Friday, 28 August 2015

The Gospel for Sunday 5th September. For this Sunday 23 August scroll down.

I am away from tomorrow and so have included two reflections for the next two Sundays.

Mark 7.24-end (NRSV)
The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith
24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 28But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ 29Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Jesus Cures a Deaf Man
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’

Jesus had embarked on a long journey – from Tyre to Sidon, for those of us living in Britain, this would have been like travelling from London to Cornwall – a significant distance. Mark includes this event before Peter recognises Jesus as the Messiah, which he explains in Chapter 8, immediately after this occasion. Barclay explains that these miracles beautifully shows Jesus’ way of treating people, especially his intimate and sensitive healing of the deaf man. (As a person who is totally deaf in one ear myself, I am particularly touched by this miracle).

This passage is a reminder of the fact that Jesus is for all people, irrespective of race, creed, class, disability etc. But it is also a reminder of the fact that what really matters is our relationship with our Lord. I love the honest and frank dialogue that takes place between Jesus and the woman. The woman’s request is at first denied because Jesus’ earthly ministry was first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. She does not contest this; she even accepts what appears at first to be the degrading allegory of being described as a ‘dog’ – the greatest insult for the people of the day – but her love for her daughter was so great that she was willing to endure this (and probably even more). But she would not give up! Neither must we. We will be sometimes forced to endure great hardship and even humiliation, but when we persist, our Lord will be there to meet us at our point of need, and bless us richly, just as this woman and her family were blessed.

But it is interesting to note that the word used by Mark for ‘dog’ is not the one used for any wild, unpleasant dog, it is in the diminutive form, and was the word used to describe a dear beloved family pet. Barclay suggests that Jesus was stating a truth – that he was first for the Jews – but he is also open to all who seek him. Barclay is excellent in providing contextual information. He reminds us that people ate with their fingers. They then wiped their hands on pieces of bread, which they then gave to their pet dogs. We can assume that the tone Jesus used was not harsh, but friendly, and that he was not insulting at all. In a similar way, people can use words that in a specific tone can be insulting, but in a different tone can be endearing. How many of us were called ‘little rascal’ when we were children, by a parent or grandparent who was amused by what we had done? Barclay therefore suggests that the exchange could have been much more pleasant than a cursory reading might initially suggest.

Charlie Moule adds that the women is to be respected on another account. He is sympathetic with Barclay’s portrayal of the situation and suggests that, despite being desperate for her child to be well again, she still had the composure to cleverly parry with our Lord in the discussion, which Jesus responded to well.

So, there is agreement that this is a wonderful passage reminding us that Jesus is for everyone, as we Methodists emphasise, all can be saved, it is not a matter of all without distinction, but rather all without exception. And Mark includes this passage because this is a truth that needs to be expressed and understood. All those who accept Jesus as ‘Lord’ – which is the form of address the women used – will never be turned away. This is the attitude Jesus had, and this should be our attitude as well. Barclay writes:

“Symbolically, she stands for the Gentile world which so eagerly seized on the bread of heaven which the Jews had rejected and thrown away.”

Jesus took the deaf man to one side. For most people this might not seem significant, but for those of us who are deaf, this is a wonderful gesture. One of the situations I struggle with most, is crowds because even then my good ear does not seem to work and I find myself drowning in a cacophony of noise. Jesus also used gestures – which the deaf man would have been able to understand as he could not hear words.

Charlie Moule points out that on this occasion, Jesus is recorded as having ‘sighed’ and that nowhere else is this mentioned in any other of Jesus’ healing miracles. Moule suggests that this indicated ‘deep exhausting prayer’ and shows how Jesus was moved by the man’s predicament and refers to ‘… a yearning towards God on behalf of the helpless man …’

A short periscope, but one of great blessing. I am grateful to the works of Barclay, Nineham and Moule for opening my eyes to experience so many blessings from this passage.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015


Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (NRSV)
The Tradition of the Elders
7Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ 

Barclay’s commentary is the inspiration for this reflection.

It is difficult to understand fundamentalism! Even in Jesus day, it was a way of thinking that our Lord Himself strongly condemned, most especially in this Gospel reading for this week.

The Jews revered their Law or Torah. In shortest form it was the 10 Commandments, but also referred to the Pentateuch or first five books of the Old Testament. For most of their history, they saw the Torah as housing the great principles that people ought to interpret and apply to themselves. It was only in the 4th and 5th Centuries BC that a new legalism and fundamentalism took hold in some quarters, most notably through the work of the Scribes who had – in Barclay’s words – “… a passion for definition …”The broke down the laws into thousands of little rules and regulations governing every possible action and situation in life. “Life was no longer governed by principles, but by rules and regulations.” These were never written down until long after the life of Jesus and were originally an oral law or the ‘tradition of the elders’. Eventually they became known as the ‘Mishnah’.

In our reading the disciples of Jesus are challenged because they had not washed their hands – and there were definite rules for hand-washing – not in the interests of hygiene, but as part of religious ceremony. The water was kept in large stone jars (as was used by Jesus at Cana in Galilee).

The problem that Jesus is addressing here is profound: the religion of these people had become focused on the outward, based on precision of getting the ritual right, the ceremonial perfect and the rules and regulations – where at its heart true religion is about loving God and other people.

In verses 5-8 Jesus accuses the Scribes and Pharisees of hypocrisy – which in its original form – referred to one who answered and went on to mean the words of an actor and then finally ‘… those whose life is a piece of acting without any sincerity behind it at all.’ Religious hypocrites are those who believe that they are good, if they merely follow outward observances no matter how they behave and speak toward others. The Scribes and Pharisees seemed to be condoning poor behaviour as long as people carried out handwashing and observed the correct laws about cleanness and uncleanness. Legalism takes account of outward actions, but it leaves out the most important part, our inner motives and intentions. Barclay comments:

“There is no greater religious peril of identifying religion with outward observance. There is no commoner religious mistake than in identifying goodness with certain so-called religious acts.”

Church-going, bible-reading, generous financial giving, regular and faithful prayer, do not make a person ‘good’. What is in a person’s heart is what matters and this is cleansed and purified by God, in Christ, through grace.

We need to listen to God and seek to find his voice as we study the Scriptures, interact with others and pray so that God can transform us and those whom we meet with His love and grace.

Barclay points out that this is one of the most revolutionary passages in the New Testament as Jesus is arguing with the authorities of the day about what mattered to them most – their Law. He had shown the irrelevance of hand-washing and that rigid adherence to the Law can actually mean disobedience to the will of God. Now he is even more drastic because he is saying that nothing that goes into a person can possible defile them because what goes into the body also comes out again. No Jew of his day believed this. In Leviticus there are pages and pages of complex laws regulating what one could or could not eat, and these were taken very seriously indeed, many being willing to even die rather than defile themselves by breaking dietary laws which happened during the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes when he required them to eat swine flesh. Some had had their tongues cut out, the ends of their limbs cut off and then were roasted alive! But they would rather endure all this rather than eat anything forbidden by the Law. Now Jesus is saying that nothing that goes into a person can make them unclean. Barclay comments:

“He was wiping out at one gesture the laws for which Jews had suffered and died. No wonder they were amazed.”

Things cannot be either unclean or clean, only persons can be defiled and what defiles us is our actions because they are products of our hearts. This was new doctrine and it was strange and revolutionary.

In our world we need to be constantly aware of the possibility of being legalistically bound by laws that are of man’s creation and not from God – never always easy to discern. In the debates that rage in our Churches, it seems that we can sometimes lose sight of the difference.

Finally we look at what Jesus lists as coming from the heart and making humankind unclean. Barclay explains:

(i)Evil intentions: Every outward act of sin is preceded by an inward act of choice, so Jesus begins with the thought.

(ii) Fornications which refers to all kinds of traffic in sexual desire. It used to refer to sex outside of marriage, including sex before marriage. Today many Christians are willing to permit sex before marriage as long as a couple love each another and are on the path to marriage e.g. engaged to be married. I still believe that the harm that is done by allowing sex before marriage far outweighs the so-called benefits. I have seen too many people shattered when marriage does not happen and they have invested so much emotional capital in their sexual involvement.

(iii) Theft – which is pretty obvious, but specifically here refers to one who thieves out of a desire to gain rather than a thief who steals because they are desperate.

(iv) Murder and adultery need no elaboration.

(v) Avarice – wanting to have more and defined by some as ‘… the accursed love of having …’ or as Barclay suggests: “… the spirit which snatches at that which it is not right to take …”This is the spirit that snatches at things, not to hoard them like a miser, but to spend them in lust and luxury. Plato referred to this as: “The desire of man is like a sieve or pierced vessel which he ever tries to, and can never fill …” This sounds like a description of modern capitalism and that which makes our economy thrive – and which has failed and so has caused our present economic plight.

(vi) Wickedness and deceit – referring to the desire to cause harm through trickery and deceit. The word is used in explain the Greek deception with the horse at Troy.

Enough of this terrible list; but a sobering experience nonetheless. Barclay concludes with excellent advice (as always):

“It is a truly terrible list which Jesus cites of the things that come from the human heart. When we go into it and examine it a shudder surely passes over us. Nonetheless it is a summons, not a fastidious shrinking from such things, but to an honest self-examination of our own hearts.”

Blessed are the pure in heart – which we can be when we allow God’s grace in Christ to cleanse us from all sin.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Epistle for next Sunday

Ephesians 6:10-20 (NRSV)

The Whole Armour of God

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our* struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these,* take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,* 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

Once again I am indebted to William Barclay and his Daily Study Bible for this reflection.

Paul is aware that life is a struggle; it is a joy and a blessing, and in Christ we have a wonderful sense of purpose and fulfilment – but it is also a struggle. For Paul’s readers in Ephesus, it was probably even more daunting than it is for us today, because they believed so implicitly in demons and devils. They believed that the forces of evil were all around them and that they were determined to harm people. Barclay reminds us that the names Paul uses – powers, authorities, world rulers - were all names for the different classes of these evil spirits and demons. The whole universe was a battleground. This meant that the Christian had to contend, not only with the attacks of people, they had to deal with the spiritual forces which were fighting against God as well.

I think it is now almost universally accepted that there is such a thing as evil in the world as ‘… we have all felt the force of that evil influence which seeks to make us sin …’

By the time Paul was writing this passage, he was a prisoner, and looking up at his Roman guards, he sees a picture that he can use to make his point. Christians too have armour for their protection.

I remember as a young undergraduate hearing the following – that for me still rings true – and that is that the greatest victory Satan has achieved in recent years is to convince the world that he does not exist.

It is all too easy to be lulled into thinking that we do not need to be aware of the power of evil and the subtle ways in which we are tempted into doing the least obvious, but most destructive forms of being unloving. We are called to love and be loved; and so often we fail because of the temptations of Satan that make us indulge ourselves rather than being selfless.

Paul, looking at a Roman soldier (his captor) uses what he sees to describe the defences available to the Christian:

The belt of truth: The belt girt the soldier’s tunic and held the sword, but most importantly gave the soldier freedom of movement. We have a real freedom, because we are bound together by the truth of Christ, not in the sense that it is empirical or even verifiable, but non-cognitive and at the depth of our being. This is not a truth that makes us dogmatic and arrogant, but fills us with the love of Christ.

There was the breastplate of righteousness: We are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, so beautifully explained and foretold in the prophesy of Zechariah (chapter 3). Barclay comments: “Words are no defence against accusations, but a good life is.” I am convinced of my beliefs not because I have studied them and come to my understanding alone; but because I have studied those whose lives have been characterised by Christ’s love and righteousness.

There were the sandals: Christians are equipped and ready to move and share the Gospel with others and work for peace. We are those that ought to be working for peace and concord between peoples and God, willing to sacrifice ourselves in order to achieve this.

We need to be held together by the truth, clothed with righteousness and ready to bring peace.

The shield of faith: Paul refers here not to a small round shield but the large oblong shield which the heavily armed soldier wore. It was used as protection against fiery darts which were dipped in pitch and set ablaze. This large shield was made up of two pieces of solid wood; so the dart sank into the first layer and the fire was quenched. Our shield is faith, our close personal relationship with Christ and when this relationship is maintained, we are able to resist the darts of temptation.

The helmet of salvation: Our salvation is not something that only looks back, it is not only forgiveness for past sins; it is also strength to deal with future attacks of sin as well. This is worn on our heads because it is part of something that we can think through and so be convinced of and be comforted.

The sword – the Word of God: The Word is both a weapon of defence and attack – our defence against sin and our attack on the sins of the world. But we must remember that using the sword must be done with great caution, and this is a much abused verse in the hands of fundamentalists and other radicals. I think it was Shakespeare who once said that: “Every fool in error can find a passage of Scripture to back himself up.” The Bible needs to be carefully and prayerfully studied, not only as a rational and intellectual exercise, but more importantly as a prayerful and spiritual experience with the need to discern what God is saying to us and to our world.

And this is why Paul ends with the most important weapon of all – prayer. Barclay reminds us that Paul makes it clear that prayer must include the following:

(i) It must be constant – an attitude of being – that pervades all of our lives and not just something that we resort to in times of crisis. Barclay comments: “It is from daily prayer that there comes the strength of the Christian.”

(ii) It must be intense – sleepless and persevering – concentration of every part of our being on God;

(iii) It must be unselfish – it must be for all people.

Paul ends with a request for prayer for himself, so that he would be able to spread the Gospel of the love of God abroad. Barclay concludes:

“We would do well to remember that no Christian and no Christian preacher can go on unless his people are ever upholding his hands in prayer.”

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

John 6:51-58 (NRSV)

John 6:51-58 (NRSV)

51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ 53So 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. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This 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 for ever.’

Once again, William Barclay’s work it at the heart of this reflection.

The further we delve into the depths of John chapter 6, the more I am reminded of why it is one of my favourite passages in all of Scripture.

I am interested in the way fundamentalists – those who insist on taking the Bible literally, word for word – stop here and see this passage as being allegorical. Why? And why do they not see the wonderful depths of allegory that – for me – is so obvious elsewhere in Scripture as well? If fundamentalism if correct, then, according to this passage, they should believe that something distinctive happens to the elements of bread and wine at the Eucharist and that it actually becomes the body and blood of Christ!

Once more, our mentor – William Barclay – provides some useful insights. I do believe that his emphasis on discovering what a passage meant for the first audience is of great significance, and he is superb in doing this.

Many modern, western people, struggle with this passage because we are so conditioned by a literal scientific way of thinking of proofs that can be empirically verified – “Prove it …” is what we always want to say. This is just another form of fundamentalism, empirical, scientific fundamentalism. For the people of Jesus’ day, what Jesus was talking about would have made perfect, even easy, sense.

At this time, animal sacrifice was common practice. A token of the slaughtered animal was burnt as an offering to a god. Part of the flesh was given to the priests and part to the worshipper to make a feast for himself and his family and friends – at which the god would be present. Once the flesh had been offered to the god, it was believed that he had entered into it, so when the worshipper ate the meat, they were literally eating the god. When the people then left the feast, they believed that they were god-filled. To people who were accustomed to this, what Jesus said would have posed little difficulty at all – if they accepted that he was a god.

Mystery religions also abounded at this time. They were essentially passion plays, stories of a god who had lived and suffered terribly and who died and rose again.

Barclay explains:

John is ‘… not giving, or trying to give, the actual words of Jesus. He has been thinking for 70 years of what Jesus said; and now, led by the Holy Spirit, he is giving the inner significance of the words …’

While I accept this, I do not believe that they are too far off what Jesus actually said, or else there is a chance of fabrication on the part of the Gospel writer. I like to think of it as John just expanding on the actual words Jesus used in order to explain them.

Having looked briefly into the historical context, we also need  to look into the insights Barclay gives us into the meaning of aspects of this passage. E.g. what is the meaning of the ‘flesh’. This is a reference to the complete humanity of Jesus as mentioned in 1 John 4:2-3:

2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus* is not from God.

The Apostle (I have no difficulty in accepting that the author of the Gospel and the Epistles was the same person!) wants to stress the full humanity of Jesus for Jesus was (as Barclay explains “… the mind of God become a person … God taking human life upon him, facing our human situation, struggling with our human problems, battling with our human temptations, working out our human relationships.”

Barclay suggests that Jesus is saying here – with reference to his ‘flesh’:

“Feed your heart, feed your mind, feed your soul on the thought of my manhood. When you are discouraged and in despair, when you are beaten to your knees and disgusted with life and living – remember I took that life of yours and these struggles of your on me.”

Our human lives have – since then – taken on a special glory because, God coming in human form in Jesus, has given human life a special dignity – it has been touched by God – or as Barclay puts it ‘… Jesus deified our flesh by taking it upon himself …’

To eat Christ’s body is to feed on the thought that he became one of us and to reflect on this is to be strengthened, encouraged and blessed as we seek to imitate His life.

What about the phrase ‘… drinking the blood …’

To modern ears, this seems bizarre; the notion of drinking blood borders on the disgusting, but the biblical context provides the much needed perspective.

In Jewish thought, blood stands for ‘life’: if it flows out from a wound, the patient dies. For Jews, blood is therefore sacred and the reason why they will not eat flesh that has not been drained of blood. Barclay suggests that Jesus is, in effect, saying here:

“You must drink my blood – you must take my life into the very centre of your being – and that life of mine is the life which belongs to God. When Jesus said we must drink his blood he meant that we must take his life into the very core of our hearts.”

What does this mean?

Jesus can be a very important person of history, he can be just a figure in a very important book (and indeed many books) and this will all that he is, but when he enters our hearts we become part of him. Again, Barclay puts it well, writing:

“He is saying: ‘You must stop thinking of me as a subject for theological debate; you must take me into you, and you must come into me; and then you will have real life.’”

This is what Jesus means by abiding in him and he abiding is us.

At the Eucharist we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith and with thanksgiving.’

So we eat the flesh and drink the blood we feeding our hearts and our souls on the humanity of Jesus, we revitalise our lives with his life and we are filled with the life of God.

Until I read Barclay’s commentary, I am sad to have to admit that it had never dawned on me before that John has no account of the Lord’s Supper in his Gospel. So, while John’s writing here obviously seems to have a reference to the Eucharist, he is also implying much, much more. John therefore writes this vitally important section not within the context of the special meal, ‘… but in the story of a picnic meal on a hillside near Bathsaida Julius by the blue waters of the Sea of Galilee …’ and this implies that, for the Christian, every meal has become a sacrament. It seems possible that John was making this point to some who might have been making too much of  the Sacrament, making ‘magic’ of it, implying that it was the ‘only’ place where we might encounter the real presence of Jesus in our lives. John is therefore saying that even meals in the humblest of homes or the richest palaces – all can become sacraments, as Barclay writes: “ … he refused to limit the presence of Christ to an ecclesiastical environment and a correctly liturgical service …’

In John’s mind, the altar and the dinner table and the picnic mat are all alike in that at all of them ‘… we may taste and touch and handle the bread and the wine which brings us Christ …’

Jesus is not confined to the Churches; we can find Christ anywhere, if we open ourselves to look using the eyes of faith. John expands the sacrament with the truth that Jesus is everywhere, probably especially in the ordinariness of our lives.

Live sacramentally and be blessed.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

John 6:35, 41-51 (NRSV)

John 6:35, 41-51 (NRSV)

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. …

41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ 42They 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”?’ 43Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It 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. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

I have used Barclay to aid my reflection this week.

My text is written in John 6.51:

51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

Some of the people of Jesus’ time rejected him because they were judging things by human and purely external standards. They said that he was just a carpenter’s son and they had seen him grow up in Nazareth, a rather insignificant village. They could not understand how a person with a background like this could possibly be a messenger from God.

But is it not true that we often get messages from God from the most unlikely people. Mother Teresa used to say how she found Christ in the poor and destitute in Calcutta; others speak of finding God in the most unlikely of places and from the least expected people. Barclay uses the following illustration from the experience of T S Lawrence (of Arabia) to make an important point.

Lawrence was a great friend of Thomas Hardy. Lawrence began his military career as a private in the RAF. When on leave, he used to visit Hardy in his uniform. On one occasion Lawrence’s visit coincided with a visit to the Hardy’s by the Mayoress of Dorchester. She was offended to have to be in the presence of a mere private aircraftman. In French she complained to Mrs Hardy that ‘… never in all her born days had she had to sit down to tea with a private soldier. No one said anything: then Lawrence said in perfect French: “I beg your pardon Madame, but can I be of any use as an interpreter? Mrs Hardy knows no French!”’

We are God’s children not because of who we are or what we have done, but because of Jesus and what he has done for us. It is all of grace. All are one in Christ Jesus our Lord, St Paul reminds us in the letter to the Galatians. The New Testament speaks of the priesthood of all believers.

We must take special care that we never neglect a message from God because we do not care for the messenger. Barclay explains:

“God has many messengers. His greatest message came through a Galilean carpenter, and for that very reason some Jews disregarded it.”

Some of the people rejected Jesus and his message because they were arguing among themselves. They were so taken up with their arguments that they failed to do what matters most and take the matter to God. They were all too eager to have their point of view made known, but did not seem to care to deeply about what God had to say.

This is so much part of human experience. Quite often, arguments abound because people are not really listening to each other. When they are not speaking, they are thinking of their reply rather than what the other person is trying to say. Often, what is needed is a time for quiet and reflection on what has been said.

Perhaps in our Churches, we need to have fewer debates and discussions and seek rather to discover the voice of God in the silence?

In a recent reflection I focused on the need for silence and listening; Barclay adds that one needs more than just listening, one needs also to hear and learn. He suggests that there are different kinds of listening; there is the listening of:

(i) resentment
(ii) criticism
(iii) superiority
(iv) indifference
(v) the person who is only silent for the moment because they cannot get a chance to speak

Barclay concludes: “The only listening that is worthwhile is that which hears and learns; and that is the only way to listen to God.”

In verse 44 Jesus speaks of people being ‘… drawn by the father …’

Barclay reminds us that the word John uses here is ‘helkuein’ and is the Greek word for the Hebrew word used by Jeremiah when he speaks of God speaking to the prophet and the KJV translates the experience as God saying: “With loving-kindness have I drawn thee …” There is an implication of resistance because it is the same word used for drawing to shore a heavily laden net filled with fish. (John 21:6 and 11) It is used when explaining how Paul and Silas were brought before the Magistrates in Philippi (Acts 16:19) Barclay gives other examples as well.

What is interesting is the fact that God can draw us, but our resistance can ‘… defeat God’s pull …’ This is another reminder of why I originally lost patience with Barclay, because as a young Calvinist, I was of the view that no human could thwart the will of God. But we know that – especially in the shorter term – this is not only possible, it is the default setting. It is probably true that the ultimate purposes of God cannot be thwarted – but this side of the grave – we will never know.

For me the big issue here is the question: “Are we allowing God to draw us to Him?” If we do, then we are blessed beyond measure. Other questions follow: “In what ways are we resisting God?” and “What is God saying to us?”

This goes back to some earlier reflections where I have contended that the Bible is vital and essential, but it is just part of the process. We need to use our reason, we need to confer with others in study, fellowship and prayer, and this ignites the intuitive meeting of Spirits, God’s Spirit with our spirits and the conviction, the peace and the joy that results.

This is too rare an experience for me and the busyness of life so often takes over and I do not find time to allow myself to be drawn to God. The things of this life can be the resistance that strops us from being drawn to the presence of God where we receive our deepest nourishment.

Jesus referred to himself as – ‘the bread of life …’ In the days of Jesus, bread was the staple food and so Jesus is saying that He is essential for life and as Barclay adds: “… to refuse the invitation and command of Jesus is to miss life and die …”

John links this famous saying with a reference to the experience of the Israelites during the Exodus (as recorded in the book of Numbers). The people did not need to wait 40 years before entering the Promised Land, they just refused to face the dangers after the reports of the returning scouts so they were condemned to wander in the wilderness – so they missed all the blessing that was waiting for them.

To reject Jesus is to miss out on life – in this world and the next but to accept Jesus and his ways means to find real, meaningful and blessed life in this world and glory in the next.

We need to ‘feed’ on what our Lord offers us – the riches that are in the Scriptures, from prayerfully considering their meaning for us where we are in our lives and as we relate to others. We find a rich and satisfying diet which feeds us at the core of who and what we are as we share in fellowship with one another. And something mysterious happens, something too wonderful to be put into words, when we bring this all together as we worship, read, listen, study and share in the Lord’s Supper at the Eucharist. The author in Acts 2.42 explains how the earliest Christian found the recipe for their sustenance and growth in faith and life:

“They came together for the Apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and for prayer.”

Jesus put it this way:

51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

Monday, 27 July 2015

John 6:24-35 (NRSV)

John 6:24-35 (NRSV)

24So 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. 25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26Jesus 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. 27Do 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.’ 28Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ 29Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 30So 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? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ 32Then 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. 33For the bread of God is that which* comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ 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.

My text is written in John 6.34:

34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

The reading from John’s Gospel is once again so rich in its deeper meanings. The crowds were fascinated by Jesus – but according to Jesus himself – for the wrong reasons, because they had seen (and others probably heard) of the feeding of the five thousand (and probably other miracles). The same would be true today I am sure. But this is to miss the point.

The people had experienced a miracle, but had failed to see the sign. This is another way of saying that they had focused on the literal and failed to move on to the allegorical and the spiritual. As Barclay writes, paraphrasing the sentiment of Jesus:

“Your thoughts ought to have been turned to God who did these things; but instead all that you are thinking about is bread … It is as if Jesus said ‘…You cannot think about your souls for thinking of your stomachs.’”

By focusing exclusively on the things of this life, we miss out on what it really means to live. I understand how difficult this is. The Scriptures seem quite clear that if I am doing things responsibly, God will provide. And we know the truth of this. If we are living in according to the ways of God, we can trust him to provide for everything else. In Matthew 6:33 Jesus exhorts us to “Seek first his kingdom and righteousness and then all things shall be added unto you.”

The recurring theme is that there is a deep spiritual hunger in every human being – it is part of that which separates us from other species – although animals have it to a very limited extent. Meeting our physical needs is just the beginning; we also need emotional hunger satisfied and so we need other people to love us (and this is where animals’ needs end). But even this is not all; we have a deep spiritual hunger that also needs to be met. Without it we flounder. People try to meet this deep inner hunger by doing many things, not least living lavish lifestyles. And this is nothing new. Roman society – after AD 60 – was one where luxurious living was unparalleled. They had feasts of peacock brains and nightingale tongues – costing the equivalent of thousands of pounds. They clothed themselves in garments costing the equivalent of over £400,000. Barclay suggests that …

“… the reason was a deep dissatisfaction with life, a hunger that nothing would satisfy. They would try anything for a new thrill, because they were both appallingly rich and appallingly hungry …”

Jesus exhorts us not to be interested only in physical satisfaction. The people had experienced an unexpected meal and they wanted more. There are other hungers that only God can satisfy – hunger for truth, hunger for life and hunger for love because it is only on Jesus that God has ‘… set his seal …’ (verse 27). In the days of the writing of John’s Gospel it was the seal more than the signature that was the guarantee. This is why only Jesus can satisfy the human hunger of the soul. He is sealed by God, he is God’s truth, God’s love and God’s life within each and every one of us and ‘… it is God alone who can truly satisfy the hunger of the soul which He created.’

28Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ 29Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’

What does it mean to believe? To ‘believe’ in Jesus’ day did not mean give intellectual assent to. This does not mean that the people committed intellectual suicide and just blindly accepted everything. Certainly not, once the Temple was destroyed, the focus of worship for the Jews was the synagogues, where they certainly wrestled with the Scriptures and sought meaning in them for their present time. They argued with each other and God, but found that in the process, they received a word for themselves as individuals and for the community as a whole. This ‘method’ was adopted by the early Church and they developed rituals and liturgies to aid the process. Karen Armstrong explains:

“The carefully devised rituals evoked an ‘ekstasis’ – a stepping out of their accustomed modes of thought. As Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia  (392-428) … explained to his catechumens:

… when you say I believe you say I engage myself before God, you show that you will remain steadfastly with him, that you will never separate yourself from him and that you will think it higher than anything else to be and to live with him and to conduct yourself in a way that is in harmony with his commandments. “

‘Belief’ in our modern sense, did not come into it. Even though Theodore saw the importance of a literal understanding, this was only a part of the process. Armstrong concludes that faith was a matter of commitment and practical living.’

We need to live in a way that realizes that what we experience physically in this world is not all that there is – in fact it is the least – that which we share with mere animals. It can be lovely and enjoyable, but it can also be a great challenge – as all of us who have experienced serious illness can testify. However, even in times of serious physical testing, we can know the depth of real existence – peace, and even joy when we know that our real hunger and thirst have been satisfied as we are united with God in Jesus Christ our Lord. As Tom Wright concludes. Verse 34 can be used to this day, as it stands, as the prayer that we will need to pray if our deepest needs are to be met:

‘Sir, give us this bread always.’