Sermon for 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Value-Free Christianity . . .
A couple of weeks ago we thought about the proposition ‘God loves us too much to give us what we want. . .’ and I ended with the reason that God desires to give us his very self, but we desire far lesser ends. We seek a comfortable life, or one thing or another. Things that in themselves are not bad, for all God creates is good, but things which fade into the background when we See who God is, in and through Jesus Christ. To rework something CS Lewis wrote – we choose to be content playing with mud pies in a slum, when a life at the Seaside is offered us.
God in Jesus Christ has given us his very self – we might well say, there is nothing else God can give us, for he has given us all he has in Christ Jesus. He has given us his Son, he has given us his LIFE.
Last week we pondered how God in Christ has descended to the very depths of all that is, and then ascended to far above the heavens – that he might fill all things and in that filling all things he might sanctify them, so that with the eye of faith, the eye that has seen the self emptying love of God in Jesus Christ -‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ – sees everything in the Light of Christ. This is one way of expressing what it means to walk in the Light. It is as if we look out at creation and everywhere we look and everyone we see has a large flag stuck out of their head saying ‘belonging to God the Father in and through Jesus Christ’. To see with the eye of faith is to see the world as it is – to see that Christ fills all things.
In the words of the beautiful ancient hymn, St Patrick’s breastplate
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
So with the eye awakened by faith we See Christ in and through all that is good. We see The Good, in and through the good. Our failure of faith is to confuse the good, with the Good, the Creator with the Creation, that sets off the insatiable fires of hellish longing, ‘if only I had. . .’ when God has given us all he has, himself.
As most folk know, there are a couple of ‘significant’ wedding anniversaries amongst us this weekend – and marriage provides us with a model for this seeing. For in the Self giving of husband and wife – we See through that to The Self Giving of Christ to the Church as St Paul so fully sets it out in Ephesians. Marriage is like everything good a Sacrament of God’s self – giving. And this passage is worth quoting at length in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
Note what St Paul says, This is a great mystery and I am applying it to Christ and the Church – each of you however should love his wife as himself. In other words the good of Christian marriage, points beyond itself to The Good – which is Christ and his selfemptying love for the Church.
Now lets follow this a little further . . . lets imagine that in a marriage, a husband only loved a wife because of what she did for him, or gave to him. Put another way, if it wasn’t for those things there would be no love. We would say and rightly, that in a true marriage, it is the Self giving of the person which is the foundation, apart from which there is no marriage. The husband gives himself totally in love to his Wife, and the wife gives herself totally in love to her husband. Now of course the things the husband does for the wife and vv may be expressions of that self giving, but at the heart is the desire to give yourself totally to your spouse, to become one flesh. In other words, no other person will do. Someone else could well serve you in the same way, but it is the person who is fundamental and in a real sense – someone else could not serve you in the same way.
So it is with God and the things of God. It is in Loving God in and for himself, that the good things he give come into proper perspective. But if we do not love God, then the Things the good things assume a false significance. They loom in our imagination – our imagination is filled with things, not full of the vision of Christ himself, a vision which gives the things a radically different dimension. The things become idols, and lead us not to Life in its fulness but to death – we chase after the things for love of them, not love of God. We desire marriage, not for the sake of Christ, but for itself – and thus marriage loses its meaning, for it as with All things, are given precisely that we might know Christ – for to know him Is eternal life.
Put another way, because Christ Fills all things, we can only know the Truth about anything in so far as we Know Jesus Christ . . . Apart from the Intimate Knowledge of Jesus Christ – Knowing Him and seeking to Love him – the idea of Christian Values is meaningless.
When you read the accounts of the Early Church, you realise that they seemed as it were to be straining at gnats from our perspective. Why, WE might ask does it matter at all what we think about God?? Heresies and conflicts over heresies were always about what seem to us to be very minor and obscure matters, but as I suggested last week, perhaps, if we are not as a starting point seeing the world around us in and through Jesus Christ, perhaps it is our perspective that is skewed??
Which is what is most unhelpful about all this talk of Christian values and why talking about ‘values’ can rapidly lead us away from Christ. Let’s take for example what many would take to be the core Christian value – so much so that it is not at all uncommon to say ‘It’s all about Love isn’t it . . .’ . . . But the problem is this. Apart from Jesus we do not know what Love is. So we put up this ‘value’ – by the way, actually it is a Virtue and not a value and that downgrading in itself is not unimportant – and we say ‘It is all about Love’ and if we are at all alert we will say, hang on where is Jesus in this? And we might say – well Jesus shows us what love is, true, but Love has no existence apart from Him and in saying Jesus shows us what love is it is as if Jesus reveals something other than himself – but as John says ‘God is Love’
As I said last week – He fills All things – so to speak or think of anything apart from him is not to know it at all. One cannot Know anything about the Christian Virtues apart from Him – for He HImself is the centre of all things and in him all things hold together. Apart from Him they fall apart.
To say we are only interested in Christianity for the sake of its values, is like saying ‘I’m only interested in marriage for the sake of having someone make my breakfast . . .’
Here I think we suffer from the modern account of ‘Religions’ in which Christian existence is but one of many – but what is utterly unique about Jesus is this – he is the only one who says All that I say and do has but one purpose – to point to me, so that you might Know God and thus Know the Life He desires to give, his very self. And this teaching of Jesus comes to a single focus here in John’s gospel ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ I am the Living Bread that came down from heaven – I am the Life and Light of the World – I am the Good shepherd. Over and over and over again the teaching of Jesus turns out to be teaching about Jesus, and through Him that we might Know God.
In fact Jesus sharpens the focus even further in the Gospel for next week – ‘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. . . .
And it is not long before what Jesus is saying finds disciples leaving him, left right and centre – whoever eats me, will live because of me . . . I am Offering you Life in all its fullness, and it is to be found Here, In me . . . and some want a code for good living – others want, well a million and one things – but all God has to give is His very self
Why do they leave? In a sense because it is utterly outrageous – offensive even to our modern sensibilities – that Anyone might claim to be the Bread of heaven – that anyone might say ‘whoever eats me will live because of me’ – and of course it is utterly outrageous. If we are searching for values, for ‘a better way to live our lives, then the bookstalls, the internet, the world is full of people offering advice – and you can patch together a pretty reasonable existence out of it . . . but to find our life in Jesus Christ is . . . well it can only be known in Knowing Him.
We live in a time of seemingly unending persecution of the Church – it is very much as if we are at the end of days. More Christians died because they were Christian in the C20 – already the C21 looks as if the bride of Christ is being butchered once more and now right down to the root, as our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria are beheaded and crucified in their hundreds if not their thousands. There in the world’s oldest churches, places where unbeknownst to us the church has worshipped for almost two thousand years without a break . . . there above all, there is no talk of Christian values – only Christ.
On their doors, the IS militias paint this symbol – that of the Nazarene – the title of those Christians – a title of scorn – the very name they gave Christ in Matthews Gospel – ‘and he will be called a Nazorene’. In Life and in death bearing the name of the one who died for them, and is their life. No talk of values, just Christ. In Life and in death – for He has given His all for them, and He is their Life.
May we not be found wanting at the End