This is the sermon I preached this morning at Putney Methodist Church. The set readings were Psalm 84 and John 6:52-69. Sorry that there have not been too many blog posts lately: my colleagues have all been on sabbatical or holiday lately, and it has all been a bit too much at times!
Our readings today come from two very different places within the canon of our Bible. They come from different times – they were written something like 500 to 1,000 years apart. They come from different places – Jerusalem and probably somewhere in Asia Minor. And they come from two very different Biblical genres – a Hebrew hymn of praise for use in the great Temple of Jerusalem (a psalm) and a Greek-style biography of Jesus Christ, written when that Temple had already lain in ruins for decades. In the extracts we have heard today, they also represent two very different responses to the challenges of following the same elusive God.
The psalmist (whomever he may be) speaks of the sincere joy of pilgrims as they crossed the threshold of the great Temple in Jerusalem. We think this psalm would have been sung as part of a festival, perhaps one associated with the harvest in autumn. Those of you who have travelled to Jerusalem know it is a long and dusty climb up to the city and that the ancient Temple, in all its glory, dominated the surrounding valley and city. In Jesus’ time, the pilgrims, we are told, were literally dazzled into near blindness by the blinding white of the marble and the brilliant gold decoration that covered the building, as it caught the dawn’s rays.
This psalm of praise represents in so many ways, therefore, a high point – both literally and metaphorically. After a long and arduous journey, the pilgrims ascending Mount Zion can sing with absolute assurance of their faith and joy in the Lord:
For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
he bestows favour and honour.
No good thing does the Lord withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts,
happy is everyone who trusts in you. (Psalm 84:10-12)
There is no doubt or scepticism here. No fear or confusion. No room for questioning. Even though we are poor and lowly, the pilgrims sing, we would still rather be here, than enjoying all the privileges of wealth and rank in those ungodly tents!
I hope that, at least once in our lives, we have known that same ‘high point’ of faith. A moment when we were absolutely sure of ourselves and our beliefs. A moment when we knew the comforting presence of God. A moment when we could truly say that, “God is in his heaven and all is right with the world”. Perhaps we might think back to our confirmation as such a moment. For me, one such instance would be my ordination, when the presiding minister laid his hands upon my head and I seemed genuinely to feel the Spirit descend upon me. It is those times of which many of our hymns speak: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. O what a foretaste of glory divine!” or “Knowing you, Jesus, knowing you. There is no greater thing,” to name but two examples.
From our own experience, though, we also know that those moments are seemingly the exception and not the rule. Doubt, uncertainty and even envy are perhaps more commoner states of mind. We know this from scripture. A few pages before Psalm 84 in our Bibles, we find a startlingly different confession:
For I was envious of the arrogant;
I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain;
their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not plagued like other people. (Psalm 73:3-5)
This is one reason, I think, why the Psalms are so many Christians’ favourite part of the Bible. They are full of honesty, and we can truly say that all human life is there.
This honesty and doubt are precisely what we find at the end of our reading from John’s gospel. Here, as elsewhere, John provides us with added details, and the benefit of hindsight. Reading some of the other gospels, we could get impression that Jesus conducted some sort of triumphal presidential campaign tour through Galilee and Judea, enjoying uninterrupted success and endless praise. Here, though, we read about the difficulties he faced. Unlike a politician, he wasn’t telling people just what they wanted to hear. Rather, he was telling them the truth about himself, his relationship with God and some rather unpalatable home truths about themselves. The reaction was muted, to say the least:
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ … Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. (John 6: 60, 66)
If the psalm represents an absolute ‘high point’ of faith, then this is the corresponding low point. The reality of doubt and disbelief. Those moments in all our lives when we question what we think we know, and having any sort of faith or belief seems ridiculous. How foolish to believe in something that we cannot touch, or see, or even prove: the existence of God! Like the psalmist, we too see those who commit terrible crimes, or who exploit others, or who lie and cheat for a profession, not only getting away with their misdeeds but flourishing and prospering. The tents of the ungodly seem as attractive as ever, and we can question ourselves, and ask ‘well what is the point of doing right?’, of being kind to others, of going to church?
As followers of Jesus, we need to be clear that such low points are as much a part of every Christian’s journey as the high points. Indeed, numerous Christian writers have been explicit over the millennia: faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin, and one cannot exist without the other. Those who wrote the psalms knew both; the disciples in John’s gospel knew both; and even Christ himself knew both.
It is arguable even that if we have never experienced such moments of doubt nor the temptation to walk away from our faith, then we have not really understood the cost and challenges of discipleship. Those first disciples in John’s disciples who walked away were quite right: this teaching is difficult. The gospel challenges all the basest human instincts we often dare not name yet which still lurk within each heart here: greed, selfishness, envy, prejudice, pride. It is a teaching that calls for a wholehearted commitment to pursuing good, and serving our neighbour, whatever the cost to ourselves. It demands sacrifice and courage, to stand up for what is right and to deny what we know to be wrong. Who can accept it indeed? The wonder for me is not that those members of the crowd walked away from Jesus but that anyone stayed to listen to him at all!
I was thinking about all this on Friday, when I began to write this sermon on the train home from Harrogate, where I’d been for a couple of day’s break. An essential part of all train journeys now seems to be mass confusion about what is happening at any time, and this one was no exception. When I boarded the train, there was something of a mini stampede – I later discovered that (inevitably) a previous train had been cancelled – and as I struggled aboard I was asked repeatedly, “Is this the train to London?” or, “Is this platform 6?”. And then when you are aboard, you can hear people asking each other the same question and other ones: “Does this one stop at Stevenage?”; Is this coach B?”; “Is that MY seat?”. After we pulled away, a rather flustered woman came and sat in the seat opposite me: she was going to Wakefield but this train didn’t stop there, so collectively we had to work out how she was going to change and get there. She also told me about how she had done a similar thing before and got on a train that didn’t stop at her station, and had ended up doing a three-hour detour! It was all terribly complicated, but at least on this occasion the conductor took pity on her and let her stay on the train, and change at Sheffield. All of us, I am sure, have had similar experiences with train travel, involving cancelled trains, rail replacement bus services and the like. Indeed, one of my friends on her way up to Harrogate even had to take a completely different route owing to a ‘tractor on the line’ – a new one to me!
On such journeys, it seems as though there are only two things of which we can be certain: where we have come from, and where we must inevitably end up – however long or short it takes to get there. We know that there will be high points and low points; good moments and bad. There will be unexpected diversions and delays; we may end up travelling on a route we could never have possibly imagined before we set off. Yet those two points – our start and our finish – remain fixed and unchanging. And in between, how do we make sense of our experiences along the way? Where do we find purpose and meaning to the journey of our life? Like the apostles, we are inevitably drawn back to Christ:
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. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ (John 6: 67-69)
We follow in the footsteps of Peter, Andrew, and the rest of the disciples; following the ‘Way’ of Christ – as indeed Christianity was first known. And as we follow, like them, we stumble and fall. We are distracted and lose our path. Like them, we experience those high points of absolute faith and assurance; and those black moments of doubt and despair. Yet, in it all, I hope and pray that we too keep deciding for Christ: keep coming back to the only truth that can make sense of a world that too often seems senseless. Keep coming back to the cornerstones of our faith: our status as a created being, made in the very image of God; the unquestioning love of God, who sent the most precious thing he had in order that we might know the depths of that love; and, perhaps most importantly, the knowledge that there is nowhere we can go, not even the grave, where that love cannot and will not find us. Those are the words of eternal life that Christ offered to Peter and the disciples in John’s gospel, and which he offers to each one of us today. As we face the highs and lows of our life together, brothers and sisters, let us cling on to them this day and evermore. Amen.