I don’t know what your week has been like, but I’ve had a week that has been full of typical priest-type things: visiting the sick and organising weddings, baptisms and funerals.
Indeed, in the next few weeks we’ve got two baptism scheduled, there’s one wedding next Saturday, and tomorrow I have a funeral.
*Baptisms are my favourite.
*Weddings .. are OK. They can be great, but they tend to also be quite taxing, mainly in the preparation of course, though listening to the speeches can also take its toll.
*Funerals, I don’t enjoy. No surprises there, I suppose. I’m told I’m good at them - that I take a mean funeral - but I don’t think I’ve ever really enjoyed a funeral.
I guess part of the problem with funerals, and with all sacramental services for that matter, is that they tap back into our own memories of such occasions.
When we hear the couple ,making their wedding vows we remember when we made our wedding vows (which is hopefully a positive memory).
When we baptise a child we remember (well, not our own baptism) but certainly when had our own children or siblings baptised.
And certainly, when we participate in a funeral, we remember people dear to us who have died. Certainly I find that I cannot take a funeral any more without being transported back to my father’s funeral …
We say at funerals ‘at last our beloved is free from pain. He has gone to a better place’, and for the most part I think that we do believe that this is true. But somehow it doesn‘t really make the occasion any less painful! And I think that’s because it’s not really the fate of the departed soul that we mourn. We mourn, rather, what we have lost.
And what do we loose? At one level it’s a hundred little things: the way we used to laugh and sing together, the way he used to tell jokes around the dinner table, the apple pies she used to bake, the stories he used to tell about the war …. all those things. And yet at another level it’s none of those little things but just one thing that we miss so much. We miss them. We miss their presence with us.
‘Presence’ - it is the basic building block of all meaningful human relationships, and it is what we grieve when we loose a loved one. It is the most basic gift that we have to offer one another and, coincidentally perhaps, I think it is also the key to understanding John chapter 6.
The dialogues Jesus enters into in John chapter 6, about bread and flesh and food and blood might all seem a bit of a riddle at one level.
The scene begins with a wonderful feeding miracle where 5000 men, plus women, plus children are fed from a few small loaves and fishes - a miracle that makes Jesus so popular that the whole crowd wants to make him king!
The scene ends though with that same group of people walking away from Jesus in disgust, thinking that he is crazy. And the thing that brings about this transformation in their attitude is the discussion Jesus has with them about bread.
‘You’re only hanging around because you had your fill of the loaves’, says Jesus. "Work not for the bread that perishes" he says, "but for the bread that endures for eternal life". That’s how the dialogue begins, and then it gets progressively more bizarre.
"I am the bread"; Jesus says. "I am the bread that came down from Heaven! The bread that I give for the life of the world, is my flesh".
And when the people find this offensive, Jesus just pushes the point further: ‘My flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed’. And at this point the majority of the hangers-on that day decide that they have had enough. They leave, never to return.
Those familiar with John’s Gospel will no doubt see here the familiar pattern of metaphor and misunderstanding that occurs through the book.
In the dialogues recorded in John, Jesus regularly speaks in metaphor, and He is regularly misunderstood.
In John 3 for instance, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, and Jesus says to him, ‘You must be born from above’, but Nicodemus misunderstands him, and thinks he is talking about being reborn to his mother all over again!
In John 4, Jesus encounters a woman at the well, and He tells her that ‘she who drinks of your water will thirst again’, and offers her ‘living water’ instead, but she thinks he‘s talking about some underground spring that he‘s found.
And so likewise in John 6, where Jesus is dealing with a whole crowd of people, He says to them, ‘work not for the bread that perishes, but for the heavenly bread that endures for eternal life’, but the crowd thinks that he’s talking about some special health food, similar to that which Moses sourced for them back in the days of old, except that it doesn’t go off - a super-organic-health-bread-concoction perhaps, that has all the wonderful benefits that those health drinks you’ve read about on the Internet are supposed to have for you. ‘He who eats of this bread will live forever!’
Jesus says, ‘NO, NO and NO!. I am the bread! My flesh is the food. What you need is not some new form of organic pastry. What you need is ME!’
You see, it’s His presence that we need - not His wisdom, not his teachings, not the memories of all the good times we spent together (nice though they were) but His presence!
Let me say this again in case you missed it: What we need fundamentally in this life is the presence of Jesus with us - not His wisdom, not his teachings, not even His miracles and His healings, as significant as these each may be! What we need though is Him - his flesh, his blood, his real presence with us.
This is what Nicodemus didn’t understand when he came to see Jesus. He thought he needed wisdom, insight, and a better understanding of God’s law. ’No’, said Jesus, ‘what you need is to be born from above! What you need is to have the Spirit of God within you!’
This is the same thing the woman in John 4 couldn’t grasp. She knew she needed water to live, but Jesus tells her, ‘No, it’s not physical water that you need, but the presence of the Spirit of God living within you that you need - the living water that wells up to eternal life!’
This is what the crowd we read about in John 6 didn’t understand. The crowd came looking for bread, but Jesus tells them, ‘It’s not ordinary bread that you need. You need the living bread. You need the presence of the living God in your life. You need to move beyond ‘me’ to ’we’! You need my flesh and blood within you. You need me within you!’
There’s something strikingly contemporary about this religious ‘seeking behaviour’ that we read about in these early chapters of John’s Gospel.
Like Nicodemus, like the woman, like the crowd, I think that most people who turn up to church out of the blue are likewise looking for one of two things: they are looking for answers or they’re looking for a miracle!
Either their beloved is dying and they need healing, or their beloved has died and they need to make sense of it! And the hard thing from the priest point of view is that we’re often not able to deliver either!
We pray for miracles, as we pray for wisdom, but we know full well that sometimes the miracles just do not happen, and sometimes things just won’t make sense!
What we can always offer people though, and what we can always guarantee for people who come genuinely searching, is that Christ will give to them what he told us is far more important than either a miracle or an explanation - He will give them His presence if they are open to it.
No we can’t always guarantee the healing and we can’t always guarantee the explanation, but we do know that He will always do that which He has always promised to do - which is that which we most need Him to do. "Lo, I will be with you always’. He has promised to be with us, His presence with us, His body and His blood within us!
This is the essence, I believe, of John Chapter 6, and it is certainly the essence of Christian spirituality according to the New Testament.
What does it mean to live a ‘Christian life’ according to the New Testament? It means living a life in union with Christ.
‘To live is Christ’ says St. Paul - notably not to understand Christ or even to serve Christ, but simply ‘to live is Christ’.
This is the same Paul who says of his own ministry ‘Jews demand a sign, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified’ (1 Corinthians 1:22). It’s not the miracles. It‘s not the wisdom. It’s Christ Himself.
It probably should not surprise us that God works this way, because all significant relationships work this way.
This is what I need most from Ange. God knows I need her help in what we do here, and certainly I need her wisdom in knowing how to handle situations, but most of all I just need her to be present rather than absent.
This is what is so hard about losing someone you love, and why I still find funerals so hard. What I miss most about my dad is not his practical help (though it was considerable) and it’s not his good advice (though that was also considerable). What I miss is having him with me!
This brings us to the heart of our ministry - what it is that we offer our community. We offer Christ.
This is why our Youth Centre must never become some separate government funded programme, because what we need to offer these kids is not only a safe place to hang, and lots of good clean fun, but also Christ.
This is why we must continue to extend a ministry towards needy and addicted persons from this church, because we know that these persons need not only government programs and counselling and medical help, but also Christ.
And this is the gift that what we offer each other this morning here in church - it is Christ.
In one school I read about, in the week leading up to Father’s day, the fathers of the children were invited to class though of course very few could show up. And yet each child in the class got up to say something about their fathers. My father is a gynaecologist one boy said, and he is a very important man. My father is a solicitor another child says, and he makes a lot of money. Finally it came the turn for one young boy whose father was unemployed.
"My dad", he said very proudly, "is here!"
It’s not the wisdom. It’s not the miracles. It’s not the things about Christ that we need the most. It is Christ - God with us - His flesh, His blood - food and drink indeed - abiding in us. The Lord be with you!