Weekly Online Sermon
A young man runs up and kneels down before Jesus asking him what he must do to be virtuous.
So, Jesus recites to him a number of the great commandments.
“That’s fine” says the young man, “I do all that”.
But with his next question Jesus cuts to the chase, by saying essentially:
‘That’s all well and good’, but how deep does the desire for a righteous life go, how profound is your commitment?
And he puts the young man, and by implication us, to a particularly exposing and shocking test.
Today’s gospel reading is fraught with difficulty and complexity. Ethical, theological, and pastoral considerations are bound up with the way we should read and interpret scripture, and how we should understand the teachings of Jesus, the internal motivations that drove him, the context of the time in which he spoke, and how those principles can and should be applied to us today, either in full or in part. So how should we deal with divorce?
Times change, empires rise and fall, entire cultures are born only to die again, new technologies emerge and are replaced, history flows like an everlasting river; and human nature remains substantially the same. From the time of Moses to the time of Jesus and his disciples an epoch of time had elapsed, another 2000 years lie between us and the disciples and …as the French saying goes: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change – the more they remain the same. Just how much have we progressed, how much have we learned, have we truly listened to the voice of Jesus?
In our Gospel reading today Jesus speaks of welcoming the child, and not just the child in years, but the young at heart. For elsewhere in the Gospel he also says that we should come to him as if we too were children. In our more modern and supposedly advanced times, we have gained a certain security perhaps, technology has taken away from of the drudgery and danger, medical advances have extended our lives, our surroundings are comfortable, predictable, tamed. There is a well-known saying “Take what you want, says God, as long as you accept there is a price and you must pay for it”.
If that is so, what have we paid, and just what have we bought with it?
Sometimes there are sentences and phrases in the Bible that are so familiar, that we pass over them rather too rapidly, supposing we know what they mean. And on one level that’s understandable. The text would be unreadable if we stopped at every and, if or but trying to uncover a multiplicity of interpretations – we would never get to the end. But having read a passage it is often well to go back over the ground, to see whether we might dig beneath the surface. And in today’s Gospel we have just such a challenge.
We bring to our reading of the Bible the preconceptions, the perceptions, perhaps even the prejudices of our own time. And sometimes we forget, or don’t like to be reminded, that the people in the stories of scripture, including Jesus, were also deeply influenced by the values and understandings of their own age. Jesus was a man, born into a time, a culture, a context very different from our own. A man capable of being occasionally mistaken, of sharing the cultural preconceptions, sometimes even the misunderstandings of his time. When we hear his voice calling to us today, we need to remember both the man who was, as well as the figure of reverence and devotion he has become.
Is there a tendency, within the church, to revert to the Pharisee, to retreat into rules and constraints and the sanctuary of the few? As each generation passes religions can tend – perhaps they can’t resist – to add some extra rules of their own. What may have started as a kernel of truth, some central and pure experience of God, builds and builds, adding layer upon layer of man-made disciplines and regulations, until something beautiful and unconditional, becomes smothered and obscured with decrees and laws and conditions. Do we recognise this in ourselves? And if so, what can we do about it?
According to a study published a while ago in the journal, ‘Science’, we don’t seem to know ourselves very well. It turns out that common stereotypes that we hold about other countries and our own do not actually reflect the real personalities of people in these countries. And if we portray even to each other an inaccurate and dishonest image of our culture, are we any more honest in the way that we represent ourselves? Do we even know ourselves?
We continue the readings from John’s gospel, that draw a comparison between the material bread that sustains only for a while, and Jesus, the living spiritual bread, who points the way to transformation and new life. And today we ponder not only the reactions of the people of his time, but also of our own. Is the gospel of hope met with enthusiasm and passion, or indifference and scepticism and the retort – whatever?
The choice, as always, is ours to make.
Throughout his ministry starting at the feast at the wedding in Cana, later in the breaking and sharing of the loaves and fishes with the multitude, culminating in the Passover meal before his sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus is clearly compelled to share with others the most basic, the most essential and nurturing things of life. But in the act of sharing, he always seeks to teach that in the humblest and simplest of things, can be found some of the most profound and life-changing spiritual realities.
In today’s gospel Jesus appears to be pleased that the people have come to look for him, but is seemingly disappointed about the reason why. They were grateful for the bread he implies, grateful for the food, but they didn’t understand it value, its true meaning. Even if they have some sense of the bread having been miraculous, they are still looking at it in a rather literal, physical, superficial way. But Jesus is trying to point them, and us, to a different understanding, and a different set of priorities.
Last week the appointed readings for the day had chopped out the middle section of chapter, in order to make us concentrate on the action and the emotions that wrapped around the story. This week the content has been restored to us, but not from the gospel of Mark – instead we have the same miracles expressed and interpreted by John. In the wilderness, Moses asked the question of God “How am I to feed all these people?” and in Exodus the answer came in the form of Manna – the divine gift of sustaining spiritual food. Now, in the midst of the crowd gathered around him Jesus asks the same question.
There is something odd about today’s gospel reading. Something is missing. In fact, 18 whole verses are missing from the very core of this passage. 18 verses that cover the momentous events of the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on the water towards his disciples in the boat, rowing against a heavy wind. For this Sunday, the church lectionary compilers have taken all of this out. Begging the question, what have they left in and why?
All too often we can get completely caught up in the daily struggles of getting and keeping and using, of seeking to invent and define ourselves and imposing ourselves on the world and people around us; we can be so locked into meeting the most basic needs and wants that we can forget to ever address the actual purpose of our lives. The sad reality of modern life, as Thomas Merton the monk and mystic once observed, is that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find that when we get to the top that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. So where should we place the ladder, and to what should we seek to climb?
Perception is all, we are told nowadays and we seem all too often to believe it. But reality, ultimate reality is quite different. Something that truly is, remains the same whether it is perceived and believed or not. Sometimes we need to admit to the limit of our power and our imaginations – sometimes we need to be shocked into acknowledging what is actually staring us in the face.
Somehow we can soak up the impression that doubts are a sign of a weak faith, of lack of seriousness, lacking in commitment, perhaps even sinful, faithless and morally wrong. But the problem with this approach is that it sees faith as static, rather than as a journey, as a possession already acquired, rather than a pilgrimage with lessons to be learned, old and stale habits to be discarded and new insights to be absorbed.