Summary: The docetist heresy, the reality of Christ’s incarnation, and his setting of priorities: his father’s will above his earthly, physical needs.
Sermon for Evening Prayer and Benediction 22nd July 2001
Text: John 4:31-35
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work”
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is a caricature of Jewish mothers that they force food onto their hapless offspring: I am reminded of Maureen Lipman’s sublime character in the old British Telecom adverts, never mind, eat something. The response to any difficulty or confrontation would be made better by a bowl of Chicken Noodle Soup.
It is food which concerns us tonight, both food to sustain the body and food to sustain the soul.
One of the worst heresies that the church had to battle with in its early life is the heresy of docetism, a word taken from the Greek, dokew – ‘I seem’. This heresy holds that Christ was not actually here, but only seemed to be; the incarnation was not real, and that the sufferings of Christ, the divine, were not really experienced. In the docetist view, God merely projected an image of divinity onto earth and would not, or indeed could not sully himself with nasty tainted humanity like you and I.
It is a grave heresy that undermines the awesome reality of the incarnation, of the reality of Christ come to earth, as one of us; it is a heresy which belittles the sacrifice made for us on the cross and makes light of the triumph of the resurrection: a remote docetic God cannot love us all that much if he only went through the motions of incarnation, birth, life, death and resurrection.
Fully God and Fully Man is our saviour, and repeatedly we read of him in the Gospels experiencing the full range of human emotions and experiences; for even a perfect, sinless man feels joy, anger, grief and ultimately the pain of crucifixion.
He feels also hunger. The synoptic gospels speak of the temptation in the wilderness, and the temptation placed before Christ to turn stones into bread. To that he responded that “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4). The fourth gospel: the gospel of John, does not feature the temptation of Christ by the devil, but the fundamentals of its teaching is represented here.
For Christ was no docetic illusion, fully God and fully Man, he was as hungry as the rest of us; but over-riding his hunger, his earthly needs, was his hunger to do his Father’s work: to accomplish his task – nothing less than the salvation of the world.
The disciples are focussed on the immediate, the practical, the concrete. They are like Maureen Lipman’s character: never mind, eat something. They concentrate on the practical, Martha-type activities of this morning’s Gospel.
Christ, however, looks beyond this and beyond the mere practicalities of food and drink. The disciple’s suggestion that Jesus should eat some of the food they had brought becomes the occasion for him to teach them something of his priorities.
Dr Leon Morris commented that “It was meat and drink to Christ to do the divine will, the urgent task not to be postponed.” This urgent task would not be completed until the climax of John’s Gospel, when from the agony of the cross, Our Lord could boldly declare: “It is finished!” (John 19:30)
When Christ sent out the Apostles, and then the 72, they were all sent out with nothing: no purse, no sword, no second cloak: they were to trust in the Lord God to provide for them, and to trust in His grace to see them safely through their tasks.
We heard this morning [in the Mass readings] how Mary, sister of Lazarus, sat at the foot of the Lord and feeding on his word, whilst her sister Martha got on with the food preparation. Fr Kirk [Our guest preacher] showed us how Christ valued both of those ministries of these women, and urged us to follow the example of a bit of both of them. In this passage, Christ shows us that for him, and by implication, for us, the ultimate task was to do the will of Him who sent Our Lord and to accomplish his task on earth. The docetic heresy got this so very wrong, for it failed to appreciate that God, abased as man, would put all his godhead aside for our sake.
“It is finished” he cried on the cross. Let us strive therefore to turn aside from our daily preoccupations, to trust in God for Our Daily Bread and “to accomplish his work”.