Taste and See that the Lord is Good

For many Christians around the world, receiving Holy Communion regularly is a central part of their spirituality. To be deprived of it leaves them feeling empty, hungry, distanced from Christ, bereft. And at the moment, most of us are deprived of it. The danger of COVID-19 infection has made it necessary to close churches and ban public worship gatherings. As I write this, many churches are moving their worship online, and scrambling to find ways of keeping their faith communities together.

So how do we continue to nourish our spiritual life, when we can’t physically partake of communion?

I think it might help us to remember a verse from the Book of Psalms: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.’ (Psalm 34:8)

The person who wrote that verse was not a Christian and was not in the habit of receiving Holy Communion! But he (or she) obviously had a sense of connection to Yahweh, the Lord God, and that sense of connection was food and drink for them. They were able to find spiritual nourishment, without anything resembling what we call the sacrament of Holy Communion. (True, they had the yearly Passover festival, but, it only happened once a year, and it was mainly a home-based celebration.)

So maybe it’s time for us Christians to learn from our Jewish older siblings in faith about how a relationship with God can be nurtured when it’s based on prayer, study of scripture, observance of the commandments, and rituals celebrated mainly in the home. Spending time in the Psalms and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures might be a help to us here.

But wait—there are riches in our own tradition, too. I mean the Christian tradition, but I’m specifically thinking now of a little-known piece of our Anglican heritage.

In the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, in the service for the visitation of the sick, you will find this little paragraph, written in glorious Tudor English:

‘But if a man, either by reason of extremity of sickness, or for want of warning in due time to the Curate, or for lack of company to receive with him, or by any just impediment, do not receive the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood; the Curate shall instruct him, that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and steadfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his blood for his redemption; earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore; he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the sacrament with his mouth.’

Okay, that might be a bit dense for some of my readers, so let me translate:

‘Sometimes there might be a good reason—say, because they didn’t get hold of the minister in time, or there aren’t enough people to have communion together (the BCP required at least two people to share with the priest), or because they’re just too sick to eat and drink the bread and wine—why a person can’t actually receive the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. In that situation, the minister is to tell the person that if they truly repent of their sins, and steadfastly believe that Christ died on the Cross for their forgiveness and freedom, and if they call to mind all the benefits that come to them through the Cross of Christ, and give hearty thanks to him for them—well, that’s enough. That person is spiritually eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ in such a way as too keep their soul healthy, even though they can’t receive the sacrament with their mouth.’

This is a hugely important paragraph for us today. Read it again, slowly and carefully, and notice the distinction it makes between ‘receiving the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood’ and ‘eating and drinking the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ to (our) soul’s health’. We tend to think of receiving the bread and wine of Holy Communion as if it was the same as ‘eating and drinking Christ’s Body and Blood’, but the Prayer Book tells us it’s not. Rather, when we eat and drink the bread and wine, we’re receiving the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.

What is a sacrament? Originally, the word meant an oath or a pledge; today we would probably use the word ‘promise’. A sacrament, simply put, is a promise by God to show up. When we pour water over someone in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, God promises to show up, to act in the life of the person being baptized, to wash away their sins and bring them to new birth in the Body of Christ. And when we eat and drink the bread and wine of Holy Communion, God promises to show up to feed us with the Bread of Life.

Does God need these physical actions in order to show up? Of course not. God can bring people to new birth any way he likes. God can nourish us with the bread of life any way he likes. God can’t be confined to the sacraments. His power and love are active in our lives in all kinds of different ways. He has promised to be present when we do these things. But that promise isn’t exclusionary; it doesn’t mean he can’t show up unless we do these things.

The truth is that sacraments are given to make things easy for us. They take spiritual truths and allow us to express them and embody them, using physical actions.

We actually do this all the time in our daily lives. Why do we feel the need to shake hands to seal a deal? The verbal agreement is already there; isn’t that enough? Maybe in some situations it is, but if you’re old school, somehow shaking hands to seal the deal makes it more concrete, more real. Flying a flag gives physical expression to our patriotism. Wearing a wedding ring makes our marriage vows visible and tangible. Giving someone a hug makes our love tangible.

Are these things absolutely necessary? Of course not. We can keep our promises without shaking hands on them. We can be loyal Canadians even if we don’t fly the flag of Canada outside our homes or wear it in our lapels. We can be faithful spouses even if we don’t wear wedding rings. We can love people without hugging them (as many of us are discovering right now). But somehow, using these physical signs and symbols makes it easier for us. They make our commitments tangible.

Let me give you another example of this, from the gospels. I’m thinking of the story of Jesus inviting Peter to walk on the water. Why was that necessary? Surely the important thing was that Peter had faith in his heart. But faith can be hard to visualize; when Jesus says “Have faith in me,” it’s not always easy to know how to do that. But when Jesus says, “Get out of the boat and walk to me,” we know exactly what’s called for, what faith looks like. The action makes the faith visible and tangible.

Sacraments are like that. And please understand—I’m not just saying they’re ways for us to make our faith in God visible and tangible. They are, but that’s not the most important thing about them. The most important thing about them is what God does. Sacraments make God’s promises to us—God’s commitments to us—visible and tangible.

Let me illustrate this, with special reference to the sacrament of Holy Communion.

In John chapter 6, Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. This story of the miraculous feeding is contained in all four gospels, but in John’s Gospel it has special meaning. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ miracles are called ’signs’, and each of them points to a truth about Jesus. The feeding of the five thousand isn’t just meant to satisfy the hunger of the crowd: it’s meant to teach them that Jesus is the true Bread of Life. If we want our spiritual hunger satisfied, we must come to Jesus and put our faith in him. That’s how we ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’

The rest of John chapter 6 explores this idea. In verse 51 Jesus 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”. This causes a furious argument among Jesus’ hearers; they ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v.52) Jesus’ reply seems shocking to them: “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).

Imagine the revulsion Jesus’ first hearers would 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 mean to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood? And why would we want to do it anyway? What are the benefits we receive from it?


In John 6.54 Jesus says ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life’. And remember: ‘Eternal life’ doesn’t just mean ‘life that goes 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”. So to receive eternal life 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 fully alive.


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? If you can imagine that, you’ve grasped the essence of what it means to be a Christian.

So how do we enter into that experience of being at home in Jesus, and Jesus being at home in us? 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? 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”.

You might not know that in the time of Jesus many Jewish people saw 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 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 very bold claim he’s making: he’s claiming to be the embodiment of the ‘Torah’, or Law of God. To ‘come to him’ and ‘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.

How do we respond to that invitation to ‘come to Jesus’ and ‘believe in him’? Harold Percy has often said that if you understand the invitation Jesus is giving you, the most eloquent prayer in the world could be the one simple word, ‘Yes’. Jesus is with us today 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. It can be a perfect expression of your faith commitment to Jesus.

We renew that commitment each week, every time we come forward to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Some of you are familiar with the old revival preachers and their practice of giving ‘altar calls’. Billy Graham made this famous; at each of his evangelistic 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 services as a public act of commitment to Christ.

To many lifelong Anglicans the thought of an altar call is a shock to the system, but in fact, if we understand what we’re doing in Holy Communion, we have an altar call every week! 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 of the church, 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 gives 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’—not our mouths, but our hearts—‘by faith with thanksgiving’.

But what about right now, when we can’t receive communion physically?

Now is the time for us to remember that this isn’t just something we do at Holy Communion on Sundays; 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 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 we come to him and believe in him when we give our lives to him in moments of conversion. We come to him and believe in him when we pray each day, alone or with others. We come to him and believe in him when we listen to his Word and meditate on it in the Holy Scriptures. We come to him and believe in him when we turn to our neighbours in love and service. We even come to him and believe in him when we get together with fellow Christians through an Internet platform like Zoom or Facebook to study the Bible and pray!

When we do these things, we are being nourished by the love of Jesus. We are feeding on the Bread of Life. We are receiving what’s sometimes called ‘spiritual communion’—we are ‘eating and drinking the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ to our soul’s health’—although for a time we aren’t able to actually receive the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.

In the Anglican world today, we often neglect these other ways of feeding on the Bread of Life. We put a huge emphasis on the sacrament of Holy Communion, and rightly so. But perhaps this might be one good gift God wants to give us through this sacramental fast we currently find ourselves in: to teach us a new appreciation for the other ways we can taste and see that the Lord is good.

So let’s come to him, not just in Holy Communion, but in turning our hearts toward him every day, in prayer, in feeding on the Scriptures, and in putting his words and example into practice in our daily lives. Let’s put our trust in him and ask him to make himself known to us as the true Bread of life. ‘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. May we all walk with him, and find from our own experience that as we do so, the spiritual hunger in our hearts is completely satisfied by his life-giving presence.

Therefore We Will Not Fear

‘Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change’ (Psalm 46.2a, NRSV)

This morning in the Daily Office Lectionary we read the story of Jesus’ stilling of the storm (Mark 4.35-41). It’s the evening of a busy day, and Jesus and his disciples decide to take a boat across to the other side of the lake. Jesus is tired and he falls asleep in the boat. A sudden storm arises and very quickly the disciples find themselves in danger. These are experienced fishermen who’ve seen storms on the lake before, but this one has them scared, and eventually they wake Jesus up (yes, he’s still asleep!). “Master, don’t you care that we’re about to drown?” Jesus stands up and rebukes the wind and waves: “Peace! Be Still!” Immediately the wind dies down and there is a great calm. Jesus turns then to his disciples and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They’re full of awe, and they whisper to each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”

This morning, around the world, we feel as if a great storm is raging around us. COVID-19 is spreading, and in our country and other countries around the world, much of what we think of as normal life is shutting down. This doesn’t just apply to the Juno awards, the NHL, and university and school classes. I notice on Twitter that many of my colleagues and friends are not going to be going to church this coming Sunday; at the moment that is not the case here, partly because (even if the Alberta Government had not specifically excluded ‘places of worship’ from their restrictions) we aren’t a large enough congregation to qualify as a large gathering. We’re being encouraged to practice ‘social distance’; keep at least six feet away from other people, don’t go out if we don’t need to, and so on.

In a situation like this, it’s natural that we should be afraid. Think about this for a minute. The disciples had been travelling with Jesus for a while. They had seen him heal the sick and cast out evil spirits. They knew he had extraordinary powers. And yet, in the boat, they were still afraid.

So maybe I shouldn’t be hard on myself if I feel fear. After all, I’ve never seen Jesus with my eyes. I’ve seen some things that seem to me like answers to prayer, but nothing like the dramatic things the disciples saw. And many times (like most Christians), it appears to me as if my prayers have not been answered. So I shouldn’t be surprised when I feel afraid, and I definitely shouldn’t feel guilty about it.

Feeling afraid is a natural reaction to difficult circumstances. But I like the way Psalm 46 is worded in the New Revised Standard Version: not ‘Therefore we will not be afraid,” but “Therefore we will not fear.” ‘Being afraid’ sounds passive to me, as if fear is something that happens to me. Fear is the agent, and I’m the victim, with the result that I’m in a state of ‘being afraid.’

But the Psalm says “Therefore we will not fear.” What does this mean? To me, it means I’ll make a decision to put my trust in God and not let fear stop me doing what I’m called to do. And I want to say right away that I know this is a difficult thing, especially for those who suffer from anxiety disorders. For most of us, this ‘not fearing’ doesn’t come naturally. It’s something we’ll have to practice.

Psalm 46 does not promise that God will take away the difficult circumstances. Here’s the full quote from verses 1-3:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in time of trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

Is it an earthquake? Is it a flood? We don’t know. All we know is it’s something catastrophic and terrifying, and the writer doesn’t assume that God will rescue him from it. He simply believes in God as his refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.

I’m sixty-one, so I’ve seen my fair share of storms. In my experience, God has very rarely done what Jesus did: miraculously take away the scary circumstances. More often, God has given me strength to take his hand (metaphorically speaking) and walk with him through the difficult circumstances. I can’t claim I’ve not been afraid, but I can claim that, with God being my helper, I’ve discovered it’s possible ‘not to fear’—i.e., not to let fear stop me doing what I know I’m called to do.

God is our refuge and strength, therefore we will not fear. Lord God, you are our rock in times of trouble. All through the storm your love is the anchor. Our hope is in you alone. Amen.

P.S. I’d like to make a suggestion. While this COVID-19 pandemic continues, let’s pray Psalm 46 every day. Reading the rest of the psalm, it seems as if the city of Jerusalem is under siege, surrounded by a threatening army, and yet the writer makes a decision to put his trust in God. 

The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. (vv. 7, 11).

Let’s make this our community prayer, taking strength not just from God as our refuge and strength, but also from our fellowship in prayer together. Who will join me in that?

P.P.S. Here’s an old 1980s version of Psalm 46 (NIV) from Ian White.

 

When Jesus Saw Their Faith

‘One day as Jesus was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting round him. People had come from every village in Galilee and from Judaea and Jerusalem, and the power of the Lord was with him to heal the sick. Some men appeared carrying a paralysed man on a bed, and tried to bring him in and set him down in front of Jesus. Finding no way to do so because of the crowd, they went up onto the roof and let him down through the tiling, bed and all, into the middle of the company in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven you.”‘ (Luke 5.17-30 REB)

For a long time now I’ve believed that the ‘their’ in ‘when Jesus saw their faith’ refers to the four friends, not the paralyzed man. The subject in the previous sentence is clearly the four friends, and it makes grammatical sense for this to be carried over. Also, we know that people who struggle with chronic illnesses often find it difficult to muster up faith that their situation can change.

But the faith of these four friends was strong and active, and Jesus ‘saw’ it—that is, he saw the actions it produced. Faith leads to action!

So God may call on me to exercise faith on behalf of others who find it difficult, and to pray faithfully for them. And he may also call me to ask for the prayers of my friends at times when I find faith difficult.

Lord Jesus, I believe: help my unbelief. When my faith is weak, please strengthen it. Help me take steps to grow in faith, stepping out in obedience to you. Help me be faithful in prayer for my friends. And thank you for the friends who are faithful in prayer for me.

Trust in Him

‘For God alone I wait silently;
my hope comes from him.
He alone is my rock of deliverance,
my strong tower, so that I am unshaken.
On God my safety and my honour depend,
God who is my rock of refuge and my shelter.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts before him;
God is our shelter.’ (Psalm 62.5-8 REB)

I love the balance between silence and speaking in these verses. ‘For God alone my soul waits silently; my hope comes from him’ (v.5). ‘Trust in him at all times, you people’ pour out your hearts before him; God is our shelter’ (v.8). Pouring out our hearts to God—a torrent of words describing to God exactly how we feel—seems to be the exact opposite of waiting in silence for him. But in reality, both are essential features of a healthy prayer life.

What unites them is trust. ‘Trust in him at all times, you people.’ The psalmist has experienced God as a refuge and a rock of deliverance. Past experience leads him too continue to trust that God—‘God alone’—is his shelter.

God our refuge, help us to trust in you, to wait on you in silence, and to pour out our hearts to you. Thank you that you are our rock of refuge and our shelter. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible daily readings are Numbers 28:16-29:40, Luke 3:23-38, Psalm 62, and Proverbs 11:18-19)

Your faith has healed you

“Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace, free from your affliction.” (Mark 5.34 REB) (please also read the rest of Mark 5.21-43 – see below)

For twelve years Jairus has been enjoying the company of his little daughter. For twelve years the woman has been enduring constant internal bleeding. Jairus is the local synagogue president. The woman would have been considered ritually ‘unclean’ and so not allowed in the synagogue. Jairus is part of the religious establishment which was already taking a negative attitude toward Jesus. The woman’s attitude to Jesus seems to have been positive.

What unites them is desperation. Jairus is so desperate that he’s willing to break ranks with the establishment and beg Jesus for help. The woman is so desperate she’s willing to risk being condemned as a lawbreaker by going out in public and actually touching Jesus.

How desperate am I? Desperate enough to set aside my pride, my tribal loyalties, my sense of superiority? Desperate enough to risk being looked down on and condemned by others?

O. Hallesby says that faith and desperation are the two essentials for fervent prayer. Most of us can manage the ‘desperation’, but feel intimidated by the ‘faith’ side of the equation! Hallesby (in his book ‘Prayer’) reassures us that if we have enough faith to turn to Jesus and ask for help, that’s enough.

Father, help me break through the barriers that keep me away from you and from asking for you help – barriers of my own making, or of others’ making. May I experience the truth of these words today: “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace, free from your affliction.” Amen.

(Today’s One-Year Bible readings are Leviticus 11:1 – 12:8, Mark 5:21-43, Psalm 38:1-22, and Proverbs 10:8-9)

 

Mark 5.21-43

When Jesus saw their faith

‘After some days (Jesus) returned to Capernaum, and news went round that he was at home; and such a crowd collected that there was no room for them even in the space outside the door. While he was proclaiming the message to them, a man was brought who was paralysed. Four men were carrying him, but because of the crowd they could not get him near. So they made an opening in the roof over the place where Jesus was, and when they had broken through they lowered the bed on which the paralysed man was lying. When he saw their faith, Jesus said to the man, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”’ (Mark 2.1-5 Revised English Bible)

‘When he saw their faith’. Who are ‘they’? In the previous two sentences, ‘they’ refers to the friends who brought the man to Jesus. The man himself is not included in the ‘they’. We aren’t told whether he had faith or not. Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t. But the important thing was that his friends had faith, and their faith was enough.

There are times I can pray with faith, and other times when it’s very hard for me. At times like that, I’m comforted that I have friends who can pray for me and carry me to Jesus. I can lean on their faith. At other times, I’m the one others lean on. That’s part of what it means to be the Body of Christ. No one’s faith is alone. We lean on each other and we lift each other up (or let each other down through a hole in the roof, as the case may be!).

Finally, what exactly did Jesus see? You can’t see faith, but you can see the actions faith causes. ‘Faith without action is dead’ says the Letter of James, and in this passage that saying really makes sense. All the faith in the world would not have helped the paralyzed man if it had not been embodied in the arms and legs of the friends who carried, climbed, dug, and lowered. Faith is not really faith until it has been acted on.

Loving God, thank you for the faith of my friends who many times have carried me to you when I could not carry myself. When it’s my turn to do the carrying, help me step up to the plate. Amen.

(Today’s One-Year Bible readings are Leviticus 1:1 – 3:17, Mark 1:29 – 2:12, Psalm 35:17-28, and Proverbs 9:13-18)

Asking for a sign – and another – and another…

‘The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered: “It is a wicked, godless generation that asks for a sign; and the only sign that will be given it is the sign of Jonah.” With that he left them and went away.’ (Matthew 16.1-4 REB)

What sort of a sign did the Pharisees and Sadducees want, to prove Jesus’ credentials? Just a few verses before, we read about ‘the dumb speaking, the crippled made strong, the lame walking, and the blind with their sight restored’ (Matthew 15.31 REB). What more impressive sign could be asked than that?

But Jesus knew that no sign on earth would satisfy these people, because the root problem was that they didn’t want to believe in him. That’s why he refused to play that game. Those who are looking for an excuse not to believe in Jesus will always be able to find one. No proof is one hundred percent watertight. To those who already believe, miracles may strengthen their faith, but to those who do not want to believe, miracles will rarely change their minds.

Lord Jesus, you call us to the risk of faith in you. Help us not to be scared of that risk. Even though we’re not absolutely certain, help us to step out with you, and to grow in faith as we walk with you. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Genesis 48:1 – 49:33, Matthew 15:29-16:12, Psalm 20, and Proverbs 4:20-27)

Water into Wine (a sermon on John 2.1-11)

A lot of people in the world around us think Christianity takes things away from your life.  They look at us Christians and they think ‘anti-sex, anti-gay, no parties, no drinking, gloomy thoughts about death and judgement, no leeway for having fun.’ 

Of course Christians haven’t always helped. I can’t say this for sure because I haven’t read it in the writings of St. Augustine myself, but  I’m told he did allow that on certain days of the year — days that weren’t especially holy in the church calendar — it might be okay for a Christian married couple to have sex together, as long as it was strictly for procreation and they didn’t enjoy it. Honestly, with quotes like that, the world doesn’t notice a thing that you say on other subjects!

C.S. Lewis uses a lovely illustration in one of his books. Imagine a colony of shellfish, clinging underwater to the side of a dock, living their lives with no idea of what happens above the surface of the water. Then one day a particularly adventurous shellfish lets go of the dock and drifts up to the surface of the water. He spends a long time floating there, watching all that happens on the dock. Finally he sinks down again and rejoins his fellow-shellfish. They crowd around and ask him what he’s seen and what the people are like up there. He says, “Guys, you’re never going to believe this! I couldn’t believe it myself when I first saw it! Their bodies are unprotected; they don’t have shells!” 

It would never occur to a shellfish that a shell might be a limitation rather than a protection. They wouldn’t understand that we humans are free to do so much more with our bodies because we don’t have shells! The only thing they would see is that something essential to life is missing from us humans, and the thought of living as we live would fill them with fear (if a shellfish can feel fear).

That’s the way it is sometimes when people who aren’t Christians think about the way we Christians live. All they can see is the things they think we have to give up. But what they don’t see is the things we gainfrom our faith in Christ. They don’t see the sense of joy we get from the presence of God, or the sense that we’re discovering the life we were created for in the first place. They don’t see our relief at being able to lay down our guilt and ask for God’s forgiveness, or the comfort of knowing that we’re not alone when times are tough. They don’t see the sense we have of being part of a church family where people love us and support us through the struggles of life. These are just a few of the things Jesus means when he talks in the Gospel of John about giving us ‘abundant life’. 

Jesus uses these words in John 10:10, the passage about the good shepherd. He says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’. That’s what we’re discovering in Jesus: not less life, but more life, abundant life. It’s as if someone took the glass of water you were drinking and turned it into the most delicious glass of wine you’d ever tasted. 

Which is what today’s gospel is all about. John’s was the last Gospel to be written, probably about sixty years after the events of Jesus’ life. John had spent many years thinking about the story of Jesus and what it meant. He writes his book on two levels. On one level, it’s a true story about events that really happened. But on a deeper level it’s like a parable, and each story has a deep spiritual meaning.

This is especially true of Jesus’ miracles. John doesn’t actually call them miracles. He calls them ‘signs’, because each one points us to something about Jesus. For instance, after he tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand, he goes on to say that Jesus is the real Bread of Life. If we come to him we’ll never be hungry, and if we believe in him we’ll never be thirsty. Or again, after he tells us how Jesus healed a blind man, he goes on to talk about what it means to be spiritually blind and how Jesus can restore our spiritual sight.

So here we are, right near the beginning of John’s Gospel. He says in verse 11 that turning water into wine was the ‘first’ of Jesus’ signs. He doesn’t only mean ‘first’ in the chronological sense. He also means that this sign is the ‘basic’ sign, the one that controls all the rest or explains all the rest. So what exactly is this sign teaching us about Jesus? 

Let’s look at the basic story first. Jewish weddings in Jesus’ time were different from the ceremonies we know today. A newly married couple didn’t go away for their honeymoon; they stayed at home and kept open house for a week. In a life where there was so much poverty and hard work, this week of festivity and joy would have been a highlight of the year in a small village. It was a week-long feast! 

For a Jewish feast wine was essential. There wasn’t a lot of drunkenness. Drunkenness was actually considered a great disgrace, and they actually drank their wine in a mixture of two parts wine to three parts water. Hospitality was seen as a sacred duty and failure of provisions would have been a problem at any time. But for the provisions to fail at a wedding would be a terrible humiliation for the bride and bridegroom.

The six stone water jars were there to provide water for Jewish purification ceremonies – things like washing hands before meals and between each course of a meal, and ritual washings of dishes and plates. This was nothing to do with biological cleanliness; it was about ritual purification. People would actually wash their hands like this before praying to God. Not to wash your hands before you prayed was almost like refusing to confess your sins.

So this water standing there would remind everyone of the ceremonies of the Jewish religion. This was the water Jesus used to replenish the wine supplies at the feast. John tells us that the servants poured out the new wine and took it to the chief steward, the man in charge of the feast. When he tasted the wine the servants brought him, he could hardly believe his palate! He tasted it again and then went to the bridegroom and told him off. “Why didn’t you serve this stuff first? This is the best wine I’ve ever tasted!” 

This is the basic story. Out of his love and concern for this young couple, Jesus performed an act of kindness for them. But what’s going on at the second level, at the level of the deeper meaning? We have to dig a bit for this. The key to it is the six stone water jars. As we said, they were used in Jewish purification ceremonies. You might say that they represent the Jewish religion. There’s nothing wrong with religion; believing in God, trying to be good and performing correct rituals are probably good things to do. But we can notice two things about these water jars. 

Firstly, the number six. To the Jewish people, seven was the number of perfection, so six was one short of perfection. It’s as if John is saying to us ‘Religion by itself is incomplete; without Jesus you still haven’t got everything you need’. 

Secondly, the liquid in the jars was water; useful, essential, refreshing, but no Jew would prefer water to wine! Water is flat and uninteresting, while wine is tasty and exciting! It’s as if John’s saying to us “Without Jesus your life may be alright, but it doesn’t have that extra quality to it. But Jesus can transform your life into something wonderful, something quite intoxicating!” Remember that on the Day of Pentecost people thought the Christians who had been filled with the Holy Spirit were drunk. 

Transformation – that’s what Jesus is all about. Millions of people get up in the morning, drink their coffee to zap themselves awake, go to work and function all day. They come home in the evening tired out, and after a bite to eat they watch TV or play video games or do housework until it’s time to go to bed. They do this for five or six days a week. Now and again they go out to the gym or take in a movie or play some golf. They have a few friends, and they might visit with them from time to time. They bring up children and put them through education so that they’ll be able to do the same thing. 

But deep inside, many of them are wondering, “Is this it? Is this all there is to life? Surely there’s got to be more to it than this!” It doesn’t seem to matter how much money they make, how many things they buy, how many friends they have – something still seems to be missing. Their life is ‘just one water jar short of perfection’. 

John is telling us “Jesus and his gift of eternal life — that’s what’s missing”. Later on in John’s gospel Jesus uses the illustration of being born again. Birth isn’t the beginning of life. The baby is alive before, in the womb, but it’s a very limited kind of life. There’s not much room for growth or achievement or relationships. But after birth there’s a whole new world out there, with all kinds of possibilities for growth and new experiences and freedom. In the same way, life without Jesus is limited, but when Jesus connects us to the God who made us, he opens up a whole new world for us. To be in conscious contact with the God who created you is the most satisfying experience you can ever have. It transforms your whole life. 

So how do we experience this transformation that John is talking about here? 

Well, one thing’s for sure – if we believe this gospel reading, we won’t expect to find what we’re looking for in religious ritual alone. Religious rituals and ceremonies can be wonderful ways of deepening our relationship with God. But if we don’t have that basic connection with Christ, they’re just human activities, initiated by humans, controlled by humans, and totally explainable on the human level. It’s a sad fact that many, many Anglicans have been baptized as babies, confirmed as teenagers, and come forward every week to receive communion, but if you get into an honest conversation with them, they’ll admit that they’ve never experienced anything like a sense of connection with the living God. I know, because I’ve had those conversations. 

At the end of today’s gospel, in verse 11, we read these words:

‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’.

From start to finish, the purpose of the gospel of John is to help us come to believe in Jesus so that we can find life in his name. It seems such a lame thing, really; what’s so special about ‘believing in Jesus’? Census questions routinely ask if people ‘believe in God’, and routinely large numbers of people reply that they do. But when you question them a bit more closely about what they mean by that, most people really only mean that they believe there is a God of some sort, somewhere. 

But believing in someone is far more than just believing that they exist. If I were to say to you, “I believe in Brian Popp”, you would know that I meant far more than “I believe that Brian Popp exists”. I’d mean, “I’ve been getting to know Brian for a few years now, and we’ve had some long conversations, and I’ve asked him for his help a few times and he’s always come through for me, and I’ve come to trust him, because I know he won’t let me down”. 

In other words, believing in someone is a relational thing, as when a man and a woman commit themselves to each other in marriage. So much of the future is outside our control, but on my wedding day, for me to say, “I will” meant saying to Marci, “I’m taking my life and putting it into your hands”. That’s an act of faith, and that’s what ‘believing in Jesus’ means. 

What does believing in Jesus look like in our daily lives? Let’s listen to Mary here. What does she say to the servants in our gospel today, after she has her little conversation with Jesus? She says, “Do whatever he tells you.” (v.5) That’s what believing in Jesus looks like. If I trust my doctor, I follow his instructions. If I don’t follow his instructions, it would be reasonable for people to conclude that I don’t really trust him. In the same way, we believers in Jesus are learning each day to put the things he taught us into practice. That’s what faith looks like.

John is calling us this morning to do as the first disciples did, as Mary did. He wants us to see this sign that Jesus performed, to understand what it means, and to put our trust in him — for the first time or the thousandth time. Our life may feel dull and uninteresting, like stagnant water, but Jesus holds out the promise of abundant life, like the best wine imaginable. And he invites us to believe and trust in him, to put our lives into his hands in faith, and to live in obedience to him, because this is the way to experience abundant life. The invitation comes to you and to me and to every human being, every day. ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’ (Psalm 34:8).

The God of your father (One-Year Bible #13)

‘Jacob set out from Beersheba and journeyed towards Harran. He came to a certain shrine and, because the sun had gone down, he stopped for the night. He took one of the stones there and, using it as a pillow under his head, he lay down to sleep. In a dream he saw a ladder, which rested on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and angels of God were going up and down on it. The Lord was standing beside him saying, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac…”‘ (Genesis 28.10-13 REB)

In this story God describes himself to Jacob as ‘the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac’. He’s not yet ‘the God of Jacob’. Jacob has been raised in a family of faith but it’s not yet his faith. Until this moment he only knows God by hearsay.

But now this is changing; for the first time, he encounters God for himself. Not that he understands everything clearly. Far from it! He makes the mistake of thinking he can cut a deal with God: ‘If God will be with me, if he will protect me on my journey and give me food to eat and clothes to wear, so that I come back safely to my father’s house, then the Lord shall be my God’ (vv. 20-21). It takes Jacob many years to learn that there’s no cutting deals with God! But at least he’s on the road now.

What’s the New Testament equivalent of Jacob’s ladder?

‘”Rabbi,” said Nathanael, “you are the Son of God; you are king of Israel.” Jesus answered, “Do you believe this because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than that.” Then he added, “In very truth I tell you all: you will see heaven wide open and God’s angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1.49-51).

Jesus is the ladder from earth to heaven. He is the one who connects us with God.

Lord Jesus, thank you for connecting us with God. Help us not to be content with faith by hearsay. Help us press on to know God as you have made him known to us.

(Today’s One Year Bible passages are Genesis 28:1 – 29:35, Matthew 9:18-38, Psalm 11:1-7 and Proverbs 3:11-12)

 

Faith and Authority (One-Year Bible #10)

As Jesus entered Capernaum a centurion came up to ask his help. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘my servant is lying at home paralysed and racked with pain.’ Jesus said, ‘I will come and cure him.’ But the centurion replied, ‘Sir, I am not worthy to have you under my roof. You need only say the word and my servant will be cured. I know, for I am myself under orders, with soldiers under me. I say to one, “Go,” and he goes; to another, “Come here,” and he comes; and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’ Jesus heard him with astonishment, and said to the people who were following him, ‘Truly I tell you: nowhere in Israel have I found such faith. Many, I tell you, will come from east and west to sit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of Heaven. But those who were born to the kingdom will be thrown out into the dark, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go home; as you have believed, so let it be.’ At that very moment the boy recovered. (Matthew 8.5-13 REB)

This Roman soldier has spent his life in a rigid authority structure. His superiors give him commands, and he obeys them. He gives commands to those under his authority, and they obey him. He uses his military experience to make sense of what he sees happening in the ministry of Jesus. Most people appear to be under the authority of the mysterious forces that cause sickness. Jesus, however, is not. He gives commands and sicknesses leave. Therefore his authority must be greater than that of the forces of evil.

Distance is not an impediment to this. The centurion knows that if he sends word over a distance to one of his soldiers, that soldier will obey his command. This must be true of Jesus too. He doesn’t need to be close to a sick person to heal them. His authority still holds, even over a distance.

We may smile at this way of looking at things, but maybe the centurion is on to something. Maybe faith really is all about having a vision of who God is, of who Jesus is. The God who made the universe has come among us in Jesus. Jesus speaks in the name of God. Everything made by God is ultimately answerable to God.

Of course, the hard questions are still out there. What about those whose illnesses are not cured, despite their faithful prayers? Is God’s power limited in some way. I prefer to think that my understanding is limited. Not everything is clear to my tiny human mind. Sometimes saying ‘I don’t know’ is also an act of faith. But that doesn’t mean I don’t keep on praying, despite my limited understanding.

God of creation, give us a bigger vision of your power and love, and when faith is difficult for us, please make up what is lacking. Amen.

(One Year Bible passages for January 10th are Genesis 23.1 – 24.51, Matthew 8.1-17, Psalm 9.13-20, and Proverbs 3.1-6.)