Reading John 6.56–69
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
After that gospel reading you may have a sense of déjà vu, or rather, déjà entendu, ‘I’m sure I’ve heard that before.’ And if you’ve been to church in the last month, you have. This is the fifth Sunday on the trot in which the lectionary (the Church of England’s reading scheme) has supplied a passage from the sixth chapter of John’ gospel, and each one has had Jesus talking about how he is the bread of life and how the way to eternal life is to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Last week’s preacher confessed to his heart sinking at this phrase, and he was not alone: someone in a congregation I once knew said the idea caused her disgust; in last week’s reading, Jesus’ opponents dismissed these words of his; and today, even his friends say ‘This is difficult!’ and some stop following him. So let’s have one last look at this idea of eating and drinking Jesus.
Many years ago, I worked for a now long-vanished nationalised industry, the National Coal Board. I remember a training film about how to communicate clearly in meetings, featuring (as I recall) John Cleese. ‘We need to improve our communication,’ he said, ‘so come back with ideas.’ So his underlings did. At the next meeting, one had outlines for an ad campaign; another, proposals for a new telephone system; and a third had redesigned the sheet for internal memos (this was the pre-email age). ‘No, no, no!’ said Cleese – none of this was what he meant – but his original statement has been unclear, and open to different interpretations. Now John’s gospel is full of that. It paints a picture of a Jesus who seems almost to go out of his way not to be clear: he talks about being born, about seeing and not seeing, about drinking water, and each time his hearers come back with a literal, physical response, while Jesus is thinking metaphorically and spiritually. The whole gospel is on two levels – earthly and heavenly, physical and spiritual, human and divine – so as we read John, nothing is quite what it seems. We need to keep in mind the words of Inspector Jacques Clouseau in the Pink Panther, ‘There is more to this than meets the eye. That is quite obvious.’
So, ‘eating’ Jesus – it’s not cannibalism, but there is something about faith in Jesus that is like eating and drinking. Just as food and drink become you, as they are converted into muscle and fat and bone, so the life of God – itself made flesh and blood in Jesus – can become the stuff of your life: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood,’ says Jesus, ‘abide in me and I in them’. But whereas everyday food keeps you alive for a few more days, the food that Jesus is talking about will make you live eternally.
It is a wondrous thing to contemplate: God becoming human so that we might become divine, a vision of human life deeper than we could have thought, because it is suffused with the life of God. It’s also a sobering thing to contemplate when you look at the reality of your own life – my own life. Many of us live much of life in a kind of practical atheism, forgetful of God. Something happens and I don’t react well. Why? There could be many reasons, but one of them is probably that I’ve not spent enough time consciously recalling the presence of God. You have a knotty problem, and you worry away at it within the four walls of your head, forgetting that there is another dimension, which is the mind of God.
Recalling the presence of God does not sort out every problem, but it can be the door to moments of strength that is not your own and wisdom that is not your own. And most of us get some moments like that anyway, imperfect as we are: like when you say just the right thing, and you think, ‘Where did that come from?’ or you handle some tricky thing really well and wonder, ‘How did I manage that?’ I believe that these are glimpses of what it is like for Christ to ‘abide’ in us and we in him.St Paul knew this experience. ‘I live,’ he said, ‘yet not I, but Christ lives within me.’ And here is a voice of our own age, Austin Farrer:
The activity of God’s will lives in the action of ours, so that we say ‘the more it is God, the more it is I; and the more it is I, the more it is God.’ Anyone who has genuinely prayed will know what these words mean.
But it’s not always like that. We can go for hours, days, more, without consciously recalling the presence of God. That’s partly our fault, but it is also caused by the world we inhabit. You may, for instance, work in a place where there is very little that seems to point to the presence of God. Did you hear Elisabeth Murdoch’s suggestive phrase in her McTaggart lecture, that ‘profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster’? It may be hard to recall God in such a place, where everything around you is in thrall to Mammon. But this is nothing new: Austin Farrer again, writing nearly half a century ago:
The life of the world is a strong conspiracy not of silence only but blindness concerning the side of things which faith reveals…We were born into the conspiracy and reared in it, it is our second nature, and the Christianity into which we are baptized makes little headway against it during the most part of our waking hours.
A bleak verdict. What to do, then? Farrer encourages us to engage in some guerrilla activity for God.
If we go into our room and shut the door…stop the wheel of worldly care from turning in our head, and simply recollect; without either vision or love…recall the creed [the words of which we are about to say] and re-describe a corner of our world in the light of it, then we have done something towards using and possessing a truth which Jesus died to tell and rose to be.
Choosing to be here this morning, feeding on the words of scripture and the bread and wine of the body and blood of Jesus, this is one such moment of recollecting God and re-describing our personal worlds. This might be just a brief pause from the onslaught of our seven-day, open-all-hours culture – and there’s real value in that – but it might also be a time when we develop habits in here that we can take out there.
Each week, this service has a two-phase rhythm (like a heartbeat), the dual pulse of thanking and offering. We thank God in our hymns and prayers. We offer our sins for forgiveness, our money for God’s work, our prayers for God’s will to be done; we offer up bread and wine, ‘work of human hands’, and ask God to make something of them. And he does. That’s the rhythm of today. How different the next six days might be if we keep that rhythm going; if – wherever we are – we keep asking, ‘What can I thank God for here?’ (it may take some finding); and if we keep taking whatever we have – feelings of joy, guilt, boredom, fear, excitement, feelings of being on top of the world or out of our depth – and offering it all to God; and if we then see what God will make of it.
This is not my idea. I met it years ago in the thinking of the Methodist spiritual writer, Neville Ward. In the introduction to his luminous book, The Use of Praying, he has a reassuring thought for those of us who find the whole idea of praying a strange and scary thing.
All prayer is some form or extension of thanking or offering…These motions of the mind have an infinite Christian significance, but they are human before they are Christian and they are just about as natural as breathing…
though much more easily stifled.
I live, yet not I… Galatians 2.20.
God became human a theme of the 4th century theologian Athanasius.
McTaggart Lecture media lecture at the Edinburgh Festival: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/interactive/2012/aug/23/elisabeth-murdoch-mactaggart-lecture
A strong conspiracy Austin Farrer, Saving Belief, Hodder and Stoughton, 1964, pages 120f.
If we go into our room Austin Farrer, Lord, I Believe, Suggestions for turning the Creed into Prayer, 2nd edition, The Faith Press, 1958, pages 9f.
The Use of Praying, Epworth Press, 1967, pages 18f.