Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sermon for August 30th: Mary Magdalene: A Story of Transformation

Last Fall I preached a series of sermons here at St. Margaret’s about ‘Bible People you Might Not Remember’. These were not the ‘stars’ of the biblical stories; they weren’t the people who would have gotten their names up in lights in movies. They were the ‘ordinary people’ in Bible times, the people who were only mentioned a few times in the scriptures. But their stories are still interesting and compelling, and there’s a lot for us to learn from them about how God uses folks just like you and me in his plan to share his love and his message with the world.

Well, I had a lot of good comments about that series, and since there’s no shortage of Bible people to talk about, I thought I’d have another kick at the cat this Fall. So for the next six weeks we’re going to think about ‘More Bible People You May Not Remember’. And we’re going to start today with the story of Mary Magdalene.

Now, I must admit right off the bat that Mary Magdalene is hardly unknown these days. Thanks to Dan Brown and his bestselling book The DaVinci Code, pretty well everyone knows – or at least thinks they know - that Mary Magdalene was secretly married to Jesus, that they had children whose descendants are still alive today, and that there is a secret society, the Priory of Sion, that exists to protect those descendants and preserve this story. And because everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, especially if it involves taking a kick at the Catholic Church, these ideas continue to thrive in our popular culture, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of historians think there’s absolutely no evidence for them.

I’m not going to spend any time today going through the various theories mentioned in Dan Brown’s book; it would take a good hour just to examine them all, and I don’t think you want to sit here for an hour while I do it. What I want to do instead is simply to examine what we can actually know about Mary Magdalene from the pages of the New Testament, and then ask what her story has to say to us today as twenty-first century followers of Jesus.

The title ‘Magdalene’ tells us that Mary was from the little fishing village of Magdala, situated on the northeast corner of the lake of Galilee in an area where we know Jesus preached his gospel message. As you know Jesus traveled around from village to village, healing the sick and preaching his message, and he recruited followers who went with him and shared in his work. But one of the things that made Jesus unusual is that he recruited both male and female followers. This would have been seen as a great scandal by many Jewish people of his day, who believed that women should only travel with members of their own family. This was one of the ways that the gospel of Jesus broke new ground and broke down old barriers and social structures; as usual, Jesus was way ahead of his time here, and it took the church quite a while to catch up with him!

Mary was one of those women who traveled with Jesus. We first meet her in a brief passage in Luke 8:1-3; you might like to turn to it with me:

Soon afterwards, Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

What do we learn about Mary from this passage? Well, to begin with she is included in a list of women who had been ‘cured of evil spirits and infirmities’, and she was apparently a particularly outstanding case, ‘from whom seven demons had gone out’. Seven is the number of perfection in the Bible, so we should understand from this that Mary was understood to be completely under the power of evil.

As you know, the gospels have many stories of Jesus delivering people from the power of evil spirits. Some modern people have assumed that this is simply a pre-scientific way of describing epilepsy or mental illness, and indeed there are some examples in the gospels that sound very like epilepsy. But not all of them fall into this category. Demonic possession is sometimes associated with physical illness as well, but Luke was a doctor and carefully distinguished between ordinary illness and illness that he attributed to the power of the devil and his minions.

There’s no getting away from the fact that Jesus and his apostles believed firmly that there is a powerful and malignant force of evil in the world, a force that is totally opposed to God and God’s love and wants to dominate and devour people for its own ends. Interestingly enough, at least one modern psychiatrist, Scott Peck, agrees. In his book ‘The People of the Lie’ he makes a compelling case for his belief in the existence of these evil powers, and he tells of his experiences of trying to help people who were held in bondage by them.

So Mary had somehow fallen under the domination of the powers of evil. How this had happened we aren’t told, nor are we told how it showed itself in her life – was it some sort of physical illness, or mental disturbance, or compulsively immoral behaviour? We just don’t know. But what we do know is that she had been delivered from these evil forces, and although the text does not specifically say that Jesus was her deliverer, it’s strongly suggested by the context.

What effect had this deliverance had on Mary? Well, first, she had left everything to follow Jesus. We aren’t told what sort of personal commitments she had – whether she was married, for instance, or had children, or what her social standing was in the community. The fact that she is included in a list of women who provided for Jesus and his disciples out of their personal means seems to suggest that she had some disposable income, and that she was in control of it – in other words, that she wasn’t completely dependent on a husband’s income. But whatever sort of life she had lived before, she had left it behind and was now traveling around with Jesus and the twelve.

And her commitment to Jesus had reached her wallet, which is almost always the last part of us to be converted to faith in Christ! Many of us come to faith in Christ and follow him for years without really giving serious thought to what it means for our finances. Mary, however, was so captivated with Jesus and his message and what he had done for her that she gave gladly and generously to help make his mission possible.

We don’t hear of Mary again until the week before the crucifixion, but we assume that she continued to travel and to support Jesus and the twelve. But when we get to Holy Week, Mary and the other women have a very high profile. It’s often been pointed out that, with the exception of ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ (probably John), women were the last at the cross when Jesus died, the first at the empty tomb after his resurrection, and the first to see the risen Jesus on Easter morning. It’s all the more remarkable that this has been included in the gospels, because in those days the testimony of women was not admissible in court. No one making up a fanciful story at that time would have suggested that women were the first witnesses of the event. The fact that the gospel writers give them this role speaks volumes for their honesty.

So, the gospels tell us that when Jesus was hanging on the cross, a group of women were watching from afar – the same group, in fact, that had been traveling with him and providing for him – and Mary of Magdala is the first to be listed. The male disciples, with the exception of John, had denied, betrayed or deserted Jesus, but not Mary and the women. After Jesus died and was removed from the cross, we’re told that Mary and at least one other woman were there when Joseph of Arimathea placed the body in the tomb, and they immediately went home to prepare spices to anoint the body, obviously feeling that Joseph and the men hadn’t done a proper job of it! However, they had to wait until the Sabbath day was over before they could go back to the tomb.

There are some contradictions in the gospel accounts of Easter Sunday morning, and this is what we should expect; after all the disciples were remembering an event for which there was absolutely no precedent, and no doubt each of them recalled different aspects of it. What we can discern from the stories we have is that early in the morning Mary and the other women went back to the tomb, to find the stone rolled away and the body gone. At some point they had an encounter with at least one angel, or ‘a man dressed in white’, who told them that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and instructed them to go and tell the disciples. So they did, running back to the upper room in fear and trembling.

John tells us that he and Peter ran to the tomb, and that Mary of Magdala followed them. The two men entered the tomb and found everything as she had said. They left, but Mary stayed behind, weeping at the tomb. We can only imagine her desolation; not only had the Lord she loved been brutally executed, but now she was even denied the consolation of being able to minister to his dead body.

The story of what happened next can only have come from Mary herself. You can find it in John 20:11-18:

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him’. When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away’. Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”’. Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

So here is Mary of Magdala, who had once been so completely under the control of the forces of evil that she was said to have been possessed by seven demons. Now she is the one who is given the privilege of being the first to see the risen Lord alive again, and the first to take that word of personal testimony to others. Other people had joined her in passing on the angels’ message that Jesus had risen, but that was only hearsay. Mary was the first to be able to say from her own personal experience, “I know that he is alive again from the dead, because I’ve seen him myself, and he spoke to me”. So Mary is the first evangelist of the early church – the first to bring the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to other people.

What does Mary’s story have to say to us today?

Well, first of all it’s a story of transformation. A lot of people don’t think that transformation is possible. Popeye the sailor man once famously said, “I yam what I yam”, and many would echo that: this is me, what you see is what you get, take it or leave it. And there are also many who long for transformation but have given up hope that it can ever happen; people in bondage to the power of alcohol or drugs or other addictions are the ones who spring to mind immediately.

But the gospel tells us that change is possible. Millions of A.A. members around the world today testify to the power of God to set them free from alcoholism. Many Christians would tell personal stories of real changes that God has brought about in their lives, setting them free from old habits and addictions and leading them into the new way of Jesus. Jesus once said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). The life of Mary of Magdala testifies to this truth.

Secondly, Mary’s life is a story of inclusion. In the time of Jesus, as we’ve pointed out, there were strict limitations on what women could and couldn’t do, but Jesus simply ignored those limitations. He talked to women in public although this was frowned on; he included them in his conversations; he allowed them to travel with him and his disciples – which would have been seen as scandalous – and he gladly accepted their generosity in supporting him and his colleagues. And then, to top it all, he gave them the privilege of being the first witnesses of his resurrection and the first to bear personal testimony to the fact that he was alive.

As we’ve said, it took the church a long time to catch up with Jesus here, and even today there are huge portions of the church that are a long way from regarding women as Jesus does. And of course there are other marginalised people in society, and Jesus continues to reach out to them and include them in the circle of his disciples and in the team he sends out in mission to the world. No one needs to be left out. Everyone is made in the image of God, and everyone who has met the risen Lord can take his message to others.

And this leads us to the last thing I want to say: Mary’s story is a story of evangelism. She will forever be remembered as the first person to tell someone else that she knew Jesus was risen from the dead because she had met him. That message is given to you and me to share as well. Our experience of the risen Jesus is probably not as dramatic as Mary’s, but we know that he is making a difference in our lives day by day, and we can share that story with other people. That’s not an obligation laid on us – it’s a joy and a privilege we’ve been given.

When I was a teenager I read Dennis Bennett’s book Nine O’Clock in the Morning, which told the story of his personal discovery of the power of the Holy Spirit and of the changes that God brought about in his life as a result. It was that book that motivated me to find out how I could get to know God personally myself. Dennis Bennett was like Mary – he was sharing his own experience, but his story had the power to move others and set them on the road toward Christ. That’s what it did for me, and I will always be grateful.

Mary of Magdala reminds us that Jesus Christ can change our lives and set us free. She reminds us that Jesus is always reaching out to marginalised people, including them in his circle of friends and giving them a place on his mission team. And she reminds us of the tremendous privilege and joy we’ve been given – to tell others about our encounter with the risen Lord and the difference he’s making in our lives. May God give us grace to follow her example and share in her joy.

(Note: I acknowledge the help of Ben Witherington's article in the preparation of this sermon).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

August 31 - September 6, 2009

C A L E N D A R

Monday, August 31st
Tim’s day off
Office Closed

Sunday, September 6 - Pentecost 14
9.00 am Eucharist
9:45 am Coffee between services
10.30 am Eucharist

Growing Prayer at St.Margaret’s
Church Families: Jordan, Erin and Lecia McDougall
Susan, Alastair and William McLeod
Weekly Prayer Cycle: Nursery Supervisors

Back to Church Sunday
Sunday September 13 will be “Back to Church Sunday”. This is a special service dedicated to people who do not attend church regularly. We will have invitations available soon. The service will also include special music, and there will be a potluck BBQ to follow.
Volunteers are needed
We will need two or three barbecues, and someone with a truck to pick them up and bring them to the church, and take them back afterwards. Also, we will need some helpers to get tables and chairs set up (inside or out, depending on the weather), and to get coffee and tea ready, organize plates and cutlery (including checking before hand to see what is available at the church), and do cleanup afterwards. Also, it might be fun to decorate the church on that day, and of anyone is feeling creative and would like to share ideas and take part in that; your input and help would be much appreciated. Please get back to me as soon as possible if you are able to help.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

September 2009 Calendar

St. Margaret’s Anglican Church
Calendar – September 2009

Regular Office Hours: Tuesday - Friday 9:00 am - Noon

Sunday, September 6 - Pentecost 14
9:00 am - Eucharist
9:45 am - COMBINED COFFEE
10:30 am - Eucharist

Monday, September 7
Tim’s day off
Office Closed

Tuesday, September 8
11:15 am St. Joseph’s Eucharist

Sunday, September 13 - Pentecost 15
9:00 am - Eucharist
10:30 am - Eucharist

Monday, September 14
Tim’s day off
Office Closed

Tuesday, September 15
Tim Off

Wednesday, September 16
7:15 pm Vestry Meeting

Thursday, September 17
7:00 am Men’s and Women’s Bible Study at Bogani’s

Friday, September 18
6:30 pm Pot Luck at Church

Sunday, September 20 - Pentecost 16
9:00 am - Eucharist
10:30 am - Eucharist

Monday, September 21
Tim’s day off
Office closed

Thursday, September 24
7:00 am Men’s and Women’s Bible Study at Bogani’s

Friday, September 25
Congregational Care Committee at Bogani’s

Saturday, September 26
10:00 am - 12:00 pm Saturday morning coffee “Sharing Faith Stories”

Sunday, September 27 - Pentecost 17
9:00 am - Eucharist
10:30 am - Eucharist

Monday, September 28
Tim’s day off
Office closed

Tuesday, September 29
7:30 pm Christian Basics #1

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sermon for August 23rd: John 6:60-71

It’s Not Always as Simple as We Wish…

If I had a notebook full of ‘things I hear on a regular basis’, one of the sayings at the top of the list would be this one: ‘Jesus preached a simple message about love and brotherhood, and then the Church came along and made it complicated’. And I can understand why people would like to think this is true. After all, a simple Galilean carpenter who went around preaching peace and joy and flower power would be so much less demanding than the Son of God who says things we puzzle over and makes demands we have to come to terms with.

However, the fact is that the Jesus we read about in the gospels is not as simple as we might think. He says things that cause people to scratch their heads in confusion; he rarely gives a straight answer to a straight question, and when he does speak directly, his words are so challenging that people have been trying for two thousand years to find sophisticated ways of avoiding their obvious meaning. The fact is that Jesus is a challenge – he’s a challenge to understand, and he’s a challenge to follow – and people who are looking for a simple faith that makes few demands on them probably aren’t going to find Jesus very satisfying.

We can see this in our gospel for today, which comes right at the end of John chapter 6. In verse 60, some of Jesus’ disciples comment on what they’ve heard earlier in the chapter: ‘This teaching is difficult’, they say; ‘who can accept it?’ And a few verses later we read that ‘many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him’. The reason is clear: they found his teaching hard to understand, and when they did understand it, they found it so offensive that they didn’t want anything more to do with him.

Let’s take a quick look back at John chapter six, which we’ve been slowly making our way through these past few weeks. The chapter begins with two miracle stories: Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, and his walking on the water. John tells both of these stories in such a way as to give us a clue about Jesus’ identity. In the Old Testament God fed his people in the wilderness by giving them manna from heaven every day; now Jesus was out in the wilderness with his people, and he fed them in a supernatural way, multiplying the loaves and fishes so that everyone had enough. Later on that night, when he was walking on the water to met his disciples, he said to them, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid’. ‘It is I’ is literally in Greek ‘I am’, which is the name of God in Hebrew – ‘Yahweh’. So by these two miraculous signs John is pointing to Jesus’ identity: he isn’t just a rabbi or a carpenter, but in him the God of Israel has come to visit his people. The two miracles are meant to be signs pointing to this truth.

But the crowd don’t get it; they follow Jesus around the lake because they want a repeat performance of the feeding of the five thousand. They want to take Jesus and make him their king so that he can give them free bread every day. In other words, instead of coming to Jesus and asking him to show them God’s will, they want Jesus to do their will; they want him to follow their agenda. But Jesus refuses, and he spends the next forty verses or so trying to explain to them the real meaning of the miracle of the loaves: that he himself is the bread of life, and that everyone who comes to him and believes in him will have their spiritual hunger and thirst satisfied.

Jesus then goes on to make it even more complicated and offensive: he says that he is the living bread that came down from heaven, that whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and that the bread he will give for the life of the world is his flesh. When the crowd demands to know how he can possibly give them his flesh to eat, Jesus responds that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood they cannot have eternal life, but if they do eat and drink as he suggests, they will live forever, and he will make his home in them, and they in him.

It’s not hard for us to see all the ways in which the teaching of Jesus in this chapter would have been offensive to a first century Jewish crowd. First, we have the audacity of his using the name of God for himself, which would have been blasphemous and idolatrous to them. Second, we have the fact that he would not fit in with their agenda and do something really useful, like giving them bread every day. Third, we have his claim that the bread he would give them was better than the bread that Moses, the great father of the Jewish people, had given to their ancestors; they might well ask of Jesus, ‘Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re greater than Moses?’ Fourth, we have his claim that if people believe in him they will receive eternal life – which sounds fairly innocuous until you think how it would sound if I said it – ‘Hey, all you people of St. Margaret’s, if you believe in me I will give you eternal life’! Finally, we have the revolting sayings about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, which sound far more like cannibalism than the sort of sober godliness of the Torah and the Ten Commandments.

So this is the real Jesus of the Gospels; his teaching is not simple, but complicated and challenging. It’s not just about how God is our Father and so we’re all brothers and sisters and let’s love one another right now! It’s true that he does say these things, but they are consequences of the central truths he’s trying to get across. In the first three gospels those truths are about the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the inescapable fact is that he believed that the Kingdom had arrived because he had arrived; in other words, he was God’s anointed king who was bringing in the Kingdom. In John’s Gospel this central place of Jesus in his own message is even clearer, as John has structured his whole gospel around the so called ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus – I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, and so on.

So becoming a Christian isn’t just about ‘loving thy neighbour as thyself’, as people so often say. That’s a vital part of our response to the Christian message, but it doesn’t come first. Becoming a Christian is first and foremost about how we see Jesus: is he just a human being, a wise religious teacher, or is he something more than that? Is he, in fact, the one in whom God has come to live with us? In the first chapter of his gospel John tells us that Jesus is the Word of God, and that in the beginning ‘the word was with God, and the word was God’. He goes on to tell us that ‘the Word became flesh and lived for a while among us’. Now in this chapter the Word speaks of giving his flesh for the life of the world. If we don’t eat his flesh and drink his blood we won’t have eternal life – we won’t be able to do the things God wants us to do because we’ll be spiritually dead – but if we come to him and believe in him, if we eat his flesh and drink his blood, he will make his home in us and we will have eternal life.

To me it’s totally understandable that this is more than some people can stomach. Some pretty well known names throughout human history have indicated that they couldn’t accept it. Thomas Jefferson is well known for producing a copy of the gospels from which all hints of the supernatural had been removed; he gave us Jesus as a wise teacher of universal truths, not Jesus as the Son of God who calls us to believe in him and consume his flesh and blood. Gandhi also said that he could accept Jesus as a wise religious leader but not as the Son of God. A good friend of mine here in Edmonton says that Jesus makes much more sense to him as a man than as the Son of God.

I have to say that if Jesus is just a man, he makes no sense to me at all – or, at least, it makes no sense to me that we’re following him today. A man who was just a man and who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be looked on as a wise religious teacher and followed by millions of people. He’d be shut up in a mental hospital and given treatment to try to cure him of his delusions of grandeur. C.S. Lewis said this as clearly as it has ever been said, in a radio talk he gave on the BBC during the Second World War. Here’s what he said:

I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God’. This is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come away with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

How do we respond to this? Some perhaps are confused and want to hear more by way of explanation. Some grumble that God had to make it so complicated. Some stand up in church on Sunday and say the Apostles’ Creed with their fingers crossed behind their backs. Some just can’t believe it and so turn away from following Jesus – an honest response, in my view. Some say, “Well, it doesn’t make sense to me yet but I’m going to keep on following Jesus anyway and pray that God will help me to understand it as I follow”. Some say, “It’s confusing, but the alternative is no better!” And some, like Jesus’ disciple Thomas who C.S. Lewis alluded to, fall at Jesus’ feet and say, “My Lord and my God”.

We see the same range of reactions in today’s gospel. Verse 61 says in the NRSV, ‘Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?”’. In Greek the word translated as ‘complaining’ is one of my favourite Greek words, ‘gonguzo’, which means ‘to grumble’. So we have grumbling, and a few verses later, in verse 64, we have disbelief: Jesus says, “But among you there are some who do not believe”. Then in verse 66 we have rejection: ‘Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him’. At the end of the chapter, we even have betrayal, as John mentions Judas Iscariot, who ‘though one of the twelve, was going to betray him’.

But I want to end by directing your attention to the words of Peter. Look at verse 67:

So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”.

This is a remarkable response. We know from the gospels that Peter had as much difficulty understanding what Jesus was going on about as any of the disciples. And he’s not saying here, “No, Lord, of course we’re not going to leave you, because we understand exactly what you’re talking about!” What he actually seems to be saying is something like this: “Lord, it’s true that what you’re saying is very hard for us to understand and accept. But what’s the alternative? There’s nowhere else we can go to get the sort of thing you give us. Your words may be hard to understand, but we know that they are words of life, and we know that you’ve come from God. So the only thing we can do is stick with you and hope that things become clearer as we go along”.

I find this to be an amazing statement of faith. I think about people I know who have a lot of difficulty getting their head around what Jesus is talking about, but who still show up week by week in church and are the first to volunteer when work needs to be done. I think about Christian gay and lesbian people who have been told for years – rightly or wrongly, I make no comment on that – that their sexuality is offensive to God, but who still pray and read the scriptures and come to church because they’ve discovered something in Jesus that they can’t find anywhere else. I think about people who are very wealthy and who come to church week by week and hear the gospels read, with Jesus saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God – and yet they keep coming, because they know that even though Jesus’ words are challenging, they are true and life-giving words as well.

Can you make this statement of faith with Peter? Can you say with him, “Lord, I haven’t got it all figured out yet; I sometimes find your words hard to understand, and when I do understand them, I often find them deeply challenging. But I don’t want to leave, because I know I’ve grasped something wonderful here – something that is giving me life. In your words I think I’ve glimpsed a vision of the glory of God and the beauty of life the way God planned it. So I think I’ll hang around, if you don’t mind, and keep listening and trying to understand, because there is one thing I’m absolutely sure about: there’s nowhere else I’m going to find what I’ve found in you and your message”.

I think Jesus will honour a prayer like that. The only thing I would add to it is this: when you do come to understand the meaning of some aspect of the teaching of Jesus, pray for God’s help and then begin to put it into practice right away. My observation over the years as a pastor is that those who put Jesus’ words into practice usually grow in their understanding of what he is all about, but those who don’t practice what they hear tend to understand less and less as the years go by. After all, as Jesus said in the parable of the wise and foolish builders, it isn’t the ones who just hear his words whose houses will stand in the flood – but those who hear his words and put them into practice.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

August 24 - 30, 2009

C A L E N D A R

Monday, August 24th
Tim’s day off
Office Closed

Sunday, August 30th - Pentecost 13
9.00 am Eucharist
10.30 am Eucharist

Growing Prayer at St.Margaret’s

Each week we offer special prayers for two families in our congregation.

Church Families: Martin, Catherine, and James Mason
Walter and Louise Mason
Weekly Prayer Cycle: Kitchen Volunteers

Rev. Myron Penner
As of August 15, Myron Penner and his family are no longer with St. Margaret’s; Myron is now the associate priest at Christ Church.

Back to Church Sunday
Sunday September 13 will be “Back to Church Sunday”. This is a special service dedicated to people who do not attend church regularly. We will have invitations available soon. The service will also include special music, and there will be a potluck BBQ to follow.

I TE M S T O N O T E
St. Margaret’s 2009

Sermon Series: Fall 2009
‘More Bible People You May Not Remember’

Aug. 30th Mary Magdalene (Transformation and Witness)
(Luke 8:2, Matthew 27:55-56, Matthew 28:1,
Mark 16:1, John 20:1-18)

Sept. 6th John Mark (The God of Second Chances)
(Mark 14:51, Acts 12:12, Acts 13:1-13, 15:38,
Colossians 4:10, Philemon 24, 2 Timothy 4:11,
1 Peter 5:13)

Sept. 13th Cornelius (A Sincere Seeker of God)
(Acts 10 and 11)

Sept. 20th Naaman’s Servant (A Word at the Right Time)
(2 Kings 5)

Sept. 27th Hannah (An Answered Prayer)
(1 Samuel 1 & 2)

Oct. 4th Philip the Evangelist (Obedient Witness)
(Acts 8)




Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sermon for Sunday August 16th: John 6:51-58

How to ‘Get a Life’

Many of you in church today have had the experience of holding down a very demanding job. Perhaps it requires you to work long hours with lots of overtime; perhaps it cuts into evening hours and weekends; perhaps it carries with it a lot of stress and it’s very difficult for you to leave it behind when you go home from work. Perhaps you’ve even found yourself wondering whether you have any other life at all apart from going to work! I’ve actually heard people talk about that; they’ll be lamenting the fact that their job takes up so much of their time, and they say, “I really need to get a life!”

It’s a curious phrase, isn’t it: ‘Get a life’? What does it mean? The person who says it does, in fact, have a life. Their heart is pumping the blood around their body and their lungs are working fine; surely they already have ‘a life’? What do they mean when they say, “I really need to get a life”?

But the truth is that we all understand instinctively what they mean. We understand that it is possible to be alive in a biological sense, but still not to be experiencing real life – what Jesus once referred to as ‘life in all its fulness’ or ‘abundant life’. We understand that people can be in good health, can be working hard and enjoying success in their chosen profession, and yet still find themselves thinking, “There’s got to be more to life than this!”

In John chapter 6 Jesus talks about this issue of real life, or, as he calls it, ‘eternal life’. We’ve been going through the chapter in stages over the summer, starting with the feeding of the five thousand in verses 1-21 and then going on as Jesus and the Jewish leaders dialogue about the meaning of that sign. But before we dive into this week’s passage, let me remind you of the Old Testament story that serves as background to this whole chapter. It’s the story of how God fed his people when Moses was leading them through the desert on their long journey to their promised land. There were thousands and thousands of Israelites, and of course the desert is not a good place to find food for even a few people, let alone a huge multitude. So the Book of Exodus tells us that the people complained about this to God, and he responded by sending them bread from heaven. They called this bread ‘manna’, and they ate it every day for the forty years that they wandered in the desert.

John tells us that when Jesus fed the five thousand people, they immediately thought of Moses giving their ancestors this supernatural bread in the desert, and they reminded Jesus of this. No, Jesus replied - Moses didn’t give it to them, my Father did. And anyway, those who ate of that bread all died eventually, but if you eat of the true bread of heaven, you will not die. He goes on to explain that he is the bread of life; all who come to him will never be hungry, and all who believe in him will never be thirsty.

So far so good, but in our gospel for today things get a little more confusing. Jesus says in verse 51, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”. This causes a furious argument amongst Jesus’ hearers: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” But Jesus’ reply doesn’t do anything to alleviate their concerns: “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”.

We Christians, of course, have two thousand years of Eucharists in our collective memory, so when we hear these words, we immediately think of the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The people who first heard these words from John’s Gospel would have thought the same thing. But I’m going to suggest this morning that we slow down, and not go there right away. We need to ask ourselves, what would these words have sounded like to those who first heard them spoken? Imagine the revulsion they must have felt at what they could only understand to be the cannibalism Jesus was teaching here. Not only does he talk about eating his flesh, but drinking his blood – and in the Old Testament people were forbidden from consuming blood, because of the ancient belief that ‘the life is in the blood’. It’s not surprising that a few verses later on we read that ‘when many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ – and some of them left Jesus altogether.

So what does it really mean to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood? And why would we want to do it anyway? What are the benefits that we receive from it? I want to consider the second question first, and then come back to the first question at the end.

Why would we want to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood? What are the benefits we’re promised from this? Well, we’re told in verse 54 that ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life’. And we need to remind ourselves that the phrase ‘eternal life’ doesn’t just mean ‘life that goes on and on forever’, as in ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’! In a prayer to his Father in John 17:3 Jesus tells us what eternal life is: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”. To receive eternal life, then, is to be brought into a relationship with the living God and with his Son Jesus Christ. To put it bluntly: to know God is the only way to be truly alive.

This is the sort of language that lovers use, isn’t it? The lover says to his beloved, “Before I knew you I wasn’t really alive. I began to live the day I first met you”. That’s what Jesus is saying here: to be physically alive, but not to know the God who made you and loves you, is not real life – it’s a kind of walking death. But to meet the God who made you and his Son who died for you, and to grow into a real relationship with that living God – that’s real life! If you’re looking for the meaning of life, look no further; this is it.

Jesus describes this relationship in very intimate terms; he says in verse 56 “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”. To ‘abide’ somewhere means to make your home there, and so in this lovely symbolic language Jesus says to us, ‘If you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you’ll be making your home in me, and I’ll be making my home in you’. Can you imagine such a thing – to make our home in Jesus, and for Jesus to make his home in us?

Well, yes, some of you can. Some of you have begun to experience it for yourselves. Maybe it’s not yet a constant thing; maybe you go for long stretches of time when you find it difficult to perceive the presence of God. But there are days when you know that he is very real and close to you as well, and what you experience on those days is enough to spoil you for anything less than this. You know that nothing else in all the world can compare with knowing the living God and his Son Jesus Christ; once having tasted of this, you are determined to do what it takes to taste it again and again – in other words, to know God better and better. You sing those words from your heart: ‘As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you; you alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you’.

But maybe not all of us feel that way. Maybe some of us can only think to ourselves, “I must be missing something here”. Maybe some of us have just started out on this Christian life and we haven’t yet really experienced the touch of God in any direct sort of way. Maybe, in fact, some of us have been attending church all our lives and have never really made any personal contact with God. How do we get that?

Jesus is quite direct about how we get it: he says we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. But what does that mean? As I said, lifelong churchgoers are tempted to jump right away to the Eucharist, but let’s not go there too fast. Instead, let’s go back to the first mention of the bread of life in John 6, in verse 35. Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”.

There was in fact in Judaism a long history of seeing the Torah, the Old Testament law of God, as the true manna from heaven; it was said that God fed the people with the words of his mouth. So to listen to the Law or Instruction of God, to think about it and chew on it, and to put it into practice in your life, was a way of receiving the true spiritual bread of life.

Jesus is clearly following in this spiritual interpretation of the bread of life here. It’s actually a rather audacious claim that he’s making, given the reverence that Jewish people felt for the Law of God; he’s claiming to be the embodiment of the ‘Torah’. To ‘come to him’, and to ‘believe in him’ is to believe that he is who he says he is, to give ourselves to him in faith, and to put his words into practice in our daily lives.

This ‘coming to him’ and ‘believing in him’; is it a moment of crisis, or a gradual process? Well, for many of us there is probably a gradual process of growing into faith, but it often has moments of decision attached to it as well. After all, when two people fall in love it may be a gradual process, but their wedding day is a moment of decision – a moment of commitment, in fact. On that day they are consciously entrusting their lives and their futures to each other; they aren’t just saying, “I’ve fallen in love with you”, but “I promise to love you, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, for the rest of our days”.

Many people experience these moments of decision in their life of faith as well; I know I certainly have. These are the moments when we sense the challenge of the gospel: will you put your life in the hands of the one who loved you and gave himself for you? Will you follow him and be faithful to him for the rest of your days?

How do we respond to that challenge to ‘come to Jesus’ and to ‘believe in him’? My friend Harold Percy used to say that, if you understand the invitation that Jesus is giving you, the most eloquent prayer in the world could be the one simple word, ‘Yes’. Jesus is with us this morning and is giving us this invitation: ‘Will you come to me and believe in me? Will you put your life in my hands and let me lead you from this day forward?’ And if your heart is responding to that call, then there’s no need to worry about getting the words right; if all you can manage is the word ‘yes’, that will do just fine.

That’s a moment of commitment to Christ. But I also want to say that we renew that commitment each week, every time we come forward to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Some of you may be familiar with the old revival preachers and their practice of giving ‘altar calls’. Billy Graham of course made this famous; at each of his evangelistic crusade services he would ask people who wanted to give their lives to Jesus to come forward to the front of his crusade services as a public act of commitment to Christ.

To many lifelong Anglicans the very thought of an altar call is a shock to the system, but I want to suggest to you that, if we understand what we’re doing at the Eucharist, we have an altar call every week in the Anglican Church! Jesus tells us that if we come to him and believe in him our spiritual hunger and thirst will be satisfied. We respond to that invitation; we get out of our seats and come to the front, and we hold out our empty hands and ask him to fill them. The emptiness of our hands is a symbol of the emptiness of our lives; without him we have no life, but when we come to him in faith, he give us that life. And so we receive the bread and wine in faith, and, as the old prayer book says, we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving’.

So, as Billy Graham used to say, in a few minutes ‘I’m going to ask you to get up out of your seats’. Come to the front of this church and put your lives once again in the hands of the one who loved you and gave himself for you. Hold out your empty hands, and your empty hearts, so that he can fill them. Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who trust in him.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

August 17 - 23, 2009

C A L E N D A R

Monday, August 17th
Tim’s day off
Office Closed

Tuesday, August 18th
3:30 pm Corporation meeting at Bogani Café

Sunday, August 23rd - Pentecost 12
9.00 am Eucharist
10.30 am Eucharist

Growing Prayer at St.Margaret’s

Each week we offer special prayers for two families in our congregation.
Church Families: Les and Peggy Major,
Kingsley, Adelaide, and Wilma Marbell
Weekly Prayer Cycle: Intercessors

I T E M S T O N O T E
St. Margaret’s 2009

Gardening Volunteers
As we all know, the flower beds have been beautifully taken care of over the years. However, we are down to two talented gardeners - Julie Holmes and Doug Harris. One more volunteer who can handle the heavier work of turning hardened soil is needed. If you can spare your time and talents, please contact Tony Willacy.

Rev. Myron Penner
As of August 15, Myron Penner and his family are no longer with St. Margaret’s; Myron is now the associate priest at Christ Church.

Back to Church Sunday
Sunday September 13 will be “Back to Church Sunday”. This is a special service dedicated to people who do not attend church regularly. We will have invitations available soon. The service will also include special music, and there will be a potluck BBQ to follow.

Fall Newsletter
If anyone has any items to add to the fall newsletter, please submit them to Erin on or before August 23.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sermon for August 9th: John 6:51, Ephesians 5:1-2

Sermon by the Rev. Myron Penner

Living Bread: The In/Sanity of Christian Belief

Most of you know that Jodi, my wife, is spending the summer in Rosebud, AB, where she is playing the role of Aldonza in Rosebud Theatre’s production of the musical Man of La Mancha. I have had the opportunity to see it many times already this summer – and will probably see it a few times more before the summer is over!

The play is based on Don Miguel de Cervantes’ literary character Don Quixote, who sees things that aren’t there: He sees malevolent giants where the rest of us would see windmills, castles where there are inns, he sees beauty where there is ugliness and purity and virtue where there is only brokenness and compromise. In actual fact, in the story “Don Quixote” really is “Alonso Quijana,” a country gentleman who has read too many books on chivalry. However, he becomes convinced that he is a knight – “Don Quixote de La Mancha,” Knight Errant, “The Man of La Mancha” – even though when the story is set there have been no knights in Spain for over 200 years! His mission, his quest, is “to right all wrongs”; or, as the hit song from the musical says, “To dream the impossible dream.” And all he wishes to do, he announces, is “spread a little grace in the world.”

The story of the man from La Mancha is told in such a way as to leave the question regarding Quixote’s mental health deliberately ambiguous, and it never quite says whether he is sane or not. At one point in the story the priest remarks of Quixote, “There goes either the wisest mad man or the maddest wise man.” But the question is left open: Is Quixote a raving lunatic that should be locked up; a victim of hallucinations who brandishes his sword at anyone he thinks is evil; a delusional and mentally disturbed person who needs to be locked up for fear he will hurt someone? Or is he a gentle and noble idealist who chooses to see beauty in broken things and virtue in a world full of hopelessness, despair and wickedness; a man who refuses to give in to the forces of evil in the world and believes in the Good come what may?

A key to the play – and, I think, to the answer to the question of Quixote’s sanity – is the transformation of Aldonza – a common village barmaid, who also moonlights in the world’s oldest profession – into Dulcinea (which means “sweetness”). From the moment Don Quixote lays eyes on her, he believes Aldonza to be the purest, most beautiful and virtuous woman in the world, the one of whom he has always dreamt and “the very essence of what a woman is to a man.” (And this despite the fact that the play has made abundantly clear that Aldonza’s charms are for sale for the right price.) At first Aldonza does not trust Quixote and believes him only to be either a crackpot or just another man trying to seduce her. As it dawns on her that Quixote is serious, Aldonza cannot understand why he talks of virtue and conquest and righting unrightable wrongs and so forth. She refuses the name Dulcinea and in absolute frustration begs Quixote repeatedly to look at her, to take a really good look at her, because she is nothing like the virginal sweetness he ascribes to her. In one of the most stirring songs in the musical, Aldonza recounts her illegitimate birth on a dung heap, where she was left to die. And as for her wonderful quality of character, Aldonza tells Don Quixote that what is in her heart will get her halfway to hell. At the end of play Alonso Quijana is on his deathbed and no longer remembers that he is Don Quixote and has no recollection of Aldonza/Dulcinea. He has, as it were, come to himself and remembers his actions as Don Quixote as if they were only a dream. Aldonza is shattered and, for the first time, accepts the name Dulcinea as her own, and explains to Alonso/Quixote: “You called me by another name! You saw me!”

In that moment, Aldonza finally accepts and believes Quixote’s perception of her and it transforms her into the sweet, virtuous Dulcinea. It appears that Don Quixote is not so much mad as he is able to perceive things no one else can – as he explains at one point in the play, he chooses to see things not as they are, but as they should be. And this is not a flight from reality, Quixote claims, for he has “seen life as it is” and “When life itself is lunatic, who knows where madness lies? …too much sanity may be madness!”

I would like to suggest that The Man of La Mancha shares a good deal of its theology with the author of John’s Gospel. And I would like to go back, briefly, and look at our Gospel reading today in light of Quixote’s strange declaration that “too much sanity may be madness!”

Our lection for this morning falls right in the middle of John’s extended version of the feeding of the five thousand. We have been going through this story, bit by bit, over the last two Sundays (and will stay with it for another two Sundays yet!). So far in the story, Jesus and his disciples find themselves out in the wilderness with a crowd that has followed them. Jesus preaches all day and at the end of the day they realize that the crowd is hungry, but there is no means to feed them; just five loaves and two fish. Jesus feeds the entire crowd from this meager meal and has 12 baskets full of leftovers. The crowd, of course, is impressed and believe that they have found their meal ticket, and subsequently will not leave Jesus alone. They follow Jesus & His disciples around the lake, asking for more bread. Jesus explains to them that they have not properly understood His miracles and declares to them – as we read at the beginning of our Gospel lesson (Jn 6:35), that He is, in fact, “the bread of life” and that He has come from God the Father to give them eternal life – which here does not so much refer to the hereafter as it does to the quality of spiritual life, although it would include life hereafter as well. (Tim has drawn out some of the implications of this over the last 2 weeks.)

Here is where our Gospel this morning focuses. At this point in the story, the Jewish religious authorities – “the Jews,” as John calls them – object to Jesus’ claims (“complain” – v. 41). They make the rather obvious point that Jesus is claiming to have been with the Father from eternity and to have come down from heaven, but everyone present knows that he is the son of Mary and Joseph. “Who is this Jesus that declares that He has come down from heaven?” they ask, “And who claims that he himself, his very flesh (sarx), is ‘living bread’ – the bread that gives eternal life to those who eat it?”

This is madness – is it not!?

John’s Gospel presents this part of the story in a rather negative light. And after more than 2,000 years of Christian belief we might be inclined to miss the obviousness and plain sense of this objection by the Jewish authorities. But I think that perhaps we make believing in Jesus a little too simple; as if His claims about being from the Father and being the bread of life are something that has gotten easier to believe over time.

I want you to try to imagine that someone you have known for your entire life (or a very long time) – perhaps a family member – were to make this sort of claim to you. What is more, imagine this person claims about her body – her flesh and blood – is eternal life itself! It is one thing to accept that someone we know very well has special gifts and perhaps that they even are favoured by God; but to be eternal with God!? How would you respond? You probably would think they were struggling with their grasp of reality! Now reconsider Jesus’ claim to be from God and the bread of life as if He were that person you know so well – it really is no different, is it? This is exactly the situation for the Jewish leaders who hear Jesus make these claims; and I believe, if we reflect on it a little, it is precisely our situation too! Believing in Jesus is, in one sense, much the same as a Don Quixote claiming that windmills are giants or that barmaids are virginal.

There is no way around this. It is lunacy. And we can only believe Jesus claim is not madness if we transform Jesus’ claims into a nice little fairy tale or fable or children’s story so that we do not have to take it seriously or allow Jesus to confront us where we live. In this way we can side-step the audacity of His claims and the claim it will have on us. Because to accept Jesus’ claim when we also accept the full meaning of it is to acknowledge that reality is much deeper than we are able to understand.

Believing in Jesus, in other words, is not like believing in horseshoes! I am told that an American scientist once visited the offices of the great Nobel-prize-winning physicist, Niels Bohr, in Copenhagen. He was amazed to find that over Bohr’s desk was a horseshoe, securely mailed to the wall, with the open end up in the approved manner (so it would catch the good luck and not let it spill out). The American said with a nervous laugh, “Surely you don't believe the horseshoe will bring you good luck, do you, Professor Bohr? After all, as a scientist…” Bohr chuckled, “I believe no such thing, my good friend. Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe in such foolish nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring you good luck whether you believe in it or not.”

But Jesus is not like a good luck charm. If we really believe that Jesus is the Bread of Life who came down to the Father, then we will also need to admit that we are not the final judge on what is true or best or what to believe. We will, instead, have to come (as Peter declares later in v. 68) to Jesus for the Words of life and humbly acknowledge His claim on our lives. If I acknowledge that Jesus really is from the Father, and that He really is the Bread of Life, then much of what I spend my money and my time and energy on is wasted – because so much of my life is spent trying to satisfy myself apart from Jesus.

Is this not precisely why we do not feed on Jesus in our hearts – because we have such a hard time acknowledging and believing that He really is who He says He is. And is this not why our lives so often are not characterized by abundant life; and, finally, also why we do not share him w/ others – b/c we struggle actually to believe in Him? John’s Gospel is quite clear – if we merely believe in the miracles of Jesus, without acknowledging the deeper spiritual realities behind them – who Jesus really is – then our spiritual lives will remain unchanged. The Gospel tells us that we must come to Jesus fully believing and trusting in Him for our salvation. We must “feed on Him in our hearts” and allow His Word to live in us and change us. We must then go and join Jesus in His mission, his quest to reach the world. We must be Jesus’ flesh and blood to a world that desperately needs to hear that there is something more to this world than the pain and suffering and despair that is all around us. And more than just telling the world this, we must live in such a way that the eternal life that Jesus comes to give is obvious to everyone in all that we – together, as a Church and a people called by God – say and do. This is precisely what Saint Paul is encouraging the Ephesians to do when he tells them to “live a life of love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.”

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

August 10 - 16, 2009

C A L E N D A R

St. Margaret’s 2009
Sharing the Gospel . Going for Growth!

Monday, August 10th
Tim on holiday until August 11th
Office Closed

Tuesday, August 11th
11:15 am St. Joseph’s Eucharest

Sunday, August 16th - Pentecost 11
9.00 am Eucharist
10.30 am Eucharist


Growing Prayer at St.Margaret’s
Each week we offer special prayers for two families in our congregation.

Church Families: Michelle, Drew and Katrina Lobreau,
Doug MacNeill
Weekly Prayer Cycle: Lay Readers

Tim’s Holidays: Tim will be away on holiday from August 3rd - 10th inclusive; he will be back at work on Tuesday, August 11th. If you need a priest for a pastoral emergency, please contact the Rev. Kevin Kraglund at St. Matthias’ Anglican Church.

Gardening Volunteers
As we all know, the flower beds have been beautifully taken care of over the years. However, we are down to two talented gardeners - Julie Holmes and Doug Harris. One more volunteer who can handle the heavier work of turning hardened soil is needed. If you can spare your time and talents, please contact Tony Willacy.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sermon for August 2nd: John 6:24-35

Hungering for the Right Things

When we lived in the Arctic in the nineteen eighties and early nineteen nineties, the difference between perishable and non-perishable food items was a very significant one for us. Transportation was a huge part of the cost of food, as there were no permanent roads into the communities where we lived. There were therefore two ways to bring food into the community (other than shooting it for yourself, of course!): by water or by air. Every summer, barges came into the community to bring hardware, dry goods, and non-perishable food items such as flour, sugar, tea and coffee, tobacco products, UHT milk, and – a major item – pop and chips! These items were a lot cheaper, because of course transport by sea was much less expensive than transport by air. But perishable stuff – like fresh fruit and vegetables, real milk and so on – had to be flown in every week by air, which made it very expensive. It seemed a bit perverse that it was often the stuff that was good for you – the fresh fruit and veg – that was really expensive, while the stuff that wasn’t so good – pop and chips, coffee and cigarettes – was less expensive! It would have been nice if we could have found a way to reverse that!

In our gospel reading for today Jesus has a lot to say about the ‘food that perishes’ and the ‘food that endures’. He’s being pursued by a crowd of people who saw him feed the five thousand – which was our gospel reading last week - and he tells them they’ve got their minds on the wrong things. In verses 26-27 he says to the crowd:
“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do 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”.

Jesus is obviously not happy with the fact that the crowd are so interested in getting more free bread. For him, the feeding of the five thousand wasn’t just about giving people free bread; it was a sign pointing to Jesus and his identity. He isn’t just a prophet like Moses or a king to liberate them from oppression; he’s the Bread of Life who God has sent to give life to the world. But the crowd are so taken by the feeding of the five thousand that they’ve got no time for the spiritual meaning of what Jesus is doing.

We might feel some sympathy for them. After all, it’s pretty hard to preach the gospel to people whose bellies are empty. You can’t blame hungry people for wanting food, can you? Isn’t Jesus being a bit unjust here?

No, he’s not. And he’s not rebuking them for being hungry. Obviously he wanted the crowd to be fed, or he wouldn’t have done it in the first place; the other gospels even mention that he had ‘compassion’ on them and wanted to meet their needs. But at the same time it’s important for us to realise that Jesus wasn’t just some sort of glorified social worker traveling around ancient Galilee looking for needy people he could help out. The gospels constantly emphasise his preaching and teaching ministry; to him, the urgent thing was announcing the kingdom of God and giving people an opportunity to repent and believe the good news. His healing miracles were signs of the kingdom, showing that the power of evil was being defeated and that God was at work to put this broken world to rights. But they were paying too much attention to the sign, and not enough attention to the thing the sign was pointing to. When you see a sign to show you the way, you’re supposed to follow its directions. You aren’t supposed to spend ages and ages looking at the sign, commenting on how beautiful it is, and driving around in circles again and again so that you can keep on seeing it as if for the first time.

What does this have to do with us today?

These folks from Galilee were coming to Jesus, not for his own sake, but for what he could do for them. I suspect that most people who begin attending church and decide to become followers of Jesus do so for similar reasons. Whether it’s helping us to be better husbands and wives or parents to our kids, or taking away our fear of death, or giving us inner peace of mind and heart, or healing us from a life-threatening illness – we’re seeking the giver because of his gifts, and not for his own sake – at least, not yet. And this is only natural; we’re just like the people in the gospels, most of whom came to Jesus because they wanted him to do something for them. And there is no hint that Jesus was reluctant to help them.

The problem comes if we get stuck in that place, and it’s a problem for two reasons. First, what we’re actually doing is enlisting Jesus to help us meet our own agenda, rather than honestly inviting him to tell us what his agenda is, and then asking for strength to fulfil it. Because Jesus is not just a glorified motivational speaker waltzing around the world trying to help everyone meet their personal goals and objectives. Jesus has his own goals and objectives, and he’s looking for people who are willing to catch the vision of his kingdom and get on board with his agenda.

The second problem is that we too easily assume that we know what our most important needs are. I might think that my most important need is to be healed right now of a particular illness that’s causing me trouble, whereas Jesus might see a bigger picture, a need for me to grow in patience and endurance. I might think that my most important need is to be rescued from the consequences of my own financial irresponsibility, whereas Jesus might see a bigger picture and know that if I have to deal with some of those consequences it might well motivate me not to get myself into the same sort of situation again.

Focussing on the gifts that Jesus gives, rather than the giver himself, serves to confirm us in our self-centred approach to life. Jesus is going to want to challenge that, and to lead us into a way of living that’s centred on God and his purposes for us. And so he tries to lead this crowd of Galileans away from focussing on the bread, and toward focussing on what the bread symbolizes: himself, and his role as the bread that endures to eternal life – because he is in fact ‘the bread of life’, as verse 35 says: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”.

Jesus is talking here about the deepest and most fundamental need of every human being, which is to be in right relationship with God. In a famous prayer, St. Augustine once said to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”. Or, as someone else has said, “There’s a God-shaped hole in every human heart, and nothing else can fill it”. The writer of Psalm 63 expresses this when he says, ‘O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water’ (v.1).

As physical food gives life and energy to our bodies, so being in right relationship with God sustains us in our spiritual life – by which I don’t mean ‘our non-physical life’ but ‘our total life as people made in God’s image in God’s world’. We can be tremendously successful in every other area of our lives, but if we don’t find this right relationship with our Creator, there will always be something missing right at the heart of our lives. We will be full in every other way, but starving at the very centre of our being.

Jesus claims to be able to bring us back into this right relationship with God. He is the one who gave his life to reconcile us to God; he is the one who taught us the way to live as God’s children. He is ‘the bread of life’; if we come to him and believe in him, our spiritual hunger and thirst will be satisfied.

But this raises a nagging question, at least for me, and I suspect for some of you as well. Quite frankly, I’ve been a Christian for a long time, and there are still many days when I do, in fact, feel spiritually hungry. So Jesus’ statement that ‘those who come to me will never be hungry, and those who believe in me will never be thirsty’ doesn’t seem to ring true in my experience. Why not?

Let’s get the obvious answer out of the way right off the top. Many, many times, the answer is because of my own sinfulness. Jesus has clearly taught me what a godly life looks like, but I choose not to follow his teaching, doing something that he has told us not to do, or neglecting to do something that he has told us to do. Or, even though I believe in Jesus, I still ‘work for the bread that perishes’ – in other words, I get my priorities wrong, giving major attention to stuff that’s not that important in the long term, and neglecting the stuff that is important. Or again, I don’t give the time to prayer and chewing on the word of God that’s necessary for me to grow in my conscious contact with him.

Yes, this is all true – but it’s not the whole truth. There are times when, as far as we know, we are doing our best to be faithful to Jesus, and yet we still feel spiritually hungry and thirsty. What’s going on?

I think part of the answer lies in the way I just phrased the problem: ‘We still feel spiritually hungry and thirsty’. Too often, we make the assumption that Jesus is talking about feelings, of emotions. We assume that when he says, ‘If you come to me you’ll never be hungry and if you believe in me you’ll never be thirsty’, what he really means is ‘If you come to me you’ll always be happy and joyful, or sense God close to you, or have perfect peace of mind’ and so on.

But that’s just not the case. The reality is that our emotions come and go. Good feelings are nice when they come, just as we enjoy it when we have food that not only does us good but also tastes good as well! But we don’t need delicious gourmet food to keep us going – ordinary, plain food will do just as well. And in the same way, of course we enjoy our Christian life more when we feel good – but we can still be fed by God, at a level deeper than our emotions – when those feelings are not there.

I know this from personal experience, and I’ll tell you how. Marci will tell you that if there’s a character from Winnie the Pooh who I resemble, she thinks it’s Eyore. I’m of something of a melancholic temperament, inclined to see the glass as half empty and to look on the dark side of things. I go through periods of what feel to me like spiritual dryness often, when I have to take God’s presence on faith, because I don’t seem to be able to feel anything resembling the joy I’ve been taught that he wants to give me.

And yet, this doesn’t stop God using me to bless others. Often when I’ve been going through those dry times, I’ve had a meeting with someone going through some trouble in their life, and they’ve told me afterwards that God really used me to help them. Or I’ve said something in a sermon and someone tells me afterwards that it was a real blessing for them. So obviously, in a very real way, God is giving me the spiritual nourishment I need, even at those times when I don’t feel it.

The truth is, you see, that religious emotion is one of the ‘things that perishes’ that Jesus is talking about here – and he tells us not to work for the things that perish but the things that endure. True soul food is deeper that religious emotion – it nourishes our life with God and sustains us to do the things God asks of us. We may not feel God’s presence all the time, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there – it means he’s working in a part of our psyche that’s far, far deeper than our emotions.

Having said that, there is no doubt that following Jesus does often lead to a deeper sense of joy, peace, and satisfaction, and when that happens, we can thank God. There’s a sense of well-being that comes from living in relationship with God, in harmony with the way God has created us. Earthly satisfaction will pass away, but true spiritual satisfaction – that satisfaction that comes from knowing God through Christ – will last forever.

Jesus says, ‘Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. So we are invited to come to him and put our trust in him. The call of Jesus to us in this chapter is an evangelistic call. Have you tasted of the bread of life? Or are you still ‘working for the bread that perishes’? Don’t be satisfied with moldy bread! Come to Jesus and receive the best and finest 100% whole wheat, the top of the line, the stuff that will keep you going forever!