Proper 16: Standing Firm

From Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Utrecht

Proper 16/Trinity 13

Psalm 84
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

We have finally reached the end of John 6 as today is Sunday five of five! I have mentioned the various threads and themes that run through this rather dense chapter over the last few weeks. At each turn, Jesus is ratcheting up what is at stake for both that early crowd and for us now.

One golden thread running through this chapter are the words very truly and believe. They are used a lot! Jesus is telling us very truly to believe in Him. I spoke last week about how the way we trust in things and people can influence how we trust God.

We all have our own ways of coming to trust things and people. Maybe some of us trust the wrong things or don’t consider the things we trust until they prove themselves to be untrustworthy. Maybe some of us set the bar so high that we trust almost nothing and no one. Jesus wants us to trust him; for anything and everything, all the time and forever. He died for us; his death and resurrection is a very clear indicator of his willingness!

Those first listeners did not yet fully appreciate what Jesus meant about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. The response from many was, ‘this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ Jesus has challenged his listeners on everything from their extensive rules on food preparation and eating to what happens (or doesn’t happen) when they die. Jesus has thrown down the proverbial gauntlet. It is time to make a decision and make it now!

Jesus was giving them and still gives us a choice. He asks, ‘do you also wish to go away?’ To follow Jesus or not is a choice; the ultimate one. Christianity is based on making that choice; being a Christian is not an automatic event, it does not just happen.

At some point in this life we all have to make a choice to follow Jesus or not. The people Jesus puts this question to in John’s Gospel are not newbie followers.
These are people who have heard the teaching, seen the miracles, followed him around, maybe some were healed, they were certainly all loved by Jesus.

I have had some interesting conversations recently about the saving work of God and ‘what about those people who never hear about Jesus’ or people of other faiths. I do not worry about them as much as I do about those people who hear the teaching, have been to church, know something about God and choose not to believe.

I think of some of my cousins, my friends, people I have worked with in the past. The only people who cannot or will not be saved are the ones who put themselves beyond the reach of God. God does not put people beyond his reach – people put themselves there.

It is sometimes an hourly, daily, moment by moment decision to choose God and live fully as the people we were made to be. It is hard work. You might notice that Jesus does not make it easier! He doesn’t make excuses or argue back when his followers take offense and claim it is too hard. He is not offering a lighter version.

Debie Thomas, ‘What does it mean to choose God? According to Jesus, it means eating his very essence, taking the incarnation so deeply into our own bodies and souls that we exude the favour of Christ to the world. It means doing what Jesus did and living as Jesus lived. It means turning the other cheek. It means loving our enemies. It means walking the extra mile. It means losing our lives in order to gain them. It means trusting that the first will be last and the last first. It means seeking God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. It means denying ourselves. It means the cross.’

I think that what is amazing is that Jesus had any followers left! Maybe the real miracle of the bread and fish story is not that the multitudes were fed but a handful of those stuck around when he finished teaching. By asking them, ‘do you also wish to go away?’, those who are left are free to walk away.

It is an uncomfortable question. I imagine Jesus asking it with sadness and compassion. He knows that some will walk away. He knows what is asking them. He wants them to know that his love is a freeing love. I find this an uncomfortable question because sometimes I want to say yes.

Yes I do want to go away. I want to quit, I want to be more comfortable, pick an easier, less demanding, less costly version of the Gospel. However, I know that there is no lighter version. It just does not exist.

In the final verses of Ephesians 6, Paul is telling his readers to get ready for the battle. War was a frequent reality then so this language would not have been strange or off-putting. Paul is putting the struggles of small Christian communities as a cosmic battle against supernatural evil. The people are to stand firm and not run away. They have been given the equipment they need.

We too need to stand firm, ready and rooted, if we are to choose Jesus, choose Christianity. Not only stand firm, but use the equipment we have been given properly.

It is sort of like PPE, great to have but only gives protection if used correctly. It means understanding the truth of the Gospel, being ready to proclaim it, being faithful when the arrows come, and knowing the word of God.

We also need to know, like Peter, that Jesus has the words of eternal life. Who else is there to go to? Nothing and no one will ever satisfy us like Jesus does.
We are called to make that choice over and over again. When we come together to celebrate Communion, this is what we are doing. Coming back, choosing again the one with the words of eternal life. Feeding on Jesus is our only hope. Amen.

Proper 14: I Am the Living Bread

More of John 6 as Jesus ramps up what he means about being the bread of life.

Proper 14/Trinity 11

1 Kings 19:4-8
John 6:35, 41-51

Every three years the lectionary takes us on a winding journey through John 6. If you are looking for some summer reading on these rainy days, I highly recommend a read through it!

John 6 begins with the feeding of the 5000 on a mountainside in Galilee. This crowd had been witness to the miracles Jesus had been performing. They began to follow him and the disciples around with curiosity and the hope of another free lunch after Jesus met the physical hunger of the crowd in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

Next, Jesus walks on the water in the middle of the night to stop the storm on the lake to the amazement of the disciples. The next day, the hungry crowd is back for more fish sarnies but none are on the menu.

Jesus tells them not to work that food that will perish but the food that endures for eternal life. The heart-breaking and beautiful proclamation of ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whosoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ follows. This is where we start this morning.

At each turn throughout John 6, Jesus is ratcheting up what is at stake. He is making it clear he is not just a miracle sandwich-maker or a really knowledgeable history teacher as he corrects the beliefs of Jewish people listening to and arguing with him. Jesus is reminding them that what was given to their ancestors came from God; Moses was the means of delivery.

This would have been difficult for the Jews to hear. Their beliefs were firmly held, rules were rules and needed to be followed. Jesus is trying, I think, to expand their thinking and believing about God. Some of the crowd are willfully determined not to understand; using Jesus’ family (son of a poor carpenter) and who does he think he is?!

Jane Williams writes, ‘Patiently, Jesus tries to explain, as he does so often in John’s Gospel, that he is not making claims for himself, but simply building on what they already should know about God. God has been working, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, from our creation, to make our hearts warm to the Son incarnate, just as God has been working from our creation, to bring us to share in his life. What Jesus is offering is something that we should instinctively recognize, which is the source of our true life.’

Like all offers from God, we are free to turn it down or not recognize it at all. We can choose dust and ashes over the bread of life. Jesus knows this. We choose death rather than the life we were made for. Jesus chooses death too. He chooses to be in our death. He chooses to be the bread of life who dies so that we may live.

Elijah, the ‘he’ who went on a journey in the 1 Kings reading, is at the point of choosing death. He has had enough! All of his fellow prophets have been brutally killed, he has been followed and death is looming large for him. He is tired, hungry and death is the only option as far as he can see. I am sure many of us can relate to the effects of hungry and tiredness on our moods and attitudes. The official term is ‘hangry’. It means to become bad-tempered or irritable because of hunger. Elijah is hangry.

During his nap under the broom tree, he is tended to by the angels and provided with cake and water on two occasions. He was provided with enough bread from heaven to keep him going for forty days and forty nights.
We all need to be fed. Physically of course. But also spiritually. This is what we are doing in Communion. In the breaking of the bread we are receiving our bread for the next stage in the journey. We are choosing the bread of life over the dust and ashes. Jesus is the bread of life. May we choose this bread always.

Proper 11: Sheep without a Shepherd


Proper 11/Trinity 8

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-24; 53-56

Compassion of Christ

In the opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel we are presented with a very busy Jesus! Mark sets a tone and pace for his readers that is frenetic and fast – it presents a picture of Jesus going from one place, one person to the next – hardly stopping to catch his breath.

Mark keeps Jesus and the disciples in Galilee as Jesus preaches, teaches and heals the masses whilst spending time teaching the disciples. But the side of Jesus that we are presented with today is one who recognizes, honours and tends to his own tiredness. Jesus also responds to the tiredness and exhaustion of his disciples with care and compassion. His response turns into action as Jesus tries to do something about it.

To give this morning’s reading the right context it is important to look at the whole of chapter 6 to understand why everyone is so exhausted. Chapter 6 begins with Jesus in his hometown, where he was dishonoured and ended up amazed at their unbelief. Who were the unbelieving? His family, friends and those who had known him since childhood.

Hang on to that for a moment; the people who have known you the longest completely dismiss you and the work you are doing. How draining that would be; not to mention disappointing! Remember that Jesus was a human being, he felt things: experienced grief and rejection, felt frustration, was disappointed and let down. Emotional exhaustion by any other name.

After this visit home, according to Mark, Jesus sends out the twelve disciples in two’s (v 7) to start doing what he has been showing and teaching them to do – teaching about repentance, casting out demons and anointing the sick and curing them. The disciples have been given the authority to go out along with some rules about how they are to conduct themselves. This is the beginning of their ministries. You can maybe imagine the enthusiasm they set out with! Jesus would now appear to be on his own.

Mark then turns back to the ongoing saga of John the Baptist. Mark interrupts this part of the narrative with the news of John’s death. Jesus had sent the disciples out and they (now referred to as apostles) are back together. They seem to be very anxious to tell Jesus about all the amazing things they have done and taught.

They started off full of energy and enthusiasm and have likely returned shattered! Jesus recognizes this and wants to take them away to a deserted place by themselves. The apostles are tired, Jesus is mourning the death of his cousin. Very good reasons to get away. Jesus calls them to come away with him to a deserted place to rest a while. Not sure how long ‘a while’ is but Jesus wants to provide the rest and recuperation for the apostles and himself.

What do we learn about Jesus in this passage this morning? He was human – in some of the ‘throwaway’ lines in Gospel that usually precede the big events we see this humanity – his hunger, his need for sleep and food, his inclination to hide, the need for rest and solitude. Our God rests and it is important for us to know that. As we stand on ‘Freedom Day’ tomorrow and whatever that may bring, the need for rest will be even more important.

However, the plans for rest and refreshment go awry. Jesus is also like us in that his best-laid plans went sideways! The crowd, those sheep without a shepherd, follow Jesus and apostles to their supposed place of rest. I suspect that many a human reaction would be one of disappointment – to say it mildly.

This is where we see that Jesus is decidedly un-like us; he does not turn away or throw a strop. He has compassion, He recognizes that the needs of the crowd in the moment are greater than his. He begins to teach them. Not only does he teach them, he then feeds them. All 5000 of them! This is a sermon for another day but the feeding of the 5000 by Jesus and the apostles is set in the midst of their exhaustion and grief.

A second attempt after dinner is made to get away. Jesus sends the apostles back across the lake in the boat. He went up to the mountain to pray. Jesus then comes back down and walks on the water, across the lake to the boat – again a sermon for another day!

As Jesus and the apostles arrive on the other side of the lake, still searching for the rest that seems to be eluding them, they are met with the crowds. Once again Jesus is recognized, the crowds come, bringing the sick to be healed. Once again Jesus meets them with compassion, they might touch the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

I think I envy Jesus and his stark understanding of need. I ashamedly find it easy sometimes to pass the buck on compassion when I am hungry or tired or needing some solitude. It is tempting to say that it doesn’t all depend on me. I’m not the last stop – am I? I think one of the big lessons this week is the tension between compassion and self-protection. Jesus lived with it too and that is good to know.

Debie Thomas – a writer and essayist I greatly admire writes: ‘On the one hand, he (Jesus) was unapologetic about his need for rest and solitude. He saw no shame in retreating when he and his disciples needed a break. On the other hand, he never allowed his weariness to blunt his compassion. Unlike me, he realized that he was the last stop for those aching, desperate crowds — those sheep without a shepherd. Unlike me, he practiced a kind of balance that allowed his love for others, his own inner hungers, and the urgency of the world’s needs to exist in productive tension.

Is there a lesson here? I’m not sure. Strive for balance? Recognize weariness when you feel it? Don’t apologize for being human? Take breaks?
Yes. All of those essential things. But maybe also — and most importantly — this: We live in a world of dire and constant need. Sheep die without their shepherds. There are stakes, and sometimes, what God demands of our hearts is costly.
While balance remains the ideal, it won’t always be available in the short-term. Sometimes, we will have to “err.” We’ll have to bend out of balance.
If that happens, what should we do? In what direction should we bend? If this week’s Gospel story is our example, then the answer is clear. Seek rest, of course. But err on the side of compassion. Jesus did.’

Jesus lived a busy, frenetic life. His humanity shows in his need for food, sleep and time away; Jesus and the apostles shared common human emotions of grief, mourning and great excitement. Jesus also acknowledged the need for rest in those around him and worked to do something about it. His best laid plans didn’t work out – again – we see his humanity and the shared experience of disappointment when things don’t work out the way we wanted.

Yet – Jesus always responds in compassion to those around him. This isn’t the easy option! But it is to compassion we are called.

Proper 10: The Senselessness of it All

The Beheading of John the Baptist, artist unknown

Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

I am not sure if you expected to come to church this morning to be confronted with the dramatic and gory story of John the Baptist! As with most gospel stories, there are many threads to pull at and some interesting characters to explore.

John arrives in Mark’s Gospel even before Jesus does – he is first on the scene as the front runner to Jesus’ ministry. It is good to remember that John and Jesus are cousins, they are family. Their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth are cousins. As adults they meet on the banks of the River Jordan and after a brief discussion, Cousin John baptizes his cousin Jesus which signals the start of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus is on the up and John’s ministry begins to decline. Jesus goes off into the wilderness immediately after his baptism to face temptation by Satan; John gets arrested by Herod.

If you read the first few chapters of Mark you will see that Jesus is very busy. He travels around Galilee, gathering his disciples, encountering the Pharisees; begins his preaching, teaching and healing ministry. All the while John is sitting in prison. Jesus heard about John’s arrest and Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he withdrew to Galilee. We don’t know how long he withdrew from his activities but so overwhelming was this news that Jesus needed to stop for a moment.

In Matthew 11 we are told that John sent a message to Jesus asking: ‘if he (Jesus) is the one to come, or are we to wait for another?’ You can almost hear the ‘come on cousin! Get me out of here!’ Jesus sends John’s disciples back to him with the message to tell John what they hear and see: the blind are receiving sight, the lame are walking, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are being raised, the poor are receiving the good news. Everything that John had prophesied about is happening. So – yes – John – Jesus is the One.

The next we hear of John is that he has been killed. Why?

Herod is not a good man, nor is he a good leader. He is no Gareth Southgate! John had been attacking Herod over marrying his brother (Philip’s) wife (Herodias) illegally. They were in breach of the Torah (Jewish law) and John kept pointing this out to them. John had also been announcing that the Kingdom of God – the true kingdom was coming. Herod wasn’t the real king; God would replace him.

Herod is confused, on the one hand Herodias wants John dead; on the other Herod knows John to be a righteous and holy man. Mark tells us that Herod feared John. Herod liked to listen to John even though he was publicly criticizing him and calling him an adulterer. Little wonder Herod was perplexed!

Herod’s confusion only grows when his teenage niece/step-daughter Salome dances for the crowd and this is pleasing. Pleasing here means pleasing of a sexual nature. A teenager is dancing in an erotic fashion for a group of drunken men. Does that still happen today?

The death of John the Baptist is one of the most shocking accounts in the Gospels I think. His death is a senseless one! Lost his head for a dance from an over-sexualized teenager and her rotten mother. So meaningless!

Herod proves himself to be a weak leader, total lack of conviction to do the right thing. He won’t lose face in front of the crowd. Even though he knew, had seen something of the truth in what John had been saying. Herod was deeply grieved, and still did the wrong thing.

John is one of those people – and I’m sure we know them – who does the right thing and suffers anyway. His death accomplishes nothing – no one is saved or converted. It’s an injustice that hasn’t been solved. This is one of those situations that begs the question, where is God in all of this?

There is always the temptation to rush an explanation: nothing happens in this world unless God wills it, everything happens for a reason, or my personal non-favourite ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle’. I really can’t believe that God wills teenagers to dance for the sexual gratification of old men. I can’t believe that God wills the senseless death of any of his precious children from beheading, starvation, genocide or Covid.

Giving us more than we can handle? You will not find that line anywhere in the Bible. It also suggests that if a person was less than who they are, less personality, less strength, less them; then whatever has happened (sudden death, illness, crisis) would not have happened to them. Again – not true!

The essayist, Debie Thomas, wrote this about the death of John the Baptist:

Maybe in John’s story we are meant to learn something about how God works. Maybe “the point” of this Gospel story is to show us that all forms of transactional Christianity that promise us comfort, prosperity, and blessing in exchange for our good behaviour. Maybe the point is that God doesn’t exist to shield us from pain, sorrow, or premature death — however much it offends our sensibilities to admit this.
Maybe the point is that we don’t need to slap purpose or meaning on all human experience. Maybe some things are just plain horrible. Period.
It’s tempting to read a story like John the Baptist’s and tell ourselves that it’s old fashioned — that it comes from a rougher, cruder, and more barbaric time. But of course the opposite is true.

We still, right now, today, live in a world where faithlessness is an accepted norm. We still live in a world where the innocent are detained, imprisoned, tormented, and killed.

We still live in a world of sudden and random violence. We still live in a world where young girls are made to be sexual objects for powerful men. And we still live in a world where speaking truth to power is a rare and revolutionary act.’

Maybe the story of Herod is here as a negative example for us; to show us what is at stake when the good news of Jesus and gospel is rejected. Maybe there is something about how we approach God, maybe a little too casually, too neutrally.

We may come with our questions and doubts but then get stuck and never move on. We live in a world of fake news, doctored images, relativism, live your truth and blatant lies. Why is it that when we hear the truth it is precious, it gets our attention.

What do we do with this? Ephesians 1 is a remarkably powerful statement about the glory of the risen Jesus. I want to be careful, I am not saying that this is the answer to the question of why John the Baptist died or to explain away the senselessness of some deaths. This is about knowing who we are in Christ; we were chosen before the foundation of the world, destined for adoption as God’s children, we are redeemed by the blood of Jesus, forgiven of our trespasses.

In Jesus we have been given the greatest inheritance and have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. All things will be gathered up in Jesus in the fullness of time. If we can hold onto this and come to understand who we are in Jesus, where we fit, what he has done for us then we have hope and truth. We have something to hang on to when the senseless things happen. We have someone to take our grief to, somewhere to hang our uncertainty and confusion.

We also have to work out that God may not operate the way we want him to either – that his sole purpose is not to make our lives easy and pain-free – again this is not mentioned in the Bible!

We might not know why things happen the way they do and we might never know on this side of heaven. But we do need to know who we are in Jesus and be reminded of what He has done for us. We see this in the life and death of John.
If you are not sure who you are in Jesus – or that sounds weird or strange – I will gently suggest that you might want to look into that! It might be time to read some new books or think about things in a new way – take some time to contemplate your relationship with Jesus.

Proper 7: The Joy of Questions

20/6/21 – Proper 7
Job 38:1-11
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind, Object 13 (William Blake Archive)

I mentioned last Sunday that the lectionary readings over the coming
weeks and months are something like Jesus’ Summer School. This morning
cannot help but think how amazing it would have been to go on a summer
holiday with Jesus! Imagine going on a picnic with Jesus and there is no
lunch. Think: loaves and fishes. Then going on a boat trip with Jesus. The
storm comes and he is found to be sleeping (I’ve always secretly
wondered if he was pretending just to see what the disciples would do!). In
three words he commands the sea to behave and it does!

In both Job and Mark’s Gospel there are some big questions being asked
by all the characters. God is questioning Job, the disciples question Jesus and then Jesus questions them. Questions are good things, part of our learning. Even the difficult ones. If you have spent any time around children you will know that questions come regularly and at rapid fire. I am sure that many of us have had the experience of being asked a question that we didn’t have answer for! That awful feeling when the teacher asks you and you have no earthly idea
what the answer is. Or those questions that have no easy answer or even an answer at all. What do we do with those ones?

Difficult questions run through the entirety of the book of Job as Job asks and is asked many challenging (if not impossible) questions throughout his ordeal. Questions about the nature of suffering, how God works (or doesn’t), what did Job do to cause his current suffering; surely his current situation is his fault according to the logic of his friends. Job struggles to give them an answer that satisfies because he knows there is nothing that he has done to end up where he is. Job has been lamenting his current condition and trying to make sense of it.

He has literally banging on the door of God’s house to have a word. This feels like a reasonable request as I think that I, too would want a word with the person – God or not – who put me there. Finally, after 37 chapters of lament, complaint and moaning, Job hears from God for the first time You get the feeling that God has almost had enough of Job’s questions so starts with a few of his own. There are 11 questions in 15 verses. God starts easy: ‘who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’ This one is easy to answer – it is Job.

Job now has to ‘gird up his loins like a man!’ I love that! God telling him off in such common language. God’s next questions are much harder:
 Where you there when I laid the foundations of the earth?
 Can you make it rain?
 Who gave you wisdom or understanding to the mind?
 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
 Can you feed the lions, satisfy the young ones?
 Can you feed the baby ravens when they are crying and there is no food to found?

If you read the last few chapters of Job, you see God fire a barrage of questions at Job; most of which he cannot answer! Job has not, in fact, been in the storehouses of the snow or hail, or sent forth lightening, nor was he present at the birth of the mountain goat and he is unfamiliar with the ordinances of heaven. Neither are we.

In the last chapter of Job, after all the conversation and questioning, Job’s first remark is ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.’ Do you know this truth about God? Whatever we throw at him, the
questions we have about anything, wherever we find ourselves, whatever the situation we are in: no purpose of his can be thwarted!

In Mark’s telling of Jesus and the disciples in the boat, we are shown again that no purpose of God’s can be thwarted. Underneath all the questions an uncertainty, pain and suffering we have the one who gets into the boat with us. I love this story of Jesus. The opening chapter of Mark is full of the activity of Jesus’ ministry. Little wonder he fell asleep in the boat! Jesus had been going through cities and villages proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God, curing people. Jesus laid it out in the parable of the sower when told people to bear fruit with patient endurance. Jesus then had some family issues when his mother and brothers showed up. No wonder he needed a nap! And one day he got into a boat with his disciples and had a snooze. How
utterly human.

Even what happened next was not out of the ordinary; the Sea of Galilee is known for its quick change in tide. It can be as smooth as glass one moment and then choppy and windy the next. Jesus was with fisherman who knew that water, had lived and breathed it their whole lives. They are scared! That storm must have been beyond what they were used to. As human beings tend to like security and the familiar, so we get use to things whether they are beneficial or
not. The church is not exempt from this. Now I am not saying that everything has to change right now but over time.

I wonder what the disciples in the boat would have done if Jesus wasn’t with them? Rode out the storm I suppose. How much better though to have the one seated in the boat to rebuke the wind and the waging waves in an instant. There was a calm.

Whatever happens over the next few weeks, months and years here – when times of wind and wave sweep down and in times of calm, Jesus is on our side. He’s in the boat. Where is your faith? This is the question Jesus asked the sea-sickened, pale faced disciples and is not a bad one for us today.

Where is your faith when change comes, when what your used to isn’t what your used to anymore? I want my congregations, all the people of the Hambleden Valley to know Jesus, to have their faith in him. To know the one who commands the winds and the water that they obey him. Again, takes some creativity and imagination to read the Gospels and understand at a deeper level what he was doing and what that means for us. So let us ask the questions, of God, of each other and ourselves. Let us avoid the answers that are too easy
but engage with the ones that are hard.

Jesus is in the boat with us on the journey of each our individual lives but also our communal life as a parish and congregation. Let’s see where he
is taking us!