Sermon: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost 23rd August 2015

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost – Series B

St Albans, Epping

23rd August, 2015

1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Recently I saw the film called “Going Clear”. It is about the Church of Scientology. The film revealed that the core beliefs of that Church are not revealed to members until they have been involved in that Church for well over a decade. All that time those core teachings are kept secret. The film included interviews with people who had gone through the experience of being with that church for many many years until they were finally given the information regarding the core beliefs. Yet their reaction to that knowledge was that it was ridiculous, the stupidest ideas they had ever read. And yet these were the core beliefs of the church of Scientology. These teachings are just too stupid for me to repeat this morning. It is not hard to find out what they are but frankly, why would you bother? Of course, all these people interviewed had left the church. They were no longer members.

I raise this because we have a similar situation in our gospel reading from John 6. The only difference is that Jesus didn’t hold back. He didn’t wait decades. He revealed the central elements of his teaching to the crowds and many people were outraged by it. Many of Jesus’ followers left him at this point. They could not accept this teaching. It was obvious that this teaching was central to all Jesus had to say. It was central to his understanding of his relationship with God and his relationship with people. But these disciples were so outraged by it, so offended by it, that they could no longer be disciples of Jesus.

This is relevant to us today because what we do every Sunday in the Eucharist is grounded upon this teaching from John 6. It is central to the life of this church and congregation. No other teaching of Jesus could be more important to us. So do we believe it or are we too, outraged by it?

Verse 56, Jesus clearly says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” This teaching was given to a community who regarded one of the most evil of sins to be the drinking of blood. It was hard for a Jew to imagine anything worse than that. Yet Jesus can say to these people that they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood. The language couldn’t be plainer.

In the early church this same language was used and used regularly, so much so, that many believed Christians engaged in cannibalism. The Romans sent out spies to observe what actually happened during a Christian Service and though the language was graphic they were surprised at how harmless these Christian gatherings were. They were expecting some political agenda, some plan of action, some plot they were about to hatch. What they found were people who declared what they would not do – it was a negative agenda, a people who promised not to steal, not to kill, not to lie to one another, not to be sexually unfaithful. But as well, they engaged in a ritual with bread and wine and spoke of body and blood and this clearly was of great significance.

Jesus puts the whole argument on an existential level. The living Father had sent Jesus and his life was derived from the Father. But probably Jesus meant more than that. He probably meant that all life ultimately comes from the living Father. And so those who feed on Christ will also have life. Then Jesus repeated his comparison with the manna that fell during the Exodus. This argument doesn’t have much impact on us, but it was almost as offensive as Jesus reference to drinking blood. For the Jews, there was no greater hero than Moses. There was nothing Moses couldn’t do. He could win battles, he could be a prophet of God. He could create a nation from a group of slaves. He could lead people for 40 years in the wilderness and still they survived. No one was more important to the Jews than Moses. Yet here over and over Jesus compared himself to Moses and was declaring that he was greater. “Your forefathers ate the manna in the wilderness,” and though it sustained them for a time, yet they still died. But if you eat Jesus bread you will live forever.

Sadly, it is hard for us today to grasp just how radical, just how revolutionary and just how offensive these words of Jesus were to the crowds. If we can gain just a little insight into that, then we can appreciate John’s comment at the end of this teaching. John points out that Jesus said these words in Capernaum in Galilee. He didn’t say this in Jerusalem. If he had, the crowds would have set upon him and torn him apart. But in Capernaum they just treated Jesus with disgust and many of his followers left him.

And notice Jesus’ response to them. He appealed to them because great things were to happen. The ascending of the Son of Man is a reference to the book of Daniel. That book is all about the rising and the falling of nations and the question of how to understand the politics of the day. The prophecy in Daniel explains that behind it all, behind the chaos, behind the suffering, behind the bloodshed there is a God who is slowly working his purposes out for the world with the elevation of a new leader, the Son of Man, who will rule all the world. It was a warning to the people of Jesus’ day. Jesus knew the future for Israel would be bleak. He knew the nation of Israel would be wiped out within 40 years. His appeal to them was to put their trust in the one who could give them life, eternal life in the midst of this destruction.

As well, we mustn’t be distracted by the word Spirit here. The word “Spirit” in the Bible is almost synonymous with the word “life’. This is why Jesus can say “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” But how do we access this life? The answer is very simple, Jesus called on them to believe his words and this was at a time when the resonse of the crowd was not to believe anything Jesus said. They demonstrated that unbelief by leaving him and giving up their discipleship.

In the end, the eating and the drinking, is as simple as believing that Jesus truly was the one God had sent into the world to bring new life. But the power of the believing, is that it can be compared to the eating and the drinking, the body and the blood of Jesus become a part of us and the consequence of that is life itself.

In one sense, this looked like a day that was ending badly until we come to the words of Peter. Jesus turned to the twelve and asked if they too would leave him. Peter answered, “Where would we go – you alone have the words of eternal life? We know you are the Holy One of God.” And there it is in a nutshell, the whole mission of Jesus, that people should understand who he is and the consequence of that believing is eternal life. It is not difficult is it.

From a human perspective this day was a disaster. The mission of Jesus looked in ruins. The crowds were hostile, many of Jesus’ followers had left him. Yet Peter hung on to those two truths – who Jesus was and what he had come to achieve.

Yet the day would eventually come when things were so bad even Peter abandoned Jesus, three times declaring he didn’t know him. And then Jesus himself was dead. It would be hard to imagine that the man who had attracted such large crowds, people who wanted to make him their king, should wind up with thieves and outcasts in a grotesque execution. Things couldn’t get any worse.

Yet we know that three days later it was a whole new world. The lesson here was that though the mission of Jesus didn’t go smoothly he still achieved all he came to do. And that is our great hope when our world comes crashing down upon us, when our career doesn’t go where it should, when our marriage goes through tough times, when our health is not good or when there is little hope of improvement. This is the world we live in and it was this same world that Jesus entered to do his great work, with all the suffering and the rejection and even death itself – experiencing everything it means to be human. And yet we can be drawn so close to him, that we are invited to eat his flesh and drink his blood – we are bound to him in the most intimate way possible and this heavenly food becomes for us the medicine for eternal life.