On 23rd August, the twelfth Sunday after Trinity, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 84, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69.
This is the fourth Sunday that the church has allocated a reading from the second half of John 6 as the Gospel for the day. This is obviously far too important a part of the New Testament for it to be quickly glanced at. It is parcelled out in small chunks to be digested with care.
During this long discourse about the Bread of Heaven the setting and the audience may have changed. Initially it was the crowd from the feeding of the 5000, presumably not all of them, who headed across the Sea of Galilee in search of Jesus who had disappeared. They found him in Capernaum, the town he seems to have made his base, and began a discussion with him. There is no indication where Jesus was as he talked to the people but it’s quite easy to believe that he was found near the shore as verse 25 says ‘they found him on the other side of the sea’.
When we reach today’s reading, John makes it clear that the discussion was happening in the synagogue in Capernaum and that Jesus’ audience comprised many of his disciples, so not just a random crowd. It’s easy to forget that there were more followers of Jesus than The Twelve, as they are referred to here. It seems that many people chose to follow Jesus, including several women. As much of what Jesus had been saying had caused confusion and misunderstanding, it could be that quite a few people had drifted away in despair of ever working out what was going on. Some may have gone as they were angry. Jesus seemed to be saying that he came from Heaven but his family and origin were known to many in the crowd. He came from Nazareth as far as they were concerned and not from Heaven. Even worse, Jesus had begun to say that the people must eat his flesh and drink his blood, something that if taken literally was absolutely impossible for the Jews.
This eating of flesh and drinking of blood was too much to deal with, even for Jesus’ disciples. Presumably in some way they had seen Jesus as someone worth following but it seems that at this point many could go no further. Even though they must have witnessed miracles and heard a lot of teaching, this particular teaching was too much for them. On offer was eternal life, Jesus living in his disciples and them living in him, an opportunity to never die but that was not enough to convince them. We are told that many of the disciples considered this too hard to accept.
Many people, if they were to hear someone having difficulties with something they had asked of them, might try to soften the requirement or couch it in less stark terms. Not Jesus. When Jesus picked up on the complaining and the fact that these disciples seemed offended by what he was saying he basically told them that this was only the beginning. There was more to come that was guaranteed to offend them even more. Jesus had claimed his origin was in Heaven, in other words that he was divine. If his disciples were to see him ascend back to Heaven there could be no doubt about who he was. This was altogether too much for many who were listening. We’re told they turned back, presumably returning to their lives as they had been before Jesus attracted them.
I’ve come across people like these disciples. They seem genuinely attracted to Jesus but there is a point beyond which they cannot go. ‘He can’t ask that of me’; ‘I can’t give that up’; ‘That’s unreasonable to expect of anyone’; ‘You don’t know how difficult my life is’. On and on go the excuses. And so these would be disciples turn back to wherever they were before.
No doubt all this time, the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, The Twelve, had been listening to all he had been saying. Eventually their turn came as Jesus addressed them directly. Seeing the others disappear, Jesus asked The Twelve if that’s what they wanted to do also. They may have been closer to Jesus than some of the others, Jesus may have known them well, as he does with everyone, but they needed to declare if they could deal with this new harder teaching or not. Peter sums up the attitude of them all: ‘We’ve decided, we know you are the Holy One of God, we know this is where we find eternal life. There is nowhere else to go.’
Being a disciple of Jesus is not easy. It’s often quoted that ‘Jesus loves us as we are but loves us too much to leave us that way’. Those of us who declare ourselves to be Christians have never ‘arrived’ when it comes to our faith. There is always more to do, more to learn, more to risk. Our love for others as long as they are like us, has to enlarge to reach those not like us. The changes in our life choices that we have already made were only preparation for more far reaching changes. Our understanding of Jesus we now have is merely the introduction – the rest will blow our minds. Our view of ourselves is so distorted, awaiting the expanded view Jesus will bring us. Our generosity at the moment will one day seem miserly as we look back from where he’s taken us. Faith fully embraced will take us way beyond our comfort zones and our most fertile imaginations.
Any lengthy journey needs good provision to be made if it’s to be successful. The Christian journey is no different. If anyone can tell us just how challenging it is to be a Christian, Paul must be that person. He understood that there are forces of evil which do not want us to succeed. They would far rather we slunk away as the many disciples did, than that we should stay as the few did. We are in a fight every day as we strive to do what Jesus asks of us, to grow in holiness of life. Paul points out that God has given us what we need to win.
What we have at our disposal is spiritual armour as we are fighting a spiritual foe. We gird ourselves with a belt of truth – Jesus said that the truth will set us free. We need to be careful to digest the truth that we are given in the Bible. Half-truths and lies are no good to us. The breastplate of righteousness covers the vulnerable soft parts of the body. It can be difficult to live holy lives, particularly second lives. The temptations are strong, the opportunities are numerous and we have little experience and training to keep us from the pitfalls. We put on our feet the Gospel of peace, which we can share with those whom we meet. Our footwear determines how well we can walk, climb, stand and not slip. In sharing the Good News we hear it again ourselves and that increases our stability in the faith. The Gospel also helps us to develop our faith, which Paul describes as a shield. We need something to protect us, something that will extinguish the burning arrows of doubt fired at us. The helmet of salvation also protects us from doubt. Often it’s our thoughts that defeat us, the little voice in our head which tells us horrible things about ourselves or questions God’s goodness. We need protection from this assault.
The final piece of the armour Paul describes is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. This is designed for attacking, rather than for defence like the rest of the armour. Jesus used God’s Word this way when he was tempted in the wilderness. To counter each suggestion of the devil, he quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures. If we know the Bible, parts of it will come to us when we need them to guide us in the right way. Of course that means learning them before we need them!
Perhaps the idea of being in a spiritual fight is quite a frightening one for you. It’s certainly not something to dismiss lightly – it is very real. You can avoid the fight of course, by turning back from the journey of faith as many of Jesus’ disciples did when he challenged them with his teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Or you can focus on all that Jesus offers his disciples and join Peter in saying: ‘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.’