Readings: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, Ephesians 4:1-6, John 6:24-35
Let us pray:
May our hearts and minds be open to your word O God in Jesus name. Amen.
Its been an brain overload week for me – some of you might say fair enough when I’ve had a weekend off! Or maybe I should call it an inspiration overload. From going to lectures by William Willamon, to beginning our August study series on Wednesday night, to reading a truly inspiring book to talking faith with old friends, it’s been hectic. Small wonder then that on Friday afternoon, ie sermon time there were just so many thoughts and words clamouring to be heard in my head. Add in the fact that it is Peace Sunday - and there are some really powerful bible readings set down for today – and I was truly at a loss as to where to start.
So I didn’t – I stopped instead. I prayed, I sat quiet, sought a place of peace you might say – and then things began to sort themselves.
I realised that one phrase of visiting Thomas Burns lecturer, William Willimon, was playing itself over and over in my head – and that was that we are people of the word – that Christianity, more than any other faith, uses the word to find the truth of God. He tells the story of being asked to help some students create a ‘garden of spirituality’ – a place where people can come and sit in solitude and peace and find God – and he realised that it was really outside his experience as a Methodist minister, that his faith was not primarily about an inner private spiritual awakening but rather was focussed and grown in hearing, discussing, discerning the truth through story and word. And that word is ultimately and completely revealed in the person of Jesus Christ whom we know as the word made flesh, God among us. So, says Willimon, it is in teaching and preaching and discussing and questioning in community that we find ourselves discerning what it means to be a people of God here in this place. Faith comes through hearing, he posits, and doesn’t just surface up in the power of the spirit by sitting in isolation no matter how beautiful the spiritual garden you have found for yourself. Now this is not to suggest that meditation, silent contemplative time with God is not absolutely crucial to our faith but it is not enough by itself. And to know the truth of that we only have to look to Christ and how he sought to bring people to a richer and deeper understanding of his Father. He used words as he taught, preached, debated. But he used them in a very distinct way – he didn’t so much speak out precise instruction, exact rules for living so much as he told stories, used metaphors, offered multiple perspectives and challenging scenarios. Why was that - when it is just so much easier for us to follow instructions for right living? Maybe because Jesus was aware that words alone, without the story, can easily trip us up. Firstly they can become confined in meaning, either by time, our varying perspectives or our culture, persuaded into new meanings completely detached from the original intent. They can also be forgotten – stories are so much more easily remembered- and they usually remain distant concepts of rule rather than something that we can easily connect our lives with. But when you hear a story you not only tend to remember it better but you also are invited to step into that story and find our own place in it, we are encouraged to find the ‘truth’ of the story for ourselves and our community. Stories, metaphor, unexpected twists encourage our involvement and invite us to see Christ in the daily life and ordinary time that is both then and now. Without the stories I suspect we often lose Christ from the teachings Let me illustrate the difference. On Wednesday night we were discussing how each of us understands the word discipline within the church – for a number of us the word immediately was associated with punishment, retribution, for others it meant being as good as you could be in the field you were working in, for others it meant setting boundaries of care as in bringing up children. The point is that without telling stories and discussing and questioning and always, always anchoring it all in the life of Christ, we can either go well astray from or severely limit our understanding of how it is that God calls us to be as Christ followers - when it comes to the concept of discipline or any other word we might try to live by. It was interesting that it was in telling the stories we had to offer of our own experiences that the complexities and nuances of what discipline might mean in a church and Christian setting began to emerge.
Might I suggest that it can be the same as the word peace. For many peace is the absence of violence rather than a way of life. When we talk of the peace of Christ how easy it is to translate those words into a peaceful lifestyle, a goal of serenity or inward calm, when in fact, in the life of Christ, we are offered anything but. Peace is not about moving away, disassociating from violence but rather of embracing a way of life where all that hurts and harms is actively challenged. If you want that zone free kind of peace – try a desert island – if you want to experience and share the peace of Christ go live a life like he did, that challenges, not avoids violence and conflicts with all that is evil in this world.
So we should be suspicious of words that are isolated from their context and their intention but actually stories aren’t all they are cracked up to be either – there is a danger here too – and King David illustrated it superbly in his response to Nathan’s story of the lamb taken from the poor man by the one who had plenty - David was rightly angry at the story – but he didn’t see himself in it. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’ But he didn’t see it coming when Nathan said to him, ‘You are the man! Ouch it hurts when you realise the person in the story, the person who show up in a less than nice light, turns out to be you.
So if we keep ourselves outside the stories, confine them to other time or other people or other circumstances then we miss the teaching altogether. When we hear the stories and parables of Christ we need to do more that see them just as a ‘good’ story detached from ourselves – and think instead of what they are saying to us here and now as we seek to live as Christ’s in this world.
So it seems to me, that whether the teaching of Christ is from words or stories, rules or metaphors there exists the option for us to keep them a little at arm’s length, contained, misinterpreted, detached in some way. How do we recover the fullness of meaning of Christ’s teachings – how do we keep Christ at the centre - of our understandings and faith and lives? Perhaps we need the reminder of Jesus’ words - I am the bread of life – listen to me, know me and believe in me – and you will never again be hungry or thirsty. If we believe that Christ is the embodiment of the living God and we choose to live in the light of that Word, then the teachings and stories will continue to guide and empower us, feed and nourish us in truth and light. Thanks be to God.