‘I Believe’ (a sermon for a baptism service)

Today we celebrate the baptisms of Everett William McCallum and Kingston Hendrix Haekel, and we rejoice with their families as these two little guys begin their journey of faith. As they grow and get older, they’re going to be asking questions about who created God, and why God created mosquitos, and how God can hear the prayers of so many people at the same time. Eventually they’ll get to the big issues like ‘Why does God let bad things happen to good people?’ and ‘Why is there evil in the world?’ and ‘Why is Jesus important?’ Hopefully their parents and the other people in their lives won’t be scared by this process; they’ll understand that asking questions and trying to find answers is one of the ways we grow in the life of faith.

Rowan Williams used to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. He’s written a beautiful book called ‘Tokens of Trust’, and the thing I remember most of all in that book is where he says that perhaps the most important and fundamental question we can ask is ‘Can God be trusted?’ After all, that point is not self-evident! A lot of strange things happen in the world, and many Christians struggle to reconcile them with the idea of a trustworthy God. Thoughtful Christians don’t just dismiss those things; we face them head on, but somehow in facing them we don’t give up on God. We go through the trials of life, and the times when God seems a million miles away from us, but we don’t let go of him – or rather, we realize eventually that he doesn’t let go of us. And so we continue to say “Yes, Lord – I believe in you”.

In a few minutes we’re all going to say those words together, as part of our baptismal service. As far as we can tell, the Apostles’ Creed was originally a baptismal creed, created in the early days in Rome to be used when new Christians were welcomed into the Body of Christ through baptism. In those early days most of those new Christians would have been adults making a conscious decision to turn away from their old way of life and commit themselves to Christ in faith. Everett and Kingston can’t do that today – they’re too young – but we baptize them anyway on the strength of their parents’ faith. Bill and Aimée, Dustin and Monika are professing their faith in Christ and their desire for their children to be brought up as part of the community that follows Christ; that’s what baptism means. And as those kids grow, the most important thing for them to learn is that yes, God can indeed be trusted.

Because that’s what ‘I believe in God’ means. Statistics Canada might not give it that meaning. When census takers ask ‘Do you believe in God?’ what they usually mean is ‘Do you believe that God exists?’ But that’s not what it means to believe in someone. If I was to say to you “I believe in Marci”, you would know I didn’t just mean “I believe that Marci exists”. I would mean “I trust her, I know she’s not going to let me down. I know she won’t withdraw her love for me”. So to say “I believe in God” is a statement of faith – in other words, a statement of trust.

What sort of God do we trust?

We say “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth”. Nowadays when we say those words ‘heaven and earth’, we know they cover a lot more space than those early Christians could have guessed! They probably thought the world was a huge plate standing on pillars in the primeval ocean, with the sky as a huge dish over it and the waters above the earth just waiting for the windows of heaven to be opened so they could be poured down in floods! But we know today that ‘the heavens and the earth’ are a vastly different place. We know all about ‘the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies and suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home’. We know about the big bang that took place over fourteen billion years ago, and how the universe has been expanding at incredible speeds since then, so that to get to some parts of it from here would take millions of years, even if we could travel at the speed of light.

And behind all this is God. What can we say about a God who could think up something like that, and set it in motion, and continue to guide it and care for it?

We know about the billions of years this planet has existed. We know about the many millions of species that have come and gone in that time, leading up eventually to us humans, who arrived at three seconds to midnight! If there is a creator God, as the creed suggests, then God is intensely interested in many different forms of life, from microbes to mammoths, from ancient mountains to vast oceans. God loves purple martins and woodland caribou and lodgepole pine trees and the rocks of the Cambrian Shield.

A United Church minister once told me that the first article of his personal creed was ‘God is big!’ I resonate with that! And if God is so big, it shouldn’t surprise us that there are many things about God that our tiny human brains can’t understand. In fact, to say “I don’t know” might be a profound statement of trust. “This is too big for me, but I believe it’s not too big for God, so I’ll leave it for God to figure out”.

The God we trust is the amazing God who created everything that exists in this universe, and any other universes there may be; he sustains it all by his powerful word. But the creed also says that he’s ‘The Father almighty’. This is counter-intuitive; if God is so big and I’m so small, how can God possibly be concerned with me? And yet he is; that’s what Jesus told us. When we look at the prayer life of Jesus, the name he almost always used for God was ‘Father’. When we look at how he taught us to pray, he told us to begin ‘Our Father’. By this he didn’t mean that God is a male as opposed to a female God. He meant that if you take the love of the best parents you’ve ever met and multiply it by infinity, you might just be getting close to the incredible love that the Creator of the universe has for us and for everything he has made.

We know this because of Jesus, and of course this brings us to the second statement the creed makes about the God we trust: ‘I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord’.

What you believe about God matters. Some people believe in a God who loves violence. Some people believe in a God who isn’t really the creator of everything – he’s just a part of the story, albeit a very big and powerful part. Some people believe in a God who notices every single slip we make and punishes us for it.

But Christians believe that God came among us in Jesus. Somehow, in a way we can’t really understand, the God who created the universe continued to rule the universe while at the same time writing himself into its story, in the person of Jesus. John’s Gospel talks about Jesus as the Word of God, through whom God created all things. But then, John says, ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

A few weeks ago Andrew Asbil was elected as the new bishop of Toronto. He will be a second generation bishop: his dad, Walter Asbil, was also an Anglican bishop. And if you stood the two of them beside each other you’d notice that they bear a remarkable resemblance to each other, even for a father and a son. I once heard someone introduce Andrew to an audience with these words: “I now know what Jesus meant when he said, ‘He who has seen the Son has seen the Father’!”

‘Like father, like son’ – it’s an old saying. And we Christians believe it to be true of Jesus. If we want to know what God is like, we look at the life and teaching of Jesus. Jesus is hard on hypocrites but gentle with the weak. He refuses to hate the people society tells him to hate. He does the things his Father tells him to do, whether people like it or not. He loves his enemies and prays for those who hate him. And when the leaders of his world respond to his love by nailing him to the cross, he doesn’t do what any self-respecting god in the ancient world would have done – destroy them with lightning bolts out of revenge for their audacity. No, he says “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”.

But Jesus is also victorious over evil. Death isn’t the last word for him. Because of him, we know that love really is stronger than death. The Bible says that he has been declared Son of God with power through his resurrection from the dead. After all, anyone can claim to be the Son of God – but if the person who makes the claim is seen to die, and then three days later rises from the dead – well, you might want to take that claim seriously!

So this is the God we trust, the God we want Everett and Kingston to come to know and trust. The God who dreamed up the big bang, loves the whole universe, and cares for us like the best parent we could ever imagine. The God who loved us so much that he decided to get even closer to us by becoming a human being to show us what he is like.

But there’s more. We also trust God the Holy Spirit. In Hebrew and Greek the word ‘spirit’ is the same as the word for ‘wind’ and ‘breath’. In the Old Testament the spirit of God was like the breath of God, breathed into prophets and kings so they could do God’s work. But in the New Testament the holy breath is promised to every believer. On the day of Pentecost Peter says to the crowd “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

So this is what it means to become a Christian. It means that God comes closer to us than breathing. God breathes his own life into us, his Holy Spirit. Breath gives us life, and the Holy Spirit gives us spiritual life. And the Holy Spirit is promised to each of us, and to all of us together. When we gather for worship, he is among us. When we go out to serve God, he gives us strength and wisdom to do it, and do it well. When we tell others about Jesus, he works through our words. When we feel too small to serve Jesus, he fills up what’s lacking in our service.

“Come, Holy Spirit” – that’s an ancient Christian prayer. Jesus encourages us to pray that God will give us this gift every day. He says “You parents know how to give good gifts to your children. How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” So as Everett and Kingston grow, their parents are going to want to pray that God will fill these boys with his Holy Spirit. And as they get older, they’re going to want to teach them to pray that for themselves: “Come, Holy Spirit – fill me with your love”.

So this is the life that Everett and Kingston are going to be baptized into this morning: a life of trusting God the Creator and Father – trusting God the Son, Jesus Christ – trusting God the Holy Spirit, the breath of God who gives us life.

But we’re not done yet – there’s one more thing to be said. The Creed also talks about believing in the Church: it says “I believe in the Holy Spirit”, and then adds “the holy catholic church”.

Don’t get distracted by that word ‘catholic’ – it’s a lot older than the Pope! It means ‘the whole Church taking the whole Gospel to the whole world’. But what the Creed is telling us is that this journey of faith isn’t something we do as isolated individuals. It’s a community thing.

We see this in the gospels. Jesus calls people to follow him as his disciples, but they don’t follow him as individuals – they join a community. It’s not a perfect community; it’s made up of imperfect individuals and sometimes they rub each other up the wrong way! But they also help one another grow as followers of Jesus, and eventually they go out and start new communities of faith all over the Mediterranean world.

And that continues to today. St. Margaret’s is a community of followers of Jesus. In a few minutes, this community will make a serious promise, a promise to do everything in its power to support Everett and Kingston in their life in Christ. I know the members of this community and I know they take that promise seriously.

But of course, for that to be possible, baptized children need to continue to be part of the community. That’s why the parents and godparents make a promise to that effect: ‘Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is nurtured in the faith and life of the Christian community?’ ‘I will, with God’s help’. It’s in this community of faith that new disciples can best learn to trust God and follow Jesus.

So this is who we are. We are a community of faith, learning to trust our Creator and Father day by day. We’re learning to know God as God is revealed to us in his Son Jesus. We’re learning to follow Jesus and put his teachings into practice in our daily lives. And we’re not doing this alone; we’re doing it with the help of the Spirit, the breath of God in us. And we’re doing it in the family of God, the Christian community that gathers here each week to worship and learn together, and then scatters to spread the love of Jesus everywhere we go. We’re baptized into this community. This community is our family of faith. And today we’re delighted to welcome Everett and Kingston into this community of disciples of Jesus.

Advertisements

‘Strength for Today, and Bright Hope for Tomorrow’ (a sermon on John 6.35-51)

Fourteen hundred years before the time of Jesus, the book of Exodus tells the story of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt through the Sinai desert to their promised land. It was a journey that should only have taken a few weeks, but for various reasons they ended up wandering in the desert for forty years. The numbers recorded in Exodus and Numbers are probably exaggerated, but even so, we’re talking about a huge company of people, wandering in a trackless desert. What were they going to drink? What were they going to eat?

This question occupied their minds a lot, and we don’t have time today to go into the precise details of how their needs were met. But the one story that stands out is the story of the so-called ‘manna from heaven’. Apparently the word ‘manna’ sounds like the Hebrew word for ‘what is it?’ The people got up in the morning and all around them on the ground was this white, flaky substance.

‘When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat. This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents’”…The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey’ (Exodus 16:15-16, 31).

So the nation ate this food for the next forty years as they were wandering in the wilderness. It gave them the strength they needed for their desert journey, and it also gave them hope that they would be able to complete the whole journey and eventually, one day, arrive at their promised land.

Our Gospel readings for this month of August have been moving through the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. We began with the story of the feeding of the five thousand: a huge crowd of people, in a deserted place, in danger of starving because there was no food. So Jesus takes the few loaves and fishes he’s been given, gives thanks to God and distributes them to the people. Miraculously, five loaves of bread and two fish feed the whole crowd. We can imagine the reaction. ‘Moses fed our ancestors supernaturally in the desert. Now this man is feeding us supernaturally too. He must be the King God has promised us, to drive out the Romans and set us free! And when he becomes king, we’ll have free bread forever!’

In last week’s passage Jesus rebuked them for their misunderstanding. They were focussing too much on the sign of the bread, and not thinking of what the sign signified. The verse we ended with last week is the verse we start with this week: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). In other words, just as natural food sustains and nourishes us for our journey through life, so our relationship with God through Jesus is the spiritual sustenance and nourishment we need for our journey with God. Strengthened by this Bread of Life, we have the resources we need to live our lives the way God intended us to live.

There’s a popular old hymn called ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’; the last verse lists the blessings that come to us through God’s faithfulness. One of the lines says ‘Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow’. You might call that the balance between life before death – ‘strength for today’ – and life after death – ‘bright hope for tomorrow’.

So far in John chapter six, Jesus has been focussing on ‘strength for today’ – life before death. He’s the Bread of Life who can give us the strength we need to follow him. He’s the manna from heaven who sustains us through our desert journey.

But now he shifts gears a little and focusses on the ‘bright hope for tomorrow’. Look at verses 39-40:

“And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day”.

And then a few verses later on,

“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me, and I will raise that person up on the last day…Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 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.” (6:44, 49-51)

So now we’re looking ahead to the end of the desert journey. The bread from heaven has given us hope that we won’t die on the way – we’ll be able to make it all the way to the moment when we enter the promised land.

This ‘entering the promised land’ is described here by Jesus as a resurrection. “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (v.40). In other words, it’s not about getting rid of our bodies and leaving matter behind to go to some other place, a more ‘spiritual’ place. It’s about the last day, the day when the kingdom of God comes in all its fulness, the day when God will heal the universe and restore the earth to his original intention, before evil infected it. On that day, Jesus believed, God will give all believers an experience like his own experience: he was raised from the dead on the third day, and we will be raised from the dead on the last day.

This is the ‘bright hope for tomorrow’ that we celebrate. I love the taste of a good hot curry. I love the feel of cold mountain water on my skin when I swim in a lake. I love the sound of traditional folk music. I love it when people I love give me warm hugs. These are all physical experiences. It would be impossible for me to experience them if I didn’t have a body. And my earthly body is wearing out day by day. But one day, Jesus says, it will be renewed. Life after death will not exclude the marvellous physical pleasures we’ve experienced in this life. Rather, it will take them up and raise them to a whole new level. This is our ‘bright hope’.

So how do we make this hope our own?

Jesus talks about coming to him, believing in him, and eating of the bread that he will give for the life of the world, which is his flesh. It seems to me that all these things are different ways of talking about the same thing. Jesus is our strength, Jesus is our hope. He is ‘Emmanuel’, God with us. Because of his life and death and resurrection, we know that God will never leave us, and we know that we can come into God’s presence at any time through him. He invites us into relationship with his Father and our Father. He invites us to trust him, and to trust the one who sent him.

And he also gives us a tangible sign of this faith. Sometimes it’s hard to wrap our heads around what it means to trust in Jesus. We need something concrete we can do. When Jesus was walking on the water and Peter wanted to join him, Jesus gave him a concrete invitation: “Come!” That’s what faith meant for Peter: getting out of the boat and trusting that Jesus would make it possible for him to walk on water too. That’s what faith means for some of you today, too. God is calling you to do something and you can’t see how you can possibly do it. But it’s no use refusing to do it and then still saying “I have faith”. Faith isn’t faith unless it’s expressed in a concrete action. We trust, and therefore we obey.

And again, today we’re going to express our faith in another concrete action: we’re going to eat this bread and drink this wine, which is for us the body and blood of Christ. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry”, so we’re going to get up out of our seats and come to him, and hold out our hands to receive him, and welcome him into our hearts as we eat and drink. He says, “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.” (v.51).

I have one more thing to say about this. My dad told me the story of how, as a young man, he had come to faith in Christ during Holy Week. He was attending Holy Week communion services with his father, and somehow in that week God opened his eyes to the gospel, and Christ became real to him.

For the rest of his life, as a lay person and later as an ordained minister, my dad was a regular participant in Holy Communion. Today is the fifth anniversary of my dad’s death, and as I receive communion today I will reflect on Jesus’ words: “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (v.51). “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (v.40).

In recent years it’s become more and more common for Anglicans to celebrate Holy Communion as part of our funerals; Roman Catholics, of course have always done that. To me there’s something profound about that. The bread of heaven has sustained us through our earthly pilgrimage. The bread of heaven gives us assurance that we will reach our promised land. The bread of life reminds us of Jesus’ promise that he will raise us up on the last day. The bread of life gives us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that we will share one day with the saints in the bright presence of God.

So today we share the bread of life in thankfulness for Jesus, and in fellowship with all who have gone before us and are now at rest in Jesus. And we look forward to the day when we are together with them again, at the feast in the Kingdom of God.

Hungering for the Right Things (a sermon on John 6.22-35)

From 1984 to 1991 our family lived in the Arctic, and in those days the difference between perishable and non-perishable food items was very significant for us. Transportation was a huge part of the cost of food because there were no permanent roads into those communities. So if you wanted to eat something other than wild meat, there were two ways to bring it in: by water or by air.

Every summer barges came into the community to bring in non-perishable food items like flour, sugar, tea and coffee, tobacco products, UHT milk and – a major item – pop and chips! These items were a lot cheaper because transport by sea was less expensive. But the perishable stuff – fresh fruit and veg, real milk and so on – had to be flown in every week by air, which made it very expensive. It seemed a bit perverse that the stuff that was good for you was really expensive, while the stuff that wasn’t so good was cheaper! It would have been nice if we could have found a way to reverse that! 

In our gospel reading for today Jesus has a lot to say about ‘food that perishes’ and ‘food that endures’. He’s being pursued by a crowd of people who saw him feed the five thousand – which was our gospel reading last week – and he tells them they’ve got their minds on the wrong things. In verses 26-27 he says:

“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal”.

Jesus is unhappy that the people are so interested in getting more free bread. For him the feeding of the five thousand wasn’t just about giving people free bread – it was a sign pointing to his own identity. He isn’t just a prophet like Moses. He isn’t just a king to rescue them from their enemies. He’s the Bread of Life who God has sent to give life to the world. Just as God fed his people with supernatural bread while they were following Moses in the wilderness, so now he’s come among them in Jesus to be their true Bread, the real nourishment they need for their life with him. That’s who Jesus is. 

But the people are dazzled by the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, and they’ve got no time for all this spiritual stuff. And maybe we feel some sympathy for them; after all, it’s pretty hard to preach the gospel to people whose bellies are empty. You can’t blame hungry people for wanting food, can you? Isn’t Jesus being a bit unjust here? 

No, he’s not. And he’s not rebuking them for being hungry; after all, he was the one who fed them! But it’s important to remember that Jesus wasn’t just a do-gooder traveling around ancient Galilee looking for needy people to help out. The gospels constantly emphasise his preaching and teaching; to him, the urgent thing was announcing God’s kingdom and giving people an opportunity to repent and believe the good news. His healing miracles were signs of the kingdom; they were meant to show that the power of evil was being defeated and God was at work to put this broken world to rights. But the people were paying too much attention to the sign, and not enough attention to the thing the sign was pointing to. When you see a sign by the side of the road, you’re supposed to follow its directions. You aren’t supposed to spend ages and ages looking at the sign, commenting on how beautiful it is, and driving around in circles again and again so you can keep on seeing it as if for the first time! 

What does this have to do with us today? 

When we make a decision to start attending church and following Jesus, we usually do so because we want him to do something for us. We want to be better husbands and wives or better parents to our kids. We want to get past our fear of death. We want peace of mind and heart, or healing from a life-threatening illness. Whatever our particular felt need might be, we’re seeking the giver because of his gifts. And that’s natural – we’re just like the people in the gospels. Most of them came to Jesus for the first time because they wanted him to do something for them, and there’s no hint that he was reluctant to help them.

The problem comes if we get stuckthere. It’s a problem for two reasons. First, what we’re actually doing is enlisting Jesus to help us with ouragenda, rather than inviting him to tell us about his agenda. I say again: Jesus isn’t just a do-gooder, travelling around helping people meet their personal goals and objectives. Jesus has his own goals and objectives. He’s looking for people who are willing to catch the vision of his kingdom and get on board with it. 

The second problem is that we assume we knowwhat our most important needs are. For instance, I might think my most important need right now is to be healed of a particular illness that’s causing me trouble. But Jesus might see a bigger picture, a need for me to grow in patience and endurance. Or again, I might think my most important need is to be rescued from the consequences of my financial irresponsibility. But Jesus might see a bigger picture; maybe he knows that if I have to deal with those consequences myself, it might motivate me to avoid getting myself into the same sort of situation again. 

All too often, when we focus on the gifts Jesus gives, rather than on Jesus the giver, we’re just confirmed in our self-centred approach to life. Jesus is going to want to challenge that. He’s going to want to lead us into a way of living centred on God, and God’s purposes for us. And so he tries to lead this crowd of Galileans away from focusing on the bread. He wants them to focus on what the bread symbolizes: himself, and his role as the bread that endures to eternal life – because he is ‘the bread of life’, as he says in verse 35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. 

Jesus is talking about the deepest and most fundamental need of every human being: to be in right relationship with God. St. Augustine once said to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”. The writer of Psalm 63 expresses this: ‘O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water’ (v.1). 

As physical food gives life and energy to our bodies, so being in right relationship with God sustains us in our spiritual life. And when I say ‘spiritual’ I don’t mean ‘non-physical’; shoveling a driveway for an elderly neighbour is a physical activity, but it can also be a very spiritual thing to do! No, I mean our total life as people made in God’s image in God’s world. Jesus wants us to know that we can be tremendously successful in every other area of our lives, but if we don’t find this right relationship with our Creator, there will always be something missing. We will be full in every other way, but starving at the very centre of our being. 

Nicky Gumbel used to tell a good story about this in the ‘Alpha’ course. He had a Chinese friend who said to him, “Nicky, it’s like we Chinese have two stomachs: one for rice, and one for everything else. The stomach for everything else might be full, but unless we’ve had rice, we still feel empty!” And life is like that; you can be perfectly happy and content in every other area of your life, but if you aren’t living in relationship with God, there’s still going to be a basic hunger deep down inside you. 

Jesus can bring us into this right relationship with God. He’s the one who gave his life to reconcile us to God; he’s the one who taught us the way to live as God’s children. He is ‘the bread of life’; if we come to him and believe in him, our spiritual hunger and thirst will be satisfied. 

But this raises a nagging question. Quite frankly, I’ve been a Christian for a long time, and there are still many days when I feel spiritually hungry. So Jesus’ statement that ‘those who come to me will never be hungry, and those who believe in me will never be thirsty’ doesn’t always seem to ring true in my experience. Why not? 

Let’s get the obvious answer out of the way first. Many times, the answer is because of my sins. Jesus has taught me what a godly life looks like, but I choose not to follow his teaching. I do something he’s told us not to do, or I neglect to do something he’s told us to do. Or, as he puts it, I still ‘work for the bread that perishes’. In other words, I get my priorities wrong – I give major attention to stuff that’s not that important, and I neglect the stuff that isimportant. Or again, I don’t give the time to prayer and listening to the word of God that’s necessary for me to grow in my conscious contact with him.

All this is true, but it’s not the whole truth. There are still times when we’re doing our best to be faithful to Jesus, and yet we still feel spiritually hungry and thirsty. What’s going on? 

I think part of the answer lies in the way I just phrased the problem: ‘We still feel spiritually hungry and thirsty’. Too often we assume Jesus is talking about emotions. We assume that ‘If you come to me you’ll never be hungry and if you believe in me you’ll never be thirsty’ means ‘If you come to me you’ll always be happy and joyful, or sense God close to you, or have perfect peace of mind’ and so on. 

But that’s just not the case. Our emotions come and go. We enjoy good feelings, just like we enjoy eating food that not only does us good but tastes good as well! But we don’t need delicious gourmet food to keep us going – ordinary, plain food will do just as well. And in the same way, we naturally enjoy our Christian life more when we feel good, but we can still be fed by God – at a level deeper than our emotions – when those feelings aren’t there. 

I know this from personal experience, and I’ll tell you how. Emotionally, I have my ups and downs. I have many happy times, and I can smile with the best of them, but the truth is that I’m often quite melancholic – inclined to see the glass as half empty and look on the dark side of things. And I often go through times of spiritual dryness when I have to take God’s presence on faith, because I don’t seem to be able to feel anything like the joy I’ve been taught that he wants to give me.

But funnily enough, I’ve noticed this doesn’t stop God using me to bless others. Often, when I’ve been going through those dry times, I’ve had a meeting with someone going through some trouble in their life, and they’ve told me afterwards that God really used me to help them. Or I’ve said something in a sermon and someone tells me afterwards it was a real blessing for them. So God’s obviously giving me the spiritual nourishment I need, even when I don’t feel it. 

The truth is that religious emotion is one of those ‘things that perishes’ that Jesus is talking about here – and he tells us not to work for the things that perish but the things that endure. True soul food is deeper than religious emotion – it nourishes our life with God and sustains us to do the things God asks of us. Maybe we don’t feel God’s presence all the time, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there – it means he’s working in a part of our psyche that’s much deeper than our emotions. 

Having said that, it’s still true that following Jesus often does lead to a deeper sense of joy, peace, and satisfaction, and when that happens we can thank God. There’s a sense of well-being that comes from living in relationship with God, in harmony with the way God created us. Earthly satisfaction will end one day, but true spiritual satisfaction – the satisfaction that comes from knowing God through Christ – will last forever. 

Jesus says, ‘Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. So we are invited to come to him and put our trust in him. So now, before I finish, you want me to give you the list of three ways of doing this, don’t you? 

Practical people love lists like that. The crowd in today’s gospel certainly did. In verse 28 they asked him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” They were probably looking for an Old Testament to-do list: offer these sacrifices, avoid these unclean foods, keep these holy days. But Jesus’ reply is completely unexpected: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (v.29). In other words, “More important than the laws Moses gave our ancestors is this one thing: that you trust me, because God has sent me”.

We can’t get away from relationship, and relationship isn’t easily reducible to a to-do list. Jesus uses metaphorical language to describe it: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (v.30). To ‘come’ to him describes a movement. It might not be a physical movement, but it’s a choice to turn away from the things that perish and focus our attention on Jesus. And to ‘believe’ in him means to trust him – to trust him enough to put our lives in his hands. To trust him enough to listen to what he tells us, and build our lives around it. 

I said that this movement isn’t necessarily a physical movement. There is, however, one way in which it is physical. In some churches, when they celebrate Holy Communion they sit in their seats and wait while people bring the bread and wine to them; I was in a church like that last Sunday. And if you have mobility issues, there’s no problem with that. But for most of us, I like the fact that we’re invited to get out of our seats and come to the front of the church. It’s like the Anglican altar call! We come as spiritually hungry people; we hold out our empty hands, asking the Lord to fill them. We come with as much faith as we can muster, asking him to make up what’s lacking there. We eat the bread – we drink the wine – receiving for ourselves the great love he pours out on us through his death and resurrection.  

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (v.35). You and I are invited to come to Jesus and put our trust in him. You can do that day by day as you turn to him in prayer. And you can do it this morning as you come forward to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. So come and meet the one who can satisfy your spiritual hunger. As the psalm says, ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’ (Psalm 34.8).

Fellow-workers

Our church is at the end of a week-long Day Camp, ‘Kids’ Kapers’, that we run in co-operation with another local congregation, Crosslife Church. All week long volunteers and kids have been having fun exploring the story of Jonah together. I’m only marginally involved – I lead a ‘circle prayer’ at the end of opening devotions every day – but I’m mightily impressed by all the work the volunteers are putting in. Clearing the chairs out of the sanctuary to make room for the program. Preparing stories and songs and materials and food. Being at the church for hours and hours every day. Dealing with joyful kids and difficult kids. I’m privileged to be with these ‘fellow-workers’ in Christ.

I was struck again this week in my daily Bible reading by Paul’s sense of fellowship with those who share in the work of the gospel. The Letter to the Romans concludes with one of his longest ever ‘greetings’ section, quoted here in the New Living Translation:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me.

Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. Also give my greetings to the church that meets in their home.

Greet my dear friend Epenetus. He was the first person from the province of Asia to become a follower of Christ. Give my greetings to Mary, who has worked so hard for your benefit. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.

Greet Apelles, a good man whom Christ approves. And give my greetings to the believers from the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet the Lord’s people from the household of Narcissus. Give my greetings to Tryphena and Tryphosa, the Lord’s workers, and to dear Persis, who has worked so hard for the Lord. Greet Rufus, whom the Lord picked out to be his very own; and also his dear mother, who has been a mother to me.

Give my greetings to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who meet with them. Give my greetings to Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and to Olympas and all the believers who meet with them. Greet each other with a sacred kiss. All the churches of Christ send you their greetings.

A couple of things strike me about this passage. First, Paul had never visited the church in Rome, but he knew so many people there! In those days there was no Facebook or Twitter, no telephone and not even a reliable mail service! And yet Christians across the Mediterranean world knew each other; they knew each other’s names, they obviously travelled and had fellowship with each other, and they shared warm affectionate for each other as they cooperated in the work of Christ.

And that leads me to the second thing. There’s very little mention of official titles in this passage, beyond the brief note that Andronicus and Junia were ‘highly respected among the apostles’. We know that the early churches did have a simple structure: a team of elders to give oversight and care to the congregation. They probably weren’t paid and they certainly weren’t ‘lone wolves’. But the word ‘presbyter’ (elder) is never mentioned here. The most common word is simply ‘worker’ or ‘fellow-worker’. ‘Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers’ (and I love the fact that they have a church meeting in their home!). ‘Mary, who has worked so hard for your benefit’. ‘Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ’. ‘…Tryphena and Tryphosa, the Lord’s workers’. ‘Persis, who has worked so hard for the Lord’.

I think ‘fellow-worker’ is one of Paul’s favourite terms for his fellow-Christians. There’s no mention of priest or laity, educated or uneducated. All are members of the Body of Christ. All can share in the work of Christ. Yes, elders provide care and leadership, but they are also simply ‘fellow-workers’.

In the modern church there are often debates about ordination, what constitutes a valid ordination, how we raise the money to pay these full-time ordained people and so on. I don’t see these debates in the early church. If you are a baptized Christian, filled with the Holy Spirit, then you are a fellow-worker with Paul and the others. Christ has a job for you to do, and you’ll find your greatest joy in doing it. It might be as simple as making the coffee and treats. It might be to share your faith story with others, or to be a listening ear for those who need it, or to guide children as they grow in Christ, or to give careful attention to the stewardship of the church’s finances.

No matter how big or small the job, we are workers together in Christ. In the end, hierarchical titles aren’t that important. The important thing is that we listen to the call of Jesus, and follow him joyfully together.

Godly Sorrow

Seven-and-Neelix-seven-of-nine-30912665-500-382For your Monday morning edification: pastoral theology with Seven of Nine. (‘Star Trek: Voyager’ Season 6 Episode 14 ‘Memorial”)

NEELIX: Seven? When you were a Borg, you were involved in some unpleasant activities.

SEVEN: I helped to assimilate millions.

NEELIX: I don’t mean to be insensitive, but do you ever feel shame about what you did?

SEVEN: Frequently.

NEELIX: How to you manage to keep going, knowing that you’ve done such horrible things?

SEVEN: I have no choice.

NEELIX: Guilt is irrelevant?

SEVEN: On the contrary. My feelings of remorse help me remember what I did, and prevent me from taking similar actions in the future. Guilt can be a difficult, but useful, emotion.

I have been reflecting on this dialogue ever since Marci and I watched it on Saturday night. I have thought for a long time that much popular Christian spirituality has been heavily influenced by pop psychology from the sixties, that sees guilt as entirely negative. And indeed false guilt can be negative and manipulative. But not all guilt is false. Paul talks about a godly sorrow that leads to repentance. I should not try to escape from that guilt. I should listen to it, and fix what needs to be fixed.

All You Need is Hate

In the 1980s I was introduced to the poetry of Steve Turner, in a thin Hodder paperback called ‘Up to Date’. I was captivated by his sparse, uncompromising lines, and I thought then (as I still do now) that there was more about Christian discipleship in those pages than in many a book of biblical theology.

Here’s an example.

IMG_3152

(Book Info: Steve Turner, ‘Up to Date’, Hodder, 1983. Now long out of print, but you can get it for lots of money second-hand!).

Sheep Need a Shepherd (a sermon on Mark 6.34)

It’s a sure sign to us baby boomers that we’re getting older when we realize how many of our favourite musicians are either dying or retiring! When I was a teenager I became a big Simon and Garfunkel fan, so I was particularly struck by the fact that Paul Simon is officially retiring from touring this year, at the age of 76. I’ve always admired his ability to write a good song, and one of my favourites has always been ‘America’. Some of you know that it describes a bus trip across the continent in search of ‘America’, and toward the end we hear these poignant lines:

‘Kathy, I’m lost’, I said, though I knew she was sleeping;
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.

At the time he wrote these words Paul Simon was already an enormously successful songwriter. And yet, in the midst of his success, he confessed that he was empty inside, that he was lost and couldn’t find his way. I suspect that there are many more people like him: financially comfortable, competent, successful, but inwardly empty and desperately trying to find a way to fill that emptiness.

I think that’s the sort of thing Mark had in mind in our gospel reading for today when he wrote these words:

As (Jesus) went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6.34)

Jesus saw the people he met as being ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ – they had no leader, no guide to show them the way. I suspect things are not so very different today. But what happens to sheep without a shepherd? Let’s think about this for a minute.

First, sheep without a shepherd can’t find their way.I didn’t see too many shepherds where I grew up in inner-city Leicester, but of course we all knew about how shepherds used sheepdogs – often border collies – to drive their sheep in the right direction. However, in the time of Jesus shepherds didn’t drive their sheep, they went out in front of them and led them. Without the shepherd, the sheep would start going off in all sorts of different directions and getting lost. And that’s true of people too: we go off in all sorts of directions and get lost, and we desperately need a wise shepherd to show us the way.

Life today is like a gigantic multiple-choice question; there are so many choices open to us and it’s so difficult to choose the ones that seem right for us. We can make choices about our values: what’s really important in my life? Is my life about getting as wealthy as possible? Is it about success in business? Is it about experiencing the greatest possible degree of happiness or pleasure? In other words, what’s the goal of my life, and how do I know I’ve chosen the right goal?

Is there a way to live my life in such a way as to be in harmony with what I was created for? In other words, are there ethical standards, moral laws, rules or guidelines to follow as I go through life? Are there right things to do, and wrong things to avoid? How do I know which is which, and where can I find a reliable guide to choosing one from the other?

And what about God? Churchgoing may be on the wane today, but spirituality certainly isn’t; many people are fascinated with it and are intensely interested in finding a way to connect with the spiritual world and with God, whoever God may be. But how can I find God? There are so many paths on offer; are they all equally valid? If I think so, what do I make of the fact that some of them tell me that I can serve God by flying planes full of people into tall buildings, or by bombing abortion clinics? How can I find a true path through this maze, a path that will help me to connect with the true and living God and find his will for me?

We all need shepherds to guide us in finding answers to these questions. But who are our modern shepherds? Who are the voices we turn to for guidance? Newspaper columnists? Political leaders? Celebrities? Motivational speakers?

I have a friend who is an Alliance Church pastor. A few years ago he left pastoral ministry for a while and began to travel across the country as a motivational speaker. When he was on his way through Edmonton once we met for breakfast, and he told me that a lot of his Christian ministry these days was to other motivational speakers. “It’s pretty sad, really”, he said; “They stand up before large audiences and share their five steps to a successful life, but when you get to know them as individuals you discover that a lot of them are as messed up as everyone else!”

So where do we go for help? We go to Jesus. In all of this confusion, the clear voice of Jesus speaks to us from the pages of our scriptures: “Follow me”. God has not left us shepherdless; he has come among us in the person of Jesus to show us the way. Jesus said, “I am the Way”. God’s revelation to us in the pages of the Bible comes to its clearest focus in Jesus as we read about him in the gospels. Jesus promises to lead us to the Father, and to guide us about the sort of life we should be living in God’s world. I find it interesting that in today’s gospel, Jesus’ response to the people’s shepherdless state was instruction: ‘he began to teach them many things’. Still today, if we follow his teaching, we will find our way.

For many years now I’ve been suggesting a prayer that I think gets right to the heart of what being a disciple is all about. It goes like this: ‘Jesus our Master, teach us today to see life as you see it, and to live life as you taught it’. I think if we live our daily lives in the spirit of that prayer, God will honour our request, and Jesus will show us the way.

First, then, sheep without a shepherd get lost and can’t find their way – but Jesus says “I am the way”, and he promises to guide us to the Father and to the way of life that is the Father’s will for us. Secondly, sheep without a shepherd can’t find pasture and food.A big part of the shepherd’s job is to make sure that the flock gets adequate nourishment. Nowadays most sheep live their lives behind fences, in fields belonging to their owners, but that wasn’t the case in the time of Jesus; in those days sheep were pastured on the open range. It was the shepherd’s job to lead them to fresh pasture where they could find the food and water they needed.

Speaking of food, I’ve seen statistics claiming that the average Canadian goes out to eat more than anyone else in the world. Today in Canada we are experts at feeding our bodies with the most varied and delicious foods – some of them nutritious, some of them perhaps less so! But have we lost the skill of nourishing our souls?

Physical food gives us the strength to continue our bodily existence, but we are not only physical people – we are also souls, people with minds and hearts and emotions. ‘Soul food’ is food that feeds our inner life, food that gives us the strength to be the people we want to be and know we should be. Where do we find this food?

Over the next few weeks our gospel readings will be addressing this issue as we read through the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. In John 6:35 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”. In some mysterious sense, Jesus himself is our soul food; Jesus lives in us, by his Holy Spirit, and nourishes our inner life. Our conscious faith and dependence on him every minute of the day is what keeps us going as Christians. Coming to him and believing in him is what satisfies our souls.

Do you find this idea difficult to grasp? You’re not alone; many people find it hard to get their head around this. It’s a bit too abstract for us, so God in his compassion gives us a concrete sign of it: the sacrament of Holy Communion. The old Anglican prayer book uses the phrase, ‘feed on him in your heart, by faith, with thanksgiving’. That’s hard for me to do in an abstract way, but I hear those words, in the prayer book, when I’m actually holding out my hand to receive the bread of Holy Communion. Scripture teaches us that as we receive the bread and wine with faith in our hearts, so we are fed spiritually by the life and power of Jesus. We are coming to his table to receive our spiritual food. This isn’t the only way that he comes to us, of course, but he has promisedto meet us here. Are you spiritually hungry, thirsty, tired, burdened? Come to the Lord’s Table and be refreshed!

So Jesus our shepherd is leading us into God’s will for us, and he’s nourishing us so that we can have the strength to do it. But there’s one more thing about sheep without a shepherd: sheep without a shepherd have no defence against danger.

Sheep grazing out on the free range are exposed to many different dangers. There are steep cliffs and ravines; there are wild animals out to kill and eat their prey; there are thieves and robbers out to steal the sheep for themselves. And we as human beings and Christians are also exposed to spiritual dangers. In the first letter of Peter we read these words:

‘Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8).

The New Testament writers assume that there is an enemy of our souls who wants to separate us from God forever. He does this by tempting us to leave the path Jesus is leading us along and to take a path we’ve designed ourselves. Right at the beginning of the biblical story he tempted the first humans to ‘be like God’ – in other words, to choose their own path rather than sticking with the one God had chosen for them. That temptation continues to be a powerful one today. 

In this situation, where is the safest place for me to be as a sheep? The answer is, in the flock, behind Jesus my shepherd, doing exactly as he tells me to do. When I do that, I put myself in the position where he can defend me; otherwise, I’m all alone. That doesn’t mean our shepherd never comes to look for the ones who stray – the gospels assure us that he does. But it would be much better if we didn’t stray in the first place. 

So we need to stay in the flock with the shepherd. In other words, we need to be part of the Christian community, and fully a part of it – not just half-heartedly, when it’s convenient, when it doesn’t clash with our busy schedule. It’s here that we listen to the word of the Good Shepherd, here that we experience his presence together and are fed with his body and blood. We are a community of people following Jesus together, and in that community is the safest place for us to be. 

Let’s go around this one last time. 

Jesus looks out on the world and has compassion for everyone he sees, because so many are like sheep without a shepherd. He wants to be our shepherd. How do we take advantage of this?

First, Jesus leads his flock to the Father and teaches us how to live, so we need to learn to listen to his voice and practice what he says. So our prayer is, ‘Lord Jesus, help us know the Father as you do. Help us listen to your words. Help us to see life as you see it and live life as you taught it’. 

Second, just as the shepherd leads his sheep to pasture, so Jesus is the nourishment we need for our souls. So we learn to depend on him day by day, and to rely on his presence to sustain us on the way. Most especially, we come to his Table regularly to receive the spiritual food he offers us here. 

Third, just as the shepherd protects his sheep from danger, so Jesus protects us from the attacks of the evil one. And we make it easier for him to do that by staying close to him and to his flock – his Church.  The closer you are to Jesus and his community, the safer you are from the attacks of the enemy. 

Let me close with some more words of Peter. In his first letter he writes:

‘For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (1 Peter 2:25)

May this be a living reality, for all of us, as we follow our Good Shepherd.