Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 22 August 2021.
• First Reading: Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18 (Now fear the Lord and serve Him with all faithfulness)
• Psalm 34: 15-22
• Epistle: Ephesians 6: 10-20 (Put on the full armour of God)
• Gospel: John 6: 56-69 (No one can come to Him unless the Father has enabled them)
Them and us. Our people and the others. The village and the hill or the bridge or whatever. North or south of the river. People who like classical music and those who like more popular settings. The comic or the unillustrated text.
And so it goes on – the desire to distinguish ‘our’ folk from the others, especially those who speak and think differently.
This desire to find a sub-group in society, especially in a large and mixed population in a large territory must be as old as the first cave dwellers defending their cave and watering place from incomers.
But then there are more developed forms of separation – the forms of snobbery, both the original kind and its inversion – and the sense that our views are superior to anyone else’s.
It is easy then to appeal for a kind of universal identity, as citizens of the world and the global community. We certainly have a global economy, worldwide communications and cultural expressions that cross the deserts, the mountains and the seas of the world.
But then there is that lesson from the Book of Joshua when the tribes of Israel had taken the promised land and were settling into it. They were meeting their neighbours with their offers of trade and the allurements of their different customs and religions.
Joshua summoned the tribes of Israel as he neared the end of his days and challenged them to remain faithful to the Lord who had brought them out of Egypt and into this fair and broad land.
Who would they serve? Which overriding religious deity would they follow and follow exclusively? To whom would they commit themselves in their generation?
And so with the memories of the entry to the land being fresh and with the stories of the Exodus also being told and re-told the people were ready to commit themselves to the Lord and none other.
They would of course have to teach it to their children who may be more aware of the lure of the cities of the Philistines and of Lebanon but that would be another story.
And then in the gospel we have the picture of a rather diminished Jesus as His teaching became too challenging for many who then left Him.
They had seen His miracles and heard His teaching but the demand to be wholly one with Him in the sharing of His body and blood was just too much. There is an incredible sadness in the gospel as He turned to His own disciples and asked them: ‘Do you want to leave too?’
There is here a vulnerability in Jesus that we rarely see, but the passage is tinged with a great pathos. Jesus was not going to soften His teaching – there would be no refinement or cultural amendment. No ‘clarification’. His teaching was there and the people would have to accept or reject it – there was no room for argument or debate or negotiation.
But there is also something extremely warming about Peter’s reply: ‘Lord, to whom can we go?’
There is nobody else who teaches and leads and provides the personal example that You do. The disciples had been close to Jesus for all this time and they could not turn back on what they knew to be true.
Of all the alternative doctrines and visions offered down the course of history, there is none to match that of Jesus, and we can say this with even more conviction than Peter for we have the knowledge of the subsequent passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. We have the scriptures and the teaching and the sacraments of the church.
If Peter was able to say to Jesus, ‘Who else is there?’ then this applies to us even the more so.
It has now become fashionable to have abandoned the faith and to be a lapsed protestant or catholic or whatever.
It offers a veneer of sophistication, of having seen a ‘greater’ light. It allows those who have abandoned it to enjoy making all their accusations and to enjoy a kind of respectability.
But writing to the church in Ephesus, Paul writes of a spiritual warfare, in which the believer is opposed and undermined by forcers that are spiritual, and being opposed to them are also opposed to Jesus Himself.
They will not come to us as horned demons, or club-wielding hordes of rioters but rather with subtle and even amusing arguments against our faith. They will want us to doubt and perhaps to use our Sunday mornings differently – especially as there are so many other attractive possibilities.
This subtle persuasion will want us to doubt our salvation and to fill us with guilt. Love will be changed into affection and self-interest, maybe personal convenience. Everything that we hold dear will be devalued, undermined, stripped of honour and beauty.
And yes, the scriptures, the sacraments and the fellowship of believers will be undermined most of all.
But we are not fighting against flesh and blood. We are not having to attack strongholds, or march victorious armies into foreign lands.
No. Paul’s teaching is different for we are there to hold the land that has already been won for us by Jesus. Our task is to stand.
When Jesus appointed Peter to be the leader of His church, He said that the gates of hell would not be able to prevail against him.
The point in this is not that Peter was going to have to withstand the forces of hell – it is that the gates of hell would fail, not in imprisoning Peter but in resisting His authority.
In other words, they would fail – not in keeping Peter in, but in keeping him out.
Jesus has already won the battle. Our task is only to stand.
It reminds me of a line in the stories of Richard Cornwell about the Napoleonic hero Richard Sharp:
‘We know that you can fire three rounds a minute. The question is: can you stand?’