Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Jesus (Page 1 of 10)

Jesus, Bread of Life – A sermon for Proper 13B

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is John 6:24-35. You can read the text here.

Introduction

One of my most deeply ingrained childhood memories has to do with bread. My mum went to work part-time when I was six or seven years old; before that, she would bake fresh bread every single day. So whether I’d been playing out with friends or was coming home from school, as I opened the door I was always greeted by the same thing: the wonderful aroma of freshly baked bread. Even now, the smell of fresh bread immediately takes me back to the house I lived in as a child, and evokes strong feelings of home, care and provision.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, we lived in France for a few years. On our first Christmas in France, we went out for a walk on the morning of Christmas Day, and were astonished to see the local bakery open, and people queuing out the door to get their fresh bread for the day. To us, this was an unexpected sight because in our experience, shops stayed closed on Christmas Day. But fresh bread is so central to French culture that the idea of not being able to get it on any given day – even Christmas Day – was and is simply inconceivable.

Bread is, of course, a key theme in today’s Gospel reading, which culminates in the first of Jesus’ seven great “I am” statements given to us in John’s Gospel: “I am the bread of life.”

But before we think about what it means that Jesus is the bread of life, let’s take a few moments to review the events leading up to this statement.

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Jesus’ prayer for his disciples – a sermon for Easter 7B

[This post is the transcript of a sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is John 17:6-19. You can read the text here.

Introduction

To tell you the truth, when I saw the text for today’s Gospel, I felt a bit intimidated about preaching from it. Of the four Gospels that we have in our Bible, John’s is easily the most complex; and this particular section of John’s Gospel is arguably the most theologically dense and, in some ways, the most cryptic of all.

So you’ll probably be relieved to know that I’m not even going to attempt to give you any kind of blow-by-blow exposition of the text. What I want to do instead is to give you a bit of context about the text itself – what kind of text it is, and where it fits into the overall gospel story – and then we’ll briefly see whether we can pull out one or two key points from this prayer that Jesus prays for his disciples and explore how they might apply to us today.

Context

So, what kind of text do we have in our Gospel reading today? Well, this passage from John 17 forms part of an extended monologue by Jesus that starts at the beginning of chapter 14 and runs right the way to the end of chapter 17. Scholars refer to this part of John’s Gospel as the Farewell Discourse, and this kind of farewell speech is a well established genre in Jewish literature. So one of the functions of this long discourse is to signal to readers that Jesus is saying his last and most important words to his friends before he moves into what he knows is going to be the final act of this great drama that is his life, death and resurrection.

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How Jesus comes to us – a sermon for Easter 2B

[This post is the transcript of a sermon for the second Sunday of Easter I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is John 20:19-31. You can read the text here.

Introduction

Picture the scene. A week ago, joyous crowds thronged the streets as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, hailed as Israel’s king. Expectations were high: surely this would be the culminating moment when Jesus would finally make his move and go from being a backwoods preacher to restoring Israel’s greatness and visibly ushering in the kingdom! But now, a week later, he’s dead and gone and the disciples are in hiding. Where did it all go wrong?

The state the disciples were in

From our twenty-first century vantage point, we can easily misjudge what the disciples must have been thinking and feeling at this point. Because we know how the story ends, it would be easy for us to assume they were hopeful and full of eager anticipation. But that would be a very misguided assumption.

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Metaphysical Jesus

The farther I proceed on my theological and experiential journey, the more convinced I am that one of the most fundamental mistakes many churches and believers have made is to turn the Jesus of the Gospels into a kind of abstract spiritual persona.

Let me explain.

For many evangelicals in particular, the important thing is to have a “relationship with Jesus”. That might sound very earthy and real, but in practice what it usually amounts to is believing that Jesus somehow lives inside you, having conversations with him, either out loud or in your head, singing to and/or about him with other believers at church and, most importantly of all, believing that he is the Son of God who died to free you from the curse of sin, death and hell. Do all this and you can be assured of your ticket to heaven.

I realise that one might easily conclude from the above paragraph that I am deriding huge and important aspects of Christian practice, namely faith, prayer and worship. However, that’s not my purpose. I’d simply like to ask one question about this approach to Christianity: just who or what is this Jesus with whom one has a relationship?

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The cross: religious self-projection or radical discontinuity?

3832056730_e1775658e2_oMost Christians agree that the central, defining feature of Christianity is the cross. I think it’s fair to say that no other religion has such a universally recognised identifying symbol.

However, when it comes to what we understand the cross to mean, things get more complicated. And what we understand the cross to mean is of huge importance, because it shapes our entire understanding of God and what it means to be a Christian.

If I were to put it to a roomful of Christians that God is most perfectly revealed in the crucified Christ, I’m pretty sure I’d get a lot of hearty amens. But the fact that we could all agree that God is most perfectly revealed in Christ upon the cross emphatically does not mean that we have a shared understanding of the cross or what it tells us about God and our relationship to him.

Let’s try to unpack this a bit by exploring two alternative understandings of the cross.

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What matters at Christmas

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Jesus quite possibly wasn’t born in Bethlehem.

I realise that’s a shocking opener. And when I first came across the idea a few months ago, I was initially quite shocked at the mere suggestion that such a long- and firmly-held tradition might not be true.

Yet you’ll find plenty of credible scholars willing to assert that they do not believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The main argument is that the writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke needed to put Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to cement his royal lineage (Bethlehem is known as the city of David), but that the idea of a census in which people had to travel to their birthplace in order to be registered was completely far-fetched, even in the ancient world. If you want to register people for tax purposes, you register them where they live and work, not where they were born.

It seems entirely plausible, if not likely, then, that Luke dreamed up the idea of a census-required journey simply as a narrative device for getting Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

In fact, when you think about it, the nativity story is full of elements that are impossible to verify and might legitimately be considered fantastic, from Jesus being born in a stable or cave, to an angelic host appearing to shepherds, to magi journeying from the East, to Herod ordering the massacre of every baby boy in Bethlehem under two years of age…

However, the point of this post is not to try to convince you that various elements of the nativity story may not have unfolded as reported in the gospels. It honestly matters little to me whether or not you hold firm to the traditional version of events. For myself, I’m undecided on various aspects of the nativity story.

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What is God like?

5546445579_fce4e05671_oI am generally in agreement with those who say that the most important theological question we can ask ourselves is, “What is God like?”

I think this is a question we humans have been asking ourselves for many thousands of years. And I also think how we answer this question is very much determinative of our general worldview and how we conduct our lives. In other words, it is not simply an abstract, philosophical question: it has a direct bearing on the here and now.

You may have heard the expression, “You are like the God you worship”. I think there’s a lot of truth in this saying. In other words, if you believe in an aggressive, warlike God, you are quite likely to exhibit aggressive, warlike behaviour; conversely, if you believe in a compassionate, peace-loving God, you are quite likely to direct your efforts towards achieving peaceful and non-violent coexistence with your neighbours in this world.

The Old Testament is, in many ways, an argument or debate between those with different answers to the question, “What is God like?” Through the Torah and the historical books, the wisdom writings and the prophets, we find competing images of God: some depict him as a punctilious law-keeper determined to mete out punishment at the slightest offence; some paint him as a warrior God who protects his servants but is merciless to his enemies; yet others portray him as a God of endless compassion and mercy whose patience never runs out.

The question is, which of these depictions of God is right? What is God really like?

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