Text: John 6:60-69
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
It’s taken five years, but I bet by now you have adjusted to the idea that life at St Thomas the Apostle can be risky, you never can quite tell what the incumbent is going to say next, or do next, or how much the liturgy will have changed. A member of the congregation told me that she wonders whenever she goes away on holiday what will be different when she returns!
So, not for the first time, my dear friends, have I got something challenging to say to you. Not for the first time is the possibility that what I say to you this morning will be offensive…
And the potential words of offense, of challenge, of outrage … are the words of the Gospel!
The Church has become the establishment, has settled into a position of power and comparative wealth (although clearly not in this area). It has assumed the trappings of political influence and cultural importance and through that it has become corpulent, bloated and ineffectual. The worst thing the Church did, was become the state religion of Rome in the 4th Century because it was then that it moved from a fringe position, from a radical dynamic force for change and for good: a faith which placed God first and its buildings second and moved into the high street.
Now clearly, since the 4th Century the Church has done an awful lot of good: has spread the Gospel far and wide and made Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour of the World known and yet still has lost its edge. The result is a Church which glosses over the radical message of a Gospel of Salvation to the Poor, Freedom to the Captive, Sight to the Inwardly Blind and settles for a bland conservatism (with a small ‘c’ naturally, this is not a place for ludicrous party politics).
Someone once told me that they came to Church to escape from the harsh realities of life, to leave the horrible world at the door; and yet that is precisely NOT what the Gospel calls us to – we are called to bring the realities of life, our challenges, our difficulties, our doubts and offer them at this holy altar to the God who was nailed to a cross for us, and for all the mess, hurt, anguish and pain that make up our lives.
When Jesus told his numerous followers some of the challenging truths about the Kingdom of God, it alienated a great number. All of this talk of bread and body, of eating flesh and drinking blood was so outrageous to the Jew schooled in adherence to the Law of Moses, the Torah. Cannibalism? Non-Kosher Meat (which had had all the blood removed)? The man’s association with outcasts, with women, with Gentiles, with unschooled fishermen and traitors to the Jewish state, with political radicals and with Roman Centurions, with you and I put Jesus on the edge of polite, established Jewish society.
And when he started telling them that in order to obtain eternal life, they would consume the Messiah, many freaked. They walked away.
We sort of assume that everyone who encountered Jesus was transformed for all time, that everyone who heard his teaching just knew that this was it, and became automatic followers of the light.
But clearly that wasn’t the case. For every Lazarus and Centurion, for every Mary Magdalene and Zaccheus there were many more who just couldn’t make the life changes and adjustments in attitude needed to embrace fully the will of God. Jesus and more importantly his Gospel was not always an immediate hit.
John speaks of those who choose the light and the many more who chose the darkness. It is always a choice and simply to be presented with the Gospel is not to be automatically won over by it.
For this, we should be encouraged. For the work of Mission which is at the heart of our life here at St Thomas the Apostle will always be a hard, challenging slog. There will be times when we work hard with people and individuals and they will walk away from us. Our relatives and friends might not want to find Christ here, or indeed find Christ in any other place. And that might hurt.
That’s okay. Unlike some churches who suggest that salvation is only available here, now, for a limited period only and with only a limited number of spaces available for the lucky contestants, we believe in a God who is infinite, multivaried, endlessly forgiving and loving and who keeps on calling the whole world to himself.
Those who walk away from Christ have not (yet) damned themselves, for God gives them an infinite number of possibilities for reconciliation with him.
Jesus was not disheartened by the walking away of a few people. He did not change his message or his preaching to recapture his popularity. We will not falter from our proclamation of a God of love, of inclusiveness, of radical hospitality because it is not popular with bishops or certain sectors of the Church – for as Peter himself identified “these are the words of eternal life”.
People may choose to reject the Church, to turn from its trappings of power and establishment and to criticize those who minister in it as imperfect (well, that is a surprise, I have to admit – human beings in priesthood being less than perfect, fancy that!) They may ridicule our recognition that we are not the individualistic centres of a personal universe and that there is an otherness which defies language and science and is what we therefore label ‘God’. However, when the going gets tough, and mankind’s fraility and limitations are in sharp relief, one finds that there are no atheists in a foxhole when the shells are flying.
The words of eternal life are present. The Word of all creation is present amongst us: the Holy Spirit is here, and in that most challenging, offensive, outrageous symbol of all, Christ the living word of eternal life is truly present. On this altar, In this simple bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Christ, is found the spirit which gives life.
To where else can we go?
Come. Hear. Eat. Engorge. Share. Live. Eternally.