The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s131g09 Sunday 19 9/8/09
'Jesus .. whose father and mother we know?' John 6.42
John chapter 6 begins with the feeding of the multitude with the boy's five barley loaves and two fish and the walking on water. However these events immediately provoke opposition. And it is opposition that is reflected in each of the other gospel accounts. We are told in Matthew 13: 54-58, Mark 6: 1-6 and Luke 4: 16-30 that those with whom Jesus had worshipped all his life, those who could name his brothers and sisters and knew his parentage were precisely the ones who didn't believe. The locus of Jesus' opposition in John is not named as his hometown, but their knowledge of Jesus' family provides the link and the clue.
So we who call ourselves 'christian' people, those who know the Mother and Father of Jesus, have particular need to be careful quoting our relationship with Jesus. For all our baptism has made us 'children of God, members of Christ and heirs of the kingdom of heaven' (to quote the old catechism) the unified witness of scripture teaches us that this is no guarantee of anything. We too, like those who knew Jesus so intimately of old, can be persons of unbelief and agents of opposition to what Jesus was actually on about.
We can't even stand on the frequency that we come and receive the sacrament of Holy Communion as evidence of our special relationship with Jesus. It doesn't matter.
I once remember a parishioner being moved to say to me that she was a 'special friend' of the previous Rector of the parish. No doubt this 'special friend' status was mutually beneficial.
During this past week I have been attending a clergy conference, where the main agenda item was the bullying of clergy by prominent lay people. Obviously this happens the other way around as well, and I would want to say that lay people have only learned this from the spiritual bullying that happened in some places in the past in the 'hell-fire and damnation' preaching from the pulpit. People have learned that leadership has conferred power over other people and have been keen to obtain this power and exercise it.
Whenever we call people to consider others rather than rule over others, then we confront this exercise of power and there will be a reaction, usually violent. And I have been on the receiving end of such violence, even physically expressed as a female parishioner gave me a gentle but pointed 'hip and shoulder' during a parish fete - saying it was about time I got a haircut!
So if some people think that I have an ever so slight aversion to statements like: 'The Lord is **my** shepherd' and 'What a friend **we** have in Jesus' you are quite right! It is indeed wondrous that Jesus deigns to be incarnated in all and in me, but Jesus is incarnated in **all** as well as in me. The exclusivist attitude can infect all forms of church-person-ship catholic, evangelical, charismatic, right down to congregational level.
We are fortunate that the gospel account today includes verse 35, for this sets in context the opposition to Jesus' words. Verse 35 says: 'Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.' When we come to Jesus we come with and to the multitude of others that Jesus fed and feeds. We can, of course, turn this text around to suggest that the only true followers of Jesus were his twelve disciples and a few women, but the witness of scripture is precisely the opposite. The disciples were the first to try to regulate who Jesus could bless (certainly not the children of the rabble), their lack of understanding (wanting to sit at the left and right hand of Jesus), denial and betrayal.
The only sure ground on which we stand is to do as Jesus says and love those who are different to us. This will mean that the church will not be powerful in the sense of being able to dictate to others what they are to believe or how they should live their lives. We can only encourage others to be themselves and in turn also to encourage others to be themselves too.
For this is the only message that is likely to bring peace to individuals and peace to the society in which we live. It might be like picking up the piece of litter, it won't change the world immediately, but if we don't pick it up we can never expect the world to be a bit more clean and tidy. And there is no point ranting and raving that **others** should do something.
It is also my observation that there is a huge emphasis in 'christian' communities on how we love other people in the community of faith. The modern re-introduction of the greeting of peace within the service is but one example of this. Congregations emphasise that they are friendly and safe places to be, and heaven forbid that they should not be. But this very overt friendliness for those 'inside' can mask a profound aversion for the outsider whether he or she deigns to come to church or not. I remain unconvinced that the introduction of the greeting of peace has lead the 'christian' church to seriously reach out to **others** - we expect **others** to be attracted by osmosis, not by positive openness to others, not by being incarnated into the world like Jesus.
One of the reasons for the explosion in the numbers of people attending Pentecostal churches is not the particulars of doctrine, but the opening of a new church gives people the opportunity to get in on the ground floor. People coming to Anglican churches can only admire the ministry of others and contribute their time and money to its preservation. Going to a new church means that people are able to have their own ministry and make their own contribution that is recognised and valued. Churches have become so much the repository of the ministry and contributions of past generations that nothing new can be added. And nothing is ever so acceptable as what was given in the 'good old days'. But in the end the motivation to rule over others is not dissimilar and if so the outcome will be no better than in the Anglican church.
It is fundamental to our **faith** that we are open to the divine in others yet what part of our creeds, liturgy or proclamation reflects this? It is certainly not the public perception of the church that this is so. I have little doubt that the public perceives our profound deliberations on the nature of the Holy Trinity as an academic variant of knowing saying that we know Jesus' Father and Mother. Those in the world believe that we are a club of likeminded devout individuals, who might as well be playing chess as worshipping God. Indeed the dynamics of some individuals in some congregations suggests that chess playing is a more apt picture of what is going on.
This overt friendliness in a congregation can mask the marginalisation of women and the alienation of gay persons in the name of this 'god'. This is what the public perceive the church is really on about. For the sorts of people who marginalise others, all the blessings in scripture are directed towards themselves and the injunctions in the scriptures are essentially for **others**. For them it would be scandalous to suggest that it was the other way around, just as it was a scandal to some of the devout of Jesus' day. I have had cause to reflect that I would be far more confident committing my sons into the care of some gay teachers (as I have done) than into the care of some 'christians' I have known.
Of course for the bulk of worshippers in all of my past parishes, they were there to worship God and seek to love others in their daily lives. They do recognise the divine in others, for their work in society during the week reflects the love and concern God has for all people. They know that coming to church does not make some people more loving.
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