Sunday, 26 August 2012

Trinity 12: Fully alive

John 6.56-69

“The glory of God is a human being, fully alive.” St Iranaeus of Lyons wrote that bold statement in the second century after Jesus’ birth. He was writing against the theology of various other groups, lumped together today as Gnostics. A common feature of Gnostic teaching was that material creation – all the stuff that makes up our world, and our bodies too - was at best a sort of after-thought from a lesser divinity than God, or at worst, an evil delusion. The body was a prison, they thought, and our real aim was for our souls to escape it for some higher, purer, spiritual realm. It is easy to see why people might have thought like that – and it is a way of thinking which has re-emerged in the church over and over again through the ages. Sometimes this world can seem like a grim and cruel place. Bodies let us down; they creak, sag and eventually fail completely. It is easy, when things seem bleak, to wish ourselves anywhere than here, where we actually are, dealing with the reality we are actually in. Irenaeus knew that. He lived in a world in many ways more  brutal and precarious than our own, but he still maintained that the life we have, with all its imperfections and troubles, is a gift to be treasured and used well. What mattered, he said, was that we were fully alive, fully human.

So what are we to make of the words we heard in the Gospel just now, apparently spoken by Jesus, according to John? “It is the spirit that gives life: the flesh is useless”. Some commentators have argued that John was himself influenced by Gnostic thinking – there was a lot of it about. But if that is true, then its influence can’t have gone very deep, because the Gospel as a whole very definitely celebrates the physical world and the physical bodies of those who inhabit it. This is the Gospel which tells us that “the Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” This is the Gospel which tells the story of doubting Thomas being encouraged to touch the wounds of the resurrected Jesus so he can be sure that he really is flesh once again. Many of the miracles, as in the other Gospels, have to do with the healing of broken and maimed bodies – a man born blind, another paralysed, and Lazarus even raised from the dead. John tells us too of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding – hardly the act of someone who thinks the flesh is evil.  And the passage we’ve just heard follows the very physical, tangible, edible miracle of the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two fishes. John’s Jesus is a man who treasures and loves this world and all those who live in it so much that he is prepared to be completely part of it, suffering and dying for it.

So Jesus isn’t saying that there is anything bad about this physical stuff that we and everything around us is made from. It is good and we are meant to cherish and enjoy it.
The point he is making, though, is that physical stuff isn’t all there is or all that matters. Being alive, truly alive, fully alive, is more than breathing or the circulation of the blood, more than eating and drinking, more than being able to move and speak. That’s something I suspect we all feel instinctively. Real life is more than just the physical processes that happen in our bodies. Whether we call it a soul or a spirit or a consciousness, or just our “self”, we know there is something about us which truly makes us “us”. That awareness of ourselves isn’t just a matter of fleeting emotions; it has to do with our sense of identity, our sense of purpose, our sense of worth, and if we lose that, or never discover it, we can feel that we aren’t really alive at all.

“You have the words of eternal life” says Peter to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Many of those who had followed Jesus had begun to turn away from him, we are told. His way was harder than they thought it would be, but this didn’t seem to be an option for Peter any more.  “Lord, to whom can we go?” he asks. Being with Jesus, listening to him, watching him, has so deeply changed him that he can’t just walk away. He is alive in a sense that he knows he hasn’t been before, really alive, and even if he did leave, nothing would ever be the same again. He can’t just go back to the life he had known, the life of a fisherman concerned with nothing more than the next catch. He tries to do that when Jesus is arrested and crucified, denying he knows him and hiding away, but it doesn’t work. The life he has seen and known, true life, has taken root in him, and he finds he can’t cast it aside as easily as he hopes.

This is the kind of life that the Bible means when it talks of eternal life. It’s not just life that goes on forever– and frankly, if it was, it would probably feel more like hell than heaven. It’s life which is rich, satisfying, and deep. It is about quality not quantity, and it is as much to do with the life we live now as it is about life after death. It brings with it a strong sense that we matter and that our lives mean something, no matter what the outer circumstances are like, and I think it is something we all hunger for – living bread. If we find it, we don’t let go of it lightly.

So how do we come by this precious gift, the thing that brings our souls to life?  People look in many different places. They try to find it through material possessions, through status, through celebrity, that fifteen minutes of fame, but the buzz of acquisition or recognition is just temporary, and it never quite fills the hole. I think we often hope that going on holiday, escaping the routine of work or home will do the trick, helping us to “be ourselves” somehow. There’s nothing wrong with holidays- I’m all for them – but the truth is that they aren’t magic, and that they can be bitter disappointments if we expect too much of them. We won’t automatically find the meaning we crave in work either. It can be boring, pointless, frustrating and stressful, making us feel like cogs in a machine rather than human beings. Sometimes people try to find the life they long for through obsessive religious observance, nervously piling up attendances at church activities or nit-picking over minor personal shortcomings to try to attain some impossible moral purity. They become spiritual junkies, always looking for the next fix.  

But self-obsession, whether it comes through religion, work, play or chasing fame and fortune, isn’t what the way the Bible suggests we will find the life we long for. In fact it suggests a path which is quite the opposite. Paradoxically the Bible says that the real life we long for only develops when we reach beyond ourselves. Love God and love your neighbour, we are told. It’s all about being connected; connected to God and connected to others. This is what nourishes us with the food we really need, and that is what Peter has discovered.

Peter has connected with God through Jesus. He has seen in him something which he knows is of God, a glimpse of divinity, even if he can’t understand or explain it. “You are the Holy One of God” he says. Being around Jesus has taught him to lift his eyes above the limited horizons of his previous life. He thought he had it all sussed, all under control, but God is up to something beyond Peter’s imagination. There are more possibilities than he had ever thought of, even for an ordinary fisherman like him. He is part of a much greater story. Classical Christian theology calls this awareness “transcendence” – that sense of mystery, of a whole universe beyond us. It’s not all about us, and what is happening in our lives, good or bad, isn’t the last word, the whole story. Sometimes people are reminded of this through prayer and worship, but people can equally find it through nature and through scientific discovery, or through commitment to some important cause. However we find it, though, it helps us to get our own struggles into perspective, enriching our lives and beckoning us out into a bigger, broader world, with a bigger, broader vision of what we can be and do too.

Peter finds a life-giving connection to God, but he also finds life in a new connection to those around him. As well as transcendence, Christian theology has always also talked about “immanence”, about God who is present where we are, woven into the nitty-gritty of everyday life, known in our relationships with others, and our service of those in need. As he follows Jesus Peter is forced to live and work alongside people very different from himself, people he would once have done anything to avoid. His fellow disciples are a motley crew, from different background and with different attitudes to his. The people who come to Jesus for help are often demanding too – noisy children, distraught women, the poor and sick, foreigners – not the kind of people he would normally want to hang out with. Sometimes he tries to send them away, but Jesus refuses to let him off the hook. As he learns to accept and to love these people he discovers God in them, a God who comes to him in the things he can’t change and the realities he can’t avoid. To Peter’s surprise, their lives enrich his life in ways he could never have predicted.

“The glory of God is a human being, fully alive”, said Irenaeus, and I think Peter would have said Amen to that. When we open ourselves up to God and to one another, when we open ourselves up to wonder and to love, wherever we find it and whatever form it takes, we open ourselves up to the life that is really life, eternal life, which nothing can destroy, life that we will not want to walk away from even if we could.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Trinity 11: Taking in Jesus

“Whoever eats me will live because of me” No wonder some of the crowd around Jesus were revolted by the imagery he used. Immediately after this passage many of his followers leave him – it all just seems too strange for them. To many it still seems strange. Whenever I talk to children about the Eucharist, there are some who just say “yuck – if the bread and wine are meant to be the body and blood of Jesus, isn’t that cannibalism?”

The meaning of Communion – what is happening when we share bread and wine – has been a contentious issue in the church for many centuries, coming to a head at the Reformation. It was one of the issues which split the church. However we understand it though, it certainly isn’t meant to be cannibalism – Jesus wasn’t anticipating his audience in this passage to start chewing on his leg as he stood there before him, to put it crudely… He was talking about sharing his whole life, his mission, his outlook, his ministry. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” What he is surely intending his hearers to understand is that you can’t get closer to something than to eat it. We are what we eat, as the saying goes. It is the way in which we take into ourselves something which will become part of our own flesh, our own life. We speak of “taking in” a new idea or some news – good or bad. We know that for something to make a difference to us, it has to become part of us from the inside out. That’s why Jesus uses this image of “eating and drinking” him. “Following me is not about what goes on in your head,” he is saying. It’s about what goes on in your body as well as soul, your guts as well as your brain. It isn’t something that can be done academically, theoretically, with cool intellectual detachment, and the imagery of eating and drinking underlines that.

That is one of the reasons why Holy Communion can feel so powerful. It reminds us of God’s desire to be involved in the whole of our lives, at the deepest level, the level that is beyond words, beyond understanding. That’s why, for many people, receiving bread and wine can feel like such an intimate thing, so basic, and so personal too. Sometimes we might let others do our thinking for us, but no one can do our eating for us. It doesn’t surprise me that people often have strong opinions about whether and how they receive communion, and can feel quite vulnerable as they take it. Those who administer it are very aware of the fact that something very profound is often happening for people here at the communion rail.

Different branches of the church have different traditions about how the bread and wine are shared, or perhaps share it in different ways at different services. They might come up and kneel or stand at a communion rail. They might receive it sitting in the pew. They might pass bread and wine to each other. Each has its merits and is right in some situations for some people. Some ways make us more aware of being part of a community as we receive; some put more emphasis on our own personal encounter with God. Some ways will remind us that this is a gift of grace, something we simply receive. At other moments, though, the act of coming forward, reaching out, will help us to see the ways in which we need to actively open our hands to God.

The variety of ways of taking communion remind us that “taking in” Christ is something that happens in many different ways too. We take him in as individuals, through our private encounters with God in prayer, Bible study and reflection on our own lives. We take him in in our encounters with one another and with those around us, meeting him in friends and strangers, reminded that they too are God’s gift to us and we to them.

So tonight, what will this act of receiving communion mean to you? In a way, what happens to the bread and wine of communion doesn’t really matter. It will always be a mystery anyway. What does matter is what is happening to us as we receive it. So today, as we  prepare to open our hands for the bread of the Eucharist, let us ask ourselves how we are feeding on the life of God in the rest of our lives, so that our hungers can be satisfied and we can grow strong in his service and the service of others. Amen

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Trinity 10: Food for the journey

Today’s Old Testament reading is a text book example of how to care for people going through tough times.

The prophet Elijah has just had a showdown with the prophets of the Phoenician god Baal, and he should have been on a high, because he had won. But Queen Jezebel, who worshipped Baal was none too pleased about this turn of events, and was issuing death threats against him. Elijah had  run for his life, out into the desert, where Jezebel wouldn’t be able to reach him.

And that is where we find him at the beginning of the reading, sunk in despair in the wilderness, wanting to die.

But God’s response is spot on – not just for Elijah, but for anyone else in a similar situation.
First, he lets Elijah say how he feels, there’s no judgement, no reproach, no cajoling from God. “ I am no better than my ancestors” Elijah howls “take away my life”. People often find it hard to cope with the distress of others. Friends will try to chivvy you up, or cross the road to avoid you if they know you are upset. But God isn’t scared of the despair Elijah feels – he lets him tell it like it is and just listens till he is done.

Then he makes sure Elijah’s physical needs are taken care of, letting him sleep, giving him food and water. No one deals well with trauma if they are tired, hungry and thirsty.

Then finally he tells him, via an angel, that he, God, has plans for Elijah. “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” Elijah has been talking about death, but the angel is talking about journeys. This is not the end of the road for Elijah, as he had assumed. There is a future, and he is going to be part of it. When we have no hope for ourselves, the hope and trust that others have in us becomes absolutely vital, helping us to lift our eyes from the ground and see a new horizon.

God gives Elijah food for the journey, not just in the form of a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water, but in the form of compassionate understanding and hope for the future. This is what gets him going again and keeps him going.

Food for the journey, food for those who hunger and thirst – that’s what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel reading too. He has just fed 5000 people miraculously with five loaves and two fishes, and the crowd come after him, hoping for a repeat performance – who wouldn’t? There is such a thing as a free lunch after all, it seems, and they want more of it. But Jesus tells them that the food they need isn’t just loaves and fishes. What he offers them is no less than himself, his own life. If they have that, they will never be hungry and thirsty again, no matter what happens. He reminds them of the food God gave for another journey in their history, the manna in the wilderness that he had given as they travelled from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Now, though, he gives them living bread, which doesn’t just keep them alive in body for a day or two, but gives them spiritual life that lasts for ever.

So, God feeds us with the food we really need, say these readings, and that is a pretty basic idea in Christian faith. People usually come to God initially because they are hungry for something, and they stick with faith because somehow they find it feeds and strengthens them. But what is it that we are being fed with? What is this food God gives us, and how do we take it in?

The most obvious “food” that Christians encounter is the bread and wine of the Eucharist – obvious because it looks and tastes like food, I suppose. But perhaps because of that there’s a danger we can end up thinking of it as some sort of magic, a “holy pill” which will automatically sustain us spiritually all by itself. That’s not the case, and thinking like that is a danger the Church has had to repeatedly rediscover and guard against. That’s why the sharing of bread and wine is set in the context of a service which includes things like confession and the Peace. We can’t be nourished by God if we are at loggerheads with each other and with him. We read the Bible and think about our faith too, so that we can understand what we are being strengthened for, and we finish with that injunction to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”. The Eucharist makes us aware in a very real way of God’s presence with us, but if we treat the bread and wine as magic we actually reduce its power to change us rather than increasing it.

This kind of magical thinking horrified the Protestant reformers of the 16th Century. Their stripped down version of Christian faith was designed to remove anything that smacked of superstition.

I expect they would have been much more comfortable with the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, which put a different slant on what it means to eat the “living bread”.
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He says. The Protestant Reformation was strong on the importance of individual belief. Salvation came by faith, through grace, not through rituals or works, they said. It was having personal faith which strengthened and sustained you – that was God’s food to you. But their approach can be just as misleading and sterile as the magical thinking they fought against.

It all comes down to what you mean by the word “believe”.

When we talk about beliefs today, we tend to mean the ideas we accept as true, the things we give intellectual assent to. It is all about what is going on in our heads. But the Greek word the Gospel writers used doesn’t mean that at all.  They used the noun “pistis” and the related verb “pisteuo”, which meant “to have allegiance to, to be faithful to, to trust”. It was abouyt your whole life, and who you committed it to, not just your personal opinions about a particular set of ideas. Latin translators used the noun “fides”, which was all about faithfulness - it’s why we call dogs Fido, because they are faithful friends. And to translate the verb, to say “ I believe” they used “credo” which came from the two words “cor do” to give your heart, not the drier “opinor” “to have an opinion”. Even the English word “believe” originally had  a different sense – it comes from the same root as beloved – it was about what you held dear, not what you thought was logically likely.

Sorry for the long winded explanation – you can ignore it if you want to – but the point is that the nourishment we get from faith doesn’t come from agreeing with a list of intellectual ideas; the idea that God created the world, the idea that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus and so on. It isn’t ticking philosophical boxes that feeds us; it is following the person who lived out the love of God most perfectly, Jesus himself. As we  do so, we learn to trust that we can live as he lived, and that it is the way in which our hungers are truly satisfied.  

If you want to know what that sort of faith looks like, today’s Epistle tells us. Paul  talks about speaking the truth, not letting anger take root, behaving with integrity – day to day practical things. They may seem very mundane, but “You are what you eat,” they say. If you take in the attitudes and the ways of God and make them your own, you will find yourself growing into his image, sharing the likeness of his family, able not only to find strength for yourself, but strength to share with others too.   

To go back to my original questions, “what is the food God gives us for our journey and how do we receive it?” we could answer that the food for the journey is actually the journey itself. It isn’t always easy to love others, or to resist the temptation to backbiting and dishonesty, but when we try to we are driven deeper into God, deeper into ourselves, hungry for the good food of his love and ready to draw on the resources he provides.

The odd thing about Elijah’s story, if I can end where I began, is that the journey God took him on  seems, on the face of it, completely unnecessary. He was led, in the end to Mount Horeb, to an encounter with God. First there was an earthquake, then a wind, then a fire, but God wasn’t in any of these, the Bible says. Then there was a still, small voice, or the sound of sheer silence, depending what translation you read – anyway, something quiet and apparently undramatic – but it was in this that Elijah truly heard God’s voice, and his message for the future. There is no logical reason why Elijah had to traipse all the way to Horeb for this at all. God is everywhere, and he could have just as easily spoken to Elijah right there and then under the broom tree if he had wanted to. But somehow that journey was one Elijah needed to make, because each step of it made him aware once again of his need of God, and of God’s love for him.   

How do we feed on the living bread of God? Yes, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, shared in the context of our worship together. Yes, in the stories of faith and the ideas of Christians who have thought about them before us. But the spiritual nutrients that these things contain will only truly be released in our lives as we begin to do what we are called to, to live in love, as Christ loved us.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Trinity 9 - A sermon by Kevin Bright

I did wonder if I would get my thoughts together in time to say a few words this morning due to the fact that like much of the country I’ve been severely distracted from my normal routine by the Olympics. It seems everyone is either attending an event, watching it on TV or has fled the country to avoid it. The roads and trains in London have never been quieter. It felt that every time I sat down to study today’s readings someone in my household would shout ‘it’s Jessica Ennis, Usain Bolt is on, or we’ve just won another gold medal in the rowing’!
Sportsmen and women from the four home countries plus several others born overseas which have taken British citizenship have put club, regional and national differences aside and come together under one banner to form team GB and so far it seems to be going rather well doesn’t it. Perhaps it’s a shame the two parts of Korea can’t do the same then there couldn’t be a mix up over flags and their medals total would get a boost.
There’s an element of this theme in the letter Paul wrote from his prison cell to the church in Ephesus and the wider area. He reminds early followers of Christ that they need to keep in mind the fact that despite their differences there are far more important things which bring them together. They and us as their successors share the same hope, faith, baptism and share in the same spirit. When we remember this we make the body of Christ stronger, ready to hold onto what is important and shore up our defences against those who seek to exploit division and difference. To do this we need a mature faith that can withstand challenges as well as a faith which can celebrate all that we have been given.
 I can’t help but envisage young children in a howling gale with wicked people trying to trick them when I read Paul’s instructions that ‘we must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.’ I don’t think we should expect all three scenarios at the same time but there are always challenges to face and maintaining our unity as the body of Christ best equips us to face these.
If you are a gardener who likes to grow their own fruit and veg it’s been a challenging year so far. I was becoming a bit concerned that the plague of slugs eating my vegetables were some sort of punishment for my sins until all my neighbours complained of the same thing. So either all the sinful people are living alongside each other or it’s just a bad year. Usually we would have been munching on courgettes for several weeks by now but the lack of heat meant that I was recently forced to buy some Spanish ones in a supermarket and I was shocked at the price, three of them for £1.50!
More seriously drought in the US threatens the corn and wheat crop often referred to as the world’s bread basket and this will clearly impact on food prices. There may be a small number in our church who can recall the hunger of food rationing from wartime but not many of us will have known what it is to be truly hungry and I suspect most of us are actually trying to reduce the number of calories we are consuming.
Rationing would have been necessary for the Israelites in the desert who had probably been travelling for around a month to the point we heard of today and supplies would have been running low. Even when we get a bit peckish and dehydrated the best of us can become quite irritable so it’s no surprise to hear of the moaning directed against Moses and Aaron as the travellers idealise their memories of Egypt where food was abundant asking why they have been taken out in the wilderness to die of hunger.
The point of the manna and quails which we hear God provides is a reminder that often when we are at our lowest point we may also be at our closest to God. When we feel our resources are low we need God’s help to put our trust in him. When we are weak the delusion of self sufficiency is shattered and we recognise that not only are we interdependent but that everything we have comes from God.
John’s gospel also considers miraculous feeding, in this case the people are keen to find Jesus after the feeding of 5000 from a few loaves and fishes. When they finally catch up with him he implies that they have got ‘the wrong end of the stick.’ The people want more miracles but he wants them to think beyond this and consider what the signs and miracles actually tell them.
As time moves on quite a lot of the crowd will go home unwilling to think deeper than visible signs which amaze and entertain them but some want to know more and discover that the sign of the feeding leads them to the true food ‘the Son of Man will give you.’ What the people have seen Jesus do is the type of thing they know from Israel’s scriptures that God does and this resonates with the manna in the wilderness. The people are being challenged to recognise that the same God is at work in Jesus as was providing for the people in Exodus. There is a shift in the relationship with God from one based on rules and logic to one of belief and trust in God’s love for us.
It boils down to a challenging question. We know we need food for our earthly existence but do we really hunger for salvation? If the answer is yes then God assures us that he will provide spiritual nourishment in abundance, enough to sustain our deepest cravings for faith through Jesus ‘the bread of life.’
I admit that when I think of hunger I am more likely to think of the Sahel region in Africa which is currently in the news because it is facing serious food shortages than Sevenoaks and the surrounding villages. Yet right here among us there are people going hungry because they don’t have the money to buy basic foods most of us take for granted.
You will be aware that this church collects food for ‘loaves n fishes’ which started with 2 women who saw first-hand in their own homes that friends of their children were hungry. They approached the Head Teacher at St Johns Primary and asked her if there was a problem. Her reply prompted the start of the food bank which is in St Johns Church Hall (though not specifically linked to St Johns church).
Families are referred via schools, clergy and social workers for example.  At present there are 21 local families being supported with a total of 53 children. Each week the families collect a bag of food.
During school holidays the children don't receive subsidised school meals so the families are being given a packed tea or lunch which I hear are eagerly consumed.
It’s a project that needs to be sustained long term and those of us that choose to support it could usefully make some items from the list on this month’s newsletter a regular part of the normal shopping pattern.
There are a lot of different local churches which provide food, plus some schools. The churches have differing forms of worship and some even disagree strongly about issues such as women bishops for example. We had better all be careful though because if people keep putting their differences aside to get on with the practical fulfilment of God’s will in this way there is a real danger that someone might ask who do you lot think you are, the body of Christ?