These Words

A sermon, based on John 6.56-69 and Ephesians 6.10-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church. Laurens, SC, on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, August 26, 2018

From July 29, we have come. On that Sunday, we recounted the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand with barley bread and fish with twelve baskets of bread leftover.(1) Since then, for the past three Sundays, sans fish, we’ve had a steady diet of bread. Relentlessly, Jesus has expanded on the ancient revered story of God feeding the Israelites with manna from heaven during their journey from Egyptian captivity to the Promised Land,(2) paradoxically by narrowing, intensifying his focus on himself as the true bread of God…

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger.”(3)

“I am the bread that came down from heaven.”(4)

“I am the living bread…Whoever eats of this bread with live forever.”(5)

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”(6)

And today, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

This is a lot of bread! And we must like it, for we are still here, which makes us different from many of those who gathered around Jesus 2000 years ago. He started at the top with five thousand. Then the numbers dwindled. The people questioned, grumbled about his identity: “Is this not the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?”(7) “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”(8) And slowly, surely, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Leading a dispirited Jesus to ask his chosen and closest disciples, “Will you also go away?” Peter reassures him of their belief in him, for Jesus has “the words of eternal life.”

These words, all that Jesus has been saying and teaching – “I am the bread of life…that came down from heaven…whoever eats of this bread will never hunger…will live forever” – are the truth of which his feeding of the five thousand was the outward sign.

These words are the heart of our Christian proclamation.

These words constitute what the Apostle Paul refers to as “the mystery of the gospel,” summarized in what we recite as “the mystery of faith” (impossible to perceive through human reason, but only received, believed by faith): “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”(9)

These words Jesus calls us to embrace and embody in a world where we, in our words and deeds, on any given day, at any given time, to paraphrase Francis of Assisi, may be the only sermon some will hear and see.

Therefore, it is imperative that we, as disciples of Jesus, those who continually come to him to learn from him and of him, take up the mantle of his apostles to be sent by him into the world to proclaim the gospel. And this our Christian task, our Christian job, our Christian life is not easy! For we, in the words of that olden hymn, are “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war.”(10) Not to battle and defeat non-Christians, much less to batter them into surrender, dragging them into the church. No, never! Rather our fight is against what Paul calls “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” and “the spiritual forces of evil.” What are they? They, sadly, terrifyingly are innumerable and include hatred, discord, doubt, despair, inequality, injustice, sorrow, and violence, all of which, yes, can take form and shape in the physical things of this world, even in people, even in us.

Therefore, says Paul, we need spiritual armament; his elucidation of which he draws from the typical equipment of a Roman soldier of the first century, which I summarize as the truth and righteousness of our proclamation of Jesus’ gospel of peace, which we, by faith, trusting in our salvation, must be ready to declare with the word of God.

Therefore, to paraphrase the hymn:

Onward, then, we people, joining the valiant throng,
Blending…our voices in the triumph song;
Glory, laud, and honor, unto Christ the King;
This thro’ countless ages we with angels sing:
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus going on before!

Footnotes:
(1) John 6.1-21
(2) John 6.31-33. See Exodus 16.4-5 and Psalm 78.24
(3) John 6.35a
(4) John 6.41b
(5) John 6.51a
(6) John 6.53b
(7) John 6.42a
(8) John 6.52b
(9) The Book of Common Prayer, page 363, my emphases
(10) A reference to the hymn, Onward Christian soldiers (1865); words by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), my emendations

5 thoughts on “These Words

  1. Dear Paul,

    Thank you for your words today, particularly the reminder that our lives, on this very day, may be the only sermon some people will hear and see. You remind that the action of feeding was in reality Jesus’ outward revelation of great inner truth. Jesus spoke many words, and each carries its truth, but I would suspect that Jesus’ actions – his stopping with the lame, the sick, the outcast, the despised, the women, the healing he offered, the stopping of retribution and violence against the woman taken in adultery, the vehemence of his response to the moneychangers in the temple, finally the laying down of his life – spoke to the people of the time far more intimately and effectively than even his words.

    I was reading an account last night of the final night of the life of Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk and mystic, who has in great part been responsible for helping to lead many Christians to an understanding of contemplative practice and living. He was in Bangkok and had offered the key-note address at a joint gathering of Christian and Buddhist monks. Afterwards he was on his way to his room to take a shower when he was confronted by a priest who accused him of not having sufficiently emphasized to the monks that Christ is the Way. His response was:

    “What we are asked to do is, not so much speak about Christ, as to let him live in us… so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.”

    Perhaps that is a part of the message of holy communion, that it is necessary to take in the spirit of Christ as one does indeed take in bread, which becomes the means of our life and our actions thereafter. If we truly take in and internalize the spirit of Christ, like bread, it becomes the impetus, the fuel for our living and our doing, and it also becomes obvious to those who witness what we do that our actions and our lives depend on the one whose spirit we have internalized.

    Thank you, Paul, for once again providing the prompt and the material for a synthesis of ideas and realizations that were only half-formed and half-informed before your words came before me. You have become an important connector and catalyst in my life, my friend. I feed on your words and always find them enriching and enlightening for whatever was already gestating in my heart.

    Love to you this day,

    Karen

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Karen, you bless me with your kindly affirmation. That there is anything I can do to be of service or benefit to you, grand soul and person and woman that you are, I am grateful. Or…perhaps, better said, and, in the words of St. James, “I count it all joy.”

    And, per your norm, your response sparks another thought. Your observations about Holy Communion “that it is necessary to take in the spirit of Christ as one does indeed take in bread, which becomes the means of our life and our actions thereafter…it becomes the impetus, the fuel for our living and our doing, and…becomes obvious to those who witness what we do that our actions and our lives depend on the one whose spirit we have internalized.” Amen. What occurred to me afresh is how all of the church-defined-and-observed Sacraments and sacramental acts involve physical means to express or to impart spiritual realities. As we humans – though spiritual beings immersed in human experience (a la Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) – are largely sensate creatures and, thus, perceive much of what we deem real via our physical senses, we need material things to serve as our lenses through which we might behold the larger, grander realm of the spirit (indeed, the Spirit). All this said, which I believe, what your words have allowed me to grasp in a deeper way is the depth of the spirit/Spirit within me that I can and may and do access e’en without the physical vehicles of revelation. To put this another way (and I’m struggling here to be clear…even foggy!), by faith, I know that God’s Spirit dwells within me. That Spirit of Love I can express in my thoughts and feelings, words and deeds at any time, any place, with and for anyone. AND when I don’t, it is not the weakness of the Spirit or, say, that I’ve not had Holy Communion in a while, but rather that I’ve chosen not to act on the power I possess by virtue of it having been granted from above.

    And thank you, thank you for the testimony from the mouth of Thomas Merton. Amen.

    Love you

    Like

  3. Sooooooo took me a while to come back to this sermon Paul!! Onward Christian Soldiers was one of the first songs I learned, AND my grandparents favorite. Hearing the words always made me want to march out of the house and do good!!!! BUT there are so many people in the world today who make us feel like we don’t want to Go Onward…

    All of the things you mentioned, hatred, discord, doubt, injustice, unequality, sorrow and violence take their toll on us! Whenever I feel like I just want to stay “stuck” without moving forward however, something happens that restore my faith in people and in my desire to move Onward….

    We do need spiritual armament though… and I feel like the bread and wine I receive each week is part of that armament and I look forward to receiving it. When I’m not in church, as I’ve said many times I feel that nature provides spiritual armement too, whether it’s thunderstorm (which aren’t my favorite), a rainbow, a waterfall…it gives me strength to keep going. Deeds provide armament too… like buying lunch for the homeless and fighting for justic for all.

    So I guess I can keep going forward and Onward, so thanks for the words of the song to tug at my heartstrings and give me strength.

    Much love!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Loretta, has it ever struck you (and, you know, I am asking, for, surely, it hath struck me!) that we read and reflect and seek to interpret the words of scripture – ancient words written in a long ago era to folk we’ll never know and, in large measures, doubtless, for purposes of their existential circumstances we will not and cannot know – and find relevance in our day and for our times? I ask because this business of spiritual armament is an ancient notion, yet it remains, I believe, eternally true. Why? Because the forces, for example, of hatred and injustice are eternal, rearing their wicked heads in every era of humankind…

    In all this, the idea I continue to strive, proverbially, to wrap my head around is how and where and when these spiritual forces of darkness and evil take shape in earthly form, whether in institutions or the circumstances of our times or in human shape, whether in others AND in me! Especially in this latter case, it means that I need to be spiritually armed against MYSELF! What a thought!

    Love

    Liked by 1 person

  5. YES we certainly do read and reflect that way!!! I recognized it quite a while ago. It is always my goal to apply the words to all situations and people and see what sticks!!!

    Much Love!!

    Like

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