"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Sunday Sermon: John 6. 56-69 - Stumbling blocks to faith


Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Today we continue with Jesus’ discourse on The Bread of Heaven and this passage is either the preacher’s dream or the preacher’s nightmare because there are so many themes that can be explored. There are two themes that particularly struck me which I’d like to share with you. The thing that hit me most forcefully about this Gospel passage was the theme of a crisis of faith. Given, too, that the crisis of faith comes as a direct result of religious teaching, I also think it’s a passage which is subtly calling on us all to be more willing to argue good theology and to challenge bad or lazy theological thinking.

We can all be theologians.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?

I don't know about you, but sometimes it's easier for me to identify with the crowds who misunderstand and question Jesus than with Jesus himself.

I think this is one of those times.

To understand what I mean we have to recall just what Jesus has been saying here and throughout the sixth chapter of John's Gospel: that Jesus, for instance, is the bread of life; that he provides the only food which truly nourishes; that he gives us his own self, his own flesh and blood, to sustain us on our journey; that we are actually to eat the flesh and drink the blood in order to abide in him. These are, indeed, hard words: hard to hear, hard to understand and for many, hard to believe. For many they are stumbling blocks to faith, as they were for some of Jesus’ followers in this passage.

Are we really all that different? I mean, which of us has not at one time or another wondered whether we have got it wrong about God? People of faith don’t find ourselves immune to doubts.

Something of this sort appears to be happening in today’s Gospel. Earlier in this same chapter we read about how Jesus has fed five thousand people with five small loaves and two small fish. This had amazed the crowd so much that “they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’” Jesus responds with an extended discourse on bread from God and the assertion that he is himself the Bread of Life, using words that associate himself with the God who had revealed himself at Sinai as “I am who I am.” “I am the bread of life,” Jesus has already declared to them.

That’s some claim: “I am the bread of life.”

And many felt that he had crossed a line with those words. Some around him had already been grumbling because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ Their discontent was clear when they said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven?’”

No wonder, then, that many of those following Jesus now desert him. And at this point we need to be careful how we characterise them, because it's always tempting to write off those who gave up on Jesus as people too stupid or lazy or unfaithful to believe. But John calls these people not simply "the crowds," as in earlier passages, but rather "disciples."


The people in today's reading who now desert Jesus are precisely those who had, in fact, believed in him: those who had followed him and had given up much to do so. But now, finally, after all their waiting and watching and wondering and worrying, they have grown tired, and they can no longer see clearly what it was about Jesus that attracted them to him in the first place, and so they leave. We are so attuned to his words we probably find it hard to understand how offensive Jesus had become to his hearers by this point, with the things he was claiming. “Does this offend you?” Jesus had asked.

“Yeah, actually it does.” Was, effectively, their response and they turned their backs on him.

What just happened?

What a contrast: the crowd witness the feeding of the multitude but within a short space of time have given up on the man responsible because his teaching was too hard. For some, the religious implications of Jesus’ words were a step too far. What we see here is that the teaching of Jesus is itself, not just the stepping-stone, but sometimes the stumbling-block to faith.

The problem was that this wasn’t the Jesus they wanted: they’d backed the wrong horse. Their understanding of Kingship and his were incompatible. They wanted the warrior king, the political leader who would lead them to victory over the Romans and Jesus was offering them quite a different sort of kingdom: The Kingdom of God.

“Pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die!” Some of them no doubt thought. “We want action now.” What good were all these words when contrasted with the expectations of what they really wanted to from Jesus?

Jesus then turns to the Twelve, his inner circle, and asks them whether they, too, wanted to leave him. After all, if significant numbers of others were disillusioned with Jesus, surely those closest to him must be having the same sorts of doubts. They knew him better than any of those who had left. So what did they think?

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Said their chief spokesman, Peter, in words so significant that they have been incorporated into the liturgy of the church.

Now, given that the Gospels make it fairly clear that there were many times when the Disciples failed to understand what Jesus was telling them, it’s probably fair to assume that they weren’t feeling much more enlightened than the others by what Jesus had said. Remember, we come to passages like this with the benefit of hindsight. We’ve heard the stories; we’ve internalised the meanings we’ve heard them that many times ….. but try to imagine hearing and trying to make sense for the first time of some fairly abstract and intractable ideas. You might even have got a handle on what Jesus was saying, but the implications … the implications. “Really? Have I got this right? Did he just say what I think he said?”

These disciples were also plagued by doubt and fear. They suffered at times from pride or a lack of courage, and they, too, eventually deserted Jesus at the very time he needed them the most. So if they aren't any better than the rest of Jesus' followers - then or now - what is it that sets them apart? The Disciples surely didn’t respond as they did because they understood the words that much better than those abandoning Jesus. But they knew one other thing that made all the difference in the world and that made them say that he had “the words of eternal life.” That difference was this: “We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Those leaving had neither come to know or believe this. For the Twelve, it was the one thing that made them stay, even though they carried on failing to grasp the meaning of much of what Jesus was saying. Perhaps for some of them it wasn’t until Peter articulated it that they were forced to confront this for themselves.

This man was introduced to the readers of this Gospel as “The Word made flesh.” “The Word was God and he was with God in the beginning.” In him, John asserted in those opening verses, resided life: the “life that was the light of men.” Perhaps the disciples couldn’t have spoken that eloquently when Peter spoke up for them all, but they stuck with Jesus because at some point they recognized the divine in him.

O.K. So we’ve looked at the Gospel story and analysed it.

So what?

It has to have a practical application or we’ve rather wasted our time. We have to turn a piece of religious history into something we can work with in our own lives; that has the power to touch us, or we’ve missed the point of being here.

Well, this, according to many Christians down the ages, is what makes what we are doing here this morning so important, so vital. Because each week, through the preaching of the Word and the sharing of the sacraments, we're offered again the words of eternal life which Peter and the others recognised. We're offered again, the chance to encounter Jesus and his living Word. Through preaching and through the sacraments, Jesus' real presence is revealed in our world, we receive the promise that Jesus is, indeed, the bread of life and we are pointed to the place amidst all the mess and ugliness of this world, that we can look to and know with confidence that we can find God there, in Jesus, offering us again the promise of forgiveness, acceptance, meaning, and life.

The 16th-century reformer Martin Luther argues this point. "God is present everywhere, but does not wish that you grope for him everywhere. Grope rather where the Word is, and there you will lay hold of God in the right way."

The trouble is that we have to keep reminding ourselves of this. We are so far removed in time from these events that, however much our imaginations might be grabbed and transported back through time during the readings and the sermon; however much our intellect and soul engage with the spiritual meaning of the words - the theology - coming here week by week can very often seem a tired routine. Perhaps we don't renounce or desert Jesus openly like those followers in today’s passage, we just don't make the extra effort to get to church quite as regularly, or we reduce what we've been giving, are more reluctant to support church events, we give up on prayer, we find different priorities and other calls on our time until, in the end, we’re just like those in today's reading: turning our backs and leaving.

Considering the difficult times, the times of doubt, the times of misunderstanding, the stale times in our pilgrimage of faith, other preachers at this point might remind us of all God’s blessings and encourage us to consider what God has done – and continues to do - for us. Well, true as that most certainly is, it never quite works for me. It seems a trite refuge when things don’t feel right in your spirit. I don’t necessarily want to count blessings. I’d rather struggle with the problem.

Those other disciples deserted Jesus because his teaching was a stumbling block to their faith. We hear this all the time. “I and the Father are one.” Jesus goes on to tell us later in John’s gospel but in my Religious Studies classroom I am repeatedly told “I can’t believe that Jesus is God. How could one man have created the universe?”

“Man? One man. Right… ” And thereby we might start discussions about God’s transcendence or the Trinity.

And so, unlike the first group of disciples in today’s reading, we aren’t satisfied with our initial reaction to what we read and hear. We spend some time looking at the reasons people give, their stumbling blocks, for not believing in God. We examine them, we analyse them and then we look at alternative perspectives, a bit like Peter did.

“Actually, not all Christians take that view because …..”

“But many Christians would disagree with that viewpoint. They would say  …..”

“Actually that isn’t what the Bible says.”

 “You’re taking something literally that wasn’t intended to be understood literally.”

Then there are the misunderstandings of what Jesus says that are the stumbling blocks:

“I can’t believe in God. Look at Jesus’ teaching on abortion and homosexuality.”

 These are real stumbling blocks for some people. That Jesus doesn’t actually have anything to say about either issue tends to come as a surprise. Does that come as a surprise to you?

People believe some very strange things about God; about Jesus, and what they believe is often a stumbling block to their faith, and when they express it, to the faith of others. It is a shame, then, that much of it is ill informed. If you aren’t sure about that, spend some time looking at the statements of American politicians and evangelists in the run up to their election. It has been said, rather unfairly perhaps, that the Church of England is the Conservative Party at prayer. In America, something which passes for Christianity is the Republican Party at prayer and it’s not a Christianity - in some of its expressions - that many of us would recognise. Often what it proclaims is a stumbling block to the faith.

In the same way that ignorance, misunderstanding and false expectations caused some of Jesus’ would-be followers to turn their backs on him in today’s Gospel, so it is today, but very often the stumbling block for Jesus’ would-be disciples now are not the words of Jesus but the words of other Christians.

It’s not the same because some other people have agendas and don’t necessarily speak with the mind or authority of Jesus.

“Does what I say offend you?” Jesus asked his followers. Perhaps some of Jesus’ latter day followers could do well to adopt that mantra for themselves.

So a practical application for dealing with stumbling blocks to faith?

Well, count your blessings of course, but if it’s of any help at all try to think more like Peter. Don’t be satisfied with an inadequate answer. Don’t assume that what you’ve understood is the meaning that was intended and leave it there. Dust off and examine your own position on things.

Are there alternative perspectives you’ve not considered? Perhaps it’s time you considered them.

Are you sure that what you think is the teaching of Jesus or the tradition of the church actually is the teaching of Jesus or the tradition of the church on any given topic?

What type of Christian is espousing that view you’re listening to? Are you generally in sympathy with such people?

Is what they’re saying related to issues of salvation? If not, in all conscience, can there not be more than one viewpoint?

Ask yourself the question: “Who would I rather have put words into the mouth of Jesus? The Gospel writers or Iain Duncan-Smith?

Perhaps in our spiritual lives we do need a bit more of:

“Actually, not all Christians take that view because …..”

“But many Christians would disagree with that viewpoint. They would say  …..”

“Actually that isn’t what the Bible says.”

“You’re taking something literally that wasn’t intended to be understood literally.”

“Jesus never said that.”

I know it sound trite, but a stumbling block to faith – even a mature faith – is only a stumbling block if once you’ve tripped on it you stay down.

Let’s not stay down.

Let’s struggle with it. Let’s argue with it. Let’s engage with it. Let’s talk about it.

Let’s do Theology.

We can all be Theologians.

Who has the words of eternal life?


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Sunday Sermon: "I Am the bread of life." John 6.35 and 41-51

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”


“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus’ promise to his followers then and now is a challenge: what truly brings meaning and wholeness in our lives? Do we shape our lives around what perishes or what endures? Do we will build our house on the sand or on the rock?  Do we build it on Jesus and if so, what is our understanding of who Jesus is? (Because today’s passage is a call to understand Jesus.) Not Jesus as prophet, teacher, healer or miracle worker, although he is undoubtedly all those things, but Jesus as God.

So let’s have a look at this “I Am” saying of John’s Jesus: “I am the bread of life.” John uses his phrases and theological ideas very carefully and deliberately and without a little understanding of that background, modern readers like us are likely to miss really important meanings.

Yes, of course we can understand this statement at its literal face value – Jesus provides everything we need and provides it generously and in abundance and we in the wealthy west tend to find that to be largely true. Those who live elsewhere in the world might have more cause to question that assumption. Who’d be a Syrian or Iraqi Christian right now? That interpretation of Jesus’ words doesn’t really ring true for them – and for many others, so there must be more to it. Not to have a deeper awareness of what John is doing here would be to miss a very important point indeed.

Firstly let’s have a look at a single word – not one that is in this passage: Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth. Bethlehem means "House of Bread." (In Hebrew, beth = house, lehem = bread

Let me take you back further, to the Exodus. The God of the Old Testament, the God of the universe calls Himself I AM. "And God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM . Thus you shall say to the Israelites, I AM has sent me to you."

Do we really think John’s use of the same phrase on Jesus’ lips is a coincidence?

Just to underline the point, John’s Jesus uses this phrase not just here in “I am the Bread of Life” but seven times in total.

Does anyone know what the other “I Am” phrases are?

• "I am the bread of life" (6.35)

• "I am the light of the world" (8.12)

• "I am the door for the sheep" (10.7; cf. v. 9)

• "I am the good shepherd" (10.11, 14)

• "I am the resurrection and the life" (11.25)

• "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (14.6)

• "I am the true vine" (15.1; cf. v. 5)

So the original Jewish reader of John’s Gospel would have had to have worked very hard to miss the point here. “I Am” the very words the God of the Hebrews used to name himself. These “I Am” statements must be the way we see and understand Jesus.

The Jesus who explains himself by way of “I Am”  is saying nothing less than that he speaks not just authoritative language, and specifically prophetic language but that he is to be seen as the representative and mouthpiece of God himself.

Let’s just think about that for a moment.

When Jesus speaks he is speaking as God’s representative.

That should make us stop and consider very carefully all the statements of Jesus recorded in the pages of the Gospels and act upon them accordingly.

If we simply did that what agents of change we could be in God’s world.

This is, in effect, the summary of Jesus ministry and it is deeply personal, referring as it does to human yearning which Jesus will fill – and it will be universal because it “gives life to the world” (v33).

So, in prophetic fashion he acts as spokesman of the One who sent him, and as dispenser of the divine Spirit. Those who hear his words are invited to believe not only the speaker, but the One who sent him. As Jesus has already told us in chapter 5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word, and believes Him who sent me, has eternal life”.

We need to recognise that this is as true today as it was then.

The first of the "I AM" sayings, in John’s Gospel, then, is "I AM the bread of life" (6:35). This statement is found in the passage which follows the feeding of the multitude. Jesus says to the crowd, "Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you" (6:27). Here Jesus is building up to the key statement and is leading the crowd to the point where they might recognise his divinity and come to faith.

The two go together: recognising Jesus’ divinity is the start of faith.

For those of you interested in how the very words and grammar of the Bible work, the definite article before the word bread indicates the fact that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the one who is the bread of life. I am THE bread. Not SOME bread. Not SOME OF THE bread. Not Any bread. THE bread.

The bread of life also points to the satisfying nature of Jesus as we can see in the phrase, "never be hungry … and never be thirsty." Jesus alone supplies the spiritual needs of his hearers: this is not about mere physical hunger, where bread leaves people dissatisfied and wanting more. In fact this idea can be applied in a wider spiritual sense where other approaches to God leave the seeker ultimately empty: a direct challenge to those who are already seeking. Jesus is making a plain statement about his Heavenly origins here: in the following verses Jesus refers to a descent from Heaven and explicitly states that “.. all who see the son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day”.

This is not about food: let’s be absolutely clear.

This is literally about life and death, “ I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” he goes on to tell them.

In these sermons, I often talk about the challenge to each of us about what we do with Jesus’ words. Well they don’t come much more challenging than this do they? Here is a man who is telling us that he IS God and he has already used one of those special signs of his to show us that: he has fed the multitude out of next to nothing.

That’s the sort of challenge that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and demands a response, and that response can’t be “whatever”.

What are we going to do with this Jesus? Or perhaps we should personalise it more: what are you going to do with this Jesus, as I have to ask myself what I am going to do with him? This is the very question that John was asking his readers: those Jews who had not yet come to understand who Jesus was. That is the function of this Gospel and its challenge remains the same, to convince its readers of the divinity of Jesus.

But being convinced is not the full response: mere assent to the divinity of Jesus is not enough. I have to do something with that assent. I have to make it personal. I have to make it mine. I have to enter into it.

And so do you.

Otherwise we run the risk of being one of the nay-sayers and chunterers Jesus encountered in this passage: “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary who we know?” Who does he think he is? Always cynical; never quite ready; demanding more proof; more information; buying time; putting off making a decision until all the doubts are met - which, of course, they never are.

We follow where the Holy Spirit, who enables faith, leads. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father” Jesus tells us. Well, we’re here. The Father HAS been drawing us. We are here and the time is now.

Look again at Jesus’ words. Does he say, “When you’ve got it all worked out in your head?” No. Does he say, “When you’re good enough?” No. Does he say, “When you’ve proved yourself worthy by doing this or that?” No. What does he say? “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

We are here and the time is now.

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, I am coming to know and understand you more deeply. Help me to see that you are more than mere prophet, teacher, healer or miracle worker. Help me to recognise that you are God and in recognising you as God, help me to follow you as a true disciple. Give me this bread always.




Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Feeding of the multitude: John 6.1-21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

I don’t know whether it is something to do with the street I live in but this time of year seems to me to be characterised by the smell of barbeques.

I must be deeply anti-social or I have some other personality defect but I don’t find chasing paper plates around someone’s garden in the teeth of a gale, while balancing a cup of indifferent wine and avoiding ketchup stains and salmonella, a recipe for unbridled fun.

Today’s Gospel, though not exactly describing a barbeque on the Galilean hills, tells of Jesus meeting the needs of his hungry followers. When I was thinking about how best to approach this reading I had a look at a book by the theologian Canon Dr. Jeffrey John called “The Meaning in the Miracles.” He wittily relates how as a schoolboy two of his teachers had approached the miracles in contrasting ways and this really resonated with me because I had a similar experience when I first started teaching. One of my colleagues, Mr. Forest, a Biology teacher embodied the literalist or fundamentalist approach to scripture where everything was to be taken at the plainest level of meaning and must have happened exactly as it said. His response to this miracle would be to say “Well, it just goes to show that Jesus is God, doesn’t it?” Doubting that a miracle story happened exactly as it was recorded was tantamount to doubting the divinity of Christ.

Mrs. King, my first R.S. Head of Department, on the other hand, took the reductionist approach, wanting to “demythologise” the miracle accounts to reveal the morals within the stories. In this case the moral to her was that when Jesus fed the five thousand, he and the disciples shared out what they had and their example encouraged others who had been holding back their own food to share theirs too. The “real” miracle was when everyone discovered the joy of caring and sharing with others.

She referred to him as a snake-handling Baptist and he referred to her as a wet, liberal Anglican.

I didn’t sit with them in the staffroom.

Life’s too short.

While their approaches seem diametrically opposed, they were in fact quite similar in the sense that they both treated the miracles as straightforward descriptions of events: they concentrated simply on what did or did not happen. Dr. John, on the other hand, concludes that the real nature and purpose of the Gospel miracles is found in the depths and dimensions of meaning found in the account and these passed both the teachers by completely.

The problem with Mr. Forrest’s approach where miracles simply exist to prove the divinity of Jesus is that it can say very little else about the event because it either rejects or simply doesn’t understand any symbolism at the heart of the stories. The problem with Mrs. King’s approach as a call to greater charity is that it hardly sounds like good news and certainly not a tremendous demonstration of God’s free, miraculously overflowing generosity to his people.

What I discovered, before I gave up on them and went and sat with the Maths Department, was there was no middle ground between them. For where two or three are gathered together in my name….there will inevitably be an argument. (To paraphrase Matthew 18).

But I digress.

This was the day Jesus was trying to get away from the crowd. Jesus crossed the sea and climbed a mountain just to get away and get some time for prayer. He often took some time out, insisted on getting some quiet time; some prayer time. Jesus modelled for us that no matter what you're involved in, you¹ve got to make time for God, time for reflection and time to listen to God – a good learning point for us all.

Well, on this particular day, Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee and climbed up a mountain; he’d sat down to catch his breath, looked up, and can you believe it? Here they come. The crowd had somehow found their way to Jesus: here they came scrambling up the mountain to be with Jesus.

So, let’s look again at the story and, two thousand years down the line we don’t instantly recognise the subtext as the original listeners and readers would have, and that diminishes our understanding of the Gospel. There are so many layers to the miracle stories.

Now in this passage notice that John tells us the crowd “saw the signs.” This would have had Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King arguing straight away, so let’s be clear. In John’s gospel, miracles are signs that point beyond themselves – to God. Every time Jesus performs a miracle he is saying something about God and about himself in relation to God. The miracles are not important merely because this or that person is healed or because Jesus changes water to wine or whatever. The miracles are signs that point to the reality of who Jesus is. Yes the crowd gathered for healing, but they kept following him because of the signs, even if they didn’t yet fully understand the implications.

Perhaps the most obvious theological emphasis of this feeding miracle is to tell us that Jesus is the new Moses. Even with a sketchy knowledge of the Old Testament most people are likely to remember that Moses had done something similar with the manna in the desert. Like Moses Jesus crosses the water into the desert, sits the people down and feeds them with miraculous bread in such abundance that there are basketfuls left over. Much less obviously, because this Old Testament story is perhaps less well known, Jesus’ actions also recall Elisha. Some of the details of the feeding stories reflect an incident in 2 Kings when Elisha takes an army into the desert and feeds them miraculously with a few loaves.

Taking Moses and Elisha together, the story seems to be hinting that in repeating what Moses did, Jesus is fulfilling the Law and, in repeating what Elisha did, Jesus is fulfilling the Prophets. Whatever else this feeding miracle is intended to teach us, it also reaches us that Jesus is truly the one whom the Law and the Prophets foretold.

Some commentators go further: the words and actions of Jesus over the bread are exactly the same as at the Last Supper. The association with Moses and the Exodus here, in what we are told was the Passover season, points to the new Christian Passover, the Eucharist.

These are the signposts which point to Jesus’ divinity and to the readers and listeners of the day they must have been akin to flashing neon lights which spelt out the truths, hopes, patterns and meanings and modern relevance of the Old Testament scriptures those elements represented.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy). Only all too often we have lost the key and therefore miss many of the nuances.

What should this mean for us today? When we read the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, how should we react? Well, perhaps the best response is the one provided by scripture itself, the discourse of Jesus on the Bread of Life in John’s Gospel. In John, it's Jesus himself who will become the real food:

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from Heaven so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from Heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Jesus understood all too well that if he let people claim him as their physical provider, they would miss the reason for his coming. His intent was to point them beyond their physical needs to their spiritual ones. He wanted them to look not merely to bread, the most meagre sustenance of the poor. “The bread you will eat”, John tells us Jesus said, “is my flesh.” In a profound spiritual sense, Jesus wants his followers to understand that their communion with him, their participation in his very life, will lead to new levels of maturity and understanding.  

What would Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King have made of it all, I wonder?




Saturday, July 11, 2015

Sunday Sermon: Mark 6.14-29. The Death of John the Baptist

14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

 I’ve a real soft-spot for John the Baptist. Not the personal hygiene, the diet or the dress sense, obviously, but I like the fact that he told it as he saw it.  I admire the fact that he took on the powerful and the vested interests of his day and pointed an accusing finger at the corruption and religious hypocrisy that was rife. And that’s a part of the story that tends to be overshadowed by the more familiar part of his story: we tend to see John, “the voice crying in the wilderness”, primarily in terms of his preparing the way for Jesus. What we might be less familiar with is the whole backstory of his getting up the noses of the religious and political authorities.

If you’ve switched off after hearing today's Gospel text I don’t blame you. This is a terrible story. It's hard to say "Praise to you, O Christ!" after such a story. Perhaps we should skip this story and read the next one instead. It's a much more uplifting story about Jesus feeding the 5000. Mark is a very careful writer. Herod's distasteful banquet segues into the story where Jesus makes sure that everyone is fed. Mark wanted these stories back to back because of the contrast between Herod’s banquet of death and Jesus’ banquet of life. But I won’t steal next week’s preacher’s thunder.

So, hard as it is to listen, let's go back to Herod's story. This feast was a very public state event – the King’s birthday celebration: there may not have been a large crowd, but there was a select guest list of important officials. Herod's wife, Herodias, was there, even though she shouldn't have been because he’d stolen her from his brother: an unlawful liaison that  John had condemned and, as a consequence, had ended up in prison.

Though Herod was a Jew, the power that the Roman Empire had given him - even as puppet king - had replaced his sense of religious commitment.  But why did he give in to this terrible request for John’s head on a plate? Wasn't it enough that John was in prison? I should imagine alcohol may have played a part, combined with a bit of self-indulgent self-promotion playing to the gallery, “Look at me. I’m the King. I can do whatever I please. I have it within my power to grant whatever you may wish.” Except that in reality he didn’t: maybe this Big-I-Am routine was a way of covering the fact that as a Roman-appointed king his power was actually very limited indeed, so where he could exercise power he was going to make a show of it. And perhaps this is why he made this promise to his step-daughter rather than someone who might actually call his bluff and ask for something he couldn’t deliver. The silly slip of a girl was bound to ask for something trivial after all, like a necklace. Well, Herod didn’t bank on Herodias’s bitter desire for vengeance against the man who had held her up to public ridicule. John’s death was Horodias’s idea, not her daughter’s.

Herod had liked to listen to John, which was odd indeed for John preached repentance wherever he went. Was there something inside Herod that remembered God's word, some spark of God that drew him to John's teaching?

Herod was upset by her request because he feared the crowd beyond his palace gates, because they revered John as a prophet. He was also upset because he was still drawn to what John said. But his guests had heard his oath. How could he back down without losing face? Who knows what the guests might tell someone higher up? So Herod gave the command, and soon the head of John the Baptist was brought out on a platter, as thought it was the last course of the meal. This was a very different banquet to the abundance of Jesus' feast. Not twelve baskets of food left over, but a horrifying leftover: John the Baptist's head served on a platter.

So, there’s our context. What are we to make of this?

John is often regarded as the last of the Old Testament Prophets because he stands in that long line of men of faith who spoke the word of God to their own generations. When we talk about “Prophets” let’s be clear what we mean: this isn’t about foretelling the future. The Prophets of the Bible were the outspoken critics of their day, speaking out against all sorts of abuses meted out by the rich and powerful, deliberately or by omission, against the poor and the marginalised. If there was any element of foretelling the future it was only in as much as they predicted the anger of God and the inevitability of the downfall of the wicked as a consequence of their corrupt behaviour and lack of compassion.

We look back on them now as some sort of Robin Hood type folk heroes, but they can’t have been easy people to have been around.

Isaiah typically delivered a message few people wanted to hear: “Come back to the ways of God you apostates.” Although, in fairness, he also talked about the hope of forgiveness. Jeremiah was a relentless doom-and-gloom merchant, challenging Judah’s moral decline – and he was persecuted for his pains. Ezeikel, was another prophet who warned the People of Israel of the consequences of turning their backs on God. How about Malachi? Let the wicked be warned by the certainty of judgement. Amos: God is just and must judge wrongdoing. Obadiah: retribution must overtake merciless pride. Nahum: doom is to descend on the wicked.

So, there’s a theme: get it right with God and get it right with your neighbour. Micah’s question, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” is echoed later by Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself."

It costs to be a prophet: John wasn’t the only one who died an unpleasant death as a consequence of speaking out and yet we are all called to be prophets …. in some sense, and it’s a hard ministry to pull off: I think of those high profile American and South African Christians who spoke out against desegregation of the races. Well, they were on the wrong side of both history and morality. Going further back, both in America and here, there was a powerful Christian lobby against the abolition of slavery. The wrong side of history and morality again.

Scripture has something to say about false prophets. Matthew warns, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” In Romans we read, “For such persons do not serve our Lord Jesus, but their own agendas, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”

So, how do we discern a position on the moral and religious issues of our day where we should feel compelled as Christians to speak out? Well, the direction of scripture points to justice, inclusion, compassion and equality. I’ve no doubt you’ve all heard the mantra WWJD? (What would Jesus do?) It isn’t a bad mantra for a Christian to live their life by. We know of Jesus’ compassion for the poor, the weak, the downtrodden, the powerless and the marginalised. What would Jesus do/say/think about the suffering of civilians in Iraq and Syria? And the West’s response to the humanitarian crisis? What would Jesus do/say/think about welfare cuts to the most vulnerable in society in the name of austerity? – And I mention that last one acutely conscious that the prophets of the Old Testament were often not at all popular when they spoke out. The Church of England published a critique of the Thatcher government called Faith in the City. “Pure Marxism.” said Norman Tebbit. David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham spoke out during the miner’s strike. He was vilified by sections of the press who mounted a smear campaign against him. “Make him look a fool and no one will take any notice.” Our own Archbishop, Justin Welby has spoken out against the banks and against corporate greed. That same press has been on his case ever since. “Lefty clergy.” Pope Frances has spoken on environmental issues. He has done so with full papal authority and his influence will go far beyond the Catholic faithful. America’s Fox News has described him as the most dangerous man in the world and suggested that he should stay out of politics and concentrate on religion. After all, what does he know about science? (Apart from his doctorate in Chemistry from Argentina’s premier university. Let's not let factual accuracy get in the way of a good rant, after all!) Being a prophet doesn’t make you popular with the vested interests of your day.

If all that sounds like a party political broadcast on behalf of the Hard Left, it isn't meant to. We come from all colours of the political spectrum, I'm sure. My argument is about each of us speaking to our own peer groups and holding to account those who promote policies and strategies which clearly do not bring the Kingdom of God closer. It come as something of a personal revelation, but others ARE accountable to us in all of the spheres we inhabit daily. Sometimes people need to be reined in and told, not in my name.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran Pastor invoved in the plot to assassinate Hitler and undoubtedly a prophet of his time: executed. Martin Luther-King, a tireless campaigner against racial injustice and undoubtedly a prophet of his time: assassinated. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, a tireless campaigner against political corruption and the crushing of opposition parties in his own country and undoubtedly a prophet of his time: assassinated – in his own cathedral, during the Eucharist.

Being a prophet’s a bit of a risky business.

So, where does that leave us?

If we accept that the arc of scripture bends towards justice; if we take seriously the mantra WWJD; if we believe that the Holy Spirit works in our lives to bring the Kingdom of God closer in small and incremental ways perhaps we could consider to what extent we might need to “man-up” a bit. If you are anything like me you’ve probably kept quiet when you should have spoken out: spoken out against the casual racism, sexism, Islamophobia and homophobia we encounter daily; kept quiet when politicians of all colours have said and done things which clearly have not brought the Kingdom of God closer and when we’ve known in our hearts that such-and-such a policy is clearly not Christlike. Did we try to make anyone accountable? Should we have done? One of the things about Christianity – and the thing that frightens the powerful like Herod and Herodious – is that followers of Jesus are called to activism. How else will the Kingdom of God come closer?

Me? Speak out? I’m not called to be a prophet! Well, let’s be clear, none of us here are likely to be a John the Baptist, a Martin Luther King, a Dietrich Bonhoeffer or an Oscar Romero, but the English Philosopher, Edmund Burke is quoted as saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” WWJD?

Maybe that would be a good thought on which to end.