Preacher Revd Neil Summers
After that gospel reading you may have a sense of déjà vu, or, more precisely, déjà entendu, ‘I’m sure I’ve heard that before.’ And if you’ve been in church in the last month, you have. Those whose work includes writing sermons are only too aware that 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. Today we have one last look at this idea of eating and drinking Jesus.
‘Eating’ Jesus, as I said last Sunday, is not cannibalism, but for Christians there is something about faith in Jesus that is like eating and drinking. Just as food and drink become part of us, 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 our lives: ‘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.
Isn’t it a staggering thing to contemplate: God becoming human so that we might share in the divine – a vision of human life deeper than we could ever have thought possible, 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 in your head, forgetting that there is another dimension, which is the mind of God.
I’m not suggesting that recalling the presence of God magically sorts out every problem or dilemma, but it can be the door to moments of a strength that is not your own, and a wisdom that is not your own. And most of us get some moments like that anyway, imperfect as we are: like when you manage to find just the right words to say, and you think, ‘Where did that come from? It doesn’t normally happen!’ Or you handle some tricky thing really well and wonder, ‘How did I manage that?’ Perhaps 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.’
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. But choosing to be here this morning, feeding on the words of Scripture, and the bread and wine of the body and blood of Jesus, 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 God does. That’s the rhythm of Sunday, of today. Just imagine how different the next six days might be if we kept that rhythm going; if – wherever we are – we keep asking, ‘What can I thank God for here?’ (and yes, 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 then see what God will make of it.
This is not my idea. I encountered it in the thinking of the Methodist spiritual writer, Neville Ward. In the introduction to his illuminating book, The Use of Praying, he has a reassuring thought for those of us who find the whole idea of prayer a strange and scary thing. He writes, ‘All prayer is, in some form, an 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’.
In our busy lives, with numerous everyday distractions, so much information to process, too much to worry about, and many conflicting emotions, these habits of thanking and offering are not easy to cultivate. But the very thought that even all these ordinary, everyday things of life can be transformed into something holy, just as here ordinary everyday bread and wine become holy, means we can somehow, mysteriously, infuse our everyday human lives with a share of the divine life.
Jesus gave his followers an option to open themselves to the transforming bread of life; there was no compulsion. And, as we heard this morning, some couldn’t hack it, so walked away, saying, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ And, we hear, ‘Because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him’.
It was Peter who spoke for those who stayed, those who recognised this would not be about signing up to an easy existence – in fact, it would be anything but, but who nonetheless saw in what Jesus set before them a life of real meaning, purpose and value: ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ Today, we might express it a bit more prosaically, but no less importantly, ‘Lord, you have the words that give meaning, purpose and value to our lives’. In the Eucharist, Jesus’s words are recalled, as he takes bread, gives thanks and offers it to his followers. ‘This is my body, this is my blood, given for you’. Thanking and offering: this is the sacrament that offers a template for our lives every day of the week, and links our lives to the very life of God, thus rendering them anything but ordinary.