Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 11 Sunday 12 August 2018
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: 1 Kings 19.4-8; Psalm 34.1-8; Ephesians 4.35-5.2; John 6.35, 41-51
“Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” I Kings 19.8
Why has Elijah gone into the wilderness? Why is he in such a depressed, even suicidal state?
His despairing flight comes immediately after his triumph over Queen Jezebel’s pagan prophets on Mount Carmel. Neither he nor Jezebel had any interest in inter-faith dialogue. He has slain her prophets and she has vowed to do the same to him. She has sworn vengeance against him, sending a messenger to him to say: “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” She was not the kind of person to issue idle threats, so Elijah had fled; taking refuge in the wilderness. But even there he feels only despair; asking that he might die: “It is enough, now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
But God is not finished with Elijah yet. He sends an angel with bread and water and the instruction to “Get up and eat.” He does so but then goes back to sleep again. So the angel appears a second time to prod him awake. His journey is not over yet; it will take him forty days and forty nights’ further into the wilderness, to Horeb, to Mount Sinai, the place where God had given the law to Israel through Moses. There he will be told that God has more for him to do; so he must eat and drink what God provides in order to have strength for the journey and the task.
If we read on in the story, we find that God speaks to him there, asking: ”What are you doing here, Elijah?” The prophet’s answer is still one of despair: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.”
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
“What are we doing here?”
What are you, Richard, Sue, Angela, David, Biddy ……doing here?
What are we doing here at All Saints?
The answer might seem obvious. We are doing what we do every Sunday. We have come to church to celebrate the Eucharist. We have come to the place where God speaks his word to us and where he feeds us at his table.
Unless one of us has managed to get on the wrong side of Mr. Putin, we are unlikely to be on the run from a vengeful latter-day Jezebel. But in an age when faith seems to be in decline and the Church beset by scandal, it is tempting to think like Elijah that it’s all hopeless; there’s no future in it; to ask with the critics in today’s Gospel how one whose humble origins they know, or think they know, can say, “I have come down from heaven.” How can the motley crew which makes up the Church possibly make any difference in the world?
We have come here perhaps because that is what we habitually do. We should not despise the habitual; especially in an age which privileges the spontaneous. Habits are good, as long that is as they are good habits. They train us to do good things, to lead good lives – even when we do not feel like it; even when we think that there is not much point; that it’s all hopeless. Habits form us in the virtues of the Christian life which the Letter to the Ephesians speaks of:
- Not letting the sun go down on our anger – let alone nursing it for years;
- Working honestly rather than stealing;
- Sharing what we have with those in need;
- Not speaking words of evil to others or about them; so that our words may be encouraging and gracious to them;
- That putting away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together will all malice;
- That being kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us.
When these practices become habitual, instinctive, part of us, of our ordinary, everyday lives, even second-nature we find that they help us to respond to the calls of the out-of-the-ordinary; demands we come unannounced, for which we are unprepared might seem; but which the habits and disciplines of worship and prayer, scripture and sacrament, self-examination and repentance have equipped and prepares us.
But we know that habit can become unthinking and deadening routine. That is why God puts the same question to us as he did to Elijah at Mount Horeb: “What are you doing here?” One of the Eucharistic prayers in the American Prayer Book includes these words: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength, for pardon only, and not for renewal.”
This does not mean that we cannot come to the altar seeking solace and pardon, it does not mean that we cannot come here because we like the building or the services or the music or the sermons or the people or the clergy (the last is not compulsory!). All these are good things, which is why we spend so much time and effort on them. But the reason we come is to hear God’s word, the voice which speaks to us of what he is calling us to do.
That may be the vocation of a lifetime; or it may be what God is asking of us this day, this hour, this very minute; it may be in our duties in family or community or work; it may be in speaking words of faith and grace and encouragement to others; it may be in sharing of our time and effort and resources with them. We come, too, receive the strength for that call.
From very early times there have been two views of the meaning of the bread of life discourse which we heard another section of this morning. Does it refer to the Word or the Eucharist? The answer is that both are true. One does not exclude the other; one leads into the other.
The discourse begins with the bread as word. Jewish tradition identified the manna on which God fed the people in the wilderness with the Torah, the Law, the instruction, given through Moses to form and guide his holy people.
“They shall all be taught by God,” says Jesus, quoting the prophet Isaiah. The Christian tradition took up this idea of feeding on the word. The monastic tradition of lectio divina-sacred reading, thankfully undergoing a revival, speaks of chewing the words of scripture, repeating and reflecting on them, ruminating on them to extract spiritual nourishment from them; the “inwardly digest them” of the Prayer Book Collect. Thomas a Kempis, the author of the “Imitation of Christ,” speaks of God feeding us at the table of word and sacrament. The liturgy of the Eucharist takes us from feeding on the word to feeding on the sacrament.
We cannot hear John’s Gospel without remembering that it begins with the Word made flesh. The Gospel is not just knowledge or revelation in terms of ideas or information; it is about a person, the one who has come down from heaven; the one un whom we see what God is like.
And because it is about a person and is being communicated to others of flesh and blood; not disembodied spirits or brains on sticks, the discourse moves to the second sense of bread.
Jesus speaks of himself as “the bread of life.” He not only lives but is the giver of life. Those who ate the manna had their hunger satisfied for a while, but eventually they died. Those who “eat” Jesus will not die because Jesus is the life-giving power of God, “come down” into the life of the world.
The bread to be eaten is, Jesus says, “My flesh”. We are perhaps so used to this language that it no longer shocks us as it must have his first hearers. That word “flesh” emphasizes sharply the materialism of what Jesus says. While Greek has two words for “body” and “flesh”, Aramaic has only one. If Jesus’ words at the Last Supper were in Aramaic, then – in contrast to the translation “body” used elsewhere in the New Testament– we have here the deliberate use of the translation “flesh” which shifts what it means to receive Jesus as the bread of life from a purely mental and spiritual hearing and believing, to a physical eating.
We have already learned that “the bread” is Jesus. We now learn that the bread is his flesh and that is is given for the life of the world; that the world might live. This life-giving work is accomplished by the death of Jesus. but is received only by eating this bread which is the flesh of Jesus. This is John’s version of the words spoken at the Last Supper when Jesus gave the bread to the disciples and said, “Take and eat: this is my body (my flesh) given for you.” By eating this bread they become participants in his dying and so in his risen life.
So, Sunday by Sunday, we share in an act of reading and expounding the law and the prophets and the Gospel: hearing and believing. But we are also take part in an action which goes beyond this, to an eating and drinking of bread and wine identified in the words of Jesus with “my flesh” and “my blood”.
We are to be not just thinkers about God but, as Ephesians says, “imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
The imitation of Christ to which we are called is not mimicry; wearing sandals and a long robe. It is about sharing in the self-giving love we see in Christ. It is that offering and sacrifice of life and love which we are drawn to share in the Eucharist. And through it we are fed and strengthened for the journey and the task. We must “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for us.”