A sermon for August 26th on John 6.60-71

One of the sayings I hear on a regular basis is ‘Jesus preached a simple message about love and brotherhood, and then the Church came along and made it complicated’. And I can understand why people would like to think this is true. A simple Galilean carpenter who went around preaching peace and joy and flower power sounds so much less demanding than the Son of God who comes to earth from heaven, says things that don’t make sense to us, and makes impossible demands that we feel guilty about not living up to!

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

We can see this in our gospel for today, which comes right at the end of John chapter 6. In verse 60, some of Jesus’ disciples comment on what they’ve heard earlier in the chapter: ‘This teaching is difficult’, they say; ‘who can accept it?’ And a few verses later we read that ‘many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him’ (v.66). The reason is clear: they found his teaching hard to understand, and when they did understand it, they found it so offensive that they didn’t want anything more to do with him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I want to end by directing your attention to the words of Peter. Look at verse 67:

So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”.

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

I find this to be an amazing statement of faith. I think about people I know who have a lot of difficulty getting their head around what Jesus is talking about, but who still show up week by week in church and are the first to volunteer when work needs to be done. I think about Christian gay and lesbian people who have been told for years that their sexuality is offensive to God, but who still pray and read the scriptures and come to church because they’ve discovered something in Jesus that they can’t find anywhere else. I think about people who are very wealthy and who come to church week by week and hear the gospels read, with Jesus saying things like “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God” – and yet they keep coming, because they know that even though Jesus’ words are challenging, they’re true and life-giving as well.

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

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

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John 6.51-58

Many of us here today have had – or are currently having – the experience of holding down very demanding jobs. Perhaps we have to work long hours with lots of overtime, often cutting into our evenings and weekends. Perhaps our work comes with a lot of stress, making it very difficult for us to leave it behind when we go home from work. Perhaps we’ve even found ourselves wondering whether we have any other life at all apart from going to work! I’ve heard people talk about that from time to time; they’ll be lamenting the fact that their job takes up so much of their time, and they say, “I really need to get a life!”

It’s a funny phrase, ‘Get a life’, but we all understand instinctively what it means. We understand that it’s possible to be alive in a biologicalsense, but still not to be experiencing reallife – what Jesus once referred to as ‘life in all its fulness’ or ‘abundant life’ – what we might paraphrase as being ‘fully alive’. We understand that people can be in good health, can be working hard and enjoying success in their chosen profession, and yet still find themselves thinking, “There’s got to be more to life than this! My heart’s pumping the blood around my body, the brain appears to be functioning, but I still feel like there’s something fundamental missing”.

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

John tells us that when Jesus fed the five thousand people, they immediately thought of Moses giving their ancestors this supernatural bread in the desert, and they reminded Jesus of this. No, Jesus replied, this is not like that. Those who ate that bread all died eventually, but if you eat of the true bread of heaven, you will not die. He goes on to explain that heis the bread of life; all who come to him will never be hungry, and all who believe in him will never be thirsty.

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

We Christians have two thousand years of Eucharists in our collective memory, so when we hear these words, we immediately think of the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The people who first heard these words read aloud from John’s Gospel would have thought the same thing. But I’m going to suggest this morning that we not go there right away. We need to ask ourselves, what would these words have sounded like to those whofirstheard them, from Jesus himself? Imagine the revulsion they must have felt at what must have sounded to them very much like cannibalism. Not only does Jesus talk about eating his flesh, butdrinking 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 that we receive from it? I want to consider the second question first, and then come back to the first question.

Why would we want to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood? What are the benefits we’re promised from this? Well, in verse 54 Jesus says ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life’. And we need to remind ourselves that the phrase ‘eternal life’ doesn’t just mean ‘life that goes on 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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’. To ‘come to him’, and to ‘believe in him’ is to believe that he is who he says he is, to give ourselves to him in faith, and to put his words into practice in our daily lives.

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

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

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

That’s a moment of commitment to Christ. But we also 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 very 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, 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 by faith with thanksgiving’.

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

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

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

‘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.

‘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).

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.

The Challenge of Costly Discipleship (a sermon on Mark 6.14-29)

It will be nineteen years next month since I was interviewed by the search committee for the position of rector of St. Margaret’s. It was a memorable interview in many ways, but one thing I especially remember was a question I was asked by Murray Tait, who was People’s Warden at the time. He said, ‘Do you consider it to be part of your job as a preacher, not just to comfort us, but also to challenge us?’

Preachers often have difficulty with that question – after all, we’re dependent on our congregations to pay our salaries, and it can be so tempting just to tell people what they want to hear! And yet we know that passing on the challenge of Jesus is also an important part of our calling. The message of Jesus won’t always sound like good news, especially when he calls us to leave selfish ways behind and put God’s word into practice in our daily lives. How do we react to that challenge? Today’s gospel tells us about two people who were challenged by God’s message, and how they reacted to it. 

I need to clarify that the Herod in this story is not Herod the Great, the one who tried to get the wise men to lead him to the baby Jesus in the Christmas story. Our Herod is his son, Herod Antipas; Herod the Great had divided his kingdom between his sons, and Antipas got Galilee, where Jesus was brought up. 

There are two things you need to know about Herod Antipas. First, he was a puppet ruler; he kept his throne because it suited the Romans to have him there. Because of this, keeping the peace with Rome was always a priority for him. But secondly, like his father, he really wanted the people he ruled to recognize him and accept him as their legitimate king. You see, the Herod family weren’t really full-blooded Jews – they were Idumeans, and this was one of the reasons they were very unpopular with the Jewish people; how could God’s true anointed king not be one of God’s chosen people, the Jews? 

And the choices Herod Antipas made in his personal life didn’t help the situation. Herodias had been the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. Herod had met her at his brother’s house; the two had become infatuated with each other and had left their previous spouses to marry each other. It’s actually not clear whether a formal divorce ever took place between Herodias and Philip; in Jewish law a woman had no right to divorce her husband, and there was a lot of controversy at that time about the proper legal grounds for a husband to divorce his wife. It’s fair to say that a large percentage of the population of Galilee saw Herod and Herodias as living in sin – and, to them, this was further evidence that Herod Antipas simply could not be God’s true anointed King. 

And this was why Herod Antipas had to arrest John the Baptist. Our text says ‘John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife”’(v.18). We shouldn’t understand from this that John and Herod had enjoyed a quiet fireside chat over a glass of wine, discussing Herod’s matrimonial woes! No – when it says ‘John had been telling Herod’, it means, ‘telling in public, in his sermons’. And if John was saying this about Herod’s marriage, the people would have understood him to be denying that Herod could be God’s true anointed king – which, of course, would have been an act of sedition on John’s part. At this point – as a ruler interested in keeping his throne – Herod had to arrest John.

But now comes the curious twist: Herod had a soft spot for John, too! In fact, he was more than a little afraid of him, knowing that ‘he was a righteous and holy man’ (v.20). Even more curiously, we read that Herod ‘liked to listen to (John)’ (v.20). It sounds as if there was an internal struggle going on in Herod; he was angry at what John was saying, and yet deep down he knew there was truth in his words.

But Herod and John were no match for Herodias; she was a manipulator, determined to get what she wanted, and she wanted the Baptist dead. A dance on Herod’s birthday gave her the opportunity to get what she wanted. Our NRSV translation opts for a minority reading of the text and identifies the dancer as ‘Herod’s daughter Herodias’. However, this makes no sense; there is no evidence that Herod had a daughter who was also called Herodias. The majority of manuscripts identify the dancer as ‘the daughter of Herodias’ – presumably by her marriage to Philip. The Jewish historian Josephus gives her name as ‘Salome’. Herod, an impetuous man, was so infatuated with her dancing that he made a rash vow promising to reward her with anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. This was Herodias’ opportunity; the girl asked for advice from her mother, and her mother had no hesitation about using her daughter as a pawn: she was to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. ‘The king was deeply grieved’, but felt bound by his oath, and that was the end of the matter. 

Now – what can we possibly learn about Christian discipleship from this grizzly story?

Well, let’s look at the three main characters. Let’s start with Herodias. Here’s a woman who sets out to get what she wants and doesn’t mind who gets hurt along the way. She’s not afraid to use power to better her own position, and if people try to stop her, she crushes them mercilessly. 

It’s possible that her own personal insecurities were fuelling her determination to have her own way. She knew her marriage to Herod was doubtful in the eyes of the people, and she knew Herod was hungry for their approval. She knew he had a soft spot for John the Baptist. And she knew if he chose to listen to John’s message, she stood to lose her marriage and her position as the wife of the Tetrarch of Galilee. You can imagine how she must have felt. 

Of course, that’s often the way it is with bullies – they often have a deep-seated insecurity inside, an insecurity they’re determined not to reveal to anyone. So they overcompensate; they come across as forceful personalities, and if you dare to stand in their path, they trample you down without mercy. To them, the world’s a ‘dog eat dog’ sort of place, divided into winners and losers, and they’re determined to be the winners every time.

The lengths Herodias was prepared to go to in order to get what she wanted are quite shocking when you think about it. Do you think it was a pleasant experience for a young girl to be presented with the head of John the Baptist on a plate? But Herodias was quite prepared to put her daughter through this trauma in order to get what she wanted. Apparently she saw people, even people she loved, as pawns to push around so she could get her own way.

Sad to say, this sort of thing isn’t unknown in the Christian church. We Christians can be just as determined as anyone else to get our own way, and I sometimes think Christian congregations are particularly vulnerable to the activity of bullies. This is because we try to be kind to everyone, and so bullies can throw their weight around in a church for a long time before someone confronts them with their behaviour and challenges them to stop it. 

And of course, if we’re ever going to grow as Christians, we dohave to stop. Herodias saw herself as the lead actor in her own play; everyone else existed for her benefit alone. But if we’re ever going to grow in the Christian life, we have to learn to take ourselves out of the centre of our own universe and give that place back to the one to whom it rightfully belongs.

So Herodias exemplifies the person who uses power to get what they want. But now let’s turn again to her husband, Herod Antipas. He’s a fascinating character! If ever there was a man with conflicted emotions, it was Herod! Deep down inside, he knew what was right, but over and over again he showed himself unable to do it.

It started with the arrest of John the Baptist. As a shrewd politician, Herod knew that if he was going to keep his throne he had to arrest John, but he seems to have felt guilty about the fact. He liked to listen to John! No doubt John talked about the things he’d always talked about – the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the need for people to turn their lives around so they could get ready for that Kingdom. John had never shied away from spelling out specifics, and no doubt he continued to do so when he talked with Herod; no doubt he told Herod “It’s wrong for you to have your brother’s wife”. We read that Herod was ‘perplexed’ about this, but I don’t think this means he was ‘perplexed’ about what John meant. No one could miss John’s meaning! No – he was perplexed about his own response to the message he was hearing: would he obey, or not? He knew what he should do, but he couldn’t summon up the moral courage to actually do it.

And of course the same thing happened when Herodias’ daughter asked for the head of John the Baptist. No doubt Herod saw immediately that he’d been in the wrong in making such a rash oath, but he cared too much for the good opinion of those around him to retreat from it. Once again, he knew what he ought to do, but he didn’t do it.

Most Christians will recognise themselves in Herod. We all ‘like to listen’ to Jesus and his message – we do it here every Sunday – but we’re often ‘perplexed’ about putting it into practice. It seems so costly! It’s so hard to actually do the things Jesus says. Nonetheless, if we’re going to grow in our Christian lives, we have to face the fact that it isn’t enough just to ‘enjoy listening to’ the Christian message. Jesus told us that if we do that, we’re like a person who builds their house on the sand: the rains come and the floods rise and beat upon the house, and down it comes. Obedience in theory won’t help us build a life that can stand up when the storm comes; only obedience in practice will do the job.

So the story’s telling us we have to be willing to take ourselves out of the centre of our own lives and commit ourselves to following God’s anointed king, Jesus. It’s telling us we have to be willing to put Jesus’ teaching into practice, rather than just listening to it and agreeing with it in theory. And the story’s warning us: if we do this, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a happy ending for us.

John the Baptist was a faithful and honest man of God. He’d given his entire life to the proclamation of God’s message. He’d spoken the truth fearlessly and seen huge crowds responding to his words, accepting baptism as a sign of repentance and commitment to God’s kingdom. He’d pointed to Jesus, the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. And then he’d followed God’s call to speak the truth to powerful people, and he’d come to a sticky end. 

Mark – and the early Christians who read his gospel – didn’t see this as something strange. Mark wrote for Christians in Rome who were being savagely persecuted by the Emperor Nero. They understood that this was part of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Two chapters later in Mark, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). In all likelihood Jesus meant this saying literally; many of those who followed him would take up their crosses and go to the place of execution, just as he had. To be a Christian meant being unafraid to nail your colours to the mast, identify yourself publicly as a follower of Jesus, and accept the consequences. 

Of course, we know the final outcome is very different. In the short term, Herodias is victorious and John is dead. But a decade later Herod was deposed from his throne by the Romans and ended his life in exile in Gaul, while John was already looked on as a hero by the growing Christian movement. Even more than that, as Jesus said, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:35). John lives in glory today, and one day he’ll be raised to live with Jesus forever, and I’m sure he has no doubt that he made the right decision. But – when he was looking at the executioner’s axe, I’m sure he was just as scared as we would have been in his place. 

Speaking of fear – one last thing. In his brilliant little book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says that the virtue of courage – which he calls ‘fortitude’ – is something we need whenever we try to practice one of the Christian virtues. Here’s what he says:

Fortitude includes both kinds of courage – the courage that faces danger as well as the kind that sticks to it under pain…You will notice, of course, that you cannot practice any of the other virtues very long without bringing this one into play.

I know what he means. You believe God is calling you to do something, but you can see the possible negative consequences. You might not literally lose your head as John the Baptist did, but you might lose some financial security, or some comfort, or the good opinion of your friends. You can’t help feeling some fear and anxiety about that. So are you going to let the fear control your actions, or are you going to do what’s right? That’s where the rubber hits the road!

Don’t make the mistake of praying that God will give you a feeling of courage. Courage isn’t a feeling; courage is the habit of doing the right thing, even when you’re afraid of the consequences. There’s an old saying: “Courage is fear that has said its prayers”. And the content of the prayers is simple: “God, you’ve called me to do this difficult thing, but I can see the path ahead is going to be hard. Quite frankly, I’m scared. So can you please help me not to let fear control me? Help me do what you’re calling me to do, and give me a sense that you’re with me in it”. 

I can’t begin to count the number of times in my Christian life I’ve had to pray a prayer like that. And I’ve learned from experience that the prayers don’t take the difficulties away, but they do give me a sense that I’m not alone. “I am with you always”, says Jesus, “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He was with John the Baptist, and he’ll be with us too. So let’s pray for the courage to follow him as faithfully as John the Baptist did.