Sermon for Sunday July 13th, 2014
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples”
What is the purpose of human life? What is its goal? The Apostle Paul had a very short and memorable answer to that – ‘For me,’ he said, ‘to live is Christ’. Jesus Christ was the purpose, the source, the compelling energy of his life. He understood his life as being for Christ. Christ was his life.
And he expresses that understanding in a very particular way that does not sit comfortably with us – as he says in his letter to the Romans But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ, does not belong to him. Christ was Paul’s life – in a way that went beyond many contemporary understandings of ‘Christian faith’. It was not simply that Paul believed some facts about Jesus, but acting on those facts he had repented, turned towards Christ and received the very life of Christ in his own being. ‘Repent, be baptised and you will receive the Holy Spirit’
So he will declare to the church in Corinth, your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. That, to use an old phrase, the church is made up of those who have received the very life of Christ himself. ‘To Live Is Christ’. So too, let us listen to our elder brother in faith, St John the Evangelist – Evangelist, one who declares the evangel, the Good News of the Kingdom of God which Is this new Life in Christ. How does John put it in that prologue which we hear at midnight each Christmas? He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
To those who believed in the name of Jesus, God gives power to become his children, his offspring – born of God. To the question, ‘where is the Spirit of God, the Life of God in Christ to be found?’ the first answer is ‘within us’
Today we have that familiar parable of the Sower and as I’m sure we know, there are no parables in John’s Gospel. Parables are about things being hidden. Jesus uses parables a lot. And they are used as Jesus explains, so that those who want things on their own terms won’t understand, that is by and large the powerful, who are usually the wealthy. Those who want something they can turn as it were to their advantage. As the Word is made flesh in one who comes to us in weakness and poverty. Like ‘a child’. So the message isn’t heard by those who cannot become as a little child. As we heard in the gospel last week, Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
But John does not use parables – rather he confronts us with the reality of things. His gospel and The Apocalypse, the book of Revelation go hand in hand – both showing us how it is, Reality – a reality it is hard for us to comprehend or accept. Put another way, we might wonder why or even complain that Jesus speaks in parables which are to the powerful difficult to understand, but then not like what is said when he speaks plainly, such is our perversity. And I use the words ‘us’ and ‘our’ advisedly for Jesus parable of the sower, of the seeds, of the soils, does concern those who never come to believe, but it chiefly concerns those who do – that is those who would call themselves his disciples.
John presents the Reality of the parable happening in front of our eyes and it is about the disciples. So the seed which falls upon the path. ‘When anyone hears the word of the Kingdom and does not understand it . . .’ In John’s gospel, Jesus is accused openly of being difficult to understand, or better, hard to accept – so the word which was sown on the path is snatched away by the evil one.
John 6:60 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? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But among you there are some who do not believe.’
In the parable, Jesus then speaks of the seed which falls upon the rocky ground – the word is first received with joy; yet such a person has no root and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away . . .
John again, For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And 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.
Do you see? The parable being worked out in front of us. So there were those who had set off, perhaps even joyfully following Jesus, but when Jesus makes himself clear in his teaching, they disassociate from him . . . when Jesus makes himself clear, they disassociate from him . . . When it becomes clear Who Jesus is, they choose another path. How much contemporary faith pays little more than lipservice to Jesus Christ, how much contemporary Christianity is little more than Deism – that philosophy which understands what it calls ‘god’ to be as it were a chaplain to our lives, and one who often seems to fall down in his duties towards us – a philosophy which does not believe that one cannot know God except in and through Jesus Christ and indeed that Jesus Christ himself is our life, apart from whom we have nothing of true worth. So there are Christians who began with devotion to Jesus but when his teaching became too inconvenient for them, they chose another path . . . one that seems wiser in their eyes, more sophisticated.
Then of course there are the seeds which fall into the weeds – but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the world and it yields nothing. Amongst those disciples is one who betrays Jesus – Judas. Whenever we are tempted to think we can handle money – we should remember the one who handles the money for the disciples. Money and wealth distort our vision perhaps more than anything else. They promise us securuty and power – they take us away from dependence upon God in Christ. Previous generations knew this well, we with all our sophistication and yes, wealth, think we can handle it – but money always handles us. So the cares of life comes and the lure of wealth suggests to us that it might deal with them, rather than casting them upon Christ.
John is the one who reveals the Reality. This Word, this Life that is sown . . . the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us . . . the varied responses to the seed in the parable John reveals to be the response to the Word made flesh, their response to Jesus. For the teaching that people could not understand, which caused some to turn back and which in the end drove Judas to betray was this : Jesus said ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 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.
Jesus the content of our faith, Jesus our Life, and for that reason, the Eucharist is the heart of our worship. This faith spread like wildfire in just a few brief years. Some might think that such close identification of the elements of the Eucharist with the body and blood of Jesus to be a late Roman Catholic change. But from the first there was devotion to Jesus exemplified in the Eucharist.
Listen to these words of St Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius was Bishop there for forty years – from AD 69 until his martyrdom in Rome, fed to wild beasts for the entertainment of the sporting crowds. His letters to the churches we still have and what is clear is that from the outset THE dispute was around the significance of Jesus. He writes to the church in Smyrna – one of those to whom the Risen Christ speaks in the book of Revelation ‘Glory be to Jesus Christ, the Divine one who has gifted you with such wisdom. I have seen how immovably settled in faith you are; nailed body and soul as it were to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, rooted and grounded in love by his blood . . .’ ‘Let nobody be under any delusion (of course they suggested that the humanity of Christ was such a delusion) – there is judgement in store for those who have no faith in the blood of Jesus . . .’ He speaks of those who do not believe thus: they have no care for love, no thought for the widow and orphan none at all for the afflicted, the captive, the hungry the thirsty . . . They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Saviour Jesus Christ who suffered for our sins, and which the Father in his goodness afterwards raised up again . . .’ We do not know, but Ignatius in all likelihood would have known John – and they speak with one voice to us.
John does not deal in parables, but he does mention a seed. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus here of course refers to himself. His Life, The Word, the Seed, falls into the good earth and there dies to bring forth a crop, as yet uncounted. For what is in the Seed but Life, and that Life of Christ bears much Life, in Ignatius, in John and down through the ages to us – and in every generation the proclamation about Jesus goes forth, and some do not understand, and there are others who start out with joy but then when the teaching seems to hard they fall away, and others deny him seeking not His Life, but rather the life afforded by wealth or other distractions . . .
What is the purpose of our life?? To bring glory to God. How? “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” And how do we bear fruit? By lifelong attentiveness to Jesus Christ, our life and light. I do wonder sometimes if we tempt people to think that they can move on to some more sophisticated faith by teaching the children all about Jesus? Except of course, what else do we have to offer, but his life in us??
Fruit bearing is our goal, our purpose. As Christ says to his churches, those who persevere to the end will be saved. There is no moving on from devotion to Jesus. And calling men women and children to active faith in him. We are here today because of the faithfulness of many generations of those who loved Jesus Christ – and like seeds bearing good fruit have passed that love on to us. People who endured terrible difficulties for the sake of Jesus.
As this year we remember 200 years of the preaching of the name of Jesus upon these shores it is worth remembering the terrible privations of those who first brought the Gospel to these shores. Of how they laboured for years, often seeing little fruit. Yet their Seed, falling into the ground has continued to produce the fruit of the gospel to this day, which is the life of Jesus amongst us. Holding on to Jesus is Good Work – the work the Father gives is to believe in the one whom he has sent. Listen to how Luke concludes the parable :- But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance. ‘But Why?’ an uncomprehending world might ask? Why? We can only give the answer that Peter did when others fell away ‘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.’
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God,
that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Amen