Sunday 9th August 2015
Ephesians 4:25-5:2, John 6:35,41-51
May I speak this morning in the name of God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning once again. It is lovely to be back here, worshipping with the saints and my sisters and brothers in Christ in Hadlow.
“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
I am very happy to be proved wrong but I suspect that very few people in this church today have ever experienced real hunger or real thirst. The longest I have ever gone without food is 24 hours on a sponsored fast and, as you can tell, I have not experienced much hunger since. But we are very lucky to be living both in a land of plenty and in a time of plenty. For the vast majority of the world and for the vast majority of human history getting enough food and enough clean water to survive from day to day has been a constant struggle. And we all know, at least in the back of our minds if not the front, that with both climate change and population growth that there is no guarantee that our own blessed position will continue forever. And we also know, in the back of our minds if not the front, that there are people in the world right now who know real hunger and real thirst.
And when you are hungry and thirsty it can become impossible to think about anything else other than satisfying that need. If you have ever been shopping in a supermarket on an empty stomach you will know how easy it is to buy more than you intended because your hunger is making you reach out and grab for calories. And let’s not even mention what may happen if you walk past a pub when feeling thirsty.
Real hunger and real thirst can become an all-consuming experience and those who experience it will also know something of the fragility of human life and even of human civilisation. It is very easy to be civil to one another with full stomachs and full supermarket shelves but having seen footage of people fighting for discounted televisions in a sale it terrifies me to think what would happen if the supermarkets were empty, even for only a few days.
But when Jesus was speaking I have no doubt that he was speaking to people much more accustomed to the realities of both hunger and thirst. And he said something quite remarkable to those people; that those who came to him would never know hunger or thirst again.
That deepest and most all consuming of human needs finds permanent satisfaction not in bread or in water but in Jesus, the bread of life.
And we need to think about our limited experience of real hunger and thirst and try to translate that into spiritual hunger and thirst. That desire for something more, something beyond ourselves, something that hovers just within reach but just out of reach which gives meaning to the whole. Something which completes us as human beings but which makes us more than human beings, something which lifts us into the divine.
Let me suggest that although we don’t know much about physical hunger and thirst that if our society looked within itself there is a gaping hole of spiritual hunger. And like going shopping on an empty stomach those who are spiritually hungry and spiritually thirsty will grab at anything on offer to try and fill that all consuming need – and there is no end of things on offer out there which promises to make us whole, make us happy and make us who we were meant to be.
But it is only by coming to know Jesus as the bread of life that that deep spiritual hunger can ever really be satisfied and we can also know with certainty that we shall be lifted up to God the Father because of Jesus the Son. And we shall look at that a more next week with Jesus’ controversial words about his body and blood.
Having already assumed at the start of this sermon that most people here will have not known true hunger or thirst I am going to make another assumption about you – and that is that most people here would already class themselves as Christians. And therefore you may feel that you don’t need to be told to come to Christ as you are already baptised and practising believers.
And of course there is some truth in that but that was also true of the Christians in Ephesus to whom Paul was writing and yet they, like us, still needed to be reminded of the great calling on their lives and the goal that was set before them.
In the book of Acts we were told that Paul stayed in Ephesus for between two and three years, that he baptised a group of believers and spent that time instructing them in the faith. We also know that whilst Paul was in Ephesus the followers of the goddess Artemis had a great riot because they thought the Christians were trying to put their idol makers out of business. Which rather makes one wonder what, if anything, today’s Christians are doing to upset the idol makers of this world.
Anyway, when Paul left Ephesus there was a very emotional parting between him and the church there, so it is clear that there was a great bond between them, and his letter to the Ephesians is about Paul continuing to guide them as disciples from a distance.
In today’s reading from his letter to the Ephesians Paul is giving to the church there, and thence to us, two great exhortations – one negative and one positive, but both challenging.
The first exhortation is this: that we should stop grieving the Holy Spirit through our actions. Paul’s argument is simple, yet profound. He says that every time we act in way that is not in accordance with being a follower of Christ – when we lie, when we get angry, when we steal, when we gossip or swear, when we give houseroom to any kind of malice or bitterness or rage we grieve the Holy Spirit, with whom we were sealed for the day of redemption.
Grieving is an incredibly strong word. It doesn’t say upset or annoy but grieve. We most commonly associate the word grieve with what we do when someone we love dies – we grieve for them. So Paul is saying that when we act in a way which is not in accordance with our baptism, when we let ourselves down by being less a person than we ought to be, then the Holy Spirit who lives within us because of our baptism grieves for us. Perhaps every time we act in such a way a little bit of the Christian we were made to be dies and that death causes God the Holy Spirit to grieve.
It is easy to characterise God as standing above and beyond us, perhaps marking our behaviour with a tut or a smile but this imagery from Paul is so much more affecting – the God who lives within us grieves for us when we let ourselves be less than we ought to be.
So that is the negative exhortation – do not grieve the Holy Spirit.
And it’s positive counterpart is this: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Be imitators of God. What a calling on our lives that is! Not that we should be nice or inoffensive but that through our lives and our actions we should seek to imitate God.
Now you may ask, not unreasonably, how does one go about imitating God? Well, it doesn’t mean pretending or thinking that you are God, because that is just a short step away from the nice men in white coats coming to visit. And it doesn’t mean seeking to imitate either God the Father or God the Holy Spirit because they are both beyond our ken in that sense. The only way in which we can seek to imitate God is to imitate Jesus, who is God the Son.
When I was going through the selection for ordination process one of my favourite books was called The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis and it was all about the minute by minute, day by day and ultimately the whole life time’s work of how we turn from all that which grieves the Holy Spirit by seeking to become imitators of Christ living a life of love – love towards God and to all those around us who are made in his image.
So if you want to move on in your spiritual journey I would certainly commend Thomas a Kempis to you but, most importantly, I would commend us all to stop grieving the Holy Spirit by living lives unworthy of him and to seek to draw ever closer to Christ who is the bread of life so that we should never be hungry or thirsty again.