NOURISHMENT TO ETERNITY
Sermon delivered on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity the 9th August 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban’s Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: 1 Kings 19: 4-8 Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2 S. John 6: 35, 41-51
S. John 6: 47f Jesus said “Truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.”
THE OPTIMISTIC CORE
Like all the “I am” statements of Jesus in St. John’s Gospel, the statement “I am the bread of life” takes us straight to the optimistic core of the Christian world-view. This optimistic core is something that we always need to hold on to, but in the midst of anxiety of any kind, it is easy to think only of the issues that trouble us. The apostle Paul counsels those who believe to be “in the world but not of the world”, and so being “in the world” we are bound to be influenced and affected both by what is going on in the world around us and by the world’s ways of thinking about many issues. Many of us Anglicans will be troubled, for instance, about the direction taken by the Episcopal Church of the United States in some of their latest General Convention decisions, while adding fuel to the fire of that anxiety, there are many people to be found outside the church and within it who cheer them on in the name of the catch-all grounds of human rights and the cultural progress of the western nations, whose progress, power and money, they believe, are bound to sway the whole world eventually. At the same time as being in the world, however, we are counselled to be "not of the world." We are counselled to have a perspective about things that comes from an entirely different source from what is in the world. And that is what enables us to keep our heads above water and remain fundamentally optimistic. At the same time it is possible for media reporting and commentary to be selective, showing an ethical compass defective both in matters of truth and taste, and yet powerfully influential in shaping the public mind. Indeed we have got to the stage in a number of entertainment programmes of being repeatedly brainwashed to suppose that it is smart and funny and “adult” (so stated) to be brash and stupid and nasty-minded. Likewise we have got to the stage of having certain words, e.g. "discrimination", "gender" etc. re-defined for us in the public domain in such a way as to set up circular arguments that effectively incorporate certain desired defective conclusions within the redefinitions themselves. Perhaps in a way this is not in principle much different from that defective ethical compass of those who reacted against Jesus in today’s Gospel reading by grumbling about him, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” For all that, as Jesus says, "He who believes has eternal life." We are counselled by the ethical compass of Christian thought and Scripture to have a perspective about things that comes from an entirely different source from what is in the world. And that is what enables us to keep our heads above the waters of defective argumentation, low morals and poor ethics, and remain fundamentally optimistic, whatever our views might be about the shifts of taste, intellectual opinion, prudence and honesty exhibited in the world, and even if we have a most pessimistic view of the course of the world or the actions taken by certain media, certain governments and even certain church authorities. I can affirm to you, even if many of you can’t remember it or were not around, that it’s very much the same perspective as those who remained true to Christian belief in the 1950s while all around them the "intellectuals" were confident in the inevitable victory of atheistic soviet socialism.
Our Old Testament lesson this morning is appropriate to the theme. Elijah is apparently in a state of depression. We might wonder why that should be so, since this comes shortly after his great victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, where the presence and power of the Lord were demonstrated by fire falling from heaven and consuming the sacrificial bull that had been drenched with water. The answer lies in the Israel of Elijah’s time, which involved the factor of a Baalite queen called Jezebel. Queen Jezebel, the real power behind the throne of Ahab according to the account, had sent word to Elijah threatening him with immediate death. It is interesting that the same Elijah who had proved to be such a rock when encountering the challenge of false gods, was so scared and pessimistic when his mind was filled with the thought of the secular power ranged against him. We read that he was afraid and he arose and went for his life. Seemingly it was in the contemplation of his own fear that he came to the view in his petition to the Lord to take his life, that he was no better than his forefathers. In his depression he both feared the forces arrayed against him and hated himself for that fear. In that moment, it seemed, he was unable to take his mind off the dangers and rest in the Lord that he himself, just days before, had witnessed to as most powerful above all gods.
MODERN FEARS AND DIVINE NOURISHMENT
Is this not rather like the Christian who not without reason fears that his way of life is going to be taken over by the infiltration of Islamist terrorists? Or, perhaps, like the British Christian or even the Caymanian Christian who fears that the Christian structures of his state are being altogether whittled away and replaced by the structures of an atheistic Establishment? Or perhaps like some of us who fear that what is promoted as the culture of human rights applied to societal norms is fatally infiltrating those structures of the church and the family that have always been understood to be basic to Christian ethics? Such a person is tempted like Elijah to run away and give up, because he very understandably feels that the forces ranged against him are way over his head. We see from the Elijah account, however, that the Lord is gentle to him in his weakness. He is given special provision, which he accepts and feeds upon. From the low point in his experience, the fallen prophet begins to rise. As he rises we note that his perspective begins to become God-centred again, because we read that in the strength of the food provided, he goes to the mount of God. He has begun to turn his initial running away into a pilgrimage. It is a glimpse into the time of frailty of a great prophet. The Scriptures do often take these honest glimpses into the frailties of great servants of God - of Moses, of David, of Elijah, of Jeremiah, and of Peter for example. They experienced great forces that seemed at times to overwhelm them. But Jesus nevertheless said, “He who believes has eternal life”, and then “I am the bread of life”. As with Elijah, he sees that we are fed. Now as then he treats us gently and feeds us. In our trouble, when we stretch out our hands to Him in faith, He gives us the nourishment of Himself, no less.
TRANSFORMATION THROUGH GOD-CENTREDNESS
St. Paul in the second lesson today speaks of the transformation in us that begins to take place when we stretch out our hands to God and He feeds us. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” When we are anxious we can be bitter, even as Elijah was who, when he was anxious, displayed bitterness to the extent of asking that he might die. Then let us become God-centred and stretch out our hands to Him, and be fed by Him, and our bitterness from whatever cause will be replaced with tender-heartedness, and with the confidence that, in the strength of that food from Him, we will prevail in those efforts we are given to make as Christ’s members in the world, and reach the mountain of eternity.