Sermon for August 23rd 2009. The Revd. J. Michael Povey at the Episcopal Congregation, North Haven, ME
10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
19Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
On Friday May 26th 1944 [Annie Calderwood wrote] Pat and I delivered milk as the cow tester was coming to check on the cows. Tonny killed Buttons’ calf this afternoon. While Tonny was waiting for the cow tester to come this morning he worked on Little Pasture fence. Such was the exciting news that day on North Haven, as recorded in Tonny and Annie Calderwood’s diary.
On Friday May 26th 1944 Evelyn Povey gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, as her husband Jack stood by. Such was the exciting news that day in Bristol, England.
Today, thanks to Fred and Diana Emrich, one of those twins is making his first visit to the Island where Tonny and Annie Calderwood farmed, to be your preacher. He does not know how to slaughter calves!
Today a son of Bristol encounters North Haven Island. A much earlier Bristolian, Matthew Pring was the first European to come to this Island, in 1603. He named the island “Fox Island” (a name which now is used to identify the channel between North Haven and Vinal Haven - it is called “Fox Thoroughfare”.)
Thank you for inviting me to be with you. As you will have noted, I dipped into Tonny and Annie Calderwood’s diaries. They record a world which is long gone, and would have been long forgotten apart from the work of Elizabeth MacLean.
If you have been able to attend Church in the past few weeks you’ll have heard an awful lot about Jesus as the bread of life as we have slogged our way through John Chapter 6. One of my waggish colleagues said “bread, bread, bread, week after week. When are we going to get cake?” The cake never came.
Instead the Gospel writer takes us from bread to flesh. He has Jesus saying “56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”.
A stranger, on walking into a Christian Church would find these words to be perplexing, or even horrid.
We, who have heard them often, are tempted either to glide over them with furrowed brows (what in the world is this all about?), or to say “well, it’s all spiritual you know, it’s about the Eucharist”. I do not believe that does justice to the text.
So what does? I’m about to write you a check. It’ll take a few minutes to write, but we’ll cash it before the sermon is through.
Remember that John’s Gospel is being put together maybe as late as 110 A.D. It’s probably being compiled from at least a couple of sources, and it is attempting to answer the questions
“who is this Jesus?”
“how do the divine and human meet in Jesus?”
“is he only human?”
“is he entirely Divine?”
At that time in the history of the church those were multiple choice questions, with variant answers. The “official” resolution of the questions was at what is called the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D.
One of the variant answers at the beginning of the second Century is what is called “Docetism”. Docetism is not a neat, self contained system, but at its heart it asserts that the Divine Jesus merely appeared to be human, and merely appeared to suffer. Docetic teaching may have been influenced by a non-Christian view that only spirit is pure – matter is tainted and impure.
But the compilers of John take the stance that Jesus is entirely Divine - he is as the first chapter of John records “The Word of God”. But, equally important he is entirely human, in every which way as we are - he is the “Word made flesh”.
So, these strong and perplexing words about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood are intended to be “in your face”. They drive home the belief that Jesus was not only the one who came down from heaven, but is flesh of our flesh.
In other words they are a bit of polemic to emphasise the true humanity of Christ. To eat his flesh and to drink his blood is to accept the whole Jesus, not some vague “spiritual ideal”. The God we know in Jesus is a fleshly and earthy God.
He is the one who sweated and evacuated as we do. He is the one who rejoiced in the touch of other human bodies. He is the one whose body was weary at the end of the day, a body that knew and felt pain. He is the one who enjoyed fine food and good wine.
Now we cash that check. Here is what it is worth.
First -We are not called to an ethereal or mystical spirituality, disconnected from our bodies and from this world.
Second - To be a disciple of Jesus is to adopt a bodily and earthy spirituality. It is to assert that we encounter God, and grow close to God in the ordinary every day businesses of making and using money; of feeling the passionate and gentle touches of others; of rejoicing in good food; of building a clinic in Honduras or Haiti; of putting up sheetrock or painting a wall with Habitat for Humanity; of sweating in the crowded kitchen of a homeless shelter; of bathing the wounds of a loved one who is dying.
Third – We say -- "God had a body just like ours". This leads us to assert that we encounter and enjoy God in human bodies. I find this idea to be elegant and energising. It calls us to a Christianity which says “enjoy your body as much as you possibly can (subject to the vagaries of illness)”, and “treat every other human body with care and respect”.
That last part: “treat every other human body with care and respect” has enormous implications for our social, economic and political lives - implications which I will leave to you to explore.
Our Episcopal style of worship leads naturally to a celebration of body focussed spirituality. We use our bodies to stand, sit or kneel. We touch each others’ bodies at the peace or as we jostle against each other at the communion rail. We use our eyes to rejoice in the beauty of stained glass or gorgeous vestments. We smell incense (in some places). We smell and taste good communion wine. Each of our senses plays its part in our Sunday worship we renews our devotion to God.
Hooray for our bodies. Hooray for God’s body in Jesus. In Holy Communion we, the Body of Christ eat what we in fact are - the body of Christ, given for the world.