Then they said to him, what must we do, to be doing the works of God? John 6:28
To get the full meaning of this piece of Scripture from John’s Gospel one really has to go back to verse 28 and not start at verse 37 like our lectionary. When you do that, that is, read the whole of Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life, a few more things come to light. Two questions are answered for us. One is, “What we are supposed to be doing here in the world?” The other question is, “How are we going to stay alive and function productively in the world?” Wouldn’t you like to know the answers to these questions? Wouldn’t you find the answers to these questions truly helpful?
So many people wonder about their purpose in life. What am I supposed to be doing? What is it all about? Or even ponder questions as serious as, “Why is God keeping me alive?” Time and time again I find that Christianity provides good answers to these questions and that is part of the reason I am a Christian and part of the reason for my conversion. Here again, if you are wondering what you are supposed to be doing as a Christian, or as a human being for that matter, just read or reread this discourse on the Bread of Life and you will be given a wonderful answer. As I said, the key is to read the whole thing.
Back up just a little bit and read from verse 22 all the way through to the end of Chapter 6. In those verses you will discover the people who had seen the feeding of the five thousand followed Jesus to where he had landed in the boat. Wouldn’t you follow someone who had just done that? I would want to see the next amazing trick he had up his sleeve. They asked him a probing question that has more to do with God’s purpose for them. They asked him about what they should be doing with their lives. What must we do to be doing the works of God? They seemed to have a sense that Jesus was intimately related to God; that he would know what God wants them to do for work.
The answer is good for us too. This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent. Get that? The work that must be done to do what God wants us to do is believe in Jesus Christ. Believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he is the one who will save your soul. Isn’t that helpful to know? What should we do? We should “believe”. That is our life’s calling. Once that is the top priority in our lives evidently other works fall right into their proper place.
We do tend to get things rearranged. We do tend to think that our first work ought to be to put things right as Christians. Some of us see that when there is an injustice we are the ones who righteously and even self-righteously ought to be the ones in the forefront of bringing down the people or institutions whom we proclaim are the source of the injustice. That may be right and good in some cases, but it cannot and should not be the main calling for the Christian. The main calling and work for the Christian is to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and if that is the top priority, then there will be Christians called to right social and political wrongs. The main work, according to Jesus, is belief in him.
The second important question; “How are we going to stay alive and function productively in the world?” is also answered by this discourse on the Bread of Life. Wouldn’t it be nice to know a source of strength and life for all of us? So many times we depend on our own desires, our own wills, to get through life. The result can be discouraging or it can be downright destructive. The answer Jesus gives is to feed on him. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever: and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.
There is no other source of strength and health for our lives than Jesus Christ. Even the bread that fell from heaven and preserved and strengthened the Israelites on their escape from Egypt is inadequate compared to this bread of life. The bread for the Israelites preserved them temporarily. They still eventually died. This bread of life is not just from God. It is God. God in Christ will sustain us, strengthen us and bring us to eternal life.
The people hearing this explanation seem to desire this bread because they say, …Lord, give us this bread always. Jesus still knows that they are on the right track, but fall short. He tells them but I said to you, that you have seen me, and yet do not believe. Evidently it must be both. We have to believe and continually draw our life from Jesus. In other words we must be in communion with him as well as believe. Maybe, just maybe, that is why it is God’s will to give us the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We are to continually feed on his Body and drink of his Blood because we take the grace of God into ourselves in that sacrament. We need the love and forgiveness and strength from Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar to live in this world. We will need it until we are in heaven.
There is no greater way to function and have a productive life, evidently than to serve the Lord. First believe, then remain in communion with him by worshipping him and taking part in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. With these two priorities, then the other works we do will be discerned by God and He will give us the strength to do them. It will not matter if your other callings are to be single or married, a father or a mother, or any other vocation because you will be doing what God has called you to do and then He will give you the gifts to do it. You will have these basic questions answered because they will be the Truth.
We were created to believe and be sustained, forgiven and loved by Jesus Christ as the Son of God. With that direction and purpose, we are on the road to our ultimate end and that is eternal life. Because Jesus says, If any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever: and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. And he did.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Canon Macdonald-Radcliff is the Executive Director of the World Dialogue Council and formerly the Dean of All Saints’ Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt.
In the name of God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
In a context where much is controversial, it is surely safe to say that Chapter 6 of the Gospel of St John is not without incident. In verses 1-15 Jesus feeds the 5000, in verses 16-21 Jesus walks on water, and now we come to what is sometimes called the “Bread of Life discourse” in verses 24-35. A passage that is rather different in terms of (lacking) exterior drama and yet one that presents in substance, a discourse that looks both backwards and forwards in a uniquely deep and profound way of especial importance for what we are about now in this Eucharist or Mass.
But before getting to that further, it is just worth noting that while there is much in this Gospel that turns upon love, it is also a gospel of controversy, which is hardly surprising given the inherent antagonism between infinite love and the selfishness and pride conducive of hate toward the goodness which is their condemnation.
Jesus, love incarnate, who came to give abundant life to men, was thus relentlessly opposed by those who – ultimately for misguided reasons of self-interest – were unwilling to surrender to the reality of who he was and is. Thus, in this gospel a truly epic conflict of the ages was fought out to the end. But in addition, the Fourth Gospel is distinguished by being so clearly the gospel of supernaturalism:
The key point, around which all the controversy rages here is the specific claim of Jesus to supernatural powers, to which, only a very particular relation to God would be adequate: namely participation in the Godhead in such a way that only the understanding, later articulated in the theology of the Trinity, could comprehend it.
Thus it is the marks of this that are relentlessly and cumulatively presented:
Jesus is superior, not only to the law of Moses, but to physical laws.
He assumes superiority to Nichodemus, “the teacher of Israel”,
he condemns the errors and injustice of the high priest, and
stands before the Roman governor as an avowed king,
before whom he is, in the end condemned to the death, that is the dark prelude of sacrifice to the work of salvation and redemption attested by the ultimate triumph of the Resurrection.
So, with all that said, what we have here – in its narrative of the supernatural and ceaseless struggle against forces of worldy darkness , is a text also imbued with the peculiar literary genius of the Greek world of the Gospel’s earthly writer in Patmos (which site some in the congregation have but recently visited).
This is again a perspective which clearly distinguishes this Gospel from the synoptics.
But let us return for now to that scene down by the Sea of Galilee for it is there that this particular teaching is given by Christ after the feeding of the five thousand.
And the chapter begins with an arguably deeply significant framing in terms of the time of year: “the Passover was at hand” 
When the crowd arrives he admonishes them to labour for the food endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give them.
Here, it is quite clear that Jesus is speaking of himself. The Father has sealed (stamped with His seal, authenticated) Jesus, his hearers are told, from which it follows that they should believe in him, Yet instead they, or some of them, reply that their ancestors were fed with manna in the desert and it is rhetorically asked: “What can you do to match that?”
Jesus replies that it was the Father, not Moses, who gave them bread from heaven (arton ek tou oùranoû), and that the Father has now given them the true (Alethenon) bread from heaven, which comes down from heaven and which gives life to the world.
Typically for this Gospel, attention is kept focused on the person of Jesus and his fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.
In this instance, the emphasis is upon the Exodus when God fed his people through the ministry of Moses. Thus Jesus is now both Moses and the life-giving manna.
When the people then ask, perhaps with irony, “Lord, give us this bread always” (6:34), Jesus launches into a series of claims which could only provoke his most skeptical hearers: saying “I am”, “the bread of life”, (in contrast to the loaves and fishes). He has come down from heaven to do his father’s will and to ensure exclusive rights (so to speak) for all who come to him. And that “All who believe in him will have (a) eternal life and (b) be raised by him upon the last day (6,41)
Throughout here what is profoundly present in the background is the book of Exodus (Chapter 3) and the whole complex of events leading up to and including the escape to Sinai: beginning with the Passover, liberation from bondage, the feeding in the wilderness and being giving of the Torah.
And we must remember too that the Passover meal expressed the action of God in the past made relevant to the present through sacrifice.
The eating of the Passover sacrificial meal made real to subsequent generations of the Hebrew people, (in an act of anamnesis) God’s act of liberating love revealed to them in the historical events of the Exodus.
Nevertheless, when these words were uttered here at this point, before Jesus’ death, their purpose was to show his disciples that their master was in fact the new Passover lamb.
And that in the very near future he would actually be that sacrifice.
This also makes possible the intent that readers and we here gather today – though long afterwards, can apply this to their eucharist when they gathered for it.
One consequence of this point is that the original disciples might at this stage in the narrative have been somewhat mystified, since the primary meaning of Jesus’ words is that addressed to the Church of the Ages. The primary aim is to record Jesus’ teaching that He is the life-giving sacrifice bringing liberation and life to all who accept him as such.
But there was also a very particular force to the parallel with the Manna that the Old Testament records fed probably several hundred thousand of the Jewish people, every day for forty years.
(Which has even led some to suggest that this involved the modern day equivalent of up to 300 train trucks full of manna and that this amount was collected for the camp each day (with twice as much at the end of the week to allow for there being no work done on Shabbat).
It is all of that background that brings out the force of what he means when Jesus said that the bread his Father gives through him makes the miracle of the manna to be “nothing” in comparison.
And From this too we can deduce that what he speaks of is no mere symbol for it is nothing less than God in Christ that we encounter in the Eucharist down to this present day and to say and to apprehend that is to approach something profound indeed.
But what about a point upon which I touched earlier namely that this Gospel is different from the Synoptics in both method and style and that this reflects quite powerfully the world of Greek thought through which it is set out. This has great significance on several levels.
For example, to pick up a point made earlier, what is presented here is very much not the story of the life of Jesus the man from Nazareth, but rather a powerful presentation of the supernatural Christ. It is very much not the purpose of this gospel to give a full account of the earthly ministry of Jesus. 
Remembering then that this work originated in a place and atmosphere charged with Greek speculative thought, it also reflects a new intellectual endeavor – namely to set out Christianity at a time when Gnosticism was spreading and highly varied speculation concerning Jesus and his work was rife (which is to say a world not that far from ours today)
Irenaeus states, more specifically, that the gospel was written to counteract the teachings of one Cerinthus, an Egyptian who in true gnostic fashion separated God from the world-maker, whom he made a subordinate intermediate being (perhaps an Angel). He also distinguished the earthly being Jesus from the heavenly Messiah who descended upon the man Jesus at his baptism and became the Word incarnate. It was in opposition to this theory, and in modification of Philo’s doctrine of the Logos as the intermediary between God and the world, that John asserted that “the Word was God” and the Word in Jesus became flesh, a thesis which he sought to prove by reference to his earthly life.
The prologue states thus that it was that Word, who in Jesus became incarnate, was pre-existent, and the creator of the world life of men. The subsequent narrative is based upon these pre-suppositions, and thus drives the unique character of work.
All of which invites a further consideration, namely if this presents what the Greeks might on the one hand have seen as an Epic drama how closely akin is it to Greek tragedy?
Remember that, “The subject uppermost in the teaching of Aeschylus is the relation of Man, God, and Fate.” And the same project is essentially that too of the dramas of Sophocles and Euripides. Indeed, the closing lines of Oedipus Colonus sum up the Greek conception in these words:
For know, ’tis all
Decreed by fate, and all the work of Heaven.
Does not the Gospel echo this framework – well in purely literary terms I think a compelling case can be made  after all one has only to consider the following points:
The theme of the Gospel is essentially that of the superhuman in its play upon the human, and the crime and folly of men in refusing to accept the divine, to receive the light.
The gospel begins with a prologue (1: 1-18) in which not only is the theme stated, but the issue is forecast. Light comes into the world, but it is not apprehended. Thus too did Euripides begin each play he wrote.
The discourses of Jesus echoes the style of the great Monologues, like those of Prometheus, Creon or Ajax,
Then again, the action of the gospel considered as a drama centers in the (reversal) of situation culminating in his crucifixion a fate surely likely to induce pity and fear (to recall Aristotle – though you will note I am not discussing Hamartia and Catharsis here)
Does all this not echo the hero of a tragedy who moves on to his fate, often impelled by elements beyond his control…?
But my dwelling on this historic cultural parallel – superficial as I ultimately take it to be -brings out something rather deep and perhaps surprising.
Namely that our sense of sadness in the face of what we commonly call the tragic stands in relation to one of those rare things, namely something arguably unique to Western Civilization and that is the dramatic concept of tragedy itself.
As George Steiner observes in the opening lines of his book on the subject
Oriental Art knows violence, grief and the stroke of natural or contrived disaster, the Japanese theatre is full of ferocity and ceremonial death. But that representation of personal suffering and heroism which we call tragic drama is distinctive of the Western tradition” and he goes on to say even more specifically that “The idea and the vision of man which it implies are Greek.” (The Death of Tragedy)
Thus, if we look at the world of the Old Testament (and of Jonah in our first reading) not to mention Job, we find that the concept of tragedy is alien, for, in the Judaic world, it is all ultimately about justice, and the appeal to justice, so that even when angry, Yahweh is ultimately a just God. And more than that, this is a vision of the universe as ultimately accessible to reason.
Turn to the Iliad by contrast and things are different: where the fall of Jerusalem or Jericho in the Bible had been a consequence of justice in the face of contumacy and disobedience and is thus all part of God’s great purposes, the fall of Troy “is the first great metaphor of tragedy” (Steiner) for it is brought about through the contest of human passions and hatreds and a destiny that is ultimately arbitrary.
And so it was that the walls of Troy fell forever, while those of Jerusalem will rise again —either in this world or the next— when the world is redeemed and the souls of men are restored to grace.
In the Iliad, the universe itself is ultimately arbitrary and the plaything of capricious forces personified by the gods in a cosmos that is thus outside the scope of justice and even reason. Moreover, the great story unfolds within an architecture of catastrophe: things end badly. Yet, as Thucydides reminds us, in his great (tragic) story of the Peloponnesian wars, the nature of man is such that we keep on sailing for Sicily, as it were, even though we really know it will be to our ruin.
Yet there is a deeper paradox here to be brought to the surface:
Namely that true tragedy seems to require a universe of the real —which is to say transcendent— meaning, which is why it is so plausible to argue that in a post-modern universe —where the possibility of such meaning is effectively denied—
And that we arrive ultimately not merely with Fukuyama at the end of history but with Steiner at the end of tragedy as well.
We are left, as it were, with mere angst and the silent scream of an Edvard Munch painting.
To make the point another way, ‘tragedy is that form of art which requires the intolerable burden of God’s presence’ which is why George Steiner argued that true tragedy is now dead because “His shadow no longer falls upon us as it fell on Agamemnon, or Macbeth or Athalie” (ibid).
And here we come the final and truly major point – namely that if true tragedy requires a realist metaphysic to pose, it requires nothing less than the message of Christ, as alone as adequate to enable our escape from its clutches.
And THAT is why the Gospel of St John will never be comprehended by tragedy but overwhelms it through the message of Christ which is our Salvation
 See 6:4, The fourth Gospel lays particular emphasis on Passover time as the setting for Jesus’ final discourse and Passion. Jesus then feeds the five thousand (6:5-14). “The people” attempt to make him king and he withdraws (6:14-15). He stills the storm on the lake and walks on the water and the people follow across the lake (6: 1 6-24).
 It is largely silent concerning his work, save on a few special occasions which illustrate the theme it announces. Whole tracts of time are passed over in silence. The events of only a little over twenty days are recorded in any detail, and in every case, they are presented from a special point of view best stated in the author’s own words, “These are written that ye may believe that Jesus is Christ the Son of God and that believing ye may have life in his name” (20:3I).
 “Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all. He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being. 2. Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law. As to the prophetical writings, they endeavour to expound them in a somewhat singular manner: they practise circumcision, persevere in the observance of those customs which are enjoined by the law, and are so Judaic in their style of life, that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of God.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 1, Chapter 26 paragraph 1) Cerinthus was of the Gnostic influence which taught that the divine God was too pure and perfect to be involved the material world. Therefore, the world was created by a lesser god–a power far removed from the supreme divine being.
 And indeed was in a fascinating paper by D Butler Pratt: “The Gospel of John from the Standpoint of Greek Tragedy” in The Biblical World, Vol. 30, No. 6 (Dec.), 1907.
Last time I was in this pulpit I pointed out that in Mark’s Gospel a great many things happen on a boat. Well, here we are again.
This time things are a little different though. There is a sense of urgency in this scene. Jesus has just miraculously fed many thousands, and rather than prolong this event, he forcefully dismisses his disciples. The verb here is a strong one: He did not just make them get into the boat but compelled them to do so.
And he is going away too; he is going up to the mountain alone to pray. In Mark’s gospel Jesus does this three times, always at pivotal moments, always alone, and always at night. It would seem that even the Son of God needs time, quiet, and solitude to be with his Father in heaven.
And as Jesus is near the Father, he is far from the disciples. Mark’s language stresses this sense of distance throughout the first part of today’s Gospel reading. They are together. He is alone. They are out on the sea. He is on the land.
And they are separated not only by space but also by time. The feeding of the many thousands took place in the late afternoon. Jesus took leave of his disciples in the evening, and now it is the fourth watch of the night, between 3 and 6 am. Hours have gone by.
The disciples have spent those hours at hard toiling, working the boat against a strong wind, so strong in fact that it seems like they are being blown well off course.
This time they are not in mortal danger, like before, when Jesus calmed the wind and the waves by his word, but they are struggling. Their energy is spent, they are in fact not making progress at all but are probably going backward, and their own strength and skill are not enough to get them where they are going.
Remember that very early on in Christian history theologians seized upon this image of being on a boat voyage as an excellent analogy for the life of the church. All of us I imagine then have had times of struggle in our lives much like the disciples are having now.
Time is passing, and they are about as far from the goal as you can get. How often do we feel just the same?
But even though they are far apart, Jesus sees that they are struggling, and he comes to his friends to help them.
As we saw last time there was a storm, Jesus can stop the wind and the waves any way he likes. We have seen him do it before. He can even save them from up on the mountaintop if he wanted or from the shore.
So why does he walk on the water? It seems likely that he wants to be close to them. He wants to come to them in the midst of their difficulty and put himself right there.
Then why is it that Mark tells us in verse 48 that Jesus “meant to pass by them”?
If he wants to come to them, and is willing to walk on water to do it, then why on earth would he pass by them?
I think the key is found in the double meaning that this phrase would have for Mark’s readers. To pass by someone turns out to be potentially very meaningful. We can see this from two places in the Hebrew Scriptures.
First, in Exodus 33, Moses asks God to see his glory. And God says that Moses will not be able to see his face, for no one he says can see God’s face and live. Instead, God tells Moses to stand in a cleft of the rock, and there in the cleft of the rock Moses can hide from God’s glory, and God says he will place his hand over Moses’s body and cover him until he has passed by. And as God passes by he proclaims his sacred and holy name: I AM, and as he does so he passes by Moses and reveals not his face but the back of his glory.
Second, in I Kings 19, Elijah too is speaking to God, and complaining of his troubles: Israel has abandoned the covenant, destroyed the Lord’s altars, and slain the prophets, and he feels alone and frightened. God also tells him to stand upon the rock of the mountain, and as Elijah is standing there the Lord passed by, and when he does there a terrible wind, and then an earthquake, and then a fire, but the Lord is in none of these upheavals but instead speaks to Elijah in a still small voice to encourage him in his troubles.
So both Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah, the great prophet, saw God pass by. And both of them by God’s power split the waters to walk upon dry land. Moses split the Red Sea to deliver the people from the Egyptian army, and as we heard today Elijah split the Jordan River so he and Elisha could cross over.
And now Jesus walks upon the water as if it were dry land. Like Moses and Elijah he crosses the sea to deliver and strengthen his companions and followers. And as God’s own self passed by them both so too does Jesus pass by his disciples.
I said that he wanted to be near them, and so he does. But I think he also wants to show them who he is.
All the agency is with him in this story. He sent them into the boat and into the storm, he dismissed the crowds, he removed himself to a great distance, and now he wants to be with the disciples and to show them and us something of himself in a new way.
The Book of Job tells us that it is God that treads upon the waves, and by God’s power Moses and Elijah crossed the waters. Now God himself incarnate as Jesus Christ is crossing the water, and passing by his people to be a revelation to them and an encouragement in their struggle.
For just as God called himself by his name—I AM—as he passed by Moses, so too does Jesus call himself I AM when he speaks to the frightened disciples. “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” Take heart. Don’t be afraid. He said that last time too, but this time he adds something new.
The literal center of that message, the core of his exhortation to be unafraid, is the reason why we should not be afraid, why we must take heart in the face of struggle: Because it is I. In Greek what Jesus literally says is: I AM. It is I. The great I AM. I am none other than God, and I am here with you.
Remember how last time we talked about the calming of the storm the disciples were stunned then too, and they said to themselves “Who is this?” Well, this is the answer to that question: It is I, the Lord, the one who is.
Now in Greek these words could also be taken according to their surface meaning, which is just the way we have translated them here. Jesus could be saying something as simple as “Take heart. It’s me. Have no fear.” I AM and “It’s me” are said just the same way in Greek.
So what does Mark mean? Is Jesus claiming for himself the name of God? I think Mark wants us, his readers, to see that Jesus is God, to see that like God he too passes by those who would seek his face and hear his words, to see that he is the one who calls himself I AM. But I don’t think the disciples hear it this way.
Mark is ambiguous on this point because the situation is ambiguous. Jesus has tried to show them who he is, and they still do not get it. And their failure to get it has something to do with their failure to get the feeding of the thousands.
Early in this same chapter Jesus is shocked by the unbelief of his neighbors in Nazareth; he must be just as shocked now. The disciples have seen a miracle tonight, and it’s far from the first. Yet they still don’t see him for who he is. They have seen Jesus do amazing things, but they don’t know why he does what he does.
And this is surely frustrating for everyone. We have to have some patience with the disciples; Jesus certainly does. He doesn’t insist that they figure it all out right away, and he doesn’t ask us to do so either.
And I think in fairness what Jesus does is often confusing. Last time he slept through the storm, and the disciples rightly panicked and asked him to do something. This time they are in trouble again, and Jesus seems to parade past them and give them more of a fright than a help.
But Mark wants us to see that the Son of God is sent by his father to be close to us and come to our aid. He wants to be with us, he wants to be near us, he puts us at arm’s length only for a little while and only for an important reason. And the moment he steps into the boat, the moment he is with us again, the struggle is over. So it was for them, and so it can be for us as well. Amen.
The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. (Mk 6:30)
Being a follower of Jesus can be full of surprises. No matter how long one has lived as a Christian there will continue to be astonishing moments in one’s life. There is nothing dull about faithfulness to Jesus. There may be stale periods in one’s prayer life. Our worship may at times feel simply routine and monotonous. In the course of our Christian lives we may even meet uninspiring Christians. But really, for those who follow Jesus with a strong and deep devotion and commitment, there will be wonderfully strengthening surprises. I think that is what the apostles are experiencing in the Gospel for today. They amazed themselves as they were sent out to preach, to teach and to heal. Now they have been spiritually fed and are reporting back to the teacher of all teachers, Jesus. Saint Mark records in his Gospel, The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.
They were really experiencing a portion of what it’s like being part of the kingdom of God in this world. They received the spiritual authority to cast out evil spirits from Jesus. It worked and they saw evidence of it. The teaching, healing, and preaching they had done must have known great success because the crowds became larger and their worked increased. The work increased to the point where Jesus is seemingly giving them an opportunity to rest. Jesus says, Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while: for many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. The fruits of their labor, the healing, the crowds, the receiving of the teaching are strong signs of the presence of the kingdom Jesus has established by his presence and authority among them.
We too have seen all the miracles that witness to what it’s like when the kingdom of God is present. Today is the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. And yes, it is a miracle. The message is sent and made present that when Jesus Christ is present people are fed. They are fed food for their bodies, but they are also fed by the grace of God. It takes grace to heal. It takes the grace of God to supply what we need. It takes the grace of God to establish the kingdom of God and when it is established those present are made whole and given new life. This all comes through Jesus Christ.
When we are part of the kingdom of God we can be opened to receive his saving grace. Where the kingdom is established in this world we find the Church and it is in that church, the spiritual body of Christ, that saving grace can surely feed us. Grace is available everywhere, but surely and certainly in the church Christ established with his apostles. The feeding of the five thousand bears witness to this very thing.
It may be helpful to think of the feeding of the five thousand as a prefiguring of the establishment of Holy Communion. The mystery and miracle of Holy Communion is given by Christ as a means of grace. The ultimate purpose of Holy Communion is to save and bring us to the part of the kingdom of God where we dwell in and with the Trinity forever. Until we get there, we will need the grace of Christ available in the Sacraments.
Even though we are baptized, we still have tainted and spoiled wills. This makes us in constant need of God’s grace that is available to us in His Church. Notice that there are some of the sacraments that are repeated over and over as many times as we would like to avail ourselves of them. The sacraments are objective, real signs of God’s grace which He gives, which we need, and over and over again. Communion is one of them, but there are others.
Confession, a sacrament that we need regularly and often. Sin needs to be dealt with all the time. Holy Unction for healing – because we need healing in our souls and bodies, not just once, but constantly. We are constantly bombarded by Satan, and Christ has seen fit for his Church to give us some armor to fight against it time and time again. You see, the liturgy of the Church actually reflects and provides for this constant need of God’ grace.
We will need continual feeding by Jesus Christ if we are going to accomplish the goal of perfect reunion with God. Feeding that takes our whole life. Feeding that requires us to not be stagnant but alive and growing spiritually in every single way. It is very easy when one’s spiritual life is going well. It is extremely easy to pray and feel at one with God when things are going well. It is not so easy, when thing are not going well.
One serious complication in this whole process is the way we block grace. How often do we stop and block God’s grace? How often have we had that little twinge of jealousy over someone else’s success? How often have we envied someone else’s position, or thought that we could do a better job than the person in charge? How often have we belittled the Church’s teachings when they conflict with present-day societal norms or political stances? How often have we not said our prayers when we know that we can say them if we simply make the time? There are innumerable times each day when God’ grace has been stopped from getting through to us. There are many times when we could have helped someone else and we chose not to. There are many missed opportunities when the Gospel would have been put forward, and we chose to do, or say, or even think, something else. You see how our present situation requires God’s constant, loving, and self-giving grace?
This only reinforces for me the need we have of the sacraments. They are objective and real signs of grace. God has seen fit through his son to bless us with a sacramental system that feeds us each time we are ministered to by the sacraments. We do not need to well up some big emotional reaction. Although that can happen. We don’t need to whip ourselves up into a spiritual frenzy. God feeds us in the way he wants and he does it constantly. The progress of sanctification cannot be stopped. Isn’t it comforting, despite our condition, to know that God still and will always work on us?
Thank God every day for his grace and help in our lives. Let it feed you to form you and mold you into having a deeper relationship with God. Let it be your guide to having a deeper relationship with those around you. This is all accomplished through God’s work of sanctification. He wants you holy and gives you the means to be just that. Have your Communions be regular and frequent. Make you confession a regular part of your spiritual life. The Prayer Book liturgy calls for it for a very good reason and that is because the devil is out there hard at work. Read and study the Bible regularly and thoroughly. Give support to those who are in obvious need. Give time to the church, which is your means to receive the grace you need. The Word will grow in your heart, and your soul as a result, and you will indeed by granted the grace of the Holy Spirit. And through the Holy Spirit your devotion to will be right and true in this world and remain forever in the next.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
He charged them to take nothing for their journey.
As someone who spends a significant, even inordinate, amount of time on de-cluttering efforts I am intrigued by this idea of “take nothing.” I know that on my ultimate journey, as on yours, there will be no choice in the matter of what to take: We enter this life with nothing, we depart this life with nothing. There is much wisdom and truth in the saying “You can’t take it with you.”
Today we hear about an important journey for the disciples — their maiden voyage without Jesus. But Mark seems to place more emphasis on the practical details of the trip — travel light, go in pairs, meet people where they are, don’t stick around where you’re not wanted, move on — than on its primary goal: to heal and proclaim the kingdom of God. What can we make of this?
I confess to being a bit confused by this charge to “take nothing” — after all, one might ask, what did the disciples actually have?
Precious little, I imagine. Of the twelve he would call, four — Simon, Andrew, James, and John — had just walked away from their livelihood, their boats and nets, to follow Jesus. Matthew abandoned the booth where he was collecting taxes to follow him. It’s not clear who or what the others left behind. But they had already been traveling with Jesus — from Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, then criss-crossing Galilee to the country of the Gerasenes. So it’s not likely that they had much with them, given his habit of just walking into people’s lives and simply saying, “Follow me.”
Maybe the instruction to “take nothing” is more profound — a warning against attachment to earthly possessions. After all, this is the same Jesus who later will say,
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Mt 6:19-21)
Yet there’s also reason to believe that Jesus understood full well the value of material goods: think of the woman frantically searching for her lost coin, the merchant selling everything in order to purchase the pearl of great price.
On the other hand, there’s also the foolish landowner who builds one barn after another, each one larger than the last, to store all his possessions.
From this I conclude that Jesus is not warning against possessions or material goods as inherently evil. Rather, he is showing his disciples and us a way to clear a path — literally and figuratively — to opening our hearts, our lives, to the presence of God.
Traveling without resources or provisions forced each pair of disciples to interact with people they encountered — we might say, they had to mingle. And in this mingling, two things would be revealed: their dependence on the kindness of strangers, and the centrality of their relationship with Jesus. To put it another way, these encounters would show both their vulnerability and their authority: the authority Jesus had given them over unclean spirits — that is, malign, destructive forces; the authority to confront and relieve human suffering wherever they found it.
Traveling in pairs can be seen as a way of preventing loneliness and of ensuring safety. If one is hurt, the other can assist. When the assignment or mission is difficult or frustrating, both commiseration and encouragement can be shared. One can hold the other accountable.
Traveling in pairs also provides what we call a reality check. Ask one person to report on something happened on the road, and you will get one story. Ask two people, and you will get additional details, another point of view, a more rounded narrative.
Perhaps most importantly, it reminds us of the importance Jesus placed on relationships. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Even as you have done unto the least of these…” “Behold your son, behold your mother…” Loving your neighbor is not always easy. If it were, Jesus wouldn’t have to remind us again and again.
Wandering too far from love of neighbor carries with it the danger of believing that walls that divide are more important than bridges that connect. That we can accomplish more on our own than in concert with others. That rather than caring for one another, our primary goal is to protect and preserve what is ours — or what we believe is ours. This is dangerous to our individual spirits, and to the world we live in. Writing in the New York Times a couple of days ago, David Brooks warns that, “A culture of individualism has led people to focus more on individual outcomes and less on the components of each community. We have settled into a reality that is separate and unequal, and we seem not too alarmed about that.”
If you have heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Follow me,” listen now to the same voice sending you out, saying “Bring these words to life. Bring what I have taught you to the world.”
In her book Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor offers a vivid image of this awesome task:
“…If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.”
The disciples did bring with them their most precious possessions: faith in Jesus, a faith still young and green; and their own selves — in the words of the familiar Eucharistic prayer, their souls and bodies. This offering made in imperfect human form echoes and acknowledges the more perfect offering of God’s incarnation. To be a disciple of Jesus means taking on the vulnerability of the crucified and the authority of the resurrected, entrusted to us by Christ Jesus.
From St Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Corinth:
I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me . . . for when I am weak, then I am strong. (12:10)
And from the same letter, earlier on:
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you …was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. (1:19-20)
This morning I want to talk about the Sacrament of Penance. Confession. Reconciliation. And I am minded to talk about this, because I am afraid that Penance is one of the most misunderstood of the Church’s ordinances, and, because misunderstood, it has fallen into disuse. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, where Penance was at one time very strictly and, I should add, very legalistically required, the number of people who make their confessions has declined significantly in the past four decades. And that is a bad thing – bad for both Anglicans and Roman Catholics, because Penance/Confession/Reconciliation is an essential part of the Church’s ministry. Without it something crucial is missing, for like all the Sacraments Penance is itself an encounter with Jesus Christ, his power, his grace, and his love. It is a way by which the Church, as he commanded, exercises his ministry and makes present and active the salvation which was and which is the meaning and purpose of his life. That life which brings life to the world.
Again, like all the Sacraments, Penance is an encounter with Jesus Christ. There we meet him; there we come face to face with his mercy and his love; there, by him forgiven, we are a new creation. “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
What Jesus accomplished in His dying and rising – atonement, the reconciliation to God of a world estranged from him – those happy things which he accomplished – Jesus gave power and authority to his Church to exercise and make real. Penance is a personal and particular aspect of his universal salvation, and this means that it is one way that salvation can touch you and me as individuals. It is nothing less than that. God’s love and forgiveness for all humanity focused individually on your and on me.
As we heard from St Paul, Jesus Christ is God’s Yes. Yes to the whole human race. “Not ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, but in Him it is always ‘Yes.’” He is the Yes which God spoke in the promises made to Abraham and Israel, and through Abraham and Israel He is the Yes to God’s purpose for the whole world. In Christ God has said Yes to us, and has claimed us as His own.
The sacraments of the Church are God’s way of saying that Yes to each individual Christian. They are particular forms and individual expressions of this Yes. God said it first in creation when he gave us existence and the possibility of a life in fellowship with Him. God said it again and decisively in Christ Jesus, from whose risen life all the sacraments flow.
In Baptism God says Yes to an infant or to an adult life to be dedicated to Him. In the Mass he says Yes to the routine of human life and provides spiritual nourishment to empower that life in the world. Yes to the love of man and woman in marriage. Yes to health of body and soul in Unction, making possible spiritual growth even out of those things which threaten life. Yes to the life of the Church, his household, in Holy Orders. And he pronounces Yes upon us in the Sacrament of Penance. There God is victorious, as always, over sin. There he does not allow our sinfulness or the weakness of our will to part us from His love.
“Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” A question put by Paul. And Paul answers, “Nothing.” Paul’s answer is reiterated in every confession. Nothing. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ – nothing, not even sin.
And that is exactly what this sacrament is all about: God’s Yes spoken to each of us, for we encounter God there in his triumphant forgiveness, and we hear personally and anew the Yes which he pronounces upon each of our lives. There he blots out and does away with all those things great and small, inside us and outside us, that move our lives away from Him. In Penance God frees us from the shackles of our past and points us toward his future. As we heard this morning, he makes us strong in our weakness.
There is, of course, a “No” contained within God’s Yes. It is God’s No to sin. God’s wrath, if you will. And we should be thankful for that No. We should praise Him for His wrath. It is a blessed wrath, a holy wrath, a saving wrath, for it is directed not towards us, but towards everything that hurts us and threatens our life and fellowship with him. God declares No to those things, and in that No he says Yes to you and me. As Paul told us, “In him it is all ‘Yes.’”
Every time we make our confession God invites you and me to add our No to his No. We examine our lives and single out those things that have torn us away from him and from one another. We renew our repentance, that “turning away” from whatever is un-Godly and opposed to his love. And in Confession we say No, and get rid of them.
This is easy to do generally and in the abstract. There is little difficulty and little remorse in admitting abstractly the weakness in our wills and in our faith. It is a good thing, but it is also a small thing to make a rather uninvolved review of the progress of our lives before mass or in our daily prayers. It is much more difficult and – yes – sometimes even painful to do this personally and in the presence of another Christian – even one in whom the Church has entrusted her power of “binding and loosing”, “forgiving or retaining.”
Painful or not, it is wiser to make that more difficult step of penance and individual sacramental confession, for there is a danger in abstraction: if we confess our sins in the abstract, we may well receive the assurance of forgiveness in the abstract. And, frankly, what good is that? All of us desire and sometimes we pray to God for a personal encounter. Yet . . . if we are to receive God’s person, we must at least offer Him our person and show ourselves. Penance is an effective way of doing just that.
We hear from the prophet Isaiah as he speaks for God to His people:
I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.
That prophecy has been fulfilled in Christ Jesus, and it is most fully realized in you and me when we show ourselves and bare our souls and encounter God personally in confession.
Isaiah prophesies again:
Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth.
Dear brothers and sisters, we must, you and I, take advantage of this sacrament. It is one of God’s greatest gifts to us in the Church. It is an encounter with Christ and the assurance of His forgiveness. It is a new thing, a beginning, a fresh start, for it is to you and me the triumphant and saving Yes of God.
But ignoring what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “do not fear, only believe.”
It sounds simple, doesn’t it? When Jesus tells the ruler of the synagogue, do not fear, only believe, there is a simplicity to the instruction that is clear and direct. That clarity is attractive. If only we could do that: put aside our fears and believe. There is a fear that is hurtful and a hindrance to our spiritual lives. There is also a fear that builds up our faith and draws us closer to God. Here Jesus wants Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, to put aside or overcome these bad fears.
Some of our fears can be so inhibiting they not only stunt the growth of our faith but stop it. These are the ones Jesus instructs us to not entertain. These fears scare us, and there are many. It only takes one click on the computer to find long lists of fears, or phobias. With one click I found a list of 208 phobias. There’s not much left out there that will not scare us and scare us so much that we can become seemingly paralyzed.
We’ve heard of so many of them. There are the common ones like hydrophobia, the fear of water, or acrophobia, the fear of heights, or claustrophobia, fear of closed-in spaces. I like to learn about the more off beat kinds of fears like triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number 13, or kakorrhaphiophobia, the fear of failure, or siderodromophobia, the fear of traveling on trains, or – and this fear would not be good to have around the Church of the Advent – iconophobia, the fear of religious works of art. In reading the list, I even became afraid of phobias, and there’s a word for that, it’s phobophobia. We ought not to take these lightly. These fears may seem irrational, but they are real. Fears and fear itself are real and can stop our faith.
There is a fear, though, that is good and enhances and deepens our faith in God. This is the fear that we hear about in the Psalms. Psalm 25:14 – The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and will shew them his covenant. Or Psalm 34:11 – Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Or Psalm 111:10 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever. Or Psalm 135:20 – Bless the Lord, O house of Levi: ye that fear the Lord, bless the Lord. We want that fear; it is the beginning of a faith that is in God. The curious thing is that the same word in Greek, phobos, is used for both types of fear. The fortunate circumstance is in reading the Bible one can easily discern which type of fear the Lord does not want us to have and which one we ought to desire. The fear that makes us wonder and adore God the Father. The one that holds us in awe of his overwhelming presence, of his omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. That’s the fear we want because our faith is cultivated in it.
Guided by the Holy Spirit, this holy fear will work in us. However, there are conditions necessary for its growth. Faith does not grow in us haphazardly. The necessary conditions are a trust in God alone, a striving for complete obedience to him, and a love that begins in God and is dependent on him. Trust, obedience, and dependent love must be present. Then the faith that is in us must be placed in God only through his son, Jesus Christ. Notice that there is a faith already present in Jairus. He knew that this Jesus is the only one who can help his daughter. That faith brought him to Jesus. He went past the Temple. He went through the crowd. He made his way back to the house, even after the report came that his daughter was already dead. Nothing else mattered, but getting to Jesus.
So much is possible by choosing to believe in Jesus as the one who perfectly reveals God the Father to us. God does not stop by simply showing us Jesus his Son. God gives his Son all the authority that he has in heaven and on earth. The two are one in the unity of the Holy Ghost. We have seen over the past two weeks in the proclamations of the Gospel that Jesus has command over all the natural world by calming the wind and the sea. He has authority over all evil spirits that can control us, and has used that spiritual authority to drive the unclean spirits out, as in the witness of driving the evil spirits out of Legion, who was possessed by many of them. Now we know that Jesus can revive us, heal us, and even bring us back from death. This is a foreshadowing of his resurrection that leads to eternal life. This last of the series of healing miracles reveals what God ultimately intends for us. Clearly he intends for us to believe in his Son Jesus as the way to eternal life. That eternal life is the means to the ultimate form of healing.
There is no fear of the crippling and paralyzing kind there. There is only love. The kind of love and praise about which we raise our voices in that hymn, “Love divine, all loves excelling”. We sing at the climax of the lyrics: Lost in wonder, love and praise. That is the fear of the Lord to which our faith will lead us and that will have us dwell in his presence forever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In Mark’s gospel, a lot of things happen on a boat. Jesus seeks refuge from the huge crowds that press upon him in a boat; Jesus takes at least three trips across the Sea of Galilee on a boat; Jesus preaches to people gathered along the shoreline from a boat. And in today’s reading, a boat is not just a place of refuge, a means of transportation, or a pulpit, but it is the site of a genuine miracle.
All these things happen on a boat even though Jesus is not a sailor. He made his living on land, building houses most probably. His friends and disciples are sailors though. And they would have been familiar with the nautical and meteorological conditions that prevail on the Sea of Galilee. So if they are worried about the storm that blows up on them in chapter 4, then that storm must have been a big one. Experienced sailors like the disciples don’t panic over nothing. They are in real trouble.
But Jesus is the opposite of panicked. In fact he is so calm as to be asleep. And amazingly, this verse in Mark 4 is the only time in the entire New Testament we are told that Jesus is sleeping.
Our Lord’s tranquility in the face of the storm seems downright offensive to his disciples, who wake him up with a reproach: “Don’t you care that we are about to die? Why don’t you get up and do something?”
But Jesus does care. And he does do something. In fact he does a miracle.
He summons himself to his full height and rebukes the elements themselves, in effect telling the wind and the waves to “shut up” and be still. And still they are. What began in Mark’s words as a “great storm of wind” abruptly ends as what he calls a “great calm.”
And in that dead calm Jesus chides his disciples for their unbelief: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
In Mark’s gospel, fear is the opposite of faith. To have faith is to be like Jesus, calm in the face of the storm, and to lack faith is to be driven to distraction by fear.
When Jesus performs this miracle, the disciples we are told are no longer afraid but instead are “filled with great awe,” and they ask themselves “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
The reason they are overawed by Jesus’s act is that they recognize it as a deed of divine power, of miraculous might. The reason that it can only be a miracle is clear from Hebrew Scriptures. According to the Bible, only God has this kind of power, the ability to command nature itself, because nature is God’s creation.
You have to remember that for the ancient mind, the natural elements—the sun, the moon, the heavens, the sea—to the pagan way of thinking are gods. The Greeks and Romans among other ancient Near Eastern cultures thought there was a god of the sea, an often angry and demanding god in fact, who ruled over the deep. For ancient peoples the sea is a threatening, tempestuous, dangerous place. The sea was associated with primal chaos, an unfathomable depth of darkness and death that threatened to swallow up the unwary.
Even in the Hebrew Scriptures we see this from the beginning, that at creation itself the spirit of God hovered over what? Over the dark and deep waters, which symbolize the chaos of disorder, awaiting the imposition of order via God’s creative word. It is God and God alone who speaks into existence an orderly and moral creation that stands separate from the void of the oceanic depths.
We see the same idea in today’s psalm, psalm 107, which speaks of God as the one who “stilled the storm to a whisper and quieted the waves of the sea.” This is a prerogative and power that belongs to God alone, and this is why the disciples are stunned at who Jesus is when he commands the sea and the storm, again using only the power of his speech, his divine and creative word, to restore order to a scene of chaos.
This brings me to an important point about miracles in general as Jesus performs them, and this point I think is true of this miracle as well. I would bet that if someone asked you to define a miracle, you would likely say something like that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. This is a pretty commonplace textbook answer. It’s the first thing that comes to my mind too. I actually think it’s wrong though.
A miracle is not a violation of the laws of nature. A miracle is not an exception to how the world is. A miracle is a revelation of how the world should be. Let me say that again. A miracle is not a violation of the natural order. A miracle is a revelation of what God intends the world to be.
The world as it should be is one in which God is in perfect control of nature. A miracle discloses what God intends for the world, that it should be all order and harmony and peace with no chaos no disorder no violence no disease. No death. This, perhaps, is why the book of Revelation tells us that in the new heavens and the new earth, when God’s rule over a restored creation is absolute, then there will be no sea. Such a strange thing to say about the new heavens and new earth, but it makes sense if the sea is the site of chaos and violent disorder and danger.
And that brings me to the second thing I will say about miracles today, and that is that the point of a miracle as Jesus performs it is always the same: It is to inspire and increase our faith. Jesus does not perform miracles to show off but to encourage our faith in him. In Mark’s gospel, every time Jesus and his disciples are in a boat the gospel links this experience to the disciples’ lack of faith. I said at the outset that in Mark Jesus spends a lot of time on a boat and that means he also spends a lot of time confronting his disciples’ lack of faith.
But that too makes sense if the sea is a place of menace and terror. Because fear is the opposite of faith, and fearful circumstances overwhelm our confidence and threaten our security. Fear causes us to lose heart and lose our grip on the conviction that Jesus cares about what is happening to us.
Now Mark I don’t think intended this exactly, but very early on in church history, with great and thoughtful theologians like Tertullian and Origen, very early on wise minds discerned in the experience of being on a boat an excellent analogy for the life of the church.
Have you ever thought about the name for the inside of the church? What is this part we are all standing in right now? There is a fancy Latin name for it, because here there is a fancy Latin name for everything, but what’s the fancy Latin name for the place in the church where we all gather to worship? It’s called a nave. As in, navy. And it’s called a nave because you and I and everyone in church this morning, we are all in a boat.
Just like in Mark’s gospel, the boat that is the church is a place of refuge from the pressures of the world. The boat that is the church is also a means of transportation; it’s via the church that we are carried from our birth and baptism to our eventual passing and eternal fellowship with the saints who have gone before. The boat that is the church is also a pulpit, a place where we hear the word of God proclaimed and preached. And sometimes it’s the place where miracles happen.
But sometimes not. We have to be honest here. A miracle is a glimpse into the way things should be. It is not a disclosure of how things are. Until the heavens and earth are restored, until the dominion of God over all things is absolute, we live in a world of storms. As any child can tell you it is fun and exciting to be in a boat, but it’s also dangerous. Our voyage through this world is not a safe one.
And when we are beset on all sides, when the waves are spilling over the prow and the winds are howling then our fear gets the best of us and we call out to Jesus to do something about it. We cannot forget though that a miracle is not done at our beck and call because Jesus is not at our beck and call. He is the master of creation itself, the lord of the world that was made through him, and what he does he does not to impress us or even to console us but to increase our faith.
We lost our friend and longtime parishioner this past week, Russell Mead. Russell spoke to me many months ago about his awareness of his own mortality. He knew he was nearing the end. But when we talked about it he said with conviction in his voice “But I’m not afraid.” That is the courage that comes from faith in the power and peace of Christ Jesus.
Our Savior has not left us alone on the high seas of life. Even if sometimes it seems like he is sleeping, he is here, in the boat with us. And his plan and purpose is to perfect our faith, the faith that Russell had. For when our faith is as complete as his, then regardless of how mightily the storms around us rage, we will be as calm and secure and unafraid as our Savior himself. Amen.
Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how.”
This morning in the Gospel we heard Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God, and the language he uses is the language of farming. That shouldn’t surprise us; we all know, I think, that most of the people to whom Jesus spoke and preached were farmers. They were peasants, people of the land who made their living from the land. And, I think, we all know as well that our Lord had a brilliant way of illustrating his teaching in terms with which those who heard him were familiar. Terms taken from their lives. To fishermen he used illustrations taken from fishing and life near the sea. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” he says to Simon and Andrew who were fishermen. “The Kingdom of God is as if a man cast a net into the sea and gathered up fish of every kind,” he says in another parable.
It occurred to me, though, as I wrote this sermon last week, that in fact the great majority of our Lord’s parables and teachings use language taken from farming, agriculture, and gardening. The parable of the sower and the seed scattered on various types of soil. The parable of the wheat and the tares. And today the very familiar parable of the mustard seed. Here again Jesus is addressing those who listened to him in terms which they would easily understand.
I don’t know how many of you are gardeners. I spent several summers during my childhood on a farm, and I used to raise a few vegetables in the back yard of a previous rectory. So I do know something – a little – about gardening. One thing, however, which I think we all know – whether we are gardeners or not – is that it’s a lot of work; it’s hard work, and you’ve got to keep at it day by day. It’s hard enough, of course, if it’s just a hobby, but it’s very, very hard work if your life depends upon it. And that was the case – wasn’t it? – with many of the people to whom Jesus spoke. They lived off the land entirely. If the land produced, they lived. If, one year, the land did not produce, well, perhaps they didn’t live. And so you see, the terms which Jesus is using here are very serious, as homely or even quaint as they may seem to us. In fact, it is not too much to say that for those to whom he spoke they were at times a matter of life and death. Did the seed live and grow? Or did it die?
And He said to them, “The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how.” Anyone who has planted a garden recognizes this experience. One works hard to get things started – preparing the soil; getting rid of the weeds; putting up a fence perhaps; fertilizing and planting. It’s daily work, and the success of one’s garden depends very much upon how much work one puts into it. And yet – and here is Jesus’ point – in the end there is something mysterious, something in fact miraculous about what happens in a garden. “The seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how.”
I am always amazed; I stand back in wonder, when – even after a great deal of hard labor – the seed I planted comes up and grows. From one point of view I had everything to do with it. And yet from another point of view I had nothing to do with it, for there is something miraculous there. Something which is beyond me and bigger – much bigger – than me. Something which is, perhaps, a glimpse, an inkling, a hint of the mystery and miracle which is the cause of the creation – and even life itself. And what I realize in my amazement and wonder is that all my work is really nothing more than going along with the miracle, cooperating with the mystery, indeed, becoming myself a part of it.
And it was to people who were very much aware of the miraculous nature of life that Jesus told the parable we heard in the Gospel. In fact, as we said, the lives of those people – farmers – depended on that miracle of growth taking place year after year. – Did the seed live and grow? Or did it die? – And what he said to them and says to us as well is this: the Kingdom of God, the life of faith is like the growth of seeds sown in a field. It is a miraculous and mysterious thing. It has a great deal to do with you and me, for it is a Kingdom to be established in and among you and me. And yet, in the end it depends entirely on God. It is God who brings it into being and God who makes it grow. To our eyes, that is to say, from one point of view, it may seem insignificant, as tiny as a mustard seed. Even so, because it is of God and depends on God, from another point of view its possibilities are limitless: without bounds.
My brothers and sisters, that Kingdom of God “is within you,” as Jesus says. You and I – His Church – are the Kingdom of God. You, I, we, are God’s planting here on earth, and there is within us and for us a possibility of growth and life which is miraculous and wonderful. And it is miraculous and wonderful, because it is of God. That is what our faith is all about, you know. That is what the New Testament proclaims on every page: the possibility of a new kind of life – a life abundant, a life rich and full, a life transformed, a life which is itself a miraclebecause it is in each of us the life of God. And all that we are called upon to do is this: cooperate – let it be – go along with the miracle and find our life in God.
Too often we forget this, you know. Our fears, our doubts, our worries and complacencies, comforts, and self-satisfactions, our responsibilities in this world, our dissatisfactions – too, too often these things so fill our lives or so weigh upon us that we forget the miraculous thing which God has done for us in Christ. We forget that God has made us His Kingdom. We forget that God will give us the grace and the faith and the trust to order our lives and allow that Kingdom to grow. But most of all, and this is the real problem, we forget that the wonder, the miracle, the mystery, the abundant and rich life of His Kingdom, is right here and right now – given to us – within us – waiting only for us to let it be.
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, says Jesus. From one point of view it is something tiny and insignificant. Easily ignored or not even noticed. And so – from one point of view – are you and I. One of these days I will be no more. This body which now is me will only be a pile of dust and ashes. . . from one point of view. St. Paul is talking about this in the Epistle we heard this morning – a really glorious portion of Scripture – and what he says is this: that there is another point of view. And that point of view is God’s. The Kingdom which God began in you and me will not end in dust and ashes. No, what is mortal in us – and what is mortal in all those who are in Christ – what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. It will be glorified and conformed to Christ. The Kingdom established in us will go on. The miracle will become more miraculous still. And from God’s point of view – which is the only one that counts – from God’s point of view, the mustard seed – as tiny as it is, and which is you and me – that mustard seed will grow into a tree which reaches to the skies. . . and finds its life beyond in the very life of God.
Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.
We are now in those weeks of the Church’s calendar called “the season of Pentecost”. I prefer the name “Trinity season” and I’ll tell you why in a minute. Brace yourself. This season is long and it will not fly by. At least it does not for me. For the next twenty-six weeks when we come to church we will see lots of green on the altar and in the vestments. We will walk our way through the Scriptures, predominantly the Gospel according to Saint Mark. We will hear some parables and read about some of Jesus’ healing miracles.
There is a logic and purpose to reading through Saint Mark’s Gospel and some accompanying Epistles and Old Testament passages. By the time we worship together through the summer and fall, right up to the end of November, we should know and believe what it’s like to live with the Holy Spirit that came down on us at Pentecost. The rationale is our spiritual growth. We are to spend this season learning, praying, receiving God’s grace through his word to become holy. Sanctification is the big word for it. It’s more than living with the Holy Ghost that came down on the Church at Pentecost. It’s living in and with God the Holy Trinity, because the Holy Ghost has incorporated us into the life of the Trinity. That’s why Trinity season, and not Pentecost season, is a better description of the season. We are to grow in holiness and green is the sign for growth, so here we go.
I say all this so that you have a good picture of what your church is supposed to be about between now and the season of Advent. It’s why we’re hearing the Bible read in a particular order. We are to learn and grow into the people God wants us to be now that he has been born to us, lived with us, suffered and died for us, rose again from the dead, sent us his Holy Ghost, and is now back at the right hand of his Father waiting for us and continually shedding his grace on us by the Holy Ghost until we get there. Praise him for all this and as we hear the readings of the Bible, when we come to Church over the next twenty-six weeks, think about what we’re to learn and to what we are to conform our hearts and souls in this season with the Holy Trinity.
So what are we supposed to learn today? The power of Christ’s love over division strikes me as I’ve read these lessons from Genesis, Second Corinthians and Saint Mark’s Gospel. It is good for us to learn about Satan and how he works. When we know something about the enemy, we can be prepared to deal with him. We can discern when he is acting on us. We can know where to go to get the grace of God to overcome him. God wants us united. The Devil wants us divided. The good news is that Christ’s power of love overcomes any division caused by sin. Let’s look at what we learn and believe from the Scriptures.
In the midst of battling even original sin there is a quiet confidence and consolation that we find with God. Notice in the Garden of Eden after the serpent had beguiled Eve, who in turn tempted Adam, God comes looking for them; almost as if he’s longing and concerned for them. “…But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” It makes your heart go out to God. He wants man and woman to be with him because they’re lost. He desires them to be with him. They cannot be with him in the perfect fellowship they had with him because sin has separated Adam and Eve from him. But notice that God still desires them to be with him. “Where are you?” He still wants them. So even with the existence of the powerful division of original sin, God tries to find them. He still tries to find us even when we have turned away from him time and time again.
It’s God’s loving providence over all things that’s operative here. This kind of love is illustrated in some way, I think, in how the Church operates with her sinners. Christians are given the opportunity to repent and be brought back into the communion of the Church when they sin. It’s why we have the sacrament of confession, or the General Confession in the liturgy, or that Saint Paul writes to Saint James, “Go and confess your sins one to another”, or that we continually pray in the ‘Our Father’, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. God the Father Almighty is over all things and even oversees the battle of sin and redemption.
The plea for union with God, the drive for unity in Christ, Christ’s proclamation that he loves his followers, all come through in the Gospel. The teaching that unity is the will of God, and not estrangement, is even used by Jesus in his confrontation with the Jerusalem scribes. They have collapsed into name calling and character assassination to crush the growing influence of Jesus’ ministry. They declare, “he is possessed by Be-elzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” It’s easy for Jesus to refute their charge because he points out that Satan would not try to drive out demons that are doing his work. Why would he be divided against himself? “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.”
All through the lessons we heard today there are many opposing divisions: God separated from Adam and Eve; life in this world and life in Heaven; those things that are seen and those that are unseen; Christ as opposed to sin and Satan; forgiveness and the unforgivable sin. The good news is that the love of Christ, given to us by God, heals and helps us overcome all these divisions. Saint Paul, writing to the Corinthians describes how this love of Christ can help get us through the divisions of this world: …Knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. Again, God’s loving providence has the oversight of all that can hurt and divide us, and has sent his son to give us the loving grace we need in time of hurt and division caused by sin.
This love is powerful and more powerful than anything sin and Satan have to offer. Jesus uses his familial bond to his mother Mary and his brothers to illustrate how strong and broad this love is. We know the strong love that a mother has for her son, and that sons have for their mothers. The need for the kingdom, and the unity that exists in God’s kingdom, are like the need a son has for his mother and his friends. That need is filled by Jesus Christ and entering his kingdom. When the crowd sitting around him said, your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you, the crowd thought that surely Jesus would leave immediately and go to be with his mother and brothers. His response is to reveal that the crowd around him are his mother and brothers because whoever does the will of God (are his) brothers, and sister, and mother. This is not a snub of Mary, his mother, and his close friends the disciples. Jesus is using the close bond between him and his mother, as an example, to show how much one needs to love in order to do God’s will and be part of his kingdom.
With this kind of love we can heal many divisions that exist between us and God and between us and those around us. This is all summarized and offered to God in prayer by one of the petitions in our marriage service: Grant that the bonds of our common humanity, by which all your children are united one to another, and the living to the dead, may be so transformed by your grace, that your will may be done on earth as it is in heaven; where, O Father, with your Son and Holy Spirit, you live and reign in perfect unity, now and for ever. Amen.