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Sunday, 20 December 2015


Today's Advent Liturgy in the New International Version reads, in part:

“He will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be our peace
    when the Assyrians invade our land”

I don't know about you, but I find that prophecy strangely comforting in these dark days!

“He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.” “And he will be our peace when the Assyrians invade our land.”

However, as we all know, a text without a context is a pretext, so rather than just taking the words as a lovely Christmas prophecy – which of course, on one level, they are – let's look a bit deeper and find out a bit more about Micah, and what he was talking about.

Micah was a prophet in 8th-century Judah, more or less a contemporary with Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. As with so many of the prophets, the book starts off with great doom and gloom.He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem,particularly because they were simply dishonest and then expected God to cover for them: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the LORD and say, Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us.” But Micah said, “Well, actually....” As one modern paraphrase puts it: “The fact is, that because of you lot, Jerusalem will be reduced to rubble and cleared like a field; and the Temple hill will be nothing but a tangled mass of weeds"

An archaeologist called Roland de Vaux has excavated village sites only a few miles from where Micah is thought to have lived, and he has something very interesting to say: “The houses of the tenth century B.C. are all of the same size and arrangement. Each represents the dwelling of a family which lived in the same way as its neighbours. The contrast is striking when we pass to the eighth century houses on the same site: the rich houses are bigger and better built and in a different quarter from that where the poor houses are huddled together.”

During those 200 years, Israel and Judah had moved from a largely agricultural society to one governed by a monarchy and with a Temple in Jerusalem. The distinction between the “Haves” and the “Have nots” had grown, as it does still today. But Micah tells the powerful ones – the judges, the priests, the rulers – that God doesn't prop up any so-called progress that is built on the backs of other people. For God, justice and equality matter far more than progress or growth. But God's people disagree, and they try to stop Micah, and other prophets, telling them God's truth; they only want to hear comforting, agreeable prophecies about how their crops will flourish and there will be plenty of wine!

But when Jerusalem has been destroyed, when her people have been carried off into exile, then a day will come when a new leader will be born to them, a leader who will “stand and shepherd his flock in the days of the Lord”, and “who will be our peace when the Assyrians invade our land.”

I expect you realise that these prophecies were often dual-purpose; they did and do refer to the coming of Christ, of course, but they also often referred to a local event, a local birth. We don't know who Micah was originally referring to, who would be born in Bethlehem, but we do know that, for us, these prophecies refer to Jesus.

“He will be our peace when the Assyrians invade our land.” These days we worry rather more about Syrians than about Assyrians – whether we are concerned about the number of refugees seeking asylum here, or whether we are more concerned, as we should be, about how relatively few our government is allowing in. Some people, I know, worry that we shouldn't allow them in in case they turn out to belong to Daesh and want to commit acts of terrorism, but those are the tiniest of tiny minorities among those fleeing Syria.

We call them “migrants”, lumping them all under one umbrella. The term is supposed to be neutral, less laden with emotional baggage than “refugee” or “asylum seeker”. It isn't, of course, because people then talk about “illegal immigrants” or “economic migrants”. And it's noticeable that if we Brits go to live abroad we aren't called migrants – I did the whole economic migrant thing back in the 1970s, when I went to work in Paris for some years after leaving school, but nobody called me a “migrant”, economic or otherwise – I was an expatriate! And people talked about cultural exchange, and our young people learning about different lifestyles, and so on, and it was all considered a Good Thing.

And, of course, many of your families, and perhaps some of you are the first generation who did so, many of you came over here to work and contribute to our society and learn about our way of life – and have enriched this country beyond all measure! Maybe you can remember the bewilderment of arriving here, not too sure of your welcome, not too sure what life in this cold and rainy land was going to be like.

Even if someone does make it across the Channel, their problems aren't yet over. They aren't allowed to work while their claim for asylum is being processed, and although they do get an allowance, it really isn't very much. Not really enough to live on, and certainly not enough for a comfortable lifestyle. And if they are found not to be in imminent danger of death back home, they are thrown out again, and if that's on their records they can't really go and try their luck somewhere else in Europe.

I don't know what the answer long-term is. The politicians will have to work that one out between them. But we need to pray for all migrants, and do what we can to help. That may be only donating a few pounds to the Unicef appeals that we see daily on our televisions, or we may be called to do something more “hands-on”. Whatever, though, we mustn't think of it as someone else's problem!

Because Jesus will be our peace, so Micah tells us. If we believe Matthew's account, he was himself a refugee for awhile, when they fled to Egypt to avoid Herod's troops. As I understand it, God won't necessarily keep the bad times from us, or protect us from what lies ahead, but Jesus will be there with us in the midst of it all. And I, personally, find that reassuring.

Our Gospel reading, too, told of someone who badly needed reassurance. Mary has just met the angel and been told that, if she will, she is the one who will bear God's son, and she has said “Yes”. But it's early days yet – there aren't any physical signs that she is pregnant, she has never slept with a man, what is it all about? But one thing the angel had told her, that she hadn't already known, was that her cousin Elisabeth, surely far too old to be having babies, was six months gone. So Mary goes off to see Elisabeth – incidentally this, for me, is one of the pointers that she was living in the Jerusalem area at the time, whether at Bethlehem or Jerusalem itself – tradition has it that she was ­one of the temple servants – because she would never have been able to travel all that way between Nazareth and Jerusalem on her own.

Anyway, she arrives at Elisabeth's front door, and there is Elisabeth with a large bump, and Elisabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, confirms all that the angel had said. And Mary bubbles over into love and joy and praise, and even if the words of the Magnificat are what St Luke thought she ought to have said – rather like Henry the Fifth's speech at Agincourt being what Shakespeare thought he ought to have said, rather than what he actually did say – even if they are not authentic, they are probably very close to reality! We sung a metrical version of her song just a few minutes ago. And it reminds us that God is turning accepted values upside-down by having His Son born to a virgin mother in a small town in an occupied land.

“Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his might!
Powers and dominions lay their glory by.
Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight,
the hungry fed, the humble lifted high.”

In the culture of the day – as in ours – it was thought that prosperity was a sign of God's blessing, and poverty rather the reverse. But no, that was not what Jesus was, or is, all about. Instead, he himself was born to an ordinary family that, within a couple of years, was fleeing for its life into exile, and when they did dare go home, they didn't dare go back so near Jerusalem, but moved up to the provinces.

Mary was so brave, saying “Yes” to God. I don't know how much she understood, but of course Joseph could – and seriously considered doing so – have refused to marry her, and then where would she have been? But the angel reassured Joseph, and Elisabeth reassured Mary. All was not totally well, but God was with them.

And that's the message to take into this Christmas, isn't it, as we stand on the brink of another war, against an enemy we cannot defeat – for even if we destroy Daesh, as we destroyed Al Quaeda, there will be another group, and another.... all may not be totally well, but God is with us. And God's son, Jesus, will be our peace when the Assyrians invade our land. Amen.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Becoming ourselves

This is similar, but not identical, to the sermon preached on this Sunday three years ago.  In view of the tragic events in Paris which took place on Friday, 13 November, it did change a bit.

I also unexpectedly preached a children's sermon, which I didn't record.  I asked them to tell me the story of the Good Samaritan, which one of them did, very efficiently, and then I reminded them that a Samaritan was a person of a different race and often Jewish people hadn't wanted to know about them.  But I said the point was, he had helped, and when they saw  upsetting news stories on television or in the papers, always to look for the helpers - the police, the fire service, the ambulances, and the ordinary people, like you and me, who are helping - because that's what Jesus would do. 

“So, friends, we can now –
without hesitation –
walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.”
Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God.
The “curtain” into God’s presence is his body.
So let’s do it –
full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out.
Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going.
He always keeps his word.”

That's a modern translation of part of our first reading today,
from the letter to the Hebrews.
I don't know how much you know about this letter;
it's thought to date from around the year 63 or 64 AD,
before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed
and before the Eucharist became a widespread form of Christian worship.
Nobody knows who wrote it, either;
arguments about its authorship go back to at least the 4th century AD!
Probably one of Paul's pupils, but nobody actually knows who.

The Temple in Jerusalem is still standing when this letter is written.
The author uses it to contrast what used to be –
in the olden days only the High Priest could go into God's presence,
and he had to take blood with him to atone for the people's sins and his own.
Nowadays, it is only Christ, the great High Priest, who can go into God's presence –
but he can and does take us with him.
We can go with Jesus into the very presence of God himself, confidently,
just like you'd walk into your own front room.

The thing is, of course, that it's all because of what Jesus has done for us.
We can't go into God's presence, as the prayer says,
“trusting in our own righteousness”.
If we are to go in with any degree of confidence,
it is because of what Jesus has done for us,
arguably whether or not we recognise this.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ takes us in there in his own body.
I don't know about you, but for me that rather helps clarify what St Paul said about our being part of the Body of Christ –
and in that Body, we can go into God's presence.

There is nothing we can do to make it any easier or any more difficult;
it is all down to Jesus.
We are made right with God by what Jesus has done, end of.
It isn't about whether we have confessed our sins –
although I hope we have faced up to where we have gone wrong.
It isn't about whether we have accepted Jesus as our Saviour and our Lord –
although I very much hope we have done so.
Neither of those things will save us.
Only God will save us –
and as soon as we reach out a tentative finger to him,
and sometimes even before, he is there,
reassuring us that we are loved,
we are saved,
we are forgiven.

The trouble is, all too often we focus on sin as though that were what Christianity were all about.
We even tend to think the Good News goes
“You are a sinner and God will condemn you to hell unless you believe the right things about him.”

Erm, no.
Just no.
We do things like that.
We are quick to condemn, especially people in public life.
Just read any newspaper, any day.
We are slow to forgive –
we don't believe people can change, we keep on bringing up episodes in the lives of our nearest and dearest that might have happened a quarter of a century ago!

But God is not like that.
God is love.
God is salvation.
We don't have to do anything, only God can save us.
Yes, following Jesus is not an easy option, we know that.
If we are Jesus' person, we are Jesus' person in every part of our lives –
it isn't just something we do here in Church on Sundays.
It affects who we are when we are at work,
or at home with our families,
or going to the supermarket.
It affects what we choose to do with our free time,
who we choose to spend it with –
not, I hope, exclusively people who think the same way as we do.

You see, the thing is, you never know exactly what God's going to do.
An acquaintance of mine is a fairly well-known author whose books have been published both here and in the USA.
She is just a little older than I am, and three years ago she announced on
her blog that she had met Jesus and was now a Christian.
You don't really expect people to become Christians just before their 60th birthday, but it happened to her.
God reached out to her and, as she put it, everything changed.

Yet she was still herself.

Another fairly well-known author –
well, well-known to me, anyway,
but if you don't read science fiction or fantasy you'll not have heard of either of these lovely women –
confirmed in the comments on this blog that she, too, is a believer,
although you couldn't have actually read some of her books and not realised that.
And one of her comments read, in part:
I'm still who I was, probably more so. . . . I was scared of the other –
of becoming the cookie fresh from the cutter, just like every other cookie.
But individuality and diversity appears to be built in to the design concept.”

Individuality and diversity appear to be built into the design concept.
God has created and designed each one of us to be uniquely ourselves.
When we are told that we will become more Christ-like as we go on with Jesus,
it doesn't mean we'll all grow to resemble a first-century Jewish carpenter!
We will, in fact, become more and more ourselves, more and more who we were intended to be.
Incidentally, my friend is now in urgent need of our prayers as her husband, another fantasy and mystery author, who is a very great deal older than she is, has had a stroke and is now in a care home.
So we will remember Robin and Peter in our intercessions later.

Salvation comes from God, through nothing you or I can do, although we are, of course, at liberty to say “No thank you!”
But if we say “Yes please”, as I suspect most of us here have said, at one time or another, then everything changes.
I've spoken before, although not, I think here, about the consequences of healing.
For make no mistake, my friends, when God touches our lives, things change.
Sometimes it is our behaviour which changes –
perhaps we used to get drunk, but now we find ourselves switching to soft drinks after a couple of glasses.
Perhaps we used to gamble,
but suddenly realise we haven't so much as bought a Lottery ticket for weeks, never mind visiting a bookie!
Perhaps we used to be less than scrupulous about what belongs to us, and what belongs to our employer,
but now we find ourselves asking permission to use an office envelope.

Very often these sorts of changes happen without our even noticing them. Others take more struggle –
sometimes it is many years before we can finally let go of an addiction, or a bad habit.
But as I've said before, the more open we are to God,
the more we can allow God to change us.
Sometimes, of course, we cling on to the familiar bad habits,
as we don't know how to replace them with healthier ways of acting and thinking, and that's scary.

But the point is, when God touches our lives, things change.
They changed for my friend, I know they changed for me,
and they will have changed for many of you, if not all of you, too.
So where does this leave our reading?
Jesus, in our gospel reading, reminded us that we mustn't go running this way and that way,
convinced of doomsday scenarios every time we hear a news bulletin.
Yes, the world as we know it is going to end some day –
it wasn't built to be permanent, just ask the dinosaurs!
We don't know how and why it will end;
in my youth, I would have assumed it would end in a nuclear war that would destroy all living things.
These days that is less probable,
but what about runaway global warming or an asteroid strike?
Or just simply running out of fossil fuels and unable to replace them?
The answer is that we simply don't know.
Unlike the first Christians,
we don't really expect Jesus to return any minute now –
although I suppose that is possible.
We do, however, accept and appreciate that this world is finite and that one day humanity will no longer exist here.

And we mustn't be scared all the time, either.
Yes, our news headlines can be very scary –
but isn't God greater than terrorists?
Isn't God greater than Islamic State?

And we musn't get bogged down in details, either.
There has been such a silly row in the USA this week because Starbucks haven't put Christmas symbols –
not Christian ones, but snowflakes and so on –
on their red cups this year.
Too silly – the God we worship is so very much bigger than whether or not a corporation has decorations on its cups.
There are many good reasons not to go to Starbucks, but that really isn't one of them!
And what about the rows in this country about people who chose not to wear a poppy, or how deep the Labour leader bowed when he laid his wreath.....

It is all so unimportant when we are also taught that we will be raised from death and go on Somewhere Else.
We don't know what that Somewhere Else will be like,
nor who we'll be when we get there –
although I imagine we'll still be recognisably ourselves.
But we do know that Jesus will be there with us,
and that we will see Him face to face.

But eternal life isn't just pie in the sky when you die, as it is so often caricatured.
If we are Christians, we have eternal life here and now;
so often, it's living it that's the problem.
So I'm going to conclude with part of the quote from Hebrews with which I began:
Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice,
acting as our priest before God.
The “curtain” into God’s presence is his body.
So let’s do it –
full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out.”

Let's do it!

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Change happens

Today's readings are all about change. Things changed for Job, and things changed for Bartimaeus.

So, then Job. It's a funny old story, isn't it? Do you know, nobody knows anything about it – what you see is totally what you get! Nobody knows who it was written, or when, or why, or whether it is true history or a fictional story – most probably the latter! Apparently, The Book of Job is incredibly ancient, or parts of it are. And so it makes it very difficult for us to understand. We do realise, of course, that it was one of the earliest attempts someone made to rationalise why bad things happen to good people, but it still seems odd to us.

Just to remind you, the story first of all establishes Job as really rich, and then as a really holy person – whenever his children have parties, which they seem to have done pretty frequently, he offers sacrifices to God just in case the parties were orgies! And so on. Then God says to Satan, hey, look at old Job, isn't he a super servant of mine, and Satan says, rather crossly, yeah, well, it's all right for him – just look how you've blessed him. Anybody would be a super servant like that. You take all those blessings away from him, and see if he still serves you!

And that, of course, is just exactly what happens. The children are all killed, the crops are all destroyed, the flocks and herds perish. And Job still remains faithful to God: “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

So then Satan says, well, all right, Job is still worshipping you, but he still has his health, doesn't he? I bet he would sing a very different tune if you let me take his health away!

So God says, well, okay, only you mustn't kill him. And Job gets a plague of boils, which must have been really nasty – painful, uncomfortable, itchy and making him feel rotten in himself as well. Poor sod. No wonder he ends up sitting on a dung-heap, scratching himself with a piece of broken china!

And his wife, who must have suffered just as much as Job, only of course women weren't really people in those days, she says “Curse God, and die!” In other words, what do you have left to live for? But Job refuses, although he does, with some justification, curse the day on which he was born.

Then you know the rest of the story, of course. How the three "friends" come and try to persuade him to admit that he deserves all that had come upon him – we've all had friends like that who try to make our various sufferings be our fault, and who try to poultice them with pious platitudes. And Job insists that he is not at fault, and demands some answers from God!

Which, in the end, he gets. But not totally satisfactory to our ears, although they really are the most glorious poetry.
Here's just a tiny bit:

“Do you give the horse its might?
Do you clothe its neck with mane?
Do you make it leap like the locust?
Its majestic snorting is terrible.
It paws violently, exults mightily;
it goes out to meet the weapons.
It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed;
it does not turn back from the sword.
Upon it rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage it swallows the ground;
it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, it says "Aha!"
From a distance it smells the battle, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads its wings towards the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?
It lives on the rock and makes its home in the fastness of the rocky crag.
From there it spies the prey;
its eyes see it from far away.
Its young ones suck up blood;
and where the slain are, there it is.”

Wonderful stuff, and it goes on for about three chapters, talking of the natural world and its wonders, and how God is the author of them all. If you ever want to rejoice in creation, read Job chapters 38, 39 and 40.
My father is on record as saying he wants Job 39 read at his funeral.
Anyway at the end, as we heard in our first reading, Job repents "in dust and ashes", we are told, and then his riches are restored to him.

But would even more children and riches really make up for those seven children who were killed? I doubt it, which is one of the reasons it’s probably a story, rather than actual history. But the point I want to make this morning is that God intervened in Job's life, and things changed. At first they changed for the worse, but then they changed for the better.

And the same thing happened to Bartimaeus, as we heard in our Gospel reading. Jesus touched him, and his life was changed beyond all recognition. In John's version of the story, we're told a little bit about the consequences of the healing. For Bartimaeus life changed immediately. My sister-in-law, who is blind, says that not only would he have been given his sight, but he would have been given the gift of being able to see, otherwise how would he have known what he was looking at? He wouldn't have known whether what he was looking at was a person or a camel or a tree, would he? But he was given the gift, so he knew.

And he could stop begging for his living, he realised, and he went and did whatever the local equivalent of signing-on was. And, of course there were lots of mutterings and whisperings – Is it him? Can't be! Must be someone new in town, who just looks like him!

“Yes, it's me,” explains Bartimaeus, anxious to tell his story. “Yes, I was blind, and yes, I can see now!”

“So what happens?” ask the neighbours.

“Well, this bloke put some mud on my eyes and told me to go and wash, and when I did, then I could see. No, I don't know where he is – I never saw him; Yes, I'd probably know his voice, but I didn't actually see him!”

And the neighbours, thinking all this a bit odd, drag him before the Pharisees, the religious authorities of the day. And they don't believe him. Not possible. Nobody born blind gets to see, it just doesn't happen. And if it did, it couldn't happen on the Sabbath. Not unless the person who did it was a sinner, because only a sinner would do that on the Sabbath – it's work, isn't it? And if the person who did it was a sinner, it can't have happened!

They got themselves in a right old muddle. Now we, of course, know what Jesus' thoughts about healing on the Sabbath day were – he is on record elsewhere as pointing out that you'd rescue a distressed donkey, or, indeed, lead it to the horse-trough to get a drink, whatever day of the week it was, so surely healing a human being was a right and proper activity for the Sabbath. But the Pharisees didn't believe this. They thought healing was work, and thus not a proper activity for the Sabbath at all.

So they decided it couldn't possibly have happened, and sent for Bartimaeus's parents to say “Now come on, your son wasn't really blind, was he? What has happened?” And his parents, equally bewildered, say “Well yes, he is our son; yes, he was born blind; yes, it does appear that he can now see; no, we don't know what happened; why don't you ask him?” And the Bible tells us they were also scared of being expelled from the synagogue, which is why they didn't say anything more.

Actually, they must have had a fearful mixture of emotions, don't you think – thrilled that their son could suddenly see, scared of the authorities, wondering what exactly Jesus had done, and was it something they ought to have done themselves, and so on. And, of course, wondering how life was going to be from now on. Very soon now, their son probably wouldn't need them any more; now he was like other people, he could, perhaps, earn a proper living and even marry and have a family.

So the authorities go back to Bartimaeus, and he says, “Well, how would I know if the person who healed me is a sinner or not? All I know is that I was blind, and now I can see!” And then they asked him again, well, how did it happen, and he gets fed up with them going on and says “But I told you! Didn't you listen? Or maybe you want to be his disciples, too?” which was, of course, rather cheeky and he deserved being told off for it, but then again, I expect he was still rather hyper about having been healed. And he does go on rather and tells them that the man who opened his eyes must be from God, can't possibly not be, and they get even more fed up with him, and sling him out.

And then Jesus meets him again – of course Bartimaeus, not having seen him before, doesn't actually recognise him – and reveals himself to him. And Bartimaeus worships him.

But life for Bartimaeus had changed beyond all recognition.

Change happens. This has been a year of enormous changes for Robert and me, some of them good, and some of them less good. Robert has retired, which has meant enormous change for us both; we have had a new kitchen installed, and we have bought ourselves a motor home. That's all good change, although very stressful while it was happening. And it was a very sad change when my parents sold their home of nearly sixty years to move into a smaller house in the village. As my mother says, although they have settled down, it isn't home, and they feel as though they are permanently staying somewhere.

Like many people, I don't respond well to change. I get very stressed and cross, and I feel rather sorry for Robert and the rest of my family who have put up with me this year.

But the thing is, we often don't have a choice about changes. They happen. In our two readings, life changed enormously for two people. And these changes were instituted by God himself into their lives. In the end, it was a change for good for both of them, but it must still have been enormously stressful while it was happening.

Not all change is from God, of course. But with any change, whether we instigate it, or whether it seems to come on us out of the blue, we can't see the long-term consequences. We don't know what is going to happen, as we can't see the future. We can't see round “The bend in the road” as one author put it.

But God can. Nothing that happens to us can surprise God, as God sees all times as now. When we say “No” to God, when we block God from acting, God always has a plan B. God knows – but does not influence – how we are going to react.

And when changes happen, when we are overwhelmed by change, that is when we can most trust God. God can see round that bend in the road. Good things may be on the way, as they were for Bartimaeus, as they were for Job, or bad things may be about to happen – as, indeed, they did to Job for a time. But either way God knows, and God will be there with us through them. Even when it feels as if God's just slapped us in the face and left us to cope. That's only what it feels like, not what really happened.

So, of course, we need to practice trusting God while things are on a fairly even keel, so that when the upheavals happen – and they will – when they happen, we can go on trusting God, and knowing that God is with us, even in the midst of the storm. Amen.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Who do you think you are?

I first made friends with her in 1958. She and I were at primary school together, and then at secondary school, and although we grew apart and have led very different lives, we have remained in touch, and have lunch together every six months or so. And last time we had lunch together, we agreed that where our primary school had fallen down was in teaching mathematics. We were very badly taught. “And,” said my friend, who remembers everything, “We were told to ask if we didn't understand, but if we asked, we were told we hadn't been listening properly!” And it wasn't until I started to try to teach my daughter the rudiments of numbers that I discovered that, despite a quite good maths O level, I was fundamentally innumerate, and hadn't much idea of how numbers worked.

But the point is, when we were told off for asking, despite how often we were told to ask, we became afraid to ask. And in our Gospel reading today, we see Jesus teaching his disciples, privately, away from the crowds. And they, too, reacted with fear, and were afraid to ask him what he meant. We then see them fighting among themselves, and, finally, learning something of what it means to be first.

So first of all, Jesus tries to tell his disciples about his forthcoming death and resurrection, but apparently the didn't understand and were afraid to ask. Afraid to ask? I wonder why they were afraid. Do you suppose they thought Jesus might be annoyed with them for asking?

I don't think he would have been. I think if the disciples had said, “Look here, what are you talking about?” he would have tried to explain more clearly. And this might have avoided some unpleasant misunderstandings, like when Peter says, “No, no, I won't let that happen!” which was so totally not what Jesus wanted or needed to hear at that moment that it felt as though the evil one was tempting him.

So why do you think they were afraid to ask? I wonder if it wasn't that they were afraid of appearing total pillocks in front of the others. Everybody was thinking, “Well, I don't know what he's on about, but everybody else obviously does, so I'm not going to be the one to make a fool of myself by asking!” I have a feeling we may all have been there and done that at times – I know I have! You really don't know what the other person is talking about, but you don't like to ask for fear of appearing an idiot.

I don't know where that particular fear comes from – it may be down to early experiences at school, like mine in the maths class. If you ask, you are told off for not having listened properly; if you don't ask, you are assumed to have understood even if you hadn't. And when nobody else asks for clarification, you think you must be the only one who didn't understand!

But in a way, this is a form of pride, isn't it? We are too proud to ask; we're afraid of looking silly in front of other people.

So the disciples reacted with fear, and then they started fighting among themselves, arguing about who was the greatest. Well, we know that Jesus was very unimpressed by this, and so, of course, it's not something we ever do.

Is it?

Are you sure?

The thing is, we might not argue about who is the greatest, as we know that's not what Christianity is all about, so what we then do is pride ourselves on how humble we are, what good Christians we are, how we don't ever put ourselves forwards.... Or maybe we boast about our children. Some years ago, you may remember, there was that excellent comedy sketch series called “Goodness Gracious Me”, with Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar – you know, the famous “Going for an English” sketch. But that wasn't the one I'm remembering here, but the two mothers who keep making ludicrously exaggerated claims about how well their sons are doing. Competitive mothering – or competitive grandmothering – is very definitely a thing! I even find myself doing it with my own daughter: “Well, of course, dear, you were potty-trained before you were two!”

And we have probably all met the sort of Christian who just mentions in passing that they are fasting for Syria, or have donated twenty toothbrushes and six blankets to the collection point in Venn Street – do it, please do do it, but don't talk about it! Or so Jesus said. He pointed out, do you remember, that the people who made a great show of being holy, or of giving alms, already had their reward. “But your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you openly!”

It's all about pride. Again. In fact, this whole passage is about pride. It was pride which kept the disciples from asking Jesus what on earth he was talking about. And it was pride that caused them to argue and fight about who was the greatest – and you will notice that they didn't answer when Jesus asked them what they had been talking about! But he knew. And he began to teach them what it meant to be first.

Being First
‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’
‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’

This, then, was Jesus' teaching about being first and greatest. Again, this doesn't seem to say much to us – we know all this, don't we? We've heard these teachings since we were in Sunday School. Of course we try to be last of all and servant of all. We're the ones you find arguing in the kitchen that of course we'll do all the washing up, all by ourselves, and then we'll sweep the floor and everybody else should go home.... and if people take us up on it, we grumble loudly that we're the only person who every does anything around here, and go around in a delightful glow of martyrish self-pity.

It's pride, all the way. C. S. Lewis said that pride was the central sin of humankind, and that the prouder we are, the more we dislike pride in others. I quote: “In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, 'How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?' The point is that each person's pride is in competition with every one else's pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise.”

And Lewis goes on to point out that it is pride that comes between us and God: “In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
St James, in our first reading, said something very similar: “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” And he goes on in that vein: “And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”

Again, pride. It seems to be at the root of all human evil. The disciples were too proud to ask Jesus what he was talking about. They claimed to have been afraid to ask, but it was probably a fear born of pride. Then they started bickering about who was the greatest, like small children. And then Jesus taught them that they must be the servant of all, and welcome small children in His name. But that, too, so easily goes wrong and becomes a matter of pride.

So what can we do about it? I suppose the first thing is to admit it, to confess it, if you like. But it's the most difficult sin to confess, because it's the one we are most unaware of. And if we do become aware of it, we start being proud of that awareness. You remember Jesus' story of the pharisee and the tax collector, how the Pharisee spent his prayer-time thanking God for how much better he was than other people, and especially than that tax-collector? Well, I read a story about a Sunday-school teacher who taught that story to her class, and said, “Now, children, let us thank God that we are not like that Pharisee!”. Which was all very well until I found myself thanking God that I was not like that Sunday-School teacher....

And it was, we are told, the tax-collector, who contented himself with praying: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” who went away right with God.

Pride is a horrible vice, and I am inclined to agree with Lewis that it is the antithesis of Christianity. It is often the basis of all other vices. Of course we can, must, and should rejoice in our achievements – but having succeeded in whatever it was we set out to do doesn't make us a great person!

We are all sinners, saved by grace. And that is the thing, isn't it – saved by grace! No matter how proud we are, no matter how much we secretly – or openly – want to be the greatest, no matter how much we dislike looking foolish, the moment we turn to God, the moment we stop looking at ourselves and start to look at God, in that moment we are forgiven. And with God's help, and only with God's help, we can overcome our pride. It's not a matter of behaviour – it never is. It's about allowing God to change us, to re-create us, to help us grow into the person we were designed to be. After all, as Aslan said to one of the Kings of Narnia, being human “is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the head of the greatest emperor on earth.” Amen.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Refugees? Migrants? People?

The situation was changing so fast this week that this sermon was being updated right up until the last minute - you might prefer to listen to the podcast to hear what I actually said!

“Even the dogs,” said the woman who had come to Jesus to beg healing for her daughter, “Even the dogs get to eat the children's leftovers!”

It's always difficult to know what is going on in this story – why was Jesus so foul to the woman? Very unlike him, he's normally courteous, even to women who are no better than they should be. But here he is, in Tyre, in modern-day Lebanon, having a brief holiday, and this woman comes to him, and instead of healing her daughter, he says “Let us first feed the children. It isn't right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words – bugger off, my mission is to the Jews, not to the likes of you!

At least, that's what it reads like. Of course, we don't know the tone of voice he said it in. I wonder whether, at this stage in his life, when he is obviously exhausted from so much that has gone before, he really isn't certain who he is and what is mission is. And maybe, maybe when he says that, he is wondering aloud whether he ought not to reserve his energies for his own people. And she replies that even the dogs get to eat the leftovers, and this, for him, is the voice of God, telling him that yes, he can and should heal her daughter. Which he promptly does, and when she goes home she finds her daughter peacefully asleep, with no sign of whatever had been tormenting her.

Whatever Jesus was, or was not, thinking when he confronted this woman, he did heal her daughter. He showed that His love has no boundaries. It is not just a particular race, or a particular tribe, who are God's people. It is each and every one of us.

And in our first reading, from the letter of James, we heard this: “My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don't have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, 'God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!' – if you don't give them the necessities of life? So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead.”

And in today's Old Testament reading, from Proverbs, there was this verse:
“Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate.”
“Or crush the afflicted at the gate”. I wonder what that reminds you of? I know what it reminds me of.

And unless you've been living under a rock for the past two months, you will know that there's a major crisis going on in Europe. Today, there are more refugees than at any time since the end of the second World War. War and famine have driven countless millions – I'm not exaggerating, there have been at least four million people who have left Syria alone – countless millions from their homes to save their lives and, they hope, find a better life elsewhere.

Roughly 3,000 people are trying to find a new home in Europe every day. Three thousand people whose home lives are so unbearable that they can't stay there any more. They confide their life savings to someone who offers to get them a safe passage, and find themselves on a rickety, overloaded boat that may or may not get them across the Mediterranean. Many, far too many, don't make it. Or they find themselves locked in the back of a lorry, again probably overcrowded, very hot, no water or sanitary facilities. And again, many die.

And if they arrive on Europe's borders, when they do, they find themselves blocked off by barbed wire fences. Not Welcome Here, is the message they get, although, to be fair, a great many countries do welcome them. Germany, for one. But it's a matter of getting there.

And many of them speak good English, so where they want to come is here. After all, if you're going to have to resit exams so that you can work as a doctor or an architect or whatever in Europe, it's a lot easier to do it in a language you already speak than to have to spend a couple of years learning German or Swedish first before you can sit the exams. Or they have family or friends who have been able to settle here.

And we don't seem to welcome them, either. They are forced to live in squalor in a makeshift camp in Calais – although there is talk about building a more permanent camp for them – starving and hopeless, having to pay their minders for the chance to try to get on a lorry, with many so desperate that they have tried to run through the tunnel, or even to swim across, and have died. Our politicians talk about “swarms of migrants”, as though they were not quite human.

And yet each and every one of them is an individual with his or her own story. And most of these stories are of hardship, of persecution, of famine, of war, of flight, of despair. They are human beings.

We call them “migrants”, lumping them all under one umbrella. The term is supposed to be neutral, less laden with emotional baggage than “refugee” or “asylum seeker”. It isn't, of course, because people then talk about “illegal immigrants” or “economic migrants”. And it's noticeable that if we Brits go to live abroad we aren't called migrants – I did the whole economic migrant thing back in the 1970s, when I went to work in Paris for some years after leaving school, but nobody called me a “migrant”, economic or otherwise – I was an expatriate! And people talked about cultural exchange, and our young people learning about different lifestyles, and so on, and it was all considered a Good Thing.

And, of course, many of your families came over here to work and contribute to our society and learn about our way of life – and have enriched this country beyond all measure! Maybe you can remember the bewilderment of arriving here, not too sure of your welcome, not too sure what life in this cold and rainy land was going to be like.

Even if someone does make it across the Channel, their problems aren't yet over. They aren't allowed to work while their claim for asylum is being processed, and although they do get an allowance, it really isn't very much. Not really enough to live on, and certainly not enough for a comfortable lifestyle. And if they are found not to be in imminent danger of death back home, they are thrown out again, and if that's on their records they can't really go and try their luck somewhere else in Europe.

I don't know what the answer long-term is. The politicians will have to work that one out between them. I think it's finally got to the stage that the political will to do this is actually there, which is a good thing. They need to work out some way, perhaps, of screening migrants before they get stuck outside barbed-wire borders, or locked out of railway stations, or forced to live in squalid camps.

But what can we do? You and me? Well, first and foremost, of course, we can pray for them. We can pray for those forced to leave their countries, those forced to hand over large sums of money for very dubious means of travel, those forced to risk their lives again and again to try to get to safety.

We can stop believing most of what we read in the Daily Mail, and read round from various sources – the BBC is relatively impartial, and it's not difficult to find first-hand accounts from people who have visited the camps themselves. Obviously we mustn't be naïve – while most people are genuine refugees who only want to find a safe place where they can live and work and bring up their families, there will be a few rotten apples. We know there are, of course – look at the traffikers who are responsible for so many, many deaths from sinking ships and overcrowded lorries, and who charge people for the “privilege” of breaking their ankles or worse trying to get on trains. But by and large, they are ordinary people like you and me whose lives have been disrupted by war or famine.

And we can donate. There are various organisations, mostly in Calais, who collect donations of things like toothbrushes, tents and tracksuit bottoms, to distribute to those in need. There doesn't yet seem to be a regular dedicated place where you can drop off your donation, but there are various charities who will see to it that a cash donation goes where it will do most good. And there are occasional “pop-up” collection centres – there's one in Hackney, but it's only open today, so not much good to us; their van will be going over tomorrow. And, of course, our local food banks are always needing donations, even if it's only a cheap packet of pasta or tin of meatballs. Many of those who use their services are refugees.

What we can't do is nothing.  "Even the dogs get to eat the children's leftovers".  " What good is there in your saying to them, 'God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!' – if you don't give them the necessities of life?

It is our problem, because these are people for whom Christ died. And I don't know about you, but I don't want him to be saying to me “I was a refugee at that camp in Calais, and you did nothing to help.” Do you?

Sunday, 23 August 2015

You have the words of eternal life

This service was a little different to usual, since it was August and many people, including the music leader and the older young people, were away.  And we don't have Sunday School in August.  So I laminated the "I am" sayings and put six of them round the church, and got members of the congregation to find them and hold them up when relevant....

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

“To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
It was Peter who said it. A great many people who might have liked to have been followers of Jesus have given up – they found what Jesus was saying just simply too much to swallow. Literally! And then, when Jesus asks Peter and the others if they are going to disappear, too, Peter says “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life!”

Peter is a pretty terrific person all round. He does have his moments, and he gets it wrong a lot of the time, but he goes on because, whatever else happens, he knows that Jesus is the Holy One of God.

I don't know whether Jesus really knows that he is, or if he's just beginning to think so, or what. But in John's Gospel we have those seven great sayings beginning “I am”, that we've just sung about. And I want us to think about these a bit this morning, because I think some of these “I Am” sayings are, to us, the words of eternal life.

You see, even though Jesus might not have been totally aware of it when he was saying it, what he was doing, on one level, was declaring himself to be divine. I expect you know the story of Moses and the burning bush, where a voice speaks to Moses out of the bush, which was burning up but didn't burn away. And it told him to get Pharoah to let the Israelite slaves go. And Moses said, “Well, who shall I say sent me?” and the voice said “I Am has sent you”. And Jesus, apparently used exactly the same wording. Now I don't know how fully he was aware of this, but certainly on one level this is what he was saying.


I am the Bread of Life

Let's start with the one this chapter of John's Gospel has been expounding for the last month. I expect you have heard several sermons on it over the past few weeks, so I won't add much, except to remind you that his first hearers reacted very differently to the way we do when we hear those words. At first they said, “Oh rubbish, we know this man, he's Joseph the Carpenter's son, we know his Mum, too – how can he say he is the bread that comes down from heaven? Don't be silly!”

And then Jesus expounds a bit on it: “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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” And he goes on like that, and this is when most people decide he's either being totally gross, or else he's talking nonsense, and go away. Peter and the other disciples may not have understood what Jesus was talking about – after all, it doesn't go into words very well, does it? All the same, they knew that the needed to go on following Jesus: “Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”

Now then, who can remember another “I am” saying of Jesus? We just sang them in the hymn there now. And round the Church you will find some laminated sheets with the sayings on them. Will someone go and find one of them, and bring it to me, please? One of you younger ones?


I am the Light of the World

I am the Light of the World.” And in fact Jesus added that and said: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Here in London it doesn't really ever get totally dark, does it? There are so many streetlights and so on that it is even quite difficult to see the stars, always assuming it doesn't rain. But when we're in the country, it can be quite different. I remember one Christmas when we were going to midnight service at my sister's church in Norfolk, and we had to park the car in a field next to the church. So there were no streetlights or anything, and we had to turn the torches on on our phones so that we could see what we were treading in!

That's the thing, isn't it. Light, however feeble, is always stronger than darkness. Think of the rare occasions when we have power cuts – if you go and find a tea-light or similar candle, it doesn't produce much light, but you can still see enough not to bump into the furniture. And the same here – if you follow Jesus, there will always be light enough to see your way ahead in life, even if it's only one tiny step.
Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”


I am the Gate for the Sheep

I am the Gate for the sheep”. This one's a bit weird, isn't it? Whatever can he mean?

I don't think it's quite within living memory these days, but time was, on the Sussex Downs and elsewhere, the shepherd lived with his sheep for weeks on end. He had a little hut that was like a tiny caravan where he could sleep and store food and so on. During the day, the sheep roamed fairly freely on the Downs, but at night, the shepherd would build an enclosure from hurdles, and “fold” as it was called, the sheep in there. They would move the fold each night, so that the sheep weren't subjected to mounds of manure. These folds were closed in with a final hurdle, but in the middle east, the shepherd himself would lie down in the gap so that wolves and stray dogs and thieves and so on couldn't get in. And the wolves and stray dogs and thieves and so on knew that, and would sometimes jump over the walls of the fold. Jesus riffs on this: “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”


I am the good shepherd

This is the more familiar of the two “sheep” sayings, isn't it? Actually, it happens in the next paragraph in John 10.

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”

I know my own, and my own know me.” I think I may have told you before that my brother and his wife are shepherds, and when they go into the field where the sheep are, the sheep know who they are and either carry on with their own lives, or else, if they are hungry, start demanding food NOW! But if Robert or I, or anybody else they don't know, goes into that field, they run away, bleating ferociously.

Jesus also points out that a hired shepherd might run away if a wolf comes, because they aren't his sheep, so naturally he'd rather save his own skin than that of the sheep, but Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will lay down his life for the sheep, if necessary.

Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”


I am the Resurrection and the Life

I am the Resurrection and the Life”. This, of course, comes in that lovely story where Jesus' friend Lazarus has died, and his sisters Martha and Mary are grieving for him. Jesus, weeping himself, says that Lazarus will rise again. And Martha says: “‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’”

Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Do you believe this?

Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”


I am the way, and the truth, and the life

I am the way, and the truth, and the life”. Here, Jesus is talking to his disciples only, not to the crowds. He has reminded them that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father's house. But Thomas says, “Well, how are we going to know the way?” and that is when Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

So it is through Jesus, and Jesus alone, that we can know God as Father, that we can know ourselves beloved children of God.

Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”


I am the true vine.

I am the true vine”. Jesus is speaking to his disciples again, here. And this time, it's a two-way thing. First of all, he says he is the vine, and his Father is the vine-grower. “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

And then Jesus goes on to explain: “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.”

So this “I am” is a two way one, pointing up to the Father and down to us. We can do nothing unless we “abide” in Jesus. I don't know about you, but that always makes me feel that we have to strive and struggle to stay in Jesus, but if you think of branches on a fruit tree, they don't do any such thing! They just stay where they are put, perhaps swaying a bit if it's windy, but otherwise just relaxing, knowing that the trunk of the tree is holding them tight so that they will bear fruit in due season. As, I expect, will we.

Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”

And that's it. The seven great sayings of Jesus.

Lord, to whom else should we go? For you have the words of eternal life.” Amen.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Bread of Life

Only a short message this week, as some people were needing to get off early to go to an event at a sister church.

“I am the Bread of Life,” said Jesus. “Those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty.”

But what, exactly, did he mean? His followers were totally unsure: “But he can't be – don't be silly! We know his Mum and Dad, he's not something that came down from heaven!”

The thing is, we are used to these words. We have heard them so often, and we associate them with the Sacrament, where the minister says over the Bread: “This is my Body, given for you”, and over the Cup: “This is my Blood, shed for you”. We don't actually hear them any more.

Those who were listening would have had no idea that he would take the Jewish Friday-night ritual and lift it and transform it into something very different, yet essentially the same. For them, when he said, “You must eat of my flesh and drink of my blood,” what they thought was cannibalism.

And, of course, that was seriously offensive to them, as it would be to us. Perhaps even more offensive than it would be to us, since we have no taboo against eating blood. But the Jews, like the Muslims, do have a terrific taboo against it, believing that the “life is in the blood”. I'll come back to that in a minute – and so to them it is probably not only unheard-of to drink blood, but rather sick-making, too. Whereas other cultures – the Masai, certainly, drink blood as a matter of routine. And even we have our black puddings, although I think we'd blench at being offered a nice warm glass of fresh blood.

And, of course, there are things that we wouldn't normally think of as food that other cultures eat routinely – think of the Chinese and their dogs and snakes, for instance. Or even the French with their snails, which are actually delicious if you like garlic butter! And I know that many West Indians follow the example of the Jews and Muslims and eat no pork, and probably feel rather sick at the thought, just as I expect Hindus do about eating beef.

You may well know that Jack Rosenthal play, “The Evacuees”, where the two Jewish children are presented with “delicious sausages” for their supper and expected to eat them. And although they've been told and told that as it is a national emergency, they may eat food that is normally forbidden, they simply can't bring themselves to try. The taboo against eating pork runs so deep, for them, that they simply can't overcome it.

And Jesus' followers certainly felt most uncomfortable at his words. To start with, they simply couldn't understand what he was on about: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Visions, there, of Jesus cutting great chunks out of his arms, I shouldn't wonder. Or of people cutting up a dead body and preparing to eat it - in some cultures, that would be considered quite normal, and the correct way of honouring the dead, but not for the Jews, any more than for us.

St Paul, or whoever wrote the epistle to the Ephesians, takes this concept – although he was, of course, writing long before the Gospels had been written down, but he would have been familiar with the teachings – he takes this concept and runs with it. He gives us that list of instructions as to how Christ's people are to behave, and summarises it: “Since you are God's dear children, you must try to be like him. Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us as a sweet-smelling offering and sacrifice that pleases God.”

Jesus said that his flesh is the Bread of Life, which he is giving so that the world may live. We think of Holy Communion, but his first hearers couldn't think what he meant. Jesus tells them that what God wants is for them to believe in the one who was sent. But, as I said, they can't see that at all – how can he possibly say that he came down from heaven when he is Joseph's son, and they know his parents quite well.

It is, of course, one of the famous “I am” sayings in John's Gospel. The thing is, of course, that it wasn't just Jesus saying something about himself, because it echoes – and his first hearers may well have heard those echoes – it echoes the bit in Exodus, where Moses asks God his name when confronted with him in the burning bush. And the answer is “I am”, or perhaps “I am who I am”. And here, Jesus appears to be using the same phraseology:

I am the bread of life
I am the living bread that came down from heaven.
I am the light of the world
I am the gate for the sheep
I am the good shepherd
I am the resurrection and the life
I am the way, and the truth, and the life
I am the true vine.

Jesus is claiming to be divine. All very strange, because on another level I rather think Jesus was trying to put things into words that won't really go, like so much of Christianity doesn't quite go into words – even what happened when he died on the Cross; even what happens when we make our Communions. We all have a mental picture of it, which is certainly partly true – but none of us will ever know the whole of it, as the more we know, the more we know we don't know. And I think this Bread of Life discourse is something a bit like that. And yet, it was a definite claim to the divine. But how are we to come to him, to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood? There is Holy Communion, of course – but is there not more to it than that? Wesley would say that Holy Communion, one of the means of grace, is only helpful insofar as it brings us closer to God. It is not, in and of itself, something magical!

Paul is more practical, of course. Tell the truth, don't steal, help those in need, don't be angry in a destructive way, and don't feed your anger. “Get rid of all bitterness, passion, and anger. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort. Instead, be kind and tender-hearted to one another, and forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ.”

Hmmm, well, I don't know about you, but I'm not good at most of those things! But it isn't really a matter of outward behaviour, as I'm sure you know. It really is much more about allowing God's Holy Spirit to change us, to make us into the person he designed us to be. St Paul reminds us that “the Spirit is God's mark of ownership on you, a guarantee that the Day will come when God will set you free.” The day will come when God will set us free. So we are not yet free from the things that harm us, the things that bring us down. We are not yet able to live wholly surrendered lives as God's person – and yet, one day we will be.

Jesus said “I am the Bread of Life, those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty.” So let us come to him again, let us recommit ourselves to him once more. Amen.