"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.