Saturday, 29 August 2009

Sunday 30 August 2009 Mark 7: 1-7,14-15,21-23, Kim

In Mark chapter 7 we find the senior clerics arrive from Jerusalem to check out Jesus orthodoxy. What on the surface seems a quibble about etiquette actually had more to do with the fundamental question "What kind of worship does God want from us?" On offer then, as now, are two, mutually exclusive alternatives. The passage itself speaks of breaking the traditions of the elders, rebuking the hypocritical Pharisees, correcting the misguided crowds and instructing the confused disciples.

The first thing Jesus does is criticise the Pharisees for confusing people with their hypocritical traditions. The word ‘hypocrisy’ describes an actor. It describes someone whose life is a performance, a show, a sham. Jesus doesn't even bother to answer their criticisms. Instead he quotes,

“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “ ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ (Mark 7:6-7)
Jesus questions their motive: hypocritical. Jesus criticises their worship: vain and Jesus condemns their tradition: human rules

We need to remember that the people of his day really thought the Pharisees were holy people – to be revered and respected, to be obeyed and feared. But Jesus thought different. The argument wasn't just about whether the disciples should have washed their hands before dinner. If you have children you'll know the scenario. "Have you washed your hands? Let me have a look at your hands....." That is not what the Pharisees were upset about.

The disciples had not followed the Rabbinic rituals. There were nine different occasions specified when the hands had to be ritually washed before and after meals along with prayers and blessings. Water had to be poured on each hand three times for most purposes using a cup, and alternating the hands between each occurrence. Further more there were additional instructions concerning the washing of the hands before bread and before vegetables were eaten before the main meal. According to the Babylonian Talmud, washing before meals is so important that neglecting it risks divine punishment in the form of sudden destruction or poverty.

And the ritual washing of the hands was just the beginning. Mark tells us, “And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles” (Mark 7:4). Jesus challenged these cherished traditions. Remember, Jesus wasn't criticising the liberals who denied the Scriptures, but the conservatives who claimed to honour it but added to it. Churches can be just as bound by traditions that are just as confusing, and intimidating. In some churches I have visited, I can be made to feel uncomfortable because I don't bow towards the altar before taking my seat, or cross myself before taking communion. In other churches I've felt equally uncomfortable, surrounded by everyone raising their hands in praise all the time, and shouting out Hallelujah. I come away feeling inferior, less spiritual. Other people can seem so much more devoted. But devoted to what? Which is more important? Lip service or Heart worship?

If you don't feel it is right to do something at a Church then don't. And don't worry what other people think. Discuss it. Don’t keep it bottled up. Don't allow yourself to be intimidated. Other people may only be doing it because they think it’s the right thing to do. You don't have to play religious games to be right with God. "And what does the LORD require of us? "To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God." (Micah 6:8) Why was Jesus so critical of these religious leaders?

Not because they were sinners, but that they liked to give the impression they weren't. You know how easy it is to give the impression of praying deeply, or worshipping in song but be miles away with other things on our mind. I may be able to fool you into thinking I'm better than I really am, but I can't fool God. I don't know what’s going on in your heart, nor you mine, but God knows, He sees. So don't try to hide behind religious rituals. An emphasis on human traditions invariably fuels controversy.

Heretical traditions contradict Scripture. Not only had they confused people, they had contradicted the Bible. Confusion over what did or did not constitute God’s will, led inevitably to the contradiction of the Scriptures. Jesus was always very careful to distinguish between the Word of God and human traditions. Between what God requires and what people have added. Jesus gives an example from the popular interpretation of the 6th Commandment. The Lord had said in Exodus 20, "Honour your parents", but the Pharisees had looked for ways round it. The Pharisees added an exclusion clause. To avoid having to care for elderly parents, you could make a will, giving all your wealth to God when you died, so no one else could have it while you were alive. Neat really isn't it. Today we call it tax avoidance. The Lord still calls it tax evasion.

The word "hold onto" here means to have a "powerful grip on something". Jesus was saying that the Pharisees had abandoned the Scriptures in order to retain a powerful grip on people through their rules and regulations. We, too hang onto things. How about bitterness, resentment, anger? How good are we at letting go? Not surprisingly Jesus didn’t go down to well. They went as far as bringing in the specialists all the way from Jerusalem to condemn Jesus.

Sadly, the history of the Church from the very beginning has been largely the history of religious intolerance directed against the faithful who preferred martyrdom to idolatry, a relationship with Jesus to the religion of do’s and don’ts.

Hypocritical traditions are inevitably exposed by the gospel. Jesus said “Don’t you see that nothing that enters you from the outside can defile you? For it doesn’t go into your heart but into your stomach, and then out of your body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: “What comes out of you is what defiles you. For from within, out of your hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile you.”

Confused over human traditions, the Pharisees had contradicted the Scriptures. Consequently they were now closed to divine revelation. Even the disciples were in serious danger of being deceived. "Why are you so dull too?" Jesus asks. The Pharisees had reduced morality down to a kind of arithmetic. Wash your hands in a certain way, eat specific food prepared, cooked and served in a particular way and you will be holy. They had accumulated a great number of petty rules and regulations about how to stay pure. They could be defiled by food, defiled by places, defiled by contact with certain people. This is what Jesus found so offensive. They assumed that they could stay holy if they did certain things and avoided other things. But keeping to a list of do's and don'ts didn't go deep enough. Why? Because rules are powerless to change the heart. All Jesus had to do was a little open heart surgery on them, to show what they were really like inside beneath their religious skin.

“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters you from the outside can defile you? He went on: “What comes out of you is what defiles you.” (Mark 7:18, 20)

Evil is not external its internal, it comes from within the heart. That’s why we don't need more rules, we need release. Observing a list of taboos won't deal with our guilt. Only Jesus can.

We see the disciples liberated, casually disregarding the petty traditions of the elders. Free to enjoy God's creation, free to enjoy Him. They were liberated from being people-pleasers, from hypocrisy, from doing religious things to please people, they could be themselves. That liberation is ours too. Liberated in a living relationship with Him. This is the heart of the Christian faith, not a religious system, but a living relationship in simplicity and sincerity. In Spirit and in truth. Christianity isn't a religion it’s a relationship. That’s because it centres on a person not a moral system.

It doesn't mean leaving the Church of England. It does mean putting Jesus first, before everything, before everyone. It means coming to Him daily in our reading of His Word, and in prayer acknowledging our sin and need of His forgiveness, and empowering. How then can we be made clean before God?

First, recognise that an emphasis on human traditions invariably fuels controversy. Second, that heretical traditions inherently contradict Scripture. Third, that hypocritical traditions are inevitably exposed by the gospel. What then is true worship? Let me leave you with an answer from Archbishop William Temple,
"To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God."

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Sunday 23 August 2009 Ephesians 6:10-20 Bruce

In the Letter to the Ephesians Paul has revealed to us all that God has done. God has blessed us in the heavenly realms with Christ Jesus, raised us from spiritual death to a new life, and brought us into unity with all other Christians as we are in unity with Christ. We are called to reflect this true unity in a new enhanced way of living, full of good and respectful relationships. It sounds like heaven on earth.

And yet reality seems so different. Life is tough.
Does the faith work? We believe the right things, act the right way, and yet life seems to be a struggle. Why is this?

We need to understand that to follow Christ involves struggle. This is not a popular message.

For too many, the spiritual life is primarily an exercise in feeling better. By a combination of ethical choices, clean living, good friends, joining in with some hymns and prayers, we are seeking a quiet life, where we gradually improve, and gently become nicer to know and may hope to earn acceptance by God. Some people like to use the language of choice: I have chosen this style of worship and belief because it fits in with my values and aspirations.

The truth as revealed in the bible is rather different. Paul in Ephesians has revealed that we are beyond hope of improvement, “dead in our sins” (Eph. 2:1). God has picked us up out of the dirt, washed us off, and brought us into his family. He has used the same might, power and strength that brought Jesus back from the dead to make us alive in Christ.

Now in the passage before us, we are reminded that the same devil whose clutches we escaped in chapter two is still at work in the world and we must face him. Note the subtle shift in tone. In the first part of the letter the focus is on what God has already done in and for us. Here we are encouraged to be strong in the Lord, literally to ‘strengthen ourselves in him’. The power, the ability is all his, but we are to deliberately associate ourselves with and take advantage of the might, power and strength that brought Jesus back from the dead, that has given us new life, and now will enable us to live as Christ’s servants and soldiers.

Now note the two opposite extremes that we as Christians can go to. The one is to greatly exaggerate and over-emphasise the power of the devil; to see demonic influences everywhere and as responsible for the most trivial things. This echoes the ancient worldview, that heaven and earth are connected; this view is still held by many in the world today. It tends to be ridiculed in the west, viewed as simplistic and naïve.

There is an opposite and more dangerous view, however, that all this talk of the devil is made up and over the top. While there is obviously evil in the world, it can be characterised as psychological or sociological. There are material and scientific explanations for most things. In the church, this has led unconsciously to a world view that sees the material and the spiritual as being separate and unconnected. You can be spiritual, prayerful, serene, whatever takes your fancy, but do not expect it to have any impact on the ‘real world’ of ‘stuff’, where we all have to live. Thus Christians can live effectively as atheists who happen to go to church. (Story about two boys ..) This views leads ultimately to the ‘God Delusion’ view, which acknowledges that this world is full of struggle, but sees only random chaos, in the way that a squirrel caught in an artillery barrage may have no understanding of the two opposing forces at war.

The explanation that most obviously fits evidence, however unpalatable, is that life is a struggle. The bible has told a story from Genesis to Revelation, that we are part of a greater struggle between good and evil, God and the devil. It has not been explained to us how or why this might be; we must deal with it. The difference is that we are not involved in a struggle against flesh and blood, but against ‘the authorities, the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’

How many of us thought that heaven is white clouds, tranquillity, cream cheese? Actually, God in his heaven has always been interested in justice and peace here on earth. Our guaranteed home is in heaven, but that therefore means that we are mandated to take part in the struggle here on earth. But how?

We are to put on the armour that God supplies. The battle is his, but our response of faith means that we will strengthen ourselves in him, and be part of the army.

Paul wrote this from prison, and many a Sunday school class has been captivated by the story of Paul, chained to his desk and looking up at his Roman guard, taking inspiration from what he saw. Consider also that Paul will have known the scriptures:

Isaiah 11:5 (New International Version)
5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
Isaiah 59:17 (New International Version)
17 He put on righteousness as his breastplate,
and the helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.

Isaiah 52:7 (New International Version)
7 How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
"Your God reigns!"
Isaiah 49:2 (New International Version)
2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
and concealed me in his quiver.

So consider a Roman soldier, wearing a tunic, something like a nightie coming down to his knees. He will have worn a belt of truth or faithfulness, to stop things flapping around in the battle. There needs to be integrity to the way that we live.

He has buckled on a breastplate of righteousness. For those of us who are waiting until we feel that we good enough to merit God’s love – stop waiting. God chooses to view us as righteous if we trust in his Son. It is something he gives us, just a Roman commander would have equipped his troops.

On his feet were sturdy, hobnailed sandals. They have been waxed and worn in, carefully prepared to carry a soldier over hundreds of miles and enable him to fight at the end. The difference is that instead of carrying the owner to warfare and killing, these boots are a readiness to carry the gospel of peace. Just as Paul knew chunks of Isaiah off by heart, so we can delight in the scriptures, become familiar with them, so that they will give us life and so we can share them appropriately with those who are seeking life.

The shield was covered in leather, and often soaked in water, so that flaming arrows were literally doused. It was large and covered the whole body. The technique was to link your shield with those on either side, forming a wall. We do not have to do this alone. In fact we are designed to function better, as people and as Christians, in relationship with others. That is why membership of an Encounter Group or something similar is so important. Soldiers who survived on the battlefield were not in the habit of wandering off to do their own thing.

The soldier wore on his head a ‘helmet of salvation’. Again, rejoice that you do not have to save yourself. And when doubts come, God gives you a helmet to protect you.

He is also equipped with the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. When tempted, Jesus was able to say ‘It is written …’ , taking God’s word and applying it to his present situation. This is something we all can and must do. And it can be a delight. Read the bible alone or in groups, with the help of books, websites, or local experts. Above all, pray for God’s help to understand and interpret it, and put it into practice in our lives.

Lastly, our weapon is prayer. We pray in the Spirit on all occasions, making all kinds of prayers and requests. We include prayers in our services, but the encouragement is to always have a line open, to be aware of God’s gracious presence with us at all times.

I have spoken to ex-servicemen. Many have told me of the monotony of service life. Many never see action, but everything is geared to preparing for that day, so that if and when it comes, they will be ready. When that day comes, Paul says, we want to be ready to stand. I pray that you are having a quiet, ordered, peaceful life and that everything is going well. We should be aware that to each one of us will come that day. It may be a redundancy letter or a worrying diagnosis from the doctor, or a relationship break up. For this church, it is the challenge to be truly open for all, to pay our way, and to be renewed, so that we will be effective servants of God here 50 or 100 years from now. The battle is raging now, and we must do our part. Every prayer that you say, every scripture that you read, every kind word that you speak or kind act that you bless another with, is an offensive act that is our part in answering the prayer ‘thy kingdom come’.

Remember, the battle is the Lord’s. The armour is the Lord’s. The victory is the Lord’s. Let us praise him and serve him together.

Questions for Discussion
1. Which of metaphorical items of armour seem most helpful and relevant to us, and why?
2. In what ways do we see the spiritual struggle as actual and not metaphorical? What examples can we give from our own lives?
3. How can members of the church help each other to wear the belt of truth? What place do ‘accountability partners’ or ‘soul friends’ have in this?

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Sermon notes and questions: 16th August John 6: 51- 8 Caroline Blake

Bread substitutes or the real thing?
I was browsing various websites recently, researching the subject of bread,
and came across one with the appealing title of Endless Agony .Com. (!)
It turned out to be a dieters’ website so the title is probably very appropriate!
People were sharing the ups and downs of their various diets but one that
caught my eye was a question about bread substitutes. The person said this :

”I started a diet a couple of weeks ago and its going pretty well but I eat too much bread. What can I eat that will fill me up and taste as good?” And I thought: Maybe I should refer her to John 6!

Her problem was that she needed to find bread substitutes but she knew they
would be nothing like as good as the real thing.

The Jews’ problem, when Jesus spoke to them about bread, was perhaps the
opposite. They were being offered the real thing but for various reasons, didn’t want it, or couldn’t cope with it. They were more interested in substitutes than the real, living bread of Jesus himself. And that’s certainly true for many people today.

What is real life?
What motivates us? What is real life all about? I think our gospel reading from John 6 asks these sort of questions. It makes uncomfortable reading. Real life, according to Jesus, can only be found in “eating his flesh and drinking his blood”. Even Christians, who are familiar with the account of the Last Supper, and take Holy Communion regularly, find it difficult to understand or express exactly what Jesus means.

No wonder, his listeners, first century Jews, were shocked by his words. First
he has performed the miracle of the Feeding of the 5000. When they want a repeat performance he reproves them for only being interested in physical, rather than spiritual food. When they start to make comparisons between Moses and Jesus, he goes much further and makes the ultimate shocking statement that he is the Bread of Life.

Understandably, they struggle to understand how he can make such claims
about himself, when many know him as “Jesus, the son of Joseph”. But what
follows becomes even more shocking. Not only is Jesus the Bread from
heaven, the living bread, but it is necessary feed on him to experience real
life, eternal life. “Unless you can eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you….my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink”.

No wonder they are horrified. We’re told that they argued about how he could
give his flesh to eat. Some probably thought he was talking about
cannibalism. Certainly it was an accusation that was brought against
Christians in the days of the early church, as they broke bread and shared
wine together, following Jesus’ example.

We’re told that following his words, his disciples complained that it was a hard
teaching and many turned back and left him. And it is a hard teaching. Even
today, when perhaps many of us have been Christians for a long time, when
we allow these words to really sink in, and wrestle with their implications, they
are tremendously challenging.

What is real life? What does it mean to feed on Jesus? Is it knowing about Jesus or knowing Jesus?

Charles Finney, the 19th century evangelist and preacher, said that faith in
Christ is not about saying or mentally affirming the Creed and key doctrines of

the Church, but its:
“the heart’s trust in the person of Christ. This act of trust unites our spirits to him in a union so close that we directly receive from him
a current of eternal life”.

“What are we to make of Jesus Christ?” asked C.S Lewis. ”There is no question of what we can make of Him. It is entirely a question of what He intends to make of us”

And a more up to date response to the question of Jesus is offered by Bear
Grylls, the TV adventurer. He says this:
“I always thought Christianity was about being very sensible, and acting all smart and religious. But the more I discovered about the person of Jesus Christ himself, the more I found a man who was as unreligious as you can imagine. It seemed that the very heart of the Christian faith, in truth, was neither about church or pulpits, sermons, latin verse or behaving! Its about a relationship with this Jesus who promised us life in abundance, joy within, peace without and freedom in our soul”.

Notice the common theme. Real life, eternal life is about a relationship with Jesus, a union between our spirits and his.
And notice all through this long discouse in John 6 how often the words “believe” and “life” are used. To enter into this union with Christ we need to believe and put out trust in him. He is the bread that will be given for the life of the world, pointing to his forthcoming sacrificial death. To enter into real life, eternal life, we need to accept his sacrificial death for ourselves, individually, and allow our spirits to be nourished by that living bread , that will never go stale and past its sell by date.

When we receive Holy Communion, we’re remembering Jesus’ words at the
Last Supper, and feeding on him spiritually. It is one of the ways by which we
participate in his life.

Do we know that life for ourselves?
Jesus’ word to us is that the bread he gives is the only food that will truly satisfy us, the only food that can give us real life. Life in all its fullness, as he says further on in John’s gospel. Are we feeding on him, allowing his life to flow through us, or are we looking for substitutes instead to bring us fulfilment?

There’s a hungry world out there!
There’s a world out there that’s desperately hungry, and there are many kinds
of substitutes for the food Jesus offers. Money, power, sex, status,
consumerism, the list is endless. They may bring temporary satisfaction but
they don’t fulfil people at the deepest level. Surrey teenagers are apparently
more depressed and stressed than anywhere else in the country, according to
the local Star courier newspaper, despite it being one of the most affluent
parts of the country. More and more children are being diagnosed with
depression and mental health problems. Something’s surely going very wrong
with our society.

Are we offering that living bread to others?
Yet, we, you and I, the church, have that living bread, and each one of us is
called to make a difference in our messed up society. Who are the people
we meet every day, families, friends, neighbours, people in our workplace, at
the school gate? In our leisure activities? Do we take time to build up real
relationships with them, going beyond the superficial? Are we aware, as we
get to know them, that Jesus loves them and longs to come into their lives?
That he sees the pain, the emptiness, the loneliness in people’s lives and
wants to use us to make a difference?

About a month ago, on July 19th, some of you may have seen an event on the
national news called “The Big Lunch”. It was organized by the Eden Project in
Cornwall. Their vision was this:

“Imagine a summer’s day on which millions of us , throughout the UK ,sit down to have lunch with our neighbours in the middle of our streets, around our tower blocks and on every patch of common ground….This will be a day to break bread with our neighbours, to put a smile on Britain’s face”.

Interesting, isn’t it, the use of religious language there, “breaking bread with
our neighbours”.. If you saw this on the news you may remember the scenes
of street parties round the country, people setting up tables in their streets and
sharing lunch together. People interviewed were very positive about it, It had
given them a chance to get to know their neighbours and people who live
down their street whom they never speak to normally, or had never met
before. When I saw this on TV my first thought was “Brilliant. This has got to
be a church organized event!”. But when I looked it up on the website I
discovered it was the vision of two men from the Eden Project, supported by a long list of other well known organizations, but sadly no mention of the church.

They called it a “Celebration of life”. Its purpose was to cheer people up, bring
them together, across all divides, classes and cultural differences, recognising
that many people are lonely and have no sense of community. And I thought:
”That could be Christianity. Isn’t that what the church should be doing?”

Christianity is a celebration of life. The life that Jesus brings to each one of us
and that should be overflowing into our communities. The New Testament is
full of pictures and stories of the kingdom of God being like a feast or banquet,
to which all are invited. The Eden Project ,with the “Big Lunch”., seemed to be
far closer to that picture than many people’s perception of the church.

But of course, its not the real thing. We have far more to offer. The “Big
Lunch” was just a one day event. Hopefully some friendships were started
that day, people may continue to chat to their neighbours and feel more part
of a community, and that’s great. But its unlikely that it was a life changing
event for most people. They ate their lunch, had a good time and went home.
Their lives will probably go on just the same. But they missed out on what will
truly feed them, truly bring love, companionship and the best relationship of all
into their lives. That living bread, that you and I have, if we’ve given our lives to Christ.

What may be stopping us from sharing our bread?

Maybe we feel our bread’s gone stale. We’ve lost our first love. Its not the
bread that’s gone stale because the presence of Jesus is still within us but
maybe we’ve stopped feeding on him, allowing him to nourish us. Perhaps
we’re too busy, too stressed, struggling with illness or difficult circumstances. We all go though those times. But we need to find space somewhere to come back to Jesus and open ourselves again to his life and presence. His bread is always there to nourish, restore us and strengthen us.

Have we unintentionally hoarded our bread? Its easy to become part of a
Christian ghetto where we only go to church meetings or events, and socialise
with other Christians. We become comfortable with our church life.
And then we wonder why so many people don’t come to church or recognise
that precious gift that is being offered to them in Christ? Yet they’re searching
for meaning and purpose in so many different ways.

How can we share that living bread?
How are we, the church, going to help people to find that living bread? Do we
wait for them to come to church or do we go out to them? Not necessarily in
big evangelistic missions but just by getting alongside people, building up
relationships, being people of integrity who are willing to get our hands dirty,
getting involved in the mess and pain of people’s lives. Isn’t that what Jesus
did? Its only as we gain people’s trust that they will be receptive to us sharing our faith.

Several years ago I got to know one of the mums at the school gate as we
waited to pick up our children. She had recently moved to Camberley from
Yorkshire and didn’t know anyone. I invited her round for a cup of tea and we

began to meet up fairly regularly over a period of several years . We got to
know each other well over this time. She knew I was a Christian, and went to

church. As a girl, she’d had links with church through her school and had some familiarity with Christianity but didn’t appear interested in coming to church, although she knew several people from the church through a book group she joined.

Sadly, her marriage broke up a few months ago but she was overwhelmed by
the support and friendship she was shown through members of the church.
She’s been coming regularly to church and got involved with helping to run
our Parent and Toddler Group. She’s also found the confidence to start
building a fresh life for herself and has enrolled to go to university as a mature
student. She says that she feels she’s started on a new journey and that it
was the friendship and support of the church that’s made all the difference.

What astounded me more than anything was her words that she didn’t know
that Christianity was like that! How sad that she’s had to get to her stage of
life, with a huge crisis, before she could discover that! But it also shows how
each of us can play a part, in simple ways such as befriending others, offering
that living bread we have, to make a difference in people’s lives.

So, what is real life to you? Do you know the reality of Jesus, the living bread,
in your own life? Are you allowing him to feed and nourish you, making space
for him in your everyday life? Do you have a heart to share that bread with
those around you? The New Testament reading this morning from Eph. 5
urges Christians to: “be very careful how they live, not as unwise but as wise – making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil”. Our world is at times a very dark place but its shot through with glimpses of God’s grace.

May we be those who make the most of the opportunities we have to be
channels of God’s grace and offer that living bread to a hungry world.

1. Were there any points in the sermon or aspects of the passage that have given you any fresh insights?
2. How can we continue to “feed on Jesus” in our everyday lives?
3. How can we help other people find that “living bread” for themselves?
4. If people are filling their lives with substitutes for the “real, living bread”, why is church so often the last place they go to? Is this a problem or an opportunity for the church?

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Sunday 9 August 2009 John 6:35, 41-51, Bruce

Who is Jesus? This is a persistent question throughout the Gospel of John. Many are asking today, when there are so many religious options on offer, what is so special about Jesus?

Jesus claims to be at the centre.

He is at the centre of our knowledge of God.

He is at the centre of the Father’s divine purposes.

He is at the centre of our lives, now and forever.

He is at the centre of our knowledge of God.
One popular theory about Jesus was that he was the mysterious ‘prophet’, like Moses, whom God would raise up in the distant future (Dt. 18:15). So if Jesus might be like Moses, would he perform miracles like Moses had done, such as producing Manna, divinely provided bread from heaven? Jesus reminds the people that the bread came from heaven: it was God who gave it to them and not Moses. And he now makes this bold claim: ‘I am the bread of life.’ As we heard last week, bread is the staple, the main thing in most people’s diets (although this differs in other cultures). He is not the seasoning or the clever garnish that helps a meal along: he is the meat and two veg, the heart of it, the main thing. Who is Jesus? He says in John ‘I am … the bread of life (6:35,51), the light of the world (8:12, 9:15), the door (10:7,9), the good shepherd (10:11,14), the resurrection and the life (11:25), the way, truth and life (14:6), and the true vine (15:1,5).

As you can see, John loves to record Jesus’ use of image and metaphor as he tries to put divine realities into human words and terms. This is why I do not believe that this passage is primarily about the Eucharist or Communion service. It is about Jesus as the centre of our knowledge of God. The Communion service is also about that, and any first century Christian would have picked up references and allusions to it; but the gospel was written primarily so that we ‘may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing … may have life in his name.’ (John 20:21).

Now, Moses had taught the people that God had fed them manna to make them realise that ‘one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’. (Dt. 8:3). Over the years the Jews often used manna and bread as images of the word of God, for the Law and for divine wisdom. Thus Wisdom invites people ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’ (Pr. 9:5), and in Ecclesiasticus we read that Wisdom feeds those who fear the Lord, and hold to the Law ‘with the bread of understanding’. So when Jesus says ‘I am the bread of life’, he is making a staggering claim, that he is at the centre of Jewish devotion and knowledge of God.

He is at the centre of the Father’s divine purposes.
The people began to grumble. It was in response to the grumbling of the people of Israel that Moses cried out to God to send the manna (This Moses and his strange God have led us out of Egypt into the wilderness to die of starvation!). The people who escaped with Moses refused to acknowledge the work that God was doing among them, and could not bring themselves to believe that God was on their side. So now the people of Jesus’ time receive this incredible claim that Jesus, whom they had known since childhood, was not only the ‘bread of life’ but the ‘bread that came down from heaven’ and was saying that personal trust in him would give them eternal life. They grumbled. ‘He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us …’ (John 1:10-14).

Jesus challenges the people to stop grumbling, but he does not answer the question. There are those who are determined to repeat the sin of Adam, to make up their own minds, to chart their own course. But God has been in the business of drawing people to himself. The Greek version of Jeremiah 31:3 says ‘I have drawn you with an everlasting love’. There is a certain shock in hearing Jesus maintain ‘I am the bread of life’, and that he is the only way to the Father. There are those who ‘hear’ this, who believe it. They have thought it through intellectually, and made a firm decision to follow and obey, but above all they love and trust Jesus. It may be that you are feeling a tug, a nudge, this morning … You still have questions, and you have concerns from the past, but above all you would like to know more about this Jesus.

He is at the centre of our lives, now and forever.

Those who feed on Jesus, who believe in him and trust him with all their lives, are guaranteed to live for ever. In this world we face troubles and sickness, persecution all manner of evil. We are never free from temptation and, to our sorrow, frequently fall into sin. This is true for each one of us, all the days of our lives here on earth. We hear the words of Paul to the Ephesians and are tempted to think of them as the counsel of perfection; we are only human and cannot aspire to live so well. Sometimes we feel ground down and perhaps just motivated by a sense of duty. Where is the joy? What is the point of carrying on?

Jesus says to each one of us this morning who knows themselves drawn to the Father : ‘… I will raise him up on the last day.) (John 6:44). A day is coming when every tear will be wiped away, every sickness and hurt healed, every evil and injustice put right and this earth cleansed and renewed. We will be beyond the reach of temptation and sin. Jesus guarantees it and asks us to trust him.

But this is not just a hope for the future. Jesus says to each one of us this morning: ‘I tell you the truth, whoever believes in me has everlasting life.’ (John 6:47). To believe in Jesus, to live lives centred on his word and open to the presence of his Spirit, is to allow God to fill us with love, joy, peace, perseverance, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Look for God to reveal his presence, active in your life today.

If we eat of this bread, we will live for ever. This bread is his flesh, which he has given for the life of the world. The life of God that we receive by trusting in Jesus is centred on the death that Jesus died for each of us on the cross. Just as he was physically born amongst us (the Word became flesh), so he also died and was buried – a physical, historical fact; and he was raised again on the third day – a physical, historical fact. And we are invited to feed on him: ‘I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (John 6:35). As we gather this morning around his table, remembering his death for us, so he comes and fills us with new life as we believe in him.

Questions for Discussion
1. Many images and metaphors are used to describe Jesus. Which one means most to you, and why?
2. What do you understand by the concept of ‘feeding on Jesus’?
3. What are the ways that you are aware of God ‘drawing’ you to himself?