30th Mar, 2003

The Fourth Sunday In Lent

Preached by the Rev. Ian Elliott Davies

On a Tuesday afternoon two years ago, at about 3 or 3.30 in the afternoon, I was in a large department store on Oxford Street, London, with a parishioner when we became aware that almost everyone on the particular floor we were visiting were running toward the television department. We wondered why there were no shop assistants at the checkouts and so few shoppers around us, so we made our way over to the TV department as well and watched with horror as one of the towers of the World Trade Centre in New York collapsed. There’s a randomness to our encounters with life and with death and watching with us in that department were people of different religions and ethnic origins, Americans, Australians, British and many overseas visitors; one lady of Middle Eastern background was in tears as she watched the unfolding scenes of horror and devastation – she might have been Palestinian or Israeli, I don’t know, but she clearly felt deep anxiety and sadness at what she was seeing; maybe she’d experienced similar devastation herself.

But, of course, at the time none of us knew that what we were seeing was the result of deliberate terrorist attack. It seemed at the time an accidental catastrophe of unimaginable proportions; now, with the knowledge that it was a planned and deliberate terrorist attack it seems such an utterly mindless, indiscriminate and futile act that accomplishes nothing other than misery.

I’ve found myself asking in the intervening months, “How can any human being, let alone human beings who claim to be part of a faith community as ancient and honourable as Islam, ever conceive or participate in acts that will disfigure, maim, destroy and kill other human beings?” We are left speechless and numb by such inhumanity.

It strikes me that any religion, and I include our own Christian tradition in this, carries a potential, and I use my words carefully here, a potential to breed profoundly misguided and inhuman convictions that result in bigotry and then actions that have no regard whatsoever for the sanctity of human, God-given life. The strange feature of religions is also this, they also have the potential to inspire and nurture the most altruistic, humane and profoundly selfless convictions and then actions of kindness and generosity. If there is potential for the madness of fundamentalism it is our duty as peace loving followers of Christ to honour all the offspring of Abraham, Jew and Muslim alike and not to allow fundamentalism to dictate the dialogue.

But, it is in the ordinary, everyday middle ground somewhere between these two extremes that Our Lord meets with the crowds and disciples in this morning’s reading from St. John’s Gospel. The setting for Our Lord’s long conversation about the Bread of Life that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world, is this: the crowds had followed Christ and they had been listening to his teachings, they were hungry and lonely in a wilderness and needed feeding. There are echoes of an OT journey and pilgrimage that can be discerned. At their need and aware of their hunger Christ then takes the five loaves and two fish that a young lad provides and feeds the immense numbers of people present; Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke stop there, but the author of the Fourth Gospel now gently nudges us into a deeper meditation and insight into what has really taken place.

The central theme, which might strike you as peculiar given that we are not in this context at the night before Christ’s betrayal, we are not at the Last Supper in the Upper Room, but we are thinking along the lines of the Bread of Life, the manna in the wilderness that feeds the pilgrim Hebrews as they journey to the Promised Land, the central theme that is developed here by St. John is the Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, the Breaking of Bread and Communion; but we are not given a ritual exposition of the Mass that lays down rules and regulations about HOW to celebrate, what music to use, what precise words must be said, or how many candles to place on the altar, it is not a Fortescue and O’Connel guidebook, it is not even the new Rituale and Customary of High Mass Ritual recently revised, edited and circulated by the Rector of St. Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood – but what we are given by the author of the Fourth Gospel is an exposition and meditation that focuses on the issue and predicament of human suffering. Christ speaks in a language that is new and groundbreaking and the utterance of this new language shocks those who hear it, and for some of the religious hearers the response to this new language will be an extraordinary explosion of hostility in the following chapters.

Quite deliberately and with no apology Our Lord says to the crowds, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” words almost guaranteed to send Hebrew minds reeling with horror and confusion. I think we need to be aware and alive to that strangeness and otherness of Christ’s words here as well; in the Mass we are quite used to thinking about the Body of Christ, but eating “the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus” that can be quite a shock to the refined sensibilities of modern men and women. But, of course, flesh is precisely what we live in, warm, mobile and all too frail. Flesh is how we learn, through the bits of flesh called eyes and ears and vocal chords. Flesh is how we communicate, with hands and eyes, lips and tongues. Flesh is also vulnerable to hurt and to wounding, as we know from the struggle in Iraq.

It is now the Word made flesh, God himself in real human flesh, dwelling among us, full of grace and truth, that tells us that he is food indeed and drink indeed. It is only in our participation of Christ’s Body and Blood that we will be able to participate in God’s life. When Christ first uttered those revolutionary words he was met with incredulity and disbelief.

He does not deny that they are difficult words, but he goes on and places the words in a higher context, in the world of spirit and life. “I am the Bread of Life, he who eats of me will never die but will live to eternal life.”

What Christ is NOT saying is that this way of talking about flesh and blood is any less real, remote or removed from ordinary, everyday existence – but the realization of Christ’s full humanity, being in Christ, sharing his Body and Blood means that we enter the world of the divine precisely in this flesh, and in this world “real” opens up and takes on a different, creative and dynamic meaning. That is profoundly difficult for anyone with religious convictions that say God is up there and we are down here, people who say that the divine, the spiritual is apart from the world. You see, while this world IS a place of human grief, sorrow, bereavement and sin, it is ALSO the place where we are redeemed, the place where the Word gives himself for the life of humanity.

If you read the previous five chapters of St. John, all of the characters involved, so far, in the events of the Fourth Gospel are people that have wounds and parts of their life that need healing, they are people in need. The man at the poolside of Bethzatha who had waited thirty-eight years to be able to walk, the woman of Samaria socially spurned, ostracized and cut off from her community, even respectable, educated Nicodemus, the Teacher of Israel, lacks sight – he is a man of honourable religious and ancient learning, but fails to see what is actually there right under his nose, the Word made flesh. And we will be profoundly mistaken if we fail to remember that IN THIS WORLD WHAT WE DO AND HOW WE TREAT EACH OTHER is of no consequence, if we fail to know that here in the scandalously physical, the real presence of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, in the Word made flesh, is to be found our true humanity, transfigured and transformed.


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