Sunday 26th August 2018

Psalm 84

John 6:59-69

The Rev’d Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

On a Monday morning, once a month, at 10am, a group of us gather to spend time exploring the readings for the following Sunday. We say that we are “Meeting God on Mondays”. And then in Lent and September at the same time we meet weekly to explore a book, as we will do this September, or a film or perhaps, even, a work of religious art. This Monday we gathered to spend time with two of the readings we heard this morning – Psalm 84 and our gospel reading from Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to St John. It is a great blessing to spend time with scripture with a group of others who hope to find some insight into the ways of God and the ways of human beings. To find some insight into what it is to follow Christ and how we may best do that in our lives. To share some of the struggles of a human life and of the world in which we live. To share some of the joys. To hear God’s voice through scripture and the thoughts of a spiritual guide such as the Jesuit guide we use in our group. And to hear God’s voice through the company and thoughts of one another. To wonder together about Jesus’ teachings, as the disciples are wondering in this morning’s gospel reading, to perhaps say to one another, as those disciples said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”In our cathedral community we have a number of such gatherings – in the EFM course, the Pilgrim course and when we gather adults and children to help them prepare for Confirmation or Admission to Holy Communion as will happen in the 10.30am service this morning.

Such a gathering is a special blessing for the preacher! And so the thoughts I share with you this morning about Psalm 84 and the Gospel reading are really the gathered thoughts from last Monday’s group.

For the last number of weeks on Sunday mornings we have been reading from the 6th Chapter of John’s Gospel, a gospel which is all about bread. This morning we read the final verses of that Chapter. Jesus has been teaching a crowd at the synagogue in Capernaum and they are struggling with what he has been telling them. When many of his disciples hear Jesus’ teaching, they say, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’

Jesus has fed a large crowd with bread and fish offered by a small boy. Jesus takes the loaves and the fish and after giving thanks he distributes them to the crowd. Jesus sees the hunger of the crowd and feeds them generously. Later the crowd come searching for Jesus but he quickly points out to them that they do not understand what has happened. They are looking for him because he fed them; they have not realised who he is, that this feeding is a miracle, a sign as John’s Gospel puts it, sent by God. The crowd, ironically, ask him for a sign, further showing their failure to know this Jesus who is standing before them. Then Jesus speaks the words that we know so well. “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” And then he speaks on exploring what it means for them to be fed by him. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ He says. In a long and complex dialogue Jesus weaves images of the Jewish faith, bread and blood,  and the story of the feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness, trying to help his hearers understand that by feeding on him, whatever that means, they will be enabled to live in him, abide in him, and in that abiding, have eternal life. Little wonder the disciples say to Jesus, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says to the disciples and to us. We are very familiar with these words, but are they for us, as they were for the disciples, difficult to understand? Jesus continues, trying to explain to the disciples, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” He knows that he is speaking a language, the spirit language that they do not understand. He knows that they, still, only really understand that they have been physically fed with bread and fish. Yet he says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”

Baffled by Jesus’ words, many who have been listening go away. And then Jesus, poignantly, asks the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answers him, in what one of our discussion group called ‘one of Peter’s golden moments’, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’

‘Lord, to whom can we go?’

Psalm 84 seems to express, similarly, the deep need of human beings for God.

How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord God of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing to enter the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

The first part of the psalm we read this morning seems to speak of human beings, the second part speaks of God. The scriptures deal, really, with these two things. Who is God and who are we, human beings created by God. These are the two deep themes of scripture, of liturgy, of sermon, of prayer. Who is God? Who are we? And not just human beings but “all things” as the scriptures sometimes puts it, “all things”, all creation, made by God, all things redeemed by God.

The psalm begins with the one who speaks it expressing the longing to be in the house of God, God’s dwelling place, the courts of the Lord, the temple, the church, or, perhaps, our cathedral. Do we long to be here? On a Sunday morning does something in us know that we need to be here? That life is found here?

The sparrow has found her a home and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young, even your altar, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.

The psalm jumps into using images from nature. The house of God is compared with the most fundamental need of a mother bird, a nest where she may lay her young, a home. The Jesuit way of praying, that many from our discussion group love, uses the imagination to glimpse the presence of God. Imagine a bird making their nest, feeding their young there. Imagine this home. Can we feel the safety of the nest, can we feel that the house of God, this cathedral, perhaps, is in a deep way, our home? My favourite verses from this psalm are those that follow, the fifth and sixth.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. Who, going through the valley of dryness, find there a spring from which to drink: until the autumn rain shall clothe it with blessings.

These verses speak of troubled times, the valley of dryness, the times when God seems far away. The times when we might, turn our backs and walk away. When we might give up on God.  Many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.  So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ No unlike the psalmist who says that going through the valley of dryness, we will find there a spring from which to drink: until the autumn rain shall clothe us with blessings.

After all, as Jesus say, it is the spirit that gives life. The spirit that we know when we meet together in God’s dwelling place to hear the word of God, to pray together, and to reach out our hands for the body of Christ, the bread of heaven, the source of eternal life.