Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 09, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
When people who claim to know Jesus and his family start complaining about him, we are tempted to roll our eyes, chide them and dismiss them. But this was neither the first nor the last time that the people who should have been setting an example because of their close relationship with God were instead drawn down into doubt and complaint. The Israelites complained bitterly during their desert sojourn even as God was revealing wonderful things to them and building them into a great nation. The much-romanticized early church needed reminders like the one preserved in today’s reading from Ephesians: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” You don’t write something like that if everyone is getting along. Recently, our own elected leaders met at General Convention and while much good was done there, some of the opportunity of that gathering was lost as delegates and bishops complained about each other and questioned each others’ motives.
Not all complaints are evil talk. They are foremost a sign of interest and concern; no one complains about things they don’t care about. They can be a therapeutic expression of our own pain, and even a righteous and necessary call to accountability and reform: Jesus himself spoke out against the corruption of the religious establishment of his day. But all of us have heard, and many of us have engaged, in the corrosive kind of gossip and complaint that our readings address, talk that expands fear, and breaks down trust and community, and diminishes our ability to give and receive grace. As Christians, we know we are better than this, for God made us to be better and sends the Holy Spirit to set us on right pathways, to draw us upward and help us grow, to continue the teaching and revelation that began in Eden.
Fear and pain are one of our most primal experiences, for they are ancient defense mechanisms that kept our ancestors safe in a much more dangerous world than the one we know. But God created us to dwell in richer experiences and to fulfill nobler purposes, so noble that we might contemplate a call to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Apart from Christ, this is impossible.
John’s Gospel shows us just how close Jesus is to us, and how easily we can push him away. In the prologue to the Gospel, Jesus is revealed as part of the mystery of creation itself. In his ministry, Jesus gives the sustenance of physical life, but he does so in order to reveal that he is also the source of spiritual life, everlasting life with God in which there is no longer any separation between creator and creation, just as there is in the mystery of Jesus’s own being. Jesus gives a foretaste of this new way of being by showing mercy, grace, and compassion to sinners and outcasts, withholding judgment so that love might flourish. He recognizes the doubts and complaints and gossip coming out of the mouths of the people as signs of hunger and brokenness, and so he offers the sustenance of healing, bread, food for the life of the world, and he offers words spoken with the same breath that blew across the face of the waters of creation and gave life to the first of us.
Who would push that away? Many people. By revealing that he is equal to God, Jesus challenged a worldview that had given comfort, identity, meaning, and purpose to generations. Jesus’s claims about himself no longer sound radical to us, but they are still difficult to accept, let alone embrace. Perhaps more so in our cynical age, where our leaders’ flaws are very public and we are told to believe nothing we cannot see and touch and verify for ourselves.
If Jesus is who he says he is, then he is the answer to our most primal fear, the fear of loss. Yet ironically, embracing him and the more excellent way of life he offers us requires us to lose one thing we hold dear: our illusions. Especially the illusion that we are in control, the illusion that we can preserve our power indefinitely, the illusion that our own will defines righteousness, in short, the illusion that we can take the place of God. Letting go of this great illusion, with God’s help, opens our eyes and hearts and minds to receive the even greater truth, that Christ is lord of all, and in his power he reveals his nature: he fills all things, redeems all things, loves all things with a love so strong as to give life everlasting. This is the banquet prepared for us, the bread Jesus longs to break with us, the food that sustains us to walk in love, the satisfaction that at last gives us peace.
St. John’s Homepage