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s131g12    Sunday 19   12/8/2012

'I am the bread of life'   John 6.35

Recently at worship I joined in singing what used to be one of my favourite hymns: 'Guide me O thou great Redeemer'.   Both the words and the tune 'Cwm Rhondda' are stirring.   The first verse says: 'Guide me, O Thou great Redeemer / Pilgrim through this barren land. / I am weak, but Thou art mighty; / Hold me with Thy powerful hand. / Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven, / Feed me now and evermore; / Feed me and evermore.'   As the last of three sons, I personally have always identified with someone who felt themselves weak!

But the words also betray a perception that 'christianity' is a oppressed minority within a hostile secular environment, and individual 'christians' and the church need God's consistent feeding and strengthening to maintain her integrity and distance from the evils of the world.   To take another example, the Bishop used to say to those intended to be ordained priest: 'We exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you .. be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord's family; to seek for Christ's sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.' (1)

I have been thinking about selfishness.   Traditionally the Church has been unwilling to share this existence with others on equal terms.   You could, and can, take your pick on the particular criterion which determines acceptability.   Male, Caucasian, straight, wealthy, employed or employer in a ‘suitable’ occupation, believer, devout, who calls God by the correct name, believes in a particular set of theological doctrines, doesn’t use contraceptives, who is intimate with only one person of whom we approve, and only when we approve, someone who tithes, who reads the bible, believes in interpreting the bible literally, doesn’t believe in evolution, attends church, isn’t naughty .. the list is endless!   And yet Jesus came and associated with others, the tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners, he shared this existence with all others on equal terms.   And this is why the devout and the orthodox had him killed.

Recently I read a reference to an article Tim Stanley wrote in ‘The Telegraph’: 'Ministers now (have) to convince the public that church attendance is in their personal interest. And conservatives are better at doing this than liberals because the product they are selling makes a stronger claim for its value to the individual.   Think of faith as operating within a highly competitive marketplace of ideas. Faith is no longer a product that people presume they need and are looking to buy (soap or shoes). Instead it has become a luxury item, or something that they have to be convinced that they might want (a sports car or a puppy). What kind of luxury is more likely to sell? Liberal Christianity is wracked with doubt, ducks strong conclusions and often seems to apologise for its own existence. Its liturgy is a confusing blend of styles and belief systems .. What do these people believe, and how is it relevant to me?   By contrast, the conservative Christian product is a zinger. It screams loudly that it is the only way to Heaven, its Protestant services tend to be packed and charismatic, and its theology is straight-forward and uncompromising. In case you think all this business talk is crass, take a look at the way that evangelicalism skillfully pitches itself as a lifestyle. It has become a multi-million dollar industry that offers advice on everything from parenting to drug rehabilitation. Tithing is pushed by some preachers as if it was a pyramid scheme – "You gotta give to receive." This is why conservative congregations grow while liberal ones dwindle. It pays to advertise.'   (2) 

All this is predicated on the assumption that faith is about 'personal interest' and 'value to the individual'.  So it is actually about selfishness, and selfishness is not of God, no matter which name you might use for the divine.   And a world predicated on selfishness, whether material or spiritual, offers the world nothing that is any different.   It is only when we renounce sacred selfishness – evil – that we have anything to offer the world at large.

So, yes, ‘liberal christianity’ has nothing particular or immediate to offer the individual seeker.   It is no recipe for personal wealth, health or happiness.   But neither does conservative christianity!   Some of the most angst-ridden persons I have met are conservative ‘christians’.   One has only to consider the angst amongst some Anglican bishops over the ordination of women and gay and lesbian persons.   Conservative ‘christianity’, not unsurprisingly, thrives among the poor because it is presented as a way out of their poverty, and would that this were true!    No!, the only real hope for society is when we share this existence with all others on equal terms.   It is only this that may bring about a lessening of war and isolation, and the poverty, sickness and sadness that result.  And it can only happen when we, like Jesus, do it.   It won’t come about by talking about it, or thinking it’s a good idea.

So often we hear environmentalists rightly challenging society to consider the sort of ecology we will be bequeathing to our children and grandchildren.   I wonder why we don’t consider trying to bequeath a society where all are invited to share in this existence on equal terms?   Surely this would be the best thing we could do!

Jesus claims to be the bread of life.   Bread is for eating, paths are for walking along, gates are there to be opened.   None of these have much status attached to them.   And the bread of life speaks to me not of my individual morsel but the stuff of which the life that we all share is composed.   It is that which brings growth, strength and healing - and therefore is hardly restricted to the Holy Communion.   Everything that brings growth, strength and healing is of Jesus.  Some people find a source of nurture in nature or art, music, reading, knitting, fixing cars, surfing, meditating, yoga, Tai Chi .. again the list is endless.   Scientists find wonder in observing the universe through microscope and telescope.  Others find meaning in helping to build a supportive and sustainable community, loving families, a healthy environment, a willingness to be interdependent, a willingness to share this existence with all others on equal terms.   This is what will make for a life that we would want to be eternal, not for ourselves alone, but for all future generations.   And we do our bit by following this Jesus, who was incarnated into society, who associated with all, including the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners of his day.



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