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YOU HAVE THE WORDS OF ETERNAL LIFE

John 6:56-69

 

As I am sure you are all aware, the gospel of John is very different from the other three Gospels. They are essentially narrative, more or less historical, dealing with factual material. John’s is a spiritual gospel, concerned less with what Jesus did than what he means. Matthew’s gospel was written by a man about to leave his Hebrew community and needed to leave them a written account of his experiences in a form that they, as Jews would easily understand and be familiar with. Mark wrote for a congregation than had learned from Peter himself and wanted a written record of his memories and teaching. Luke was writing for a literate and sophisticated audience used to histories and detail, probably people who were or were training to be leaders and teachers in their own congregations. All were probably written within 30-40 years of Jesus’ death.

 

John, it appears, was different. He was the leader of the church at Ephesus and only wrote, or probably dictated, his words at the very end of his very long life, about 70 years after Jesus’ death. He was prevailed upon to do so by his congregations and the elders of the churches in the region. There is evidence that there was collaboration with these elders, but above all it represents the conclusions of a deeply spiritual man who had been with Jesus from the first, was very close to him – he was probably the disciple ’whom Jesus loved’- and had spent the rest of his life making sense of  his experiences. He is deeply, deeply filled with the power and understanding of the Holy Spirit which, as he thinks back over his time with Jesus and how things have worked out since, enables him to see the meaning of Jesus, the reality of Jesus, the truth of Jesus that lie beyond the mere historical events of his life.

 

Ephesus was a Greek city and by 100 AD, when this gospel was written Greeks and Hellenised Jewish christians were far more numerous than he original Hebraic ones. It is one of the glories of this gospel that it marries the insights of Greek thought with the truth of God as revealed in Jesus. Greeks philosophy taught that this world was made of imperfect replicas of perfect Forms that existed in another, perfect world. Reason, knowledge, understanding and wisdom were prized, vital qualities in Greek society. John, in his opening words ties this understanding to the revelation of Jesus ‘In the beginning was the Word’. The word, the Logos, the pre-existing Reason that brought all the perfect forms into being and also the lesser forms of the tangible world ‘and without his was not anything made that was made’ Wisdom, the pinnacle of human skill and achievement to the Jews is merged entirely with the Greek perception of Reason and are made apparent to us in the person of Jesus. No-one pretends that Jesus actually said all the things John puts in his mouth; they are the things that John, through the working of the Holy Spirit, has come to realise what Jesus actually means and is about. Very often we find the long speeches of Jesus or the especially significant statements about himself follow or precede some particularly significant action and that they explain the real meaning behind that action. Thus the section we have been hearing these past weeks follows the feeding of the five thousand; the miracle is a demonstration of God’s power in Jesus and what follows is an unravelling, an opening out of the full significance of that power. The raising of Lazarus from the dead is preceded by the towering statement ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. So, while when we look at the other gospels and ask ’what did Jesus mean by this?’, with John we must ask ‘what did John know and understand about Jesus that caused him to write this?’

 

John was writing, not for a Hebrew readership but a Greek one. It is probable that Hebrew readers would be very uneasy with the overtones of cannibalism or the eating of meat offered to idols, the drinking of blood and above all the words ‘I am’ with the implied claim of divinity. Indeed, in John 10:33 they say  “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.”  The Greeks would have no problem with this. In the many mystery religions eating part of the food offered for sacrifice was part of the ritual, in which the person eating took the god into themselves. Drinking the blood would not have the same horror for them as the Hebrews because they did not have the prohibition that demanded all meat must be drained of blood; nevertheless both peoples would see blood as the life-force of a person. To make a claim to divinity would also be no great shock; such ideas abounded in Greek religions while the Roman emperors had proclaimed themselves divine.

 

John is, however, at pains to point out that Jesus was not just some semi-divine or spirit-inhabited human. He was also having to combat the heresy of Gnosticism which saw flesh and spirit as irreconcilable opposites; spirit was good, flesh was evil. At one end Gnosticism had Jesus as a distant emanation from a remote god-spirit and not really divine at all, while at the other Jesus was inhabited temporarily by a spirit which escaped at his death. Time and again John is emphasising that Jesus, the Logos was one with the Father and was there from the beginning but that Jesus the man, whom the Logos had fully become, was still truly a man, with all the needs, temptations, affections that a human being has. John has repackaged the story of Jesus to meet the needs and understandings of his audience, as, in fact, did the other gospel writers, though their editorial input is perhaps less obvious.

 

 

Peter said: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” These words lie at the root of our faith: You have the words of eternal life. If we believe this then it must follow that  we want to share that faith with others. The gospels were written for the teaching of the growing congregations and to enable the spread of the knowledge of Jesus and his words of eternal life and as we have seen, were adapted to their audience. All too often we fail to see the mismatch between the words we use and the culture and experience of the people we are trying to reach. Take our central theme at the moment ‘I am the bread of life’

 

In the Middle East and in Europe bread from wheat or barley has been the prime source of energy in a diet for millennia and without it people died. Control of the Egyptian grain trade gave Roman generals control over Rome; in Britain in the 19th century riots close to revolution broke out over the repeal of the corn laws which would affect the price and availability of bread. We know bread – even if most of us eat very little of it. But what about the peoples of South and South East Asia? Bread is a recent idea to most and an expensive one too. For them rice is the staple and ‘the bread of life’ is as meaningful as ‘the rice of life’ would be to us. Or Africa, where the staple is maize-meal or banana or cassava or millet? Our gospel message is littered with such cultural and experiential mismatches which cause all sorts of headaches to those engaged in translating the scriptures into languages which, in many cases, have never even been written down. We fail to see these problems because our culture has grown up with the words of the gospel, been largely moulded by them and it is not until we delve deeper or are confronted by uncomprehending foreigners that we think about these things.

 

But is it just uncomprehending foreigners? If, indeed, Jesus has ‘the words of eternal life’ why are people not coming to hear them, to learn about them, to accept them, to live them? |Look, I know I have been banging on about this for ever but why are our churches, especially our Anglican ones, emptying and closing? One major reason is because we have not learned what John understood, that you have to make the gospel comprehensible to people where they are. We are expecting people to come to us, to learn the language and the culture of the church before they can hear the he words of eternal life. Maybe that worked fifty, a hundred years ago but even then I doubt it. All the great revivals – Methodism, the Oxford Movement for example- repackaged the gospel in ways that people could easily apprehend, whether it was organisational, practical and social  as with the Methodists or full of light and colour and ritual as did the Oxford Movement, the important thing was that it met people where they were, in the experiences and problems of their real lives. I am the bread of life! What, a miserable, denatured, plastic cotton-wool, crustless, sliced white load of additives? Come on, get real! If our church is to survive, let alone grow, we have to do a radical rethink of the way we package the gospel. I know, you don’t like that way of talking; the gospel is not a thing to be packaged like soap powder or a new car. I’m sorry, but it is. If we are to meet the people where they are we must meet them as they are and that means on their cultural terms, not ours. I am not sure how it can be done, though the growth of the independent churches may offer some clues. I know that there will be a lot of opposition and a lot of apathy. I don’t even know how much of it I can take on board. All I know is that it has to be done. After all, that’s what John did 1900 years ago. After long consideration he repackaged the life and teachings of Jesus in a form that his audience could relate to. We have to do the same.

Howard Gorringe


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