I want to begin this morning with a short announcement and then with a longer confession. First, this coming Wednesday afternoon at 12:30 we begin a weekly Eucharist at the RMIT Spiritual Centre – the onetime chapel of the Old Melbourne Gaol. Our celebrant for the initial service for the semester will be our Bishop, the Rt. Rev, Philip Huggins, and I invite you to attend. Our main celebrant will be our own Fr. Tat, and please know that you are always welcome.
Now onto the confession: Yesterday I did something that I’m a little ashamed to say that I haven’t done for awhile, but something I recommend to you without reservation which is that I sat down and read one of the Gospels – this time John – all the way through. I used a translation I don’t usually use - The New Jerusalem, which is nicely poetic - and as I read I took notes on my computer: lines I liked, images that stayed, things that surprised me as I read, and it probably took less than three hours.
So I want to talk about the Gospel lesson for today, and to set it in the context of the whole Gospel in which it takes place.
The Gospel according to John starts big, with the wonderful prose poem, “In the beginning was the Word”, serving as a kind of overture with all the themes and concerns of the feast of Good News which follows. The action opens with the introduction of John the Baptist, who baptises Jesus, sees him as the Lamb of God, and recommends him to a few disciples. Jesus gathers a few more on his own; and they go off to a wedding.
It is where the first of seven signs in John will happen: seven miracles which highlight the shape of Jesus’ call and journey. This first miracle is turning water into wine at that wedding so the spirit at the end of the party surpasses that at the beginning. It is a theme that will continue.
Jesus then kicks the moneychangers out of the temple, talks with Nicodemus about being born again from above, and gets into a strange and wonderful conversation with a woman who has had 5 husbands - and here he speaks of water he shall give that becomes a well, welling up to eternal life. After more talk, and a mysterious conversation with his disciples who are telling him to eat (He says in response that his food is to do the will of the one who sent him) he heals the son of the royal official – A gentile - as well as healing a man who had been paralysed for thirty-eight years. These are the second and third signs, neither is what you’d call universally popular, bringing up issues of how you deal with outsiders as well as healing on the Sabbath; and his enemies, who are increasing, come closer, beginning to harass him, intending to kill him, sooner rather than later.
After that comes the Feeding of the five thousand: which we just heard. Jesus and the disciples are trying to get away from the increasing crowds, looking for some quiet in the country, and then everybody shows up! There’s a question and answer time with the disciples: one question: How can we feed all these people? And two answers: a) it would cost too much or b) there is a little boy with five loaves and two fish. I ask you which is the pessimist and which is the optimist? But the centre of the story comes when they all sit down: Jesus takes, gives thanks, shares the bread; the same with the fish, and twelve baskets are left over and everything is gathered together in the end. The fourth sign, the one in the middle of it all, then after such a right time, a taste of renewal, abundance, heaven, it all goes wrong. The crowd tries to make him their earthly king, and he heads for the hills alone. That’s what we heard, our lesson for the day. But going on with the story…
Later that same night the disciples are out at sea and Jesus comes to them, walking on the water – the fifth sign - terrifying them when he does so, and later confusing them further with his words, “eat my flesh and drink my blood, and live forever”. Many of his disciples go away and accompany him no more. He continues on, upsetting the residents of Jerusalem and his own family and friends, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me! Let anyone who believes in me come and drink! “
He gets back to Jerusalem with another unsettling encounter with another somewhat shady woman – this one caught in adultery, then more teaching, “If you make my word your home you will indeed be my disciples, before Abraham was, I am. I am the light of the world.”
Another healing, the sixth sign, this time of the man born blind, creating havoc both with family and religious authorities, and still more scandalous teaching, “I am the gate, I am the good shepherd, laying down his life for the sheep, in order to take it up again. The father and I are one: the Father in me and I in the Father”.
And finally the Raising of Lazarus – the last sign –, which opens the way to his own death. Of course, he sees it differently: One more teaching time and preparing for the end. But not an end as we might see it. End as goal, fruition, and the start of the great harvest. As he says:
“The hour for the Son of man to be glorified, to be lifted up from the earth, to draw all people to himself [So] love one another as I have loved you. I am the Way, I am Truth and Life.” And finally even more than that, for, “the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you. Peace I leave with you. Bear much fruit, love one another, you are my friends. Be courageous, I have conquered the world. As the father sent me, so I am sending you.” And he goes on his way to die, and we all know the story though it always surprises.
Seven signs, much teaching, travelling, solitude, community, food, drink, confusion, tension, life, death, resurrection and a promise that nothing is lost, all gathered together at the end; and this Jesus in the midst of it. A quick sketch of the Gospel of John; 45 pages in the translation that I reread yesterday afternoon: words that have fired the souls of countless humans in the last two thousand years. One of four Gospels, all totalling less than 200 pages that comfort, challenge, change, and fire our understanding of who we are and what we’re for.
Which is what? What is it about, why are we here, where’s the payoff? Something that is not easy to understand, not given to simple summary, requiring more of what T. S, Eliot said about prayer:
“You would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report, You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.”
Then and now, Jesus calls us to relationship, friendship, with all the hopes and ambiguities, and soft edges and good intentions that come with any relationship that extends over trials and through time. The words we hear today need to be chewed slowly, gnashed against so many existing and outworn sensibilities, consumed and made part of our daily experience in our daily work and world. For they contain news of a very foreign country many mysteries as well. We forget that life can be this deep, living in a world that gives us so many simple instructions. But the Gospels are not owners-manuals, how-to-books, easy prescriptions or proscriptions. Instead they are a library as large as life itself, larger, and just as mystifying: they must be given room to be taken seriously and they are well worth the struggle. For in any moment all or part of these words, our story, can open the door to see the Lord, taking us to the mountaintop somewhere between the wedding and the cross, where we can seize the opportunity, and receive the gift of eternal nurture and nourishment. It can happen right here; sharing food that opens the door to see the world and our place in it, our ministry in it, anew. Hope that will last, surety that nothing will be lost. Peace that passes understanding. All in the name of Christ.