02 August 2009

Are Word and Sacrament enough for the Church?

Food and Water are provided by God to the Israelites during the Exodus ... Dieric Bouts (1410-1475)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 2 August 2009: The Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin: 11 a.m., The Cathedral Eucharist


Blessed are you, O Lord, and blessed are those who observe and keep your law: Help us to seek you with our whole heart, to delight in your commandments and to walk in the glorious liberty given us by your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78: 23-29; Ephesians 4: 1-16; John 6: 24-35

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we follow the multitude after they have been fed by Christ, a Gospel story that we heard last Sunday. The crowds get into the boats, and the people follow Christ from Tiberias to Capernaum on the other side of the lake.

The symbolism of the boat would not have been missed on those who heard this story for the first time in the Early Church: the boat was often used as a symbol of the Church, the community of faith.

And these people, having embarked on a journey of searching that ought to lead to faith, having been fed physically, are now looking for something more. The want to have their deeper, inner needs fed.

The symbolism of Capernaum would also have been obvious in the Early Church. This town had at one stage been the home of Jesus. And so these people were leaving their own homes and going home truly to be in the family of God.

Going to the other side is also like turning around, finding a new sense of direction, being converted, setting out with a new set of priorities.

These are people who are hungry. Having already been fed by Jesus, they are now hungry for spiritual feeding and knowledge, and instead are challenged to accept the offer of new life. All that Jesus asks them to do is to believe in God the Father who has sent him. And they can accept Christ in a number of ways.

1, Firstly, Christ offers himself to them, and to us, he makes himself present, in the words he speaks.

The Word of God has become flesh, and his arrival is the Good News that we know as the Gospel.

2, Secondly, he offers himself to them, and to us, sacramentally. Christ is present when he feeds them and us in the Eucharist, symbolised by the feeding of the multitude and the desire of the crowd now to be fed again.

This sacramental presence is found throughout Saint John’s Gospel:

● For example, as you will recall, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well that he is the Water of Life.

● The waters of the lake that the people pass over not only recall the Exodus story of passing through the waters of the Red Sea from slavery to freedom, but symbolise too the waters of baptism that incorporate us into the body of Christ, that makes the many one.

● And, at the wedding feast of Cana, there is an interplay between the sacramental symbolism and significance of the water of baptism and the wine of the Eucharist.

3, But, thirdly, Jesus also makes himself present to us when we become his disciples truly, when the people who have been baptised into and incorporated into the Body of Christ at baptism become his disciples by living out our faith in discipleship.

It is not just enough to believe – that belief must find expression in how we live as Christians.

If we believe and accept Christ’s promise that the “bread of God … that … comes down from heaven … gives life to the world” (John 6: 33), then how do we show that? How do we give practical expression to that? How do we show as those who have been baptised and invited to the Eucharistic banquet that those who are invited to come to him, that the whole world which is invited into the Kingdom of God, “will never be hungry, and … will never be thirsty.”

Would it make any difference if the world was truly called into the kingdom? If we believe that it would make, literally, a world of difference, then how do we show it? Or would things just go on as they are going on?

For a long time, a major part of the Church emphasised the Sacraments and Scripture as the bare essentials of the Church.

For example, the Augsburg Confession (1530), historically the most important confession of faith in the Lutheran tradition, describes the Church as “the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered …” (Article 7).

A generation later, the 39 Articles, which have been part of the Anglican tradition since 1563, told us that the “visible Church of Christ” is found where “the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered … ” (Article 19).

But was that enough?

Obviously not, in the German experience. The definition of the Church provided by the Augsburg Confession proved a challenge in the 1930s for great theologians such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. All around them, they saw churches that claimed they were truly Christian because they preached the Gospel from the pulpit, continued to baptise new members, and celebrated the Eucharist. But they failed to challenge and often times even accepted the monstrosities and the evils of Nazism.

And so Barth, Bonhoeffer and their friends drew up the Barmen Confession and formed the Confessing Church.

It is not enough to preach the Gospel and to celebrate the Sacraments. We must also invite the baptised people who listen to our preaching Sunday after Sunday, and who gather around the altar for the Eucharist every Sunday, to be true disciples of Christ, to take up his cross and to follow him.

Word and sacrament must go together with true service to the world.

As the Church we seek not new members, but new disciples.

There was no point in the people crossing the water from Tiberias to Capernaum, there was no point in them asking to continue to be fed on the bread that Christ offers, there was no point in them listening to what Christ had to tell them, unless they believed in it all to the point of putting it into practice.

Jesus Christ is the bread of life and the life of the world, and we must see that bread not as some arcane, insiders-only rite. We must also offer the life that he offers us to the world.

Would it make any difference if the Church not only preached what it believes, but worked actively to see these beliefs put into practice?

Our response to the love we receive from God – a risky outpouring that is beyond all human understanding of generosity – can only be to love. In our Epistle reading this morning, the Apostle Paul begs us to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, bearing with one another in love.

That call to love is not just to love those who are easy to love. It is a call to love those who are difficult to love too, to love all in the world … and to love beyond words.

Jerome tells the well-loved story that the author of this morning’s Gospel reading, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint John the Divine, continued preaching even when he was in his 90s.

But he was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher.

And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on every occasion and say simply: “Little children, love one another.”

This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his death-bed. Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him out again.

Every week, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?”

And John replied: “Because it is enough.”

If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.”

If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one: “Little children, love one another.”

As far as John is concerned, if you have put your trust in Jesus, if you want to follow him, if you want to be incorporated into the Community of the Baptised and of those who share in the Eucharist, then there is only one other thing you need to know. So week after week, he would remind them, over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”

That is all he preached in Ephesus, week after week. And that is precisely the message he keeps on repeating in his first letter (I John), over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”

Love one another. God loves us. We ought to – no, we must – love one another, and we must show that love to the world.

And so, my sisters and brothers, that’s what it’s all about. That’s enough. “Little children, love one another … because it truly is enough.”

And now, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Post Communion Prayer

Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands that holy things have taken; may the ears which have heard your word be deaf to clamour and dispute; may the tongues which have sung your praise be free from deceit; may the eyes which have seen the tokens of your love shine with the light of hope; and may the bodies which have been fed with your body be refreshed with the fullness of your life; glory to you for ever. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday 2 August 2009.

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