(Patronal Festival, St John the Evangelist - Sermon)
“Purity of heart is to will one thing”
This past week has seen the long planned ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro. Dame Barbara Stocking, the director of one of the world’s largest charitable organisations, Oxfam said this ahead of the summit : "This is urgent. As the people with the least struggle to survive, the consumption habits of the richest are stripping the Earth of its resources. The situation is dire. We cannot go on living beyond the Earth's boundaries. The people suffering are the poorest. These are issues that will affect us all for ever." This statement, no one in their right minds could possible have any issues with. The very future of the planet is at best on a cliff edge. There are some, and I have to say I tend to agree with them, who say we have already fallen off the edge and are accelerating rapidly towards a Very Messy endgame.
Of course, given the extreme gravity of the situation all the worlds most powerful people were there. Of course? Well actually no. President Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel were all noticeable by their absence. Where were they?? In Mexico agonizing over the economic maelstrom. It reminds me of the story of the man who is having a heart attack, but doesn’t call the ambulance because he is too busy on the phone to his bank manager. Actually I made that story up - no-one would be that stupid or that distracted would they?? Just the other day Sam was reading the story of the first Arctic Explorers and how when their ships were crushed by the ice and they had to go on foot, they took along alll their fancy furniture - or there is the story of the Indian Mutiny when the English families fled with all their possessions - and the way we are told was littered with stuffed owls and the like. We are constantly reminded if a building is on fire - Do not go back for your possessions - yet we are Captivated and distracted by what is secondary
We live in an age of distraction, of captivation by that which is of no value. One in which our attention is being continually dragged hither and thither. There are so many loud, yet thin voices clamouring for our attention that in the midst of it we have not the capacity to determine what really counts. The planet is dying but the worlds leaders are busy bean counting. Obviously we have decided that it is better to be rich on a dead planet or poor on a living one?? We may all starve but at least we’ll have our stuffed owls.
But Distraction form that which really counts - the matters of Life and death is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. Our gospel reading today is prefaced by the words of Jesus to Peter - Follow me! - not just words - a Command of the one who declares “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life - How MOre significant can it be, the One who encompasses Eveything - Follow Me! - Imperative. But even Peter is distracted “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’” Jesus is not even for a moment drawn in - ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ That is None of your concern - and then the renewed command - ‘Follow me!’
Today, in the depths of winter - the season of darkness, we celebrate the feast of our patron St John the Evangelist. The one who writes that the light shines in the darkness - “the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper” John of course is symbolised by the Eagle - he is the Evangelist who gives us a gospel of breathtaking scope. He soars HIgh above the perspective of the other three Evangelists. His gospel begins at the beginning of Everything, before Creation came to be. And leads us into the Life that is eternal. It is a breathtaking aerial vision, soaring as it were high not over the earth, but above everything.
But why does the Eagle soar so high? Because he enjoys the view? No - he soars as high as he possibly can in order to give us the best possible view of his subject. Like any bird of prey the eagle only has eyes for that which will feed him - he soars high that he might find food, Life. John knows that Christ Alone can feed him, And for John that food is Christ himself. ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life’. John’s Vision is utterly consumed by that which he feeds on, the very life of Christ. John the Baptist at the beginning of the gospel declares to us the purpose of the gospel “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” and anyone who knows about the Passover Lamb knows one thing - you have to eat the Lamb.
John for all his transcendent perspective is by far the most imminent, the most intimate of all the gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all to a certain extent because they see Jesus and his life in temporal context present a Jesus who we follow as if it were through thick woods - we keep losing him - he hides - ‘who do you say that I am?’ is the question they ask. Not John. Soaring High above the story he Sees Christ clearly ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ Cries the Eagle. With John we are not struggling through the woods - continually losing sight of Jesus, no - we are up close - up too close for some
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat? ‘This word is hard. Who can accept it . . . and many drew back from following him’ - ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ ‘ you shall never wash my feet’ Up close - and personal. Whoever eats me has life - whoever knows me has life. John refers to himself as ‘the disciple who had leant on the breast of Jesus’ - John is Intimate with Jesus - and of course he refers to himself as ‘the beloved disciple’. John loves Jesus. Jesus loves John.
And we might say - ‘The Disciple whom Jesus Loved? Well that’s not fair! - Why does Jesus have a favourite?? Our gospel reading with Peter being distracted by the presence of John following Jesus and Peter, follows immediately on from Jesus telling Peter this Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) It is perhaps no surprise that Peter looks back and asks “but what about Him” Jesus words ‘If I will that he remain until I come . . .” Might suggest to us that the disciple whom Jesus loves will get off lightly. Of course this was the way in a sense the way it was read and so John corrects it and says - “Jesus did not say that he would not die, merely If I will that he remain til I come, what is that to you”
Yet John does more - by never referring to himself by name - he leaves the door open. We may ask - How does John know that Jesus loves him . . . but of course that is it. John Knows he is loved by Jesus and thus he is always to be found with Jesus, close to Jesus - even when Jesus is in close conversation with Peter, John is following, John is at the Cross, John looks into the empty tomb and sees and believes, John reclines upon the breast of Jesus. John represents All who Know that Jesus Loves them, deep in their hearts.
Peter, on the other hand is always a step removed - Peter is bold in his assertions about Jesus, but his actions belie him. I will lay down my life for you! he says. Jesus says that that is the mark of Love - to lay down one’s life. Peter makes out that he loves Jesus, but his actions reveal his heart. It is John (and of course the women) who go to the cross with Jesus - they are shown to be the ones who love him.
John writes in his first epistle - we love because he first loved us. His love for Jesus comes from deep knowledge of Jesus love for him. John knows he is the beloved disciple. And that asks of us two questions. For Peter certainly in some sense knew. In his head he knew Jesus was the Christ. He knew in his head - but he had not yet been captured in the totality of his being by this love of God for him - it was as yet a concept. Do we know we are so loved? Is the love of Jesus for us a good doctrine, a comfortable doctrine even, one that gives us hope and strength - or do we KNOW he loves us, deep within our being. John leaves the door open - for those who come to KNOW that they are loved of Jesus, may love him well in return, may themselves recline upon the breast of Jesus.
Peter as yet has but a weak love for Jesus - lord - you know that I love you he pleads three times . . . but not yet as you love me (in the Greek we see this plainly - Jesus asks do you agape me (love me with all you have and are) twice - and twice Peter responds I phileo you (love you as a friend) - finally Jesus says ‘do you phileo me’ and that is enough - but Peter is still not there. It is enough, it is a starting point, but as yet Peter doesn’t only have eyes for Jesus - he is too easily distracted by John - what about Him?? - if he loved Jesus with all he had and all he was, then he would never have asked about John.
Jesus asks Peter, he asks us - do you agape me. Do you only have eyes for me? John the soaring eagle spies out the entire terrain, in the midst of history he spies out Jesus of NAzareth - but indeed as he surveys Everything - In the beginning was the Word - All things came into being through him - He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the End - He is the Way, the Truth, the Life. John can say in a way no other lover can - He is my everything - he is Everything. The Eagle as he swoops over all of Creation can only see Christ. He consumes his vision. Behold the Lamb of God! he cries out to us, the Lamb that was slain from before the foundation of the Earth.
Such a compelling vision of Christ - but one that is Utterly rooted in the materiality of our world. Some of the early church fathers thought of John as a Spiritual gospel. Love expressed as a sentiment - the eternal Life as something immaterial. Yet it is John who makes the very flesh of Jesus every bit as important as his words, as his message. We may listen to the institution of the eucharist in the other gospels - we may hear Jesus saying, This is my body, this is my blood - but we are required to make as it were a spiritual conceptual leap. John leaves us in no doubt - Eat my flesh - Drink my blood - the Word becomes Flesh. And this fleshly word encompasses Everything.
We cannot read the gospel of John and end up with a faith that is purely about our personal salvation, his Vision is All encompassing, and throughout the gospel John portrays Christ as both the Source and the End of All of Creation, the Alpha and the Omega. And thus to beginning today thinking about the Earth Summit was not irrelevant.
At the heart of the problem the Earth faces as set out by Barbara Stocking were these words “As the people with the least struggle to survive, the consumption habits of the richest are stripping the Earth of its resources.” the consumption habits of the richest . . . those who take and take and take from the world.
As we Love Christ as he loves us - we are hidden in him, as Moses is hidden in the Rock - we identify with Him and in Him we Become the way of Love - the way of Love, not to take and take and take, but to Give and Give and Give. The Earth Summit subtitle is ‘sustainable growth’ - yet the crying need is to contract, to become Less. The Human footprint on the earth is far beyond anything the planet can sustain - for it was created to sustain those who lived from God’s provision, not their rapacious greed. It was created to sustain those who although they had nowhere to lay their head - yet discovered the hospitality of God. It was created as a home for those who though they were poor discovered that in Christ they possessed all things. Christ reveals to us both the Living God and the True human being. He took nothing. He gave himself. That is Love. And John is Clear in his gospel and his other writings that we are to imitate Christ in the way of self giving love - as I have loved you, Love one another
And again as the evangelist writes in his first epistle We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. Behold the Lamb of God - Our Life, and the Salvation of the whole world - The one who calls us away from the distractions of the world to a life lived in, through, and for him alone.
But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’
But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead;
but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’
We don’t need to have been keeping company with Jesus very long before he says something which sounds either troubling, or confusing, or unintelligible. If Jesus’ words don’t at some time or other do serious damage to the way we see the world, then to be frank we haven’t being paying much attention. I have told the story elsewhere about a class I once held in which we told the parable of the Prodigal son. On the occasion in question someone was paying attention and exclaimed in a very angry voice - ‘That’s not fair!!’. And I was So happy :) Because it proved that she’d heard it. HOw many times had I told that story and no-one had heard it. It had shaken her that God’s Love is So extravagant, his forgiveness So encompassing, it was a Scandal in her ears
Yet those moments of enlightenment are few and far between. We often hear these discomforting words of Jesus and as if afflicted by a fly landing on our nose as we sleep, we rouse slightly, re-arrange the pillows and go back to the land of nod. It’s not often that the words of Jesus have us sitting up in a cold sweat wondering if the world is just about to end. Which only goes to show how little we understand what is going on, because that is precisely what Jesus is announcing. His death on the Cross is The End of the old order, the end of the World as we know it and he now invites us into a New way of Living, a New Life in which so much that is old and familiar and comforting is blown away, and shown to be a deception. Jesus in announcing the Kingdom of God announces the end of the world as we know it. He says of the coming of the New Age, when the Spirit Comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. the World is proved Wrong by the life death resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The End is upon us and thus, the urgency of the message, to repent and believe the good news.
Can I put off following Jesus til after my father’s funeral? No! This is desperately urgent! If we had a Tsunami warning or an Earthquake - would we be saying hang on a moment! I need to bury my father? Jesus announces The End of the World, the Old ways are dead. The Old certainties, the old securities are being revealed to be lies, false - Wake Up!
Jesus using this Scandalous language reveals that the Kingdom of God is not some version of what we know and are comfortable with, just a little bit better. Indeed that with which you are Comfortable he says is the problem! What makes you feel secure - your money, your career, your family even - this security is false. What you called security was in fact slavery, what you thought Life, was in fact Death. We sense our need of this security when we think say of our Pensions, or lack of them - will they be enough - we sense if they were we would be secure - or we think of our families, ‘will they be around to care for me when I am old?’ We long for the security family brings. But none of these things are at all secure. In Jesus declaration of the Kingdom of God, even the bonds of family are shown to be called radically into question. My Kingdom, he says, is not of this world. My Kingdom is Only to be discovered in letting go of our old securities and discovering our total security in God alone.
And there are clues in our past to this. Deep in our story there was something that happened which prefigured this Kingdom of God. The people were in Slavery in Egypt - they were oppressed by Pharaoh, the whole political order had them in subjugation, they were captive. They were as good as Dead. But God heard their groans and rescued them, brought them from death to life . . . and then took them out into the wilderness where in the words of perhaps my favourite poet Norman Nicholson, there were ‘Nobbut God’ NOthing - Just God and the work of the wilderness was to teach them to discover their Life in God and thus to be his people. -And all of a sudden the people started to yearn for the security of their old captivity. As if woken up - they just wanted to crawl back to sleep - Oh that we could be back in Egypt!! They began to imagine that life was really better in Egypt - they literally started to hallucinate a bout a land of wonderful food and comfort. God in his endless patience goes to work on this people - training them in learning to put their trust not in any rulers of men, but in Him and him alone - because he has a purpose for this people that they will be a light to the nations - that They will reveal his life in the world. Yet . . . they ache for another security, even though that security is oppressive. As we do when we lose sight of the Scandalous nature of the gospel, that does not baptise the world as we know it but declares it has come to an end.
And so as we come to the story, the prophet and judge of Israel, Samuel, is confronted by the people demanding to have a King. And their reason? ‘So that we might be like other nations’ Because everyone else has one. Having a proper King - a visible King - a real government - well it makes us feel secure. There is nothing perhaps more disturbing than the sense that no-one is in control - and here is something Scandalous to cosy views of God and our faith, God has lost patience with them. Put another way - he hands them over to the consequences of their desires, but warns them of what will happen. This is what a King is Like “He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” And Note - this is not a warning against some kind of bogeyman King - this is what all Kings do - all human rulers - establish their power by putting the people under some form of subjugation - they take people to be in their armies and then they employ vast numbers to run the system they have devised and then they take taxes from everyone to keep his system operating. In other words you will all be slaves again, just as you were in Egypt. You will have a sham security, but bought at the price of your obedience to the way of the world. Or to use the analogy we have been using for some time now - you will be back in the tomb. We all too readily shape our faith so that it conforms to the way of the world and doesn’t threaten or disrupt it.
And so comes the biggest threat to us all, the biggest threat to our securities, the one who will tell us to leave our father’s funeral and follow him - Jesus comes onto the scene - to be the Obedient Israel, that is Free - to be the one who only has eyes for the rule of God his Father. And immediately we are given a sense of Jesus stepping into this place of death, this tomb. We Know that Christ harrows Hell - he descended to the dead. And this is enacted before our eyes. - there is a sense of oppressiveness, of death in Mark’s account - Jesus has just appointed the twelve - to be with him, to be sent out to proclaim the message and to cast out demons, as it were to start the revolution of New Life breaking in and immediately the crowds come pressing in - there is almost a sense of Life being Squeezed out - we hear ‘the crowd came together again so that they could not eat’ Life is under attack - being squeezed out. His family, alarmed by reports that he is out of his mind cannot get in the door, to ‘restrain him’ to make him captive - and then in the midst of it it becomes clear that all hell really does break lose as the Scribes come with their accusations that Jesus is casting out demons by ‘Beelzebub’ - casting out demons by the ruler of demons. All the world it seems is crying out Stop Him!!
As I said - for some the tomb was quite comfortable - in particular the Scribes and Pharisees - they had made friends with the powers that be and exercised considerable power and influence. If we imaging them purely as religious figures, then we may well miss what is going on in all of the gospels - it is too easy to take our categories and imagine that the Scribes and Pharisees were purely religious figures, that Jesus is coming to sort out the religious dimension of our lives, that Christianity is what we call a spiritual message - but that is not to hear the gospel in its context where there were no easy divisions between Spiritual and physical, between religious and political. These are our categories - the categories of those who have made our accommodations with the way of the world. The Pharisees were the gate keepers on issues of ritual purity - thus the peasants who produced the food were dependent on the word of the Pharisees for whether there produce was allowable or not. Matters of religion and economics were interwoven - the Pharisees were as much part of the political as the religious elite. Mark paints them as conspiring with the Herodians. Jesus in his coming is not dealing with purely religious matters - his coming threatens the whole political order. It begs the question Who is king?? To whom will you pledge allegiance? To whom will you pay your dues? For whom willyou live your Life? Who is King? Whose servant are you? WHose servant are we?
And interestingly Jesus both here and later uses an economic metaphor for his Ministry - he is the one who will tie up the strong man and plunder his house - he is the thief who comes in the night.
Just briefly there will no doubt be folk who worry about the unforgiveable sin, blasphemy agaisnt the Holy Spirt - well it is Very clear here what it means - the Pharisees saw the work of the Holy Spirit - the work of God - in the casting out of demons and called it the work of the devil - that is the blasphemy against the holy spirit. It is utter spiritual blindness, it is a denial that He comes to change Everything.
Is that a call to political activism? And in the first place the answer is No. Because God’s answer to the World is his people. That was the original call of Israel, to be the people of God and in their common life to reveal the Life of God. In and amongst themselves to reveal the New Creation, the Life of CHrist who is the first fruits, in Our Common Life. You will remember that I have spoken a couple of times about Jubilee - that the Israelites were called to exercise amongst themselves an economic way of being that was in stark contrast to the political economies of their neighbours. They were a people saved by God for the Glory of God - to be a light to the nations and that light was, as life is, multi dimensional, it was moral, but it was also political and economic. And so it is that Jesus comes to form a New Israel. As he embodies obedient Israel, so he forms a new people of God, a people whose life is his life. A people who in their common life reveal the life of Jesus, because their Life is the life of Jesus. A people who embody the principles of Jubilee as they live the life of the one who fulfils the year of the Lord’s favour. In the beginning was the Word, through whom all things were made. That Life that was the Light of all people, embodied all of life. Such that there was no dimension of life left unchallenged, and that includes the family. As I try gently to tell parents, Baptisms are not what we like to think of of family occasions. A post baptism party shouldn’t be something that mum and dad go off and celebrate - no it is the inclusion of the person in the People of God, the church, the party is the churches party. And for many families that actually means a division. For we are baptised into Christ and thus separated from all those who are not in Christ, because we are set apart to be a light - to be different and thus to reveal the life of our risen Lord. It is only because we have failed to hear the radical call to repentance, to New Life, to a Life where all that we once held dear is seen for what it was, a form of Captivity, that we see how radical Baptism is. And I guess that for many we feel the Scandal of the gospel in those words as much in the call of Jesus to let the dead bury their own. Who are my brother and sister and mother? Here says Jesus are my brother and sister and mother? Who are our brothers and sisters and mothers??
Yet that is the nature of Life - the Life of God revealed in Christ - it disturbs us, but it is Life. It is Not Safe, in that everything in which we have learnt to trust has been shown to be false. Jesus calls us out - to share in His Life - a Life of Freedom, for as the Isrealites plundered their captives Jesus by his death and resurrection has bound the strong man and plundered his property, even his whole house - Everything now belongs to him, and in that we find the only true security.