the miracle of the loaves: that he himself is the bread of life, and that everyone who comes to him and believes in him will have their spiritual hunger and thirst satisfied.

Jesus then goes on to make it even more complicated and offensive: he says that he is the living bread that came down from heaven, that whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and that the bread he will give for the life of the world is his flesh. When the crowd demands to know how he can possibly give them his flesh to eat, Jesus responds that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood they cannot have eternal life, but if they do eat and drink as he suggests, they will live forever, and he will make his home in them, and they in him.

It’s not hard for us to see all the ways in which the words of Jesus in this chapter would have been offensive to a first century Jewish crowd. First, we have the audacity of his using the name of God for himself, which would have been blasphemous and idolatrous to them. Second, we have the fact that he would not fit in with their agenda and do something really useful, like giving them bread every day. Third, we have his claim that the bread he would give them was better than the bread that Moses, the great father of the Jewish people, had given to their ancestors; they might well ask of Jesus, ‘Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re greater than Moses?’ Fourth, we have his claim that if people believe in him they will receive eternal life – which sounds fairly innocuous until you think how it would sound if I said it – ‘Hey, all you people of St. Margaret’s, if you believe in me I will give you eternal life’! Fifth and finally, we have the revolting sayings about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, which sound far more like cannibalism than the sort of sober godliness of the Torah and the Ten Commandments.

So this is the real Jesus of the Gospels; his teaching is not simple, but complicated and challenging. It’s not just about how God is our Father and so we’re all brothers and sisters and let’s love one another right now! It’s true that he does say these things, but they are consequences of the central truths he’s trying to get across. In the first three gospels those truths are about the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the truth is that he believed the Kingdom had arrived because he had arrived; in other words, he was God’s anointed king who was bringing in the Kingdom. In John’s Gospel this central place of Jesus in his own message is even clearer, as John has structured his whole gospel around the so called ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus – I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection and the life, and so on.

So becoming a Christian isn’t just about ‘loving thy neighbour as thyself’, as people so often say. That’s a vital part of our response to the Christian message, but it doesn’t come first. Becoming a Christian is first and foremost about how we see Jesus: is he just a human being, a wise religious teacher, or is he something more than that? Is he, in fact, the one in whom God has come to live with us? In the first chapter of his gospel John tells us that Jesus is the Word of God, and that in the beginning ‘the word was with God, and the word was God’. He goes on to tell us that ‘the Word became flesh and lived for a while among us’. Now in this chapter the Word speaks of giving his flesh for the life of the world. If we don’t eat his flesh and drink his blood we won’t have eternal life – we won’t be able to do the things God wants us to do because we’ll be spiritually dead – but if we come to him and believe in him, if we eat his flesh and drink his blood, he will make his home in us and we will have eternal life.

To me it’s totally understandable that this is more than some people can stomach. Some pretty well known names throughout human history have indicated that they couldn’t accept it. Gandhi, for instance, said that he could accept Jesus as a wise religious leader but not as the Son of God. A friend of mine here in Edmonton says that Jesus makes much more sense to him as a man than as the Son of God.

I have to say that if Jesus is just a man, he makes no sense to me at all – or, at least, it makes no sense to me that we’re following him today. A man who was just a man, and who said the things Jesus said, would not be looked on as a wise religious teacher and followed by millions of people. He’d be shut up in a mental hospital and given treatment to try to cure him of his delusions of grandeur. C.S. Lewis said this in a radio talk he gave on the BBC during the Second World War:

I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God’. This is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come away with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

How do we respond to this? Some perhaps are confused and want to hear more by way of explanation. Some grumble that God had to make it so complicated. Some stand up in church on Sunday and say the Apostles’ Creed with their fingers crossed behind their backs. Some just can’t believe it and so turn away from following Jesus – an honest response, in my view. Some say, “Well, it doesn’t make sense to me yet but I’m going to keep on following Jesus anyway and pray that God will help me to understand it as I follow”. Some say, “It’s confusing, but the alternative is no better!” And some, like Jesus’ disciple Thomas, fall at Jesus’ feet and say, “My Lord and my God”.

We see the same range of reactions in today’s gospel. Verse 61 says in the NRSV, ‘Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?”’. In Greek the word translated as ‘complaining’ is one of my favourite Greek words, ‘gonguzo’, which means ‘to grumble’. So we have grumbling, and a few verses later, in verse 64, we have disbelief: Jesus says, “But among you there are some who do not believe”. Then in verse 66 we have rejection: ‘Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him’. At the end of the chapter, we even have betrayal, as John mentions Judas Iscariot, who ‘though one of the twelve, was going to betray him’.

But I want to end by directing your attention to the words of Peter. Look at verse 67:
So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”.

This is a remarkable response. We know from the gospels that Peter had as much difficulty understanding what Jesus was going on about as any of the disciples. And he’s not saying here, “No, Lord, of course we’re not going to leave you, because we understand exactly what you’re talking about!” What he actually seems to be saying is something like this: “Lord, it’s true that what you’re saying is very hard for us to understand and accept. But what’s the alternative? There’s nowhere else we can go to get the sort of thing you give us. Your words may be hard to understand, but we know that they are words of life, and we know that you’ve come from God. So the only thing we can do is stick with you and hope that things become clearer as we go along”.

I find this to be an amazing statement of faith. I think about people I know who have a lot of difficulty getting their head around what Jesus is talking about, but who still show up week by week in church and are the first to volunteer when work needs to be done. I think about Christian gay and lesbian people who have been told for years – rightly or wrongly, I make no comment on that – that their sexuality is offensive to God, but who still pray and read the scriptures and come to church because they’ve discovered something in Jesus that they can’t find anywhere else. I think about people who are very wealthy and who come to church week by week and hear the gospels read, with Jesus saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God – and yet they keep coming, because they know that even though Jesus’ words are challenging, they are true and life-giving words as well.

Can you make this statement of faith with Peter? Can you say with him, “Lord, I haven’t got it all figured out yet; I sometimes find your words hard to understand, and when I do understand them, I often find them deeply challenging. But I don’t want to leave, because I know I’ve grasped something wonderful here – something that is giving me life. In your words I think I’ve glimpsed a vision of the glory of God and the beauty of life the way God planned it. So I think I’ll hang around, if you don’t mind, and keep listening and trying to understand, because there is one thing I’m absolutely sure about: there’s nowhere else I’m going to find what I’ve found in you and your message”.

I think Jesus will honour a prayer like that. The only thing I would add to it is this: when you do come to understand the meaning of some aspect of the teaching of Jesus, pray for God’s help and then begin to put it into practice right away. My observation over the years as a pastor is that those who put Jesus’ words into practice usually grow in their understanding of what he is all about, but those who don’t practice what they hear tend to understand less and less as the years go by. After all, as Jesus said in the parable of the wise and foolish builders, it isn’t the ones who just hear his words whose houses will stand in the flood – but those who hear his words and put them into practice. May God help us to do just that. Amen.

Small and evangelistic

I think there has been an unhealthy influx of competitiveness into church life today. It seems that many Christians (and many pastors and priests) are obsessed with better statistics and better performance.

One area in which it appears is church size. There’s an assumption that a bigger church is a better church – whether the big church is an evangelical megachurch with a ‘campus’, multiple worship bands, big screens and a Starbucks in the foyer, or a gothic cathedral with glorious stained glass, a full-time choir producing world class cathedral music, and multitudes of visitors coming in during the week.

These organizations have their strengths, of course, but one weakness they have in common is that it’s easier for people to slip in and out anonymously. And of course, some people like to do that. The problem is, that’s not New Testament Christianity, and people whose entry point takes the form of anonymity will tend to assume something about Christianity that is not, in fact, true to the vision of Jesus and his apostles.

Read the things that Jesus and Paul say about relationships within the Body of Christ – especially Paul’s many ‘one another’ sayings (‘bear with one another’, ‘encourage one another’, ‘admonish one another’ etc.). They all assume that the members of a Christian church will know each other well, and in order for that to happen, a local church can’t be big. The early Christians never thought they needed to grow huge churches to be successful (although they were glad when lots of people came to faith in Christ). Rather, they assumed that the fundamental unit of church life would be a small group (useful when you don’t have any buildings!).

The other thing we see is a desire to have a crowded calendar and lots of programs, especially programs that are helpful and useful to the world around. ‘Being missional’ is what it’s called, and so churches get busy serving the poor and needy, advocating for justice, working to save the environment, and a host of other worthy activities. I mean that in all sincerity; I believe in most of those causes, and our church is involved in them.

It’s a little disconcerting, though, that the New Testament makes it clear that the central activity of Christian mission is evangelism and disciple-making. The world has a new king, Jesus the Messiah; it’s important that people know about it, and that they hear his summons to faith and discipleship. The church is commissioned (note the word ‘mission’ there) to carry out this task. Our central calling is to share the gospel, make new disciples for Jesus, and help form them into the likeness of Christ. Everything else is meant to be built around this.

These days it’s assumed that Sunday worship is the main business of the Church. We spend millions of dollars on facilities for it, on equipment for it, on liturgical texts and robes and the various accoutrements of a worship gathering. It’s interesting, then, that the Book of Acts rarely gives any attention to worship at all (although it assumes that Christians will do it). The preoccupation of the author of Acts is entirely with the spread of the Gospel and the making of new disciples – in other words, with evangelism. To him, this is the central task of the Church.

Small and flexible, outward looking and evangelistic – that’s the New Testament vision of a local Christian community. Every week, every day, of the many possible goals we can focus on, we get to choose the ones we think are most important. It’s probably wise to make sure we choose the right ones, and to make sure those choices are rooted in the New Testament vision of what a local church is all about.

Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the possible

‘Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the possible’. People who know me well – and especially those who have done me the honour of coming to me for spiritual guidance – have gotten used to hearing me say this.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about the person who’s never done much running in their life, but suddenly decides they’re going to run a marathon – next month! I’m talking about the person who hasn’t done much praying, hears a sermon about having a daily prayer time that includes a story about Martin Luther saying “I’m so busy I can’t get by on less than four hours’ prayer a day”, and immediately decides “That’s what I’ll do – four hours a day!”  I’m thinking about the person with serious weight issues who decides they’re going to lose fifty pounds in the next two months, running five miles a day, eating a radically reduced diet and so on.

Well, we know what’s going to happen nine times out of ten: they’ll fall far short of their unrealistic goals, and when they fall, instead of revising their goals downward to something more achievable, they’ll be so discouraged that they give up altogether. In this way the perfect has become the enemy of the possible.

Goals should challenge us, yes, but they should be achievable. Baby steps make all the difference. Doctors have been telling us for years that it’s better to lose weight slowly than fast. And when you’re starting a journey of daily prayer for the first time, it’s better to pray for ten minutes and find it meaningful than to shoot for an hour and find it excruciating.

There’s an old saying I heard years ago that goes like this: “How do you eat an elephant? Bite by bite”. One step at a time. Easy does it. Gradual change is usually more lasting in the long run. So set goals, yes, but don’t make the perfect the enemy of the possible. After all, the change we actually achieve is the important thing, not the change we wish we’d achieved.

How to ‘Get a Life’ (a sermon on John 6:51-58)

Many of you in church today have had the experience of holding down a very demanding job. Perhaps it requires you to work long hours with lots of overtime; perhaps it cuts into evening hours and weekends; perhaps it carries with it a lot of stress and it’s very difficult for you to leave it behind when you go home from work. Perhaps you’ve even found yourself wondering whether you have any other life at all apart from going to work! I’ve actually heard people talk about that; they’ll be lamenting the fact that their job takes up so much of their time, and they say, “I really need to get a life!”

It’s a curious phrase, isn’t it: ‘Get a life’? What does it mean? The person who says it does, in fact, have a life! Their heart is pumping the blood around their body and their lungs are working fine; surely they already have ‘a life’? What do they mean when they say, “I really need to get a life”?

But the truth is that we all understand instinctively what they mean. We understand that it is possible to be alive in a biological sense, but still not to be experiencing real life – what Jesus once referred to as ‘life in all its fulness’ or ‘abundant life’. We understand that people can be in good health, can be working hard and enjoying success in their chosen profession, and yet still find themselves thinking, “There’s got to be more to life than this!”

In John chapter 6 Jesus talks about this issue of real life, or, as he calls it, ‘eternal life’. We’ve been going through the chapter in stages over the summer, starting with the feeding of the five thousand in verses 1-21 and then going on as Jesus and the Jewish leaders dialogue about the meaning of that sign. But before we dive into this week’s passage, let me remind you of the Old Testament story that serves as background to this whole chapter. It’s the story of how God fed his people when Moses was leading them through the desert on their long journey to their promised land. There were thousands and thousands of Israelites, and of course the desert is not a good place to find food for even a few people, let alone a huge multitude. So the Book of Exodus tells us that the people complained about this to God, and he responded by sending them bread from heaven. They called this bread ‘manna’, and they ate it every day for the forty years that they wandered in the desert.

John tells us that when Jesus fed the five thousand people, they immediately thought of Moses giving their ancestors this supernatural bread in the desert, and they reminded Jesus of this. No, Jesus replied – Moses didn’t give it to them, my Father did. And anyway, those who ate that bread all died eventually, but if you eat of the true bread of heaven, you will not die. He goes on to explain that he is the bread of life; all who come to him will never be hungry, and all who believe in him will never be thirsty.

So far so good, but in our gospel for today things get a little more confusing. Jesus says in verse 51, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”. This causes a furious argument amongst Jesus’ hearers: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v.52). But Jesus’ reply doesn’t do anything to alleviate their concerns: “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (v.53).

We Christians, of course, have two thousand years of Communion services in our collective memory, so when we hear these words, we immediately think of the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The people who first heard these words from John’s Gospel would have thought the same thing. But I’m going to suggest this morning that we slow down, and not go there right away. We need to ask ourselves, what would these words have sounded like to those who first heard them spoken? Imagine the revulsion they must have felt at what must have sounded to them very much like cannibalism. Not only does Jesus talk about eating his flesh, but drinking his blood – and in the Old Testament, people were forbidden from consuming blood, because of the ancient belief that ‘the life is in the blood’. It’s not surprising that a few verses later on we read that ‘when many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (v.60) – and some of them left Jesus altogether.

So what does it really mean to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood? And why would we want to do it anyway? What are the benefits that we receive from it? I want to consider the second question first, and then come back to the first question at the end.

Why would we want to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood? What are the benefits we’re promised from this? Well, we’re told in verse 54 that ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life’. And we need to remind ourselves that the phrase ‘eternal life’ doesn’t just mean ‘life that goes on and on forever’. In a prayer to his Father in John 17:3 Jesus tells us what eternal life is: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”. To receive eternal life, then, is to be brought into a relationship with the living God and with his Son Jesus Christ. To put it bluntly: to know God is the only way to be truly alive.

This is the sort of language that lovers use, isn’t it? The lover says to his beloved, “Before I knew you I wasn’t really alive. I began to live the day I first met you”. That’s what Jesus is saying here: to be physically alive, but not to know the God who made you and loves you, is not real life – it’s a kind of walking death. But to meet the God who made you and his Son who died for you, and to grow into a real relationship with that living God – that’s real life! If you’re looking for the meaning of life, look no further – this is it.

Jesus describes this relationship in very intimate terms; he says in verse 56 “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”. To ‘abide’ somewhere means to make your home there, and so in this lovely symbolic language Jesus says to us, ‘If you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you’ll be making your home in me, and I’ll be making my home in you’. Can you imagine such a thing – to make our home in Jesus, and for Jesus to make his home in us?

I’m sure that some of you can imagine it, because you have begun to experience it for yourselves. Maybe it’s not yet a constant thing; maybe you go for long stretches of time when you find it difficult to perceive the presence of God. But there are days when you know that he is very real and close to you as well, and what you experience on those days is enough to spoil you for anything less than this. You know that nothing else in the world can compare with the joy of knowing the living God and his Son Jesus Christ; once having tasted of this, you are determined to do what it takes to taste it again and again – in other words, to know God better and better. You sing those words from your heart: ‘As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you; you alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you’.

But maybe not all of us feel that way. Maybe some of us can only think to ourselves, “I must be missing something here”. Maybe some of us have just started out on this Christian life and we haven’t yet really experienced the touch of God in any direct sort of way. Maybe, in fact, some of us have been attending church all our lives and have never really made any personal contact with God. How do we get that?

Jesus is quite direct about how we get it: he says we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. But what does that mean? As I said, lifelong churchgoers are tempted to jump right away to the bread and wine of Holy Communion, but let’s not go there too fast. Instead, let’s go back to the first mention of the bread of life in John 6, in verse 35. Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”.

Apparently, in Judaism, there was a long history of seeing the Torah, the Old Testament law of God, as the true manna from heaven; it was said that God fed the people with the words of his mouth. So to listen to the Law or Instruction of God, to think about it and chew on it, and to put it into practice in your life, was seen as a way of receiving the true spiritual bread of life.

Jesus is clearly following in this spiritual interpretation of the bread of life here. It’s actually a rather audacious claim that he’s making, given the reverence that Jewish people felt for the Law of God; he’s claiming to be the embodiment of the ‘Torah’. To ‘come to him’, and to ‘believe in him’ is to believe that he is who he says he is, to give ourselves to him in faith, and to put his words into practice in our daily lives.

This ‘coming to him’ and ‘believing in him’; is it a moment of crisis, or a gradual process? Well, for many of us there is probably a gradual process of growing into faith, but it often has moments of decision attached to it as well. After all, when two people fall in love it may be a gradual process, but their wedding day is a moment of decision – a moment of commitment, in fact. On that day they are consciously entrusting their lives and their futures to each other; they aren’t just saying, “I’ve fallen in love with you”, but “I promise to love you, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, for the rest of our days”.

Many people experience these moments of decision in their life of faith as well; I know I certainly have. These are the moments when we sense the challenge of the gospel: will you put your life in the hands of the one who loved you and gave himself for you? Will you follow him and be faithful to him for the rest of your days?

How do we respond to that challenge to ‘come to Jesus’ and to ‘believe in him’? A friend of mine used to say that, if you understand the invitation that Jesus is giving you, the most eloquent prayer in the world could be the one simple word, ‘Yes’. Jesus is with us this morning and is giving us this invitation: ‘Will you come to me and believe in me? Will you put your life in my hands and let me lead you from this day forward?’ And if your heart is responding to that call, then there’s no need to worry about getting the words right; if all you can manage is the word ‘yes’, that will do just fine.

That’s a moment of commitment to Christ. But I also want to say that we renew that commitment each week, every time we come forward to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Some of you may be familiar with the old revival preachers and their practice of giving ‘altar calls’. Billy Graham of course made this famous; at each of his evangelistic crusade services he would say, “Now I’m going to ask you to get up out of your seats!” and he would invite people who wanted to give their lives to Jesus to come forward to the front of his crusade services as a public act of commitment to Christ.

To many lifelong Anglicans the very thought of an altar call is a shock to the system, but I want to suggest to you that, if we understand what we’re doing in Holy Communion, we have an altar call every week in the Anglican Church! Jesus tells us that if we come to him and believe in him our spiritual hunger and thirst will be satisfied. We respond to that invitation; we get up out of our seats and come to the front, and we hold out our empty hands and ask him to fill them. The emptiness of our hands is a symbol of the emptiness of our lives; without him we have no life, but when we come to him in faith, he give us that life. And so we receive the bread and wine in faith, and, as the old prayer book says, we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving’.

So, as Billy Graham used to say, in a few minutes ‘I’m going to ask you to get up out of your seats’. Come to the front of this church and put your lives once again in the hands of the one who loved you and gave himself for you. Hold out your empty hands, and your empty hearts, so that he can fill them.

But realize also that this isn’t just something we do at Holy Communion; it’s something we do every day of the week as followers of Jesus. To go back to verse 35, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. To receive Holy Communion together here on a Sunday is one way of ‘coming’ to Jesus and ‘believing in him’ – a vital way, but not the only way. All week long, he is inviting us to continue to come to him and put our faith in him. In Matthew’s gospel he says to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

So let’s come to him – not just today at Holy Communion, but tomorrow as well, and the next day, and the day after that. Let’s put our trust in him, ask him to make himself known to us and to give us the strength to put his teaching and example into practice. The writer of the psalms says, ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’ (Psalm 34:8). That’s not just about Holy Communion; it’s about a daily walk with Christ. In the end, that daily walk is the best way I know to ‘get a life’.

Còig: ‘Mary and the Soldier/The Boys of Portaferry’

I thought I’d share a few songs from people I enjoyed at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival this past weekend. One band I really liked was Còig, from Cape Breton. Here they are singing an old Irish folk song I first heard from Paul Brady and Andy Irvine, ‘Mary and the Soldier’.

‘It’s the old story of the soldier heading for the wars and leaving the girl behind him. In some ballads she dressed herself up in men’s clothing and went along with him. Numerous too are the songs about female sailors and female soldiers. More often than not, she went along as the pretty drummer boy or the pretty cabin boy. In this particular song, he is so impressed by her loyalty that he marries her before he goes away. Sam Henry collected this song in Magilligan, Co. Derry, and it appears in his collection under the title of The Gallant Soldier’. (Frank Harte, notes ‘Andy Irvine & Paul Brady’)

The Blind Harper

This is a light rewrite of the old Scottish folk song ‘The Blind Harper’. The earliest version in Francis James Child’s ‘The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Vol. IV’ (1890) dates back to 1791, but there are many other versions. Emily Smith sang the song in 2005 on her CD ‘A Different Life’. She says in her liner notes:

Another song from my home region of Dumfries and Galloway. This version dates back to the 1500s and tells the tale of a harper, in some versions a blind harper, who stole the King of England’s best horse, the ‘wanton broon”

Nic Jones did a rewrite of the song for his 1978 album ‘From the Devil to a Stranger’, anglicizing the Scottish brogue and shortening the story a bit. I’ve worked from Nic’s version but have also consulted some of the older versions, added some lines from then, and written a few of my own as well.

The biggest change is that all the older versions, including Nic’s, refer to King Henry’s horse as his ‘wanton brown’, but ‘wanton’ today means something different from what it meant when the song was written: ‘playful, frolicksome’. I’ve chosen ‘headstrong’ as a near equivalent that fits the lines well. Here’s my version (my changes from Nic’s version are in red):

The Blind Harper
Have you heard of the blind harper,
How he lived in Lochmaben town?
How he went down to fair England,
To steal King Henry’s headstrong Brown.

He thought him hard and thought him long,
And then unto his wife did go,
“One thing”, said he, “will make this work-
We’ll need a mare that has a foal”.

Said she, you have a good grey mare,
She’ll run o’er hills both low and high,
Go take the halter in your pack,
And leave the foal at home with me.

He’s up and off to England gone,
He went as fast as fast could be,
And when he got to Carlisle gates,
Who should be there but King Henry?

“Come in, come in you blind harper,
And of your music let me hear”,
But up and said the blind harper,
I’ll need a stable for my mare”.

The king looked over his left shoulder,
And said unto his stable groom,
“Go take the poor blind harper’s mare,
and put her beside my headstrong brown”.

Well then the harper played and sang;
‘til all the lords fell sound asleep,
Then quietly took off his shoes,
And down the stairway he did creep.

Straight to the stable door he’s gone,
With a tread as light as light could be,
And when he opened and went in,
There he found thirty steeds and three.

He took the halter from his pack,
And from his purpose did not fail,
He slipped it over the brown’s long nose,
And tied it to the grey mare’s tail.

He let her loose at the castle gates
O’er hill and dale she found her way,
And she was back with her own colt foal,
Three long hours before the day.

The harper’s wife rose up from sleep
Said she, “What do my eyes behold!”
“Upon my word!” then said the lass,
“Our mare has gotten a great big foal!”

King Henry’s groom rose with the dawn,
But at the stable he did stare,
“King Henry’s headstrong brown’s away,
And so is the poor blind harper’s mare!”

“And oh and alas”, said the blind harper,
“And ever alas that I came here!
In Scotland they only stole my foal,
But in England they did steal my mare!”

“Oh, hold your tongue!” King Henry said ,
“You have no cause to curse and swear;
Here’s thirty guineas for your foal,
And three times thirty for your mare”.

Again he harped and again he sang,
The sweetest music he let them hear,
He was paid for a foal he never lost,
And three times for the good grey mare.

Have you heard of the blind harper,
How he lived in Lochmaben town?
How he went down to fair England,
To steal King Henry’s headstrong Brown.

Here is Nic singing his version of the song, with a little instrumental added to the end.