Friday, 27 January 2017

Seeing Jesus in each other


John 14:6 Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’

These are the ‘going away’ words of Jesus to his disciples. He has just washed their feet. He has begun to prepare them for the horrors to come. And he is also preparing them also for life in the Spirit after the resurrection.

It should be said again that one of the special things about John’s gospel is that it is the deep memory of the apostle written down on paper years after it was written upon his heart. Everything about the narrative of John is about remembering the life and work and words of Jesus in the light of the resurrection. His looking back is in fact also a way of looking forward too.

The words of chapter fourteen are often read at a funeral. In that specific context, they are meant as words of comfort. Its perhaps worth having the full paragraph that wraps around ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’. Notice, also, how it is Thomas who Jesus is addressing when he gets to this fifth ‘I am’.

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

This ‘I am’ is about journeying home to the eternal place we have in the heart of God. But this journeying is done not just through Jesus but with the help of the Holy Spirit. Verse 26 is as important as verse 6. For Jesus tells us that his is the path to life, but he also tells us that the Holy Spirit will be sent to teach and remind us of Jesus’ words which lead us to the Father. And this journeying, of course, begins with the story of our life woven into God each day here on earth.  

One of my favourite ‘spiritual’ artists is Elizabeth Wang. She died in September last year quite suddenly from pancreatic cancer. She was a woman of tremendous faith and her insights into Jesus’ way of life were expressed through colour and form. I have found her study of the Trinity (left) very powerful and moving. What is quite striking, first of all, is that all the Trinity appear to have a female form. We have the hand of Jesus, marked by the wound of the nail, reaching out to an approaching human. We have the arms of the Creator wrapping the community of the Trinity, creating a welcoming circle. And we have the Spirit carefully cradling the people who are being welcomed into the Life of the Trinity. And all that is required of the approaching human is two things: that they are walking towards the Trinity and they are reaching out to the Trinity. I would like to imagine that the human being approaching the Trinity is Thomas.

Thomas is the one who asks Jesus the straightforward question: ‘We don’t know where you are going so how are we to know the way?’ It is Thomas, who after the resurrection, finds it hard to believe that Jesus has indeed returned in his resurrected form. It is Thomas who questions if it is possible. It is Thomas who will only believe if he can put his hand into Jesus’ side and see the nail wounds. And it is Thomas who bows down at Jesus’ feet and proclaims him ‘my Lord and my God’.
Thomas stands for us. We ask the way. We don’t understand the resurrection. We wonder where God is in our lives, often. Yet we can’t let go of the searching and the travelling. And we find that the more we focus on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we find a way through this life.

The purpose of a funeral sermon is to proclaim the gospel in the context of the death of the particular person. It is not the same as the tributes which are made by those who loved the particular person. It is an opportunity to point to the ways that the truth and life of Jesus had been evident in life of the person who has died. But, I have often felt it such a shame that we only do this at the end of  a person’s life. How good it would be to talk openly to each other about the ways we see that truth and life of Jesus at work in each other while we live. What an encouragement that would be! 

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

From here to eternity


John 11.25-26 Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’

This ‘I am’ saying of Jesus is found in the extraordinary story of the raising to life of Lazarus, a story which only John tells us. The claim 'I am the resurrection and the life' comes as Jesus is addressing Martha, the sister of Lazarus. She has just told him bluntly that if only he had been around her brother would not have died. And then, equally bluntly, she professes that even at this late hour God would grant Jesus whatever he asked. Here is honest faith. Jesus then says to Martha that Lazarus will ‘rise again’. And Martha, thinking he is talking about the resurrection to eternal life at the last day, says, ‘Well, of course he will, Lord.’ And it is at this point that Jesus says the phrase: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

Pause a minute.              
What is Jesus saying here?         
He is saying, this is not about a theological belief.
This is about a NEW REALITY!

The emphasis is upon the Jesus’ claim that he is the resurrection and the life; it is as if he is bursting with the life force that was there at the start of all life billions of years ago; life co-created with God the Father and the Holy Spirit; life which cannot be killed off even by death itself.

It is really important, I think, to be clear. Lazarus was dead for four days (there was a custom that the soul hovered over the body for three days and only left on the fourth day when it was clear someone was truly dead). He was miraculously raised to more life when Jesus called him out of the tomb. But Lazarus was not resurrected. Only Jesus has been resurrected to eternal life. Our lives are bound to his death, but also to his resurrection. And so, we believe that, as Jesus said, ‘those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.’  Lazarus eventually died, of course. He, like us, will be resurrected to eternal life.

In the picture above, by the thirteenth century Armenian iconographer Toros Roslin, we see Mary and Martha at Jesus’ feet. And we see Lazarus being led out of the tomb on Jesus’ command, the bindings loosened. Notice how the man leading Lazarus out of the tomb seems to have only one arm. Why might this be? Could there be a link between a disabled man leading Lazarus out of the tomb and Lazarus’s own bodily state?

At the recent Hot Potato Supper, we were thinking more deeply about this particular story in quite some detail. We were using Archbishop Justin Welby’s book Dethroning Mammon to help us understand the thought ‘what we see, we value’. In the first chapter of the book, Welby explores why it was that Lazarus, Mary and Martha were of such ‘value’ to Jesus. He tells how Jean Vanier, the Christian philosopher and theologian, who founded the L’Arche community, thinks one reason Jesus saw such ‘value’ in Lazarus was that he was disabled.

Here is how he sees it: Mary and Martha are unmarried sisters because they are devoted in their care for their brother (their devotion has prevented them from being married – perhaps out of choice, perhaps because no families were willing to take on Lazarus as part of the ‘dowry’). He could be in some way disabled or affected by a life-limiting condition. Whatever the case, Lazarus has uncertain health which leads to his sudden death. Jesus is incredibly attached to the three siblings. Their vulnerability perhaps draws Jesus in such a way that he is quite protective of them. Famously, we learn that Jesus weeps as Mary tells him that Lazarus has died. If Jesus already knew Lazarus had died, why was it at this point he is so broken-hearted? Is it because he is presented with such raw grief? As the crowd say: ‘See how he loved him!’

The raising of Lazarus to more life is told in John’s Gospel as another ‘sign’ of the super-abundant life of God and is told as a pre-figuring of Jesus’ own resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is an absolutely foundational to the Christian faith. Our resurrection is intertwined with Jesus' resurrection: if there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ has not been raised either, says Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.19.

But we must not forget the other part of this Jesus ‘I am’ saying. Jesus is ‘the resurrection’ – something, in a sense, for us in the future, after our own deaths. But Jesus is also ‘the life’. That is, Jesus is our way of life now. One incredibly inspiring way we can see the life of Jesus flowing is through the story of the L’Arche Communities.

In 1964, Jean Vanier became hugely affected by the knowledge that thousands of people with learning difficulties were effectively entombed in huge institutions. He set out to make a difference. And in that year, he set up home with two men with learning difficulties. He began a relational movement. This small step of faith has grown, in the last fifty years, into a worldwide movement. Today there are 1,800 such communities in 80 countries around the world (there are 10 in the UK). I once spent a week living on a L’Arche community in France. It was a life-enhancing and life-changing time for me.

There are two simple principles and truths which undergird each community. The first is that people with learning disabilities have a great deal to contribute to society. The second is that by living in intentional community with people with and without learning disabilities, living with diversity and difference, we open ourselves up to be challenged and grow. This is for me a sign of the resurrection life Jesus embodies. His life-giving touch restored Lazarus not only to life, but to community. Resurrection life is for now and for eternity.

Here is the L’Arche Prayer.

Father, through Jesus our Lord and our brother, we ask you to bless us.
Grant that L'Arche be a true home,
where everyone may find life,
where those of us who suffer may find hope.
Keep in your loving care all those who come.
Spirit of God,
give us greatness of heart that we may welcome all those you send.
Make us compassionate that we may heal and bring peace.
Help us to see, to serve and to love.
O Lord, through the hands of each other, bless us;
through the eyes of each other, smile on us.
O Lord, grant freedom, fellowship and unity
to all your people and welcome everyone into your kingdom.


Goodness and mercy shall follow me

John 10:11-14 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’”

Last summer we were on holiday in the Lakes. On a rainy day, we went to a country fair in Rydal, and to my great delight there was a sheepdog trial. This is where shepherds with varying years of experience from around the country get together to share shaggy dog stories and pit their wits (and their working dogs) against each other. The organisers provide each shepherd with five sheep who wait for them at the far end of a pasture. They then must guide these sheep, which they will not know, through various gates and twists and turns till they arrive at a pen when, with a final flourish, the shepherd shuts the gate behind them.

Talking to one of the shepherds after his round, it emerged he had nearly 60 years’ experience. But, notwithstanding all that knowledge, the five sheep had been absolute tearaways and his young dog was run ragged. We were chatting to him as he gave his poor worn out border collie glucose water to re-charge her. He said: ‘Sheep are not as silly as they are made out. They are very canny. They spot a weakness in a dog and they exploit it. And once they have challenged the authority of the dog it will only go one way, and that’s downhill.’ This was very true of his experience that day. If sheep could smile, then his five were beaming.

We perhaps have a romantic view of the life of a hill shepherd. Of course, it is a tough and lonely lifestyle. It requires physical strength, tenaciousness, patience and a kind of stoicism which is born out of wisdom – the wisdom that knows things almost inevitably are going to go wrong rather than right. As I watched the shepherds with their wonderful dogs, I learned especially about their calm and steady attitude. Not once did I hear any of them raise their voice, no matter how frustrating the trial was turning out. In the real world (away from sheepdog trials) a shepherd knows his or her sheep. He or she know each sheep because they were there when they were born (or soon after). And they will know which one is missing even if it seems the flock is full. Shepherds will also know every rock and stream and blade of grass of the fells on which their sheep wander. They will know the favourite grazing spaces and sheltered spots. They will know which ewe is the leader of the flock. And the flock will know their shepherd (and dog).

We are considering the ‘names of Jesus’ in this blog. And currently we are midway through a chain of ‘I am’ names which Jesus gives himself in the Gospel of John. The idea that Jesus is a Good Shepherd is perhaps one of the most familiar, comforting and widely-known name. We are invited to imagine Jesus as the one who is out in front with a staff in his hand leading us to new pastures and quiet waters and places of safety. It is a dynamic image because it involves a sense of movement or journey.

But, actually, this role is about utter self-sacrifice. We learn that a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (echoes here of Jesus as the Lamb of God). He is completely committed to them. He loves them even to the point where he would give up his life for the sheep’s safety. He would not run away when the wolf appears (unlike the hired hands, who are only there for the money). But he would stay and ward off prey. And the sheep know him as he knows them. Such a good shepherd has his eye on the far horizon. He longs to add more sheep to his flock. He is constantly on the move and his sheep must keep on the move with him too.

Metaphors do eventually break, for none can hold the completeness of Jesus. But this metaphor works for us both as individuals (being carried as a vulnerable lamb over the shoulders of the rescuing shepherd) and as a congregation (hearing his voice together, discerning a path together). We each have our own relationship with the shepherd as well as a sense of a shared relationship with the shepherd.

Throughout John’s gospel one of the great themes is ‘knowing’. What kind of ‘knowing’ does John mean? Scholars often look for the ‘Gnostic’ nature of the narrative, a hidden or secret knowledge. It is sometimes called the Gnostic gospel because this was a developing theme of first century Christian exploration. In fact, this kind of secret knowledge was seen to develop an exclusive and dangerous approach to faith in Jesus, and so it was identified as a heresy. But Jesus was not a ‘secret shepherd’. He was always open, always calling, always teaching and ministering to people in the open. His was not a hidden cult or sect. And so, when Jesus says the shepherd ‘knows’ his sheep and his sheep ‘know’ the shepherd, he is not talking about an initiated secret knowledge. But rather he is talking about a liberated, free and relational knowing. It is about the kind of knowledge founded upon trust and experience. It is not, ultimately, about ‘knowledge’ of the head on its own, but ‘knowledge’ of the head and the heart. And the Good Shepherd knows how to take the trusting sheep on that journey from head knowledge to heart knowledge. Thank goodness!

Jesus knows things are inevitably going to go wrong rather than right - he knows the journey to liberation will go through the necessity of the cross. Jesus also knows the paths to righteousness where deliverance from evil is possible. And:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

What my dog teaches me about loving faithfulness


John 10:7-10 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

In the picture, there is a shepherd sitting at the entrance to a sheep fold. He is, quite literally, the gate to the pen. No sheep can leave and no wild prey enter without him knowing or letting it happen. And in these verses we consider today, Jesus describes himself as being like that kind of gate. These verses are found sandwiched between two chunks of John that give us that ultimate picture of Jesus, as the Good Shepherd. And this short section ends with possibly one of the top ten verses in the bible – ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’

Yesterday we buried our lovely sheepdog-cross friend Jess. She has had a mercifully short illness – just 24 hours of distress, after 14 years of life in all its fullness. She was welcomed into our life seven years ago, after seven years with another owner who died. She was a gentle soul who gave us much joy and love. She was my constant companion on walks round Warley Woods and many other places. She was for a while an ‘honorary curate’ – welcoming visitors into my study and putting them at ease with a gentle nudge of the nose and a flop on the floor beside a well-placed chair so that she could be stroked. She was, in some ways, a gate. She would ease people who were nervous, perhaps, about seeing a vicar for the first time. She would be a starting gate for conversation; I would say the clear majority (95%) of people would find Jess to be a creature who put them at ease. 

She also taught us about living life more fully. Many dog owners will attest to the fact that a dog accepts you for who you are no matter what has happened in your day. They give unconditionally (not perhaps like cats, who are perversely independent until they want something from you – and I love cats too, for this). My friendship with Jess (pictured above on Malvern with me last summer in a photo taken by Isobel) has sustained me through the challenges of life. She has taught me to enjoy the moment: there is nothing more joyous than seeing a dog frisk through a light dusting of snow, or enjoy meeting a favourite canine friend on the park, or simply just wag their tails on seeing you approach them.

We read the 23rd Psalm over Jess’s grave in our back garden last night. We found ourselves just giving thanks for simple things about our lives woven together these last seven years. And in the mystery of the love that exists between creatures and humans, there is something of the mystery of the way a Good Shepherd weaves into our lives that relationship of mutual love and thanksgiving and joy. For we are God’s people and God’s sheep. Psalm 100 perhaps puts this sense of creaturely-ness and thankfulness most truly:
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he that made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
    and his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures for ever,
    and his faithfulness to all generations.

Jesus is the gate to life in all its fullness. Others will try and lead and guide us, but they will not have our best interests at heart. They will want what they can get from us, not us ourselves. Jess taught me about this unconditional love that Jesus has to offer. The psalmist urges us to enter the gates of God with thanksgiving. For this is the way to fullness of life. And this praise is based upon the certainty that the shepherd who guards the fold has a love and faithfulness that endures for ever. The love and faithfulness that our lovely dog showed us all these years will endure in our lives.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

I will hold the Christ-light for you

John 8:12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

John 9:5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

‘The Light of the World’ is one of the most famous pictures of Christian art. In fact, this particular version of Holman Hunt’s work (he painted three in his life time) is one of the most well-travelled art work of all time. This is the one that hangs in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It is an allegorical artwork painted between 1900 and 1904, but based on the first, of 1853, which hangs in Keeble College Oxford (the second, painted shortly afterwards, can be seen in the Manchester Art Gallery).   

This “sermon in a frame” toured the globe visiting most of the major towns and cities in Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. It has been seen by millions of people and is one of the best-known works of its period. Purchased from Holman-Hunt by the industrialist Charles Booth it was donated to St Paul’s and dedicated at a service in June 1908. The choir sang psalm 119 which includes the verse: “Thy word is a lantern unto my feet and a light unto my path”.

In the painting, there are two lights: the lantern is the light of conscience and the light around the head of Christ is the light of salvation. The door represents the human soul, which cannot be opened for the outside. There is no handle on the door, and the rusty nails and hinges overgrown with ivy denote that the door has never been opened and that the figure of Christ is asking permission to enter. Interestingly, the morning star appears near Christ, the dawn of a new day, and the autumn weeds and fallen fruit represent the autumn of life. The writing beneath the picture, is taken from Revelation 3: ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man hears my voice and open the door I will come in to him and will sup with him and he with me.’

Today we think about another name Jesus gave to himself in the Gospel of John. There are two verses in the gospel which specifically refer to this ‘I am’ saying. The first time comes in Chapter 8 and comes immediately after Jesus has saved the life of the woman caught in adultery. This sets the context for the saying: John 8.2-20: Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

This saying comes out of a conflict with the religious leaders of the time, in particular the Pharisees, who claim to shine the light of the law on the society they regulate and manage. Jesus claims to be not only the light for his people but for the whole world. This light is compassion and truth. Jesus shines the light of loving consideration and care on woman and shines the light of truth on her accusers. So, it is possible to infer that Jesus’ light is both loving and searching. The Prologue in the first chapter of the same Gospel describes it in this way: In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.’ 

So, in this instance, Jesus’ light is not understood by the Pharisees, yet they cannot argue against it either. One thing we can say about the Pharisees is that they understand what sin is and cannot deny that they themselves have sinned. And the woman? She walks into a new way of life, one guided by light. (Of course, we can critique this passage especially in asking, ‘What about the man who was also involved in the adultery’?) There seems to be no end to this light. It seems that it is impossible for the light to be extinguished.

The second context for Jesus’ description of himself as the ‘Light of the World’ is found in the next chapter and is connected to the healing of a man born blind. This is a wonderful chapter in its own right: the story of the healing, the questioning of the Pharisees, the way the parents respond and the courage and humour of the man who is healed, show something of the fine story-telling skill of John. Here are the first 12 verses: As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

This time Jesus seems to be suggesting that there is a time when the works of light will not be possible. ‘Night is coming, when no one can work,’ he says. Was that his crucifixion? Is this 'night time' yet to come? Yet Jesus also promises that ‘as long as he is in the world, he is the light of the world.’ What might we make of this? Are there times when the world [or ‘The System’] is so devoid of daylight, so full of darkness, that even Jesus cannot work? 

I don't believe so, ultimately. But there will be times in our lives when we feel that deep sense of darkness and maybe even a sense of abandonment by the light. However, in the end, 'The System' will be judged and the darkness will be defeated. I find this teaching of Jesus both comforting and uncomfortable, both full of hope yet full of realism. I am reminded of the wonderful words of the hymn 'Brother, Sister, let me serve you'. 

I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the night-time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.

Jesus stands at the door with the lamp of his salvation and the will be there when the night closes in. For he has promised to be with us always, even to the end of time. 

In whom all our hungers are satisfied

John 6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Bread. For much of the world, it is the most basic of life-giving food stuffs. This is Jesus’ second name for himself from the Gospel of John. This saying of Jesus in Chapter 6 comes after he has fed 5,000 hungry people with bread and fish, tearing and breaking five small barley loaves and two small fish in an extraordinary miracle (this is the only miracle of Jesus that all four gospels report). He has then walked on water to the disciples as they despaired in a storm. And then the next day the crowd who had been fed by him, follow him across the lake. They grab boats which have come from Tiberius to this somewhat deserted spot (possibly near Bethsaida) and take a trip across the northern part of the lake to Capernaum to locate Jesus. They were hungry for more. But where they hungry for Jesus or something else?

Here’s the full story from the point the hungry crowd realise they want to track him down (John 6.22ff): The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So, when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 

The first thing to note is that Jesus seems to question what is motivating the crowd. It appears that Jesus discerns that they are looking for him because he had filled their stomachs. He says they need food that will fill them not just on this earth, which has a sell-by date. He offers a food that has no sell-by date but lasts through eternal life. Jesus responded to their physical hunger out of compassion for them the day before. There was nowhere to go for food out in the wilderness of the hills around the Sea of Galilee. And Jesus had responded by converting five small barley loaves into something ridiculously abundant. But those who then wanted more (More miracles? More signs? More time with Jesus? Or perhaps more food?) had now made huge efforts to find him. So Jesus starts to take this experience of bread which connected them to him and give it new meaning and new importance. He says don’t work just for food, but let me give you something even more satisfying. It is as if he is stretching the dough and pummelling it. Metaphorically and in new ways that perhaps make more sense to us as we think about bread and wine at Holy Communion, Jesus is getting the crowd to join in with him in exploring what it means to be fed by Jesus’ own bread.

Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So, they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Who were this crowd who had made such effort to track down Jesus in Capernaum? How come 5,000 people (probably many thousands more, because, as we know, the Gospel writers only seem to count the men) could spend time away from work to follow him into the wilderness? Were they the landless day labourers who depend so much on earning their next wage to get fed? Where they whole villages and families who just got caught up in the extraordinary phenomena of the Jesus movement of healing and teaching in Galilee?

What is evident is that they were Jews who knew their faith and history. They were literate about their shared religious roots. They could enter into a dialogue with Jesus using shared terms of reference. They remembered how Moses had fed the Israelites with bread from heaven (manna) for 40 years of wandering in the desert. Was this the kind of bread Jesus was offering – a miraculous supply for them? No wonder they responded with such hope to an endless supply of bread from the hands of the miracle-working Jesus – a bread that would sustain life for the whole world. Is this what is going on? Were they hoping that Jesus would become a limitless food bank for this poor community?

Today is Sunday. We come together as a worshipping community 2000 years on from this reported encounter to break bread. We look back at this story of Jesus through the telescope of interpretation which comes from 2000 years of  Eucharistic practice. We come to Jesus at the altar, the one in whom, in the words of the service we sometimes use, ‘all our hungers are satisfied’.

Jesus tells the crowd then and us now that this is what he is about. He alone meets us in our deepest needs, our most evident terrors, in our hidden shame, in or most profound worries and says I have another source of life-giving reality to share with you. Come to me and, yes, eat of my bread and drink of my wine; yet know that there is something of me coming into you to sustain your body and soul. Bread for the mortal body yet also bread for your eternal life too.

The final verses of chapter six take us deeper into Jesus’ theology of the Eucharist and also a response from some in the crowd who find his teaching too hard. They start to say how this Jesus, whose parents we know, be telling us that he can feed us food that will solve our hunger. They start to disbelieve him.

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves.  No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.  It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

They also begin to question (it might seem quite reasonable to do so, really) the revolutionary idea that Jesus will actually become the bread of life for centuries and millennia to come. As always, the ‘I am’ blows our mind because he is speaking about the vast stretch of time and not just that moment in Capernaum. He is speaking of his body broken on the cross and his blood shed from the wounds he endures. He is speaking about the actual and metaphorical breaking of bread and breaking of body.

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  So, Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”  

This has been a much longer blog because it has been important to me to look at the way in which Jesus has pulled and stretched the meaning of the ‘bread of life’. And yet there will be much more from you, dear reader, to stretch and pull our shared understanding of Jesus as nourisher and the one who abides in us. 

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Truth which blows our mind

‘I AM’

John 8:58 Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
(Marc Chagall: 'Abraham and the Three Angels')
Today, we begin to look at some of the names Jesus gave to himself. This is by contrast to yesterday when we came to the conclusion that we could not worship Jesus as 'King of the Jews' because, in so many ways, it was not a name which inspired that kind of prayerful response. We walk with John's Gospel for the next few days, for it is here that we have the 'I am' sayings of Jesus.

So we begin with 'I am' itself. In three short letters and two short words Jesus reveals one huge truth. He uses the words of God to Moses - I AM - as code for 'I am God'. And he also suggests he pre-exists Abraham, the father of faith – the one who was the start of life and religion as the Jewish people. Quite a lot to get our head around. This huge truth was too much for Jesus’ hearers, as recorded in John 8. Claiming primacy over Abraham and using code for 'I am God', in the precincts of the Temple, Jesus had to make a swift exit as the crowd he was addressing turned on him and picked up stones to kill him. Jesus seems to light the blue touch paper and then withdraws.

It is worth just having a portion of Chapter 8.31-58 in front of us: Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’

Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.’

They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.’ They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.’

The Jews answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon; but I honour my Father, and you dishonour me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.’ The Jews said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, “He is our God”, though you do not know him. But I know him; if I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

What puzzles me a little about the context is that it starts by telling us that Jesus is addressing people who believe in him. Perhaps these 'believers' were wrestling with their own identity as well as with Jesus' identity. And it seems that in the end their sense of identity in the ancient roots of their faith, as they understand it, wins. The more they engage with Jesus the more they seem to fortify their position.

They fall back on their sense of identity which has a line all the way back to Abraham. Their faith was based on an ancient shared history, a rich culture and a proud sense of chosen-ness and spiritual liberty. It was a faith based on the past, but perhaps a past filtered by stuff that seemed to blind them to the present and the future.

It is seems to me that this encounter is something we experience ourselves when we journey with Jesus in discipleship. We know the tension between what we think we know and believe and having the courage to allow new spiritual realities to be unveiled to us. We know that we can easily hold on to faulty doctrine and become very defensive of what we think we know about God. But we also know that there is another part of our spiritual formation which urges us to open up to the mystery and the unknown. This is the spirituality of prayerful waiting and consideration. And it is in these moments of mystery that we meet God and are transformed by truth far more profoundly than we ever are by relying on what we think we already know. This encounter between Jesus and the crowd is about the tragedy of minds and hearts becoming enclosed by defensive thinking. The account does not tell us much about the mounting emotional reaction each time Jesus drops another challenge into the confrontation. But we know that by the end they are furious enough to look for stones to throw at him. 

In this new era of populism and fake news and fanatical certainties, where is the space for mystery and humility and truth? Are we, too, not metaphorical stone-throwers (do we not think we are right and the others wrong whatever side of the divide we find ourselves)?r 

There is a lot in the Abrahamic tradition - especially in the psalms - about waiting on God in prayer and not rushing to judgment. But when a group of people want to assert their identity in the face of something new and threatening, that act of assertion rarely springs from an attitude of prayerful waiting. It is all about combat and denunciation. 

Having said that, Jesus, who practices the discipline of prayerful waiting throughout his earthly ministry, seems quite willing to enter into this theological combat. And he goes for the jugular. It seems like he boxes them in. Group-think turns to mob attack as Jesus asserts they cannot really be children of Abraham but are really of the devil (the father of lies not the father of truth). For if they truly understood Abraham – the faithful adventurer – they would welcome Jesus, he says. He then says that Abraham would be rejoicing at the news of that his day had come; they ask him how, as he is not yet even 50, he could possibly have seen Abraham?; Jesus then blows all our minds (and theirs) with his phrase of ultimate truth: 'Before Abraham, I am.'

It is worth remembering this: though it is mind-blowing enough to try and grasp that Jesus existed before time began, it is also mind-blowing to even conceive of the possibility that Jesus did indeed meet Abraham at the oaks of Mamre. In Genesis 18 there is a story of how Abraham meets God in the shape of three travellers. Christian reflection upon the story of the messengers has provided rich resources of thought about God as Trinity. These messengers tell Abraham that 'with God all things are possible'.

Could it be that Abraham met the Trinity before the impossible could be made possible (in both the birth of Isaac and the incarnation of Christ)? Could it be that Abraham, the father of Judaism, would have recognised and accepted Jesus had he been there while the crowd, who considered themselves to be 'children of Abraham', could not?

And so this is a Name of Jesus to worship and ponder and treasure with wondering awe. Time and eternity held within the loving gaze of the dance of the Trinity. May we have moments of encounter in this life that transcend what we think we know and lead us into greater truth.