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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.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

It's you, dear!

I want to talk about our Gospel reading in a minute, but first of all, we need to look at the Old Testament reading, the story of David and Bathsheba. This is, in fact, the second week of this story – you may have heard the first part last week, but just in case you didn't, I'll recapitulate.

David is now King of Israel and Judah, a united kingdom. He has built a very splendid palace in Jerusalem, and is one of the richest and most powerful men in the region. And, like many rich and powerful men, he has a high sex drive, and, of course, many women find riches and power very aphrodisiac.

So David can more-or-less have any woman he wants, and, quite probably, the reverse is also true – any woman who wants the King can have him! And there is Bathsheba, Uriah's wife, who allows herself to be seen while having her ritual bath – and responds to the King's summons.

Unfortunately, what neither Bathsheba nor David had any way of knowing, given the state of medical knowledge back then, was that when you have just finished your monthly purification rituals is when you are likely to be at your most fertile. And so it comes about that Bathsheba finds herself pregnant, and there's no way it can be anybody other than David's.

And they panic. David could arguably have got away with it, but he wasn't going to abandon Bathsheba like that, and, it's probable that it was she who panicked. Uriah, from what we read about him, strikes me as very much the kind of person who always does the right thing, no matter what the personal cost to himself, and in this case, the right thing to have done was to have had Bathsheba, who had obviously committed adultery, stoned to death. Yes, killed. Even if he hadn't wanted to do that. He was far too prim and proper to sleep with his wife while on active service, no matter how hard David tried to make him do that – if he had, he would have accepted the coming child as his own, and their problems would have been solved. But he refused, because his country was at war and he was a soldier on active service, and wouldn't even go and see Bathsheba, even when David got him drunk, but just slept on his blanket in the guard room.

So David feels he has no option but to get rid of Uriah, which he does by causing him to be sent into the front line of battle, and get killed. And as soon as it is decently possible, he marries Bathsheba.

End of story? No, not quite. You see, it might seem to have all been tidied up and nobody any the wiser, but they had forgotten God. And God was not one bit pleased with what David had done.

So he sends Nathan the Prophet – brave man, Nathan, wasn't he? - to say to David that there is a man who only had one sheep, just one, and a rich bully had taken that sheep away from him. So David said, well, who is this bully, I'll deal with him – he can't get away with that sort of thing in my kingdom, so he can't! And Nathan looks him in the eye and says, “It's you, dear!”

And, then David sees exactly what he has done. The lust, the adultery, the deception, the murder. He looks at himself and does not like what he sees, not one tiny little bit. He doesn't know what God must think of him, but he knows what he thinks of himself – and he knows, too, that he needs to repent. Which he does, and some of the words he is said to have used have come down to us:
Have mercy on me, O God, in your great goodness;
   according to the abundance of your compassion
      blot out my offences.
  Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness
   and cleanse me from my sin.
  For I acknowledge my faults
   and my sin is ever before me.
 Behold, you desire truth deep within me
   and shall make me understand wisdom
      in the depths of my heart.
Turn your face from my sins
   and blot out all my misdeeds.
  Make me a clean heart, O God,
   and renew a right spirit within me.
  Cast me not away from your presence
   and take not your holy spirit from me.
  Give me again the joy of your salvation
   and sustain me with your gracious spirit;
Deliver me from my guilt, O God,
      the God of my salvation,
   and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness.
  O Lord, open my lips
   and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
  For you desire no sacrifice, else I would give it;
   you take no delight in burnt offerings.
  The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit;
   a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

And so on. There's a bit more, but I've not quoted it all – it's Psalm 51, if you want to have a read of it.

Anyway, the point is, his repentance is genuine, and he will be reinstated. The child will not live, though. And there is that lovely scene where the child is born, and David is told that it cannot live – it hasn't “come to stay”, as they used to say – and he prostrates himself before the Lord in prayer. And the baby duly dies, and the servants are at a loss to know how to tell him, thinking that if he's in that sort of mood, he might well shoot the messenger, but when they have stood outside the door for ten minutes going “You tell him,” “No, you tell him!” he realises what's going on – and when he finds out that the baby has died, he astonishes them all by going and washing his face and going to comfort Bathsheba, and when asked, he points out that while the baby was still alive, there was hope that God might yet be persuaded to let it live, but now that it's dead, there's no hope and it won't help anybody to lie on the floor rolling about in grief.

And as we know, just to round off the story, Bathsheba and David do eventually have another child, who becomes King Solomon, arguably the greatest King of the combined kingdoms.

David's main fault, I think, that started the whole sorry saga, was greed. He was greedy for life, and for women, and for pleasure. He wanted to have it all, and had to learn the hard way that it wasn't all his.

Jesus says much the same to the followers in the Gospel reading, doesn't he? It takes place almost immediately after Jesus has fed five thousand or more people with a small boy’s packed lunch.
He then sends the disciples on ahead of him, so he can spend some time in prayer and being quiet for a bit –
in some of the gospels, we’re told that he’s just heard about his cousin John’s execution and needs a bit of space to grieve.
Anyway, he then walks across the lake to join the disciples,
and next day the crowd finds him on the other side of the lake than they’d expected.

But Jesus reckons they’re not following him because of his teachings,
but because they want another free lunch.
“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs,
but because you ate your fill of the loaves."

And this is not what he plans for them.
“Do not work for the food that perishes,
but for the food that endures for eternal life,
which the Son of Man will give you.”

Jesus points out that in the wilderness, it wasn’t Moses who provided manna for the children of Israel to eat, but God.
And it is God who gives the true Bread from Heaven.
“I,” said Jesus, “am the Bread of Life”.
You know what I’m reminded of here?
The story of woman at the well, a little earlier on in John’s Gospel.
She asks Jesus to work the pump for her, which he duly does, but he tells her that he is the Living Water, and any who drink of that water will never be thirsty again.
Same sort of principle.

Many – not all, but many – of those who followed Jesus did so because they wanted the spectacular. They wanted a free lunch from a small boy's packed lunch. They wanted to see the healings, the deliverances, the people collapsing on the floor as evil spirits left them, and so on. They weren't interested in the teachings, in the way your faith has to manifest itself in actions or it isn't really part of you, in loving their neighbour, in feeding the hungry.... they were wanting to believe in Jesus without having to become Jesus' person. I don't want to pre-empt what you'll doubtless hear about next week, but many of them walked away when the teachings got too hard for them to cope with.

And what about us? What about you and me? Are we just interested in the next thrill, the next sensation, the next fashion? Are we willing to be Jesus' disciples, and pay the price that the Bread of Life requires – all of us. Even the dreadful bits, even the bits that we'd rather keep hidden. David had to surrender all of himself before he could receive God's forgiveness. Can we do that? It's very far from easy, and I don't pretend to be able to, at least, not all the time. It has to be a daily, hourly, moment-by-moment surrender. And when you find you've taken yourself back again, as it were, then it's all to be done again. What it needs, of course, is the will on our part to be Jesus' person, even if we don't succeed all the time.

King David was not a wicked man. He did a very evil thing when he allowed his lust for Bathsheba to overtake his common sense, but normally he was God's person – and when it was pointed out to him where he'd gone wrong, he came back.

My friends, let's be like David. When we go wrong, when we take ourselves back and live our own lives again, and when we realise we're doing that, then let's recommit ourselves into God's hands. He will be there to welcome us back with loving arms. “There you are, there you are at last! Welcome home!” Amen.