Sermon for Sunday August 26th – 13 after Pentecost
1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43
“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him”
Once again our gospel confronts us with the hard words of Jesus, Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. So I would like to spend a few minutes today thinking about the connection between Jesus and the words of Jesus.
You may perhaps remember a few weeks back our readings had the theme of ‘Peace’, and I spoke about how Christian faith had given certain words to the wider culture, Justice, Grace, Mercy, Peace, Love etc. and that the World had taken them, changed their meaning so that it were no longer necessary to believe in Jesus to understand them, and given them back to the church, and how many in the church now used these words as the World used them. To put it at its most sharp, that the church often now spoke as if it did not believe in Jesus.
You may perhaps like to give yourself a little test. Ask yourself the question, ‘is it possible to live the Christian life without belief in Christ?’. There are many in the world in which we live who would say, ‘why yes, it is perfectly possible, one does not have to believe in Jesus to embrace Christian values’. Yet this is not what Jesus says, he says ‘apart from me you can do nothing’ – apart from me you have no life. We are confronted, indeed rebuked by the words of our Risen Lord, that we even entertain the notion that Christian Life can be lived apart from Christ. Yet many in the church eagerly embrace this notion, and the net result has been the collapse of the Church in the Western world.
As we have done with the language of our faith, we have done with the very heart of our faith, Christ himself. It is impossible to describe Grace, or Judgement, or Wisdom, or Peace or Justice without reference to Jesus Christ. We must point to our crucified and risen Lord and say ‘THIS is what we mean when we say these things!’. But we have not. We have taken these things and turned them into ‘values’, as principles for living apart from Discipleship and Obedience to Christ. We have offered the world something which all are free to embrace without faith in Christ, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap Grace’. That as long as you believe in these values, you can if you so wish call yourself Christian – you do not have to believe in or follow Christ. And the fact that so many think that that is True and that it is odd at best and bigoted at worse to think otherwise, merely shows how effectively many in the the church has moved away from faith in Christ. And of course over the past hundred years or so there have been those within the church who have followed this move to its logical conclusion by saying, we can have Godless Christianity. We just need the values.
Living as a Christian cannot be disconnected from Christ. And this move away from Christ begins when we try to separate out ‘Jesus’ from his Words. He is the Word made flesh and yet we all too readily try NOT to identify Jesus with his Words. We create what I referred to a couple of weeks ago as ‘the Fake Jesus’, the reasonable Jesus. Like those disciples, we find his words too strong, too hard and no longer go about with him.
To give an example of how this works, one might say ‘I do not believe in Hell’ – to which the only proper response is, ‘well Jesus certainly did, indeed he is the one who speaks more about hell than any other person in the biblical record.’ ‘Ah!’ comes the response, ‘but I cannot believe ‘Jesus’ would have really said those things.’ We create an idol, a Jesus whom we can worship, because he agrees with us. A Jesus who has no connection to the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth, a ‘Spiritual Jesus’ – a phantasm of our own imaginings.
And this is for the church a fatal step, separating ‘the Christ of faith – ‘Jesus’’ from the words of Jesus of Nazareth recorded in the Gospels. And it Is Fatal, for it is to separate us from He whose very words are eternal life – and thus it is death to the church that no longer bears his name. For as people separated out the Concrete revelation of Christ in the Scriptures from a ‘mystical’ or if you like a ‘spiritual’ ‘Jesus’, so too they widen the gap between Christ and his church. We are ashamed of the Son of Man in his flesh and his words which are too hard for us, and we are ashamed of the Church that bears his name and clings to Him and His words. As we are required to believe in a ‘mystical Jesus’ who is not represented in the words of Jesus of Nazareth, so too we are no longer believe it when St Paul says ‘You are the Body of Christ’ – but of course if we will not bear his words, then in what sense do we bear his name. The Church fails to be the church when it denies her Lord’s Words. For the Word is the bearer of Life, however hard. to deny the Words of Jesus, is to deny the LIfe of Jesus.
And so let us once more offer up hearty thanks to God for St Peter. There is no sense that Peter finds the hard words of Jesus any easier than those disciples who are deserting Jesus, but he Knows that Jesus is the very Author of Life – “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter speaks for the haltingly obedient Church, the Church that struggles to believe and yet Knows that for its Very Life it Must ‘You have the words of eternal Life, You are the Holy One of God’. Peter realises that he has found Life and that the Words of the Living one are Life in and of themselves. That All of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is Life, in him ‘there is no darkness at all’. He is Life – hIs Words are Life – there is no disconnect between Christ and his Words – he is ‘the Word made flesh’
‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ We have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God’ Note this that St Peter says this immediately after Jesus most indigestible teaching, ‘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.’, and just a little while later we hear these words, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” But Jesus does not go running after them. The Living word of God is in himself Judgement upon the world, His words are Life to those who believe, and condemnation for those who do not ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God’. Those who hate the Light depart from his presence. Jesus’ words sift out wheat from weeds, those who struggle to apprehend what he means yet cling to Him like Peter, from those who reject him because of his words, or in our day those sophisticated types who use every tool at their disposal to create a sham faith which constructs a Jesus of their own imagining, with an existence apart from his recorded words.
But, assuming that that is not what we believe, and hearing those hard words, what are we to make of them? We speak readily nowadays of the Journey of faith – but the only valid journey is that like Peter’s – we can only begin by accepting Christ as the one who gives life, and then we must journey into deeper understanding.
We might say that those who departed just misunderstood Jesus’ words, and there are several occasions in John’s gospel where Jesus is clearly misunderstood. For example Jesus encounter with Nicodemus where Nicodemus thinks Jesus is saying one must enter a second time into his mothers womb, and Jesus corrects him saying unless one is born of water and the Spirit – and again with the Samaritan woman, She thinks Jesus is referring to real water and he clarifies for her that he is referring to Spiritual water one will drink, if you believe in Him. Jesus speaks, people misunderstand – Jesus corrects them.
But then these words of Jesus ‘56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.’ And here Jesus provides No alternative explanation.
Last week we heard Christ speak these words amongst us “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.” Then they complained – How can this man give us his flesh to eat? So at this point you’d expect Jesus, like he did with the Samaritan woman, like he did with Nicodemus, to explain it. But he doesn’t. In fact he Intensifies it – he drives the point home – in the gospel this week he says literally ‘Those who munch on my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever munches on me will live because of me.’
Rather than saying, ah you’ve got me wrong, let me loosen it up a bit, he says – I meant what I said, you really need to eat my flesh and drink my blood, munch on it.Get it? “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him”
Now of course there is a Lot one could say about the Eucharist here; that the Eucharist is here set forth as the source of the Life of the Church, that in the material and physical bread and wine, Christ gives himself to us spiritually; that as some early Christians said when one of the Roman Emperors forbad the Eucharist, ‘you may as well kill us – for this is our Life’; that the Eucharist is the profoundest Identification of the Church with its Lord – we gather round his table and he gives us himself in bread and Wine. The Eucharist effects the sacred Union betwixt the Son of God and those who believe on him. ( after Hoskyns ‘the Fourth Gospel’ )
I could also say that this is why we spend quality time each week hearing the scriptures, especially the Gospel, although Christ is the subject of all the Scriptures; we feed on his words, His Words are our Life – we feed on his body and blood – there is no Difference between Christ and His Words, He is our Life. If people ask ‘why do you do this?’, we have to say, to whom else can we go, where else can we go, but to be with his brothers and sisters, to be with Him who is our Life.
And that is the point. Christ is the Life of the church, we are his body, animated by his Spirit. Apart from him we can do nothing. THe church that imagines it can separate out Jesus form the words of Jesus is on the path of destruction. Apart from Christ made present to us in Word and Sacrament, the church has no life. To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
Some words of St Paul. Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. The days are evil as St Paul tells us, nothing else but wholehearted identification with the word made flesh will do for the days in which we live. As that old saint Malcolm Muggeridge put it, ‘I have a longing past conveying . . . to use whatever gifts of persuasion I may have to induce others to see that they must at all costs hold on to [the reality of Christ]; lash themselves to it as, in the old days of sail, sailors would lash themselves to a mast when storms blew up and the seas were rough. For indeed storms and rough seas lie ahead’ I would say that they not only lie ahead, we are in the midst of them. May God so open our eyes to the truth of Christ that hard though his words are, we with Peter realise that there is nowhere else to go for He and He alone has the words of eternal Life, that he is without doubt the Holy One of God – and let us Hold fast to Him. Apart from Him we have Nothing.