The Word of Eternal Life
A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter
Readings for this service:John 6.56-69
I returned to St Martin’s yesterday from a holiday during which I visited in Chennai in India. Absence they say makes the heart grow fonder. There is truth in this. Yesterday I came into this church in the morning hungry not only for the quiet and beauty of this place but, disorientated and tired after my long flight and the experience I had been through, hungry I have to admit for Christ and for the word of Christ. And as we read Morning Prayer together it was as though the words felt palpable- healing, speaking from heart to heart, like rain falling on dry, dusty land or like drinking water after being out in the sun. I felt nourished by it. Yes, that’s the word I would use as though hearing the scriptures again in my own language was like being physically rehydrated.
What do I mean? I think todays Gospel holds that truth when Jesus asks the twelve disciples “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answers him: “Lord to whom can we go, you have the words of eternal life?” There are times in all our lives when we set out on a journey, see a wider world, perspective, lives other than our own and become immersed in that discovery. We are challenged, threatened and perhaps broadened by our experience. But there are also times of return, returning to the truths and wisdom that we have discovered like returning home, and reviewing the wonder of all that we have sometimes taken for granted. TS Eliot in those often quoted words wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
The Word of God is like that. It is a truth which is disclosed or revealed to us in the challenges and journeys of our lives but it is also the truth to which we are called to return to with our new found experiences and hear again, or discover again. The Word of God is not something we simply encounter on an intellectual, head level. It’s something that involves the whole of us. Jesus in today’s Gospel uses very graphic language to describe our encounter with him. He talks about his disciples eating his flesh, drinking his blood, abiding in him and him in them. It’s like God entering our digestive system and blood stream- transforming all that we are by his indwelling presence. Jesus’ language shocks his disciples. What does he mean, eat his flesh and drink his blood? Like those who heard him then we too are tempted to be shocked and confused by this language- “this teaching is too difficult,” as his disciples say.
Scripture has often been treated as a kind of divine text book. Read it to find answers. Study it and you will know the right way to live and find the meaning of the text for your own life that you can apply. A bit like one of those self-help books that claim to offer twelve ways to happiness or success. Follow these strategies and you too can have eternal life. No far from it- the more we discover in the scriptures about Jesus the more that we seem to be called beyond the formulaic or the easy answer into life’s struggles. There is a danger with scripture of two different extremes. On the one hand the conservative temptation to believe that once we have mastered the word of God through our knowledge and understanding then we have a kind of moral and spiritual authority and power to be in control of our lives and the lives of others. How much damage has been done through this approach? It can become not the way to loving God but explaining God to justify one’s own righteousness. The other extreme is to see the Word of God as purely subjective- like a collection of platitudes for the heart not the head- that’s sweet and comforting and reassuring but is never going to transform the world. But the Word of God needs a third way. The image Jesus himself uses is flesh and blood
What does he mean? I think he means that our encounter with him changes everything. It changes who we are because it feeds us at the deepest level of ourselves and our relationship with the world. Revelation will come not through cleverness, or status, or worldly authority. Religion and the church often convinced people that they would come to God by following the right practices or rules or rituals. Actually we are going to meet Christ through naked presence. Encountering him, encountering his word here and now in our actual lives. That’s not going to be about literalistic conformity or about romantic feelings that’s going to be about discovering the essence of who you are as you grapple with the face to face encounter with God. Jesus talks about vigilance, seeing, being awake, the courage it needs to face the unknown. He is the flesh and blood of our lives and like a branch cut off from the vine or a human being without any food and drink, cut off from the life giving presence of God we wither and die. This is not easy stuff to hear. It seems to be demanding too much of us. There are those who turn away and betray all that he is and this truth. The Gospel tells that many did turn away and stop going with him.
But the Gospel shows us a different truth. It is the truth of God using the lives of ordinary, often frail, often wounded, and often struggling people and transforming them by his abiding presence, against all the odds and all the expectations. And this Gospel is not just text it is living encounter. Encounter with word but also encounter with the word made flesh. Examine your own life. I wonder which were the times when you encountered Christ?
As I said it the beginning of this address I have just visited Chennai in India. It is a bewildering cultural and spiritual experience into which one feels thrown a bit like a stick into a river of life. One of the moments of this visit I will never forget is arriving at the Mercy Home run by Missionary Sisters of St Francis to Sales to whom I had been given an introduction by Michael Moran from St Martin’s. They had heard I was coming and as we entered we were surrounded by what can only be described as the manifestation of hospitality and mercy. At least 15 sisters welcomed us, had prepared for us, waited on us at table. In a text I wrote to Michael I described the experience: Dear Michael “Your sisters of St Francis de Sales are incredible- they treated me, and my friend Widi and our driver arriving at their door like Jesus had arrived. What a ministry they have. I have never had so many sisters looking after me when we were eating, they had cooked curry without chili for me specially because they thought an Englishmen could not take hot food and chips because they had heard that Englishmen eat everything with chips. At first I thought that this was hospitality just put on for and Englishmen but then I went with them to meet more than 200 other men and women and children they had taken in off the street, now so tenderly cared for. Those who had in most cases been abandoned- the elderly, the sick, those with great disfigurement to their bodies, limbs and faces, a women whose whole hands had been burnt away in a fire. And again I saw such dignity and light and joy as we prayed together and they grasped my hands in welcome. “Namaste” I bow to you. The place was so clean and light filled. “How is it,” said Widi afterwards “that here in extreme poverty we can find such hope and welcome while in the rich care homes of the west the experience is often one of such loneliness and complaint.” In a small chapel the Holy Sacrament was on the altar. And we knelt in prayer. The Word made flesh and blood in this encounter.
I remembered the words of Mother Teresa who told the story of a sister who at first found it hard to care for the dying. She had found maggots in the wounds of one of the old men who had been carried in from the street. And the smell and the sight had made her feel physically sick. Mother Teresa had told her to look at the way the priest had celebrated the mass that day holding the bread and wine with such reverence and devotion- now she said holding that in your mind go back and care for this man from the streets with the same reverence. Later she met the sister again. “How was it sister?” Mother Teresa asked. To which the sister replied. “Mother all afternoon I have been holding in my hands the body of Christ.”
When you meet Christ you feel transformed by the encounter. Go and do the same. Along the road out of Chennai are thousands of Indian Christian pilgrims walking over 400km from Chennai to the shrine at Valankanni where an apparition of Mary is believed to have taken place. It’s incredibly hot and dusty and the pilgrims look exhausted, literally streams of them swathed in soft orange cloth as a sign of their pilgrimage now grimy with sweat and dust. Remembering our own pilgrimage to Canterbury I want to be with them and feel a great sense of solidarity, but there is no time this pilgrimage lasts for two weeks. But how can we share a part of this sign of faith and hope? We buy boxes of samosas and mango drinks and we stop at the side of the road to hand out these small gifts so that we and the pilgrims are left glowing by the joy of this encounter.
Our Gospel is not words in a book. It is flesh and blood encounter with Christ. Encounter. That’s the name of our Autumn Lecture series. It happens here in this church and happens outside the church and across the world. My way of expressing the nature of this encounter is the name Jesus Christ- the word made flesh who lives among us. In India both in the home of mercy and at the side of the road in the encounter we bow to each other- I bow to you. It is a sign of the recognition of the divine presence in the other. “Namaste- I see you.” If only we could see the presence of God in one another how different our world would be. This new way of seeing is possible today, here and now. It’s possible because you will receive the flesh and blood of Jesus in your own flesh and blood. The challenge is to be transformed by that presence. It’s a long pilgrimage for all of us. It’s a pilgrimage however to eternal life. I bow to you.