Sermon for St. Andrew by-the-Lake – August 16, 2018 Reverend Cathy Gibbs
I speak to you today in the name of God, The Source, the Word, and the Life giving Spirit. Amen.
Thank you for inviting me here today to worship with you. It was a pleasure working with Douglas for so many years and I am honored he would invite me here.
This is the 5th and last Sunday you will be hearing from chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. Thank goodness!!! It has been a rough go I think. And this morning is no different. This is really hard to get one’s head around.
In preparation for this sermon, I read this morning’s passage to friends of mine who, I believe, grew up in the church, but have not continued in it. I would label them spiritual, but not religious. Jesus asked some questions which I shared with my friends and I have paraphrased their answers.
Question—Who can accept it? Answers—Not me. Not me either. Well certainly not me. Question—Does this offend you? Answers—Yes, it most certainly does. Absolutely it is offensive. Yuck! Question—What if you were to see the son of Man ascending to where he was before? Answer—What does that even mean? Great answers!! Perfect answers actually, to get the conversation going.
I have just completed 13 years as the chaplain of The Bishop Strachan School, a very diverse and inclusive community, and I can tell you if I read this passage at any of my chapel services, I would get responses like “This is why I don’t go to church.” “How can anyone believe stuff like this? On more than one occasion, I had students both Christian and non-Christian, ask me about Christians being cannibals, thinking they are eating a human being every Sunday. One student said “How sick is that?”
So the fact that many of the disciples left Jesus at this time is no surprise. My friends would be among them and quite frankly, so would I if this was all I heard. This gospel message is a tough one.
Having said that however, the Gospel of John is surprisingly my favourite of all the gospels. That came as a complete surprise to me during my studies because it is very strange in many ways. I am sure Douglas has given you the context of this gospel but it is worth repeating.
This gospel was written long after the others, about 20 years after. It has a completely different audience, written for new Christians who have strayed or who have developed a different understanding of Jesus, none that John approves of. It was written for the second generation of the Christian church, somewhere near the end of the first century.
It contains fewer of our familiar parables and stories and has less ethical teaching than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There is no birth narrative because Jesus has always been here. The whole gospel assumes that Jesus has always been present and has always been divine, hence no birth story is necessary. John is not as interested in the historical events as much as what these events reveal about God and about Jesus. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus is a man of sorrows, Jesus is a victim, Jesus is warm and fuzzy. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is a man of glory, he is empowered, he is divine. This gospel is spiritual, it is not down to earth. Jesus IS God’s word, Jesus is not just telling us about God’s word. And it must be read as a whole, in particular chapter 6, so I apologize if I am repeating some of what you have heard in previous weeks.
I would like to talk this morning about why, at this point in my life, I would not leave with the disciples and just in case you are thinking of leaving, maybe give you some reasons to stay in this gospel.
Why do I like this gospel so much? Simply because it is spiritual. The metaphors force us to think differently about Jesus. In the other gospels, it is easy to relate to Jesus’ humanity which can be good on one level, but may not do much to challenge our spiritual development. And is that not fundamental to being Christian? The synoptic gospels run the risk of remaining one-dimensional, keeping our faith one dimensional. I am not saying that is what happens, just that it is possible if we are not pushed. But if we are to tackle John, we move into other dimensions, we dig deeper into our faith, we become new and different. The problems arise because John speaks on a transcendent level, but we are listening on a human level. We are not grasping the metaphors.
In chapter 6, eating flesh and drinking blood is not the focus. This metaphor is about us taking Jesus into our lives wholly and completely and how else to do that than by consuming all he stands for, all that God stands for. It is not the meal that is important, it is what the meal says about Jesus that is important. If we take Jesus into our very being, our lives will be transformed.
Eternal life is not life beyond the grave, but a new life right now that lasts forever. That makes much more sense to me. For John, the boundary between life and death does not exist for God. Being in the spirit is all one, and is eternal if you believe. To believe in this Jesus and this God, requires a re-orientation of the entire self, it is something you do with every morsel of your being. And because of that, God is no longer distant or unknowable.
The theologian Paul Tillich, talked about the first naiveté and the second naiveté. As children we see God as a man who is someone we can talk to, ask things of, give thanks to, ask questions. This is the God of our childhood. Then we move beyond the concrete operational stage and this kind of God does not make any sense at all. Because this childhood God does things like control the weather and start wars, causes marriages to spit up, and children to be depressed.
So we abandon that God because we cannot have faith in a being that would do such terrible things. We cease to be naïve. Tillich says if we stay in the faith, allow ourselves to question who God is, what God’s power looks like, what the spirit is all about, we may not get all the answers we want, they may not be very clear, but it is enough to remain faithful. That is our second naiveté. We are more content to live in the mystery of God. We are content not to have all the answers. I think John encourages us to enter into that second naiveté. It is powerful, it is mysterious, and it has deep meaning in our lives. And we can live within that process of questioning and learning and praying.
As I am sure you heard last week, in John, Jesus provides a spiritual path that is not to be turned into a religion. It is a way of living, breathing, loving. Love, humility, service sacrifice—these are all the ways to God which can be any religion. So the message is both exclusive and universal at the same time.
So where are we in this? Do we leave or do we stay? If we leave, we can stick with Matthew, Mark, and Luke and probably be okay. We would lead good lives and be nice to people and do all we can to make a difference. However, John is saying Christianity isn’t about being good, it is about being empowered from a divine source. The good will come from the power. That sounds pretty exciting to me, but it is going to be hard. It means I have to immerse my whole life into Jesus, I have to allow myself to be transformed to a new way of living.
If we enter into this spirit of Jesus, we are provided with a radical and permanent change. And that is good news, scary good news, but still good news. Amen.