John 6 56-69; Ephesians 6 10-20
Last week, as some of you know, I spent a few days in Scotland visiting a friend. The weather was not that great – who goes to Scotland for the weather – but the company was fantastic and the scenery beautiful as always.
Now obviously we indulged in a little retail therapy and it was while I was having a wander around the local branch of Lidl that I spotted something very simple that took me right back to me childhood – a loaf of bread! But not just any bread – a loaf of plain bread! I think I may have explained in a previous sermon that in Scotland pre-packed sliced loaves commonly only have the top and bottom crusts on them – that’s a plain loaf. A loaf with the crusts all the way round is known as a pan loaf and as this is the same as an English loaf then anyone who speaks a bit posh is often referred to as being a bit pan loaf – and I’m sorry to say this is not a compliment!
Our relationship with bread can be quite complex. For those trying to lose weight it is often seen as a forbidden food. For those with a gluten intolerance it can actually be a dangerous food. But for the majority of the world’s population, it is a staple part of our diet and can mean the difference between hunger and survival.
Today’s Gospel reading is the last of Jesus’s discourses in which he uses the analogy of bread and just like the various arguments about the good of bread in our diet today, this too causes disagreement and division among his followers.
Jesus is explaining that in order to be in relationship with God it is necessary to be in relationship with the Son – you can’t have one without the other.
He reminds those listening that the manna that God sent to their forefathers as they wandered for 40 years in the desert was from heaven and was essential for their physical survival, but the bread that he was offering was of heaven and is essential for our spiritual survival.
But some of his followers didn’t want to hear this – it was too hard and in an echo from verses in Exodus, they grumbled about it. Somethings never change!
And what do we do when we are confronted by things we don’t want to hear, even though we know in our hearts we need to hear them…..we walk away. The temptation to just bury our heads in the sand when faced with things we just don’t want to hear, a bit like a toddler placing their hands over their ears when they don’t get their own way!
Sometimes in times of confrontation we do need to walk away – as Jesus teaches us elsewhere in the Gospels there can be strength in turning the other cheek. But at other times we need to show grace and listen to what is being said, reflect on it and then act accordingly.
In this passage from scripture, those who walk away are not doing so in strength but in weakness, in an unwillingness to accept that following Jesus brings challenges as well as joys. They have forgotten an important point of teaching – that it is not us who choose God, it is God who chooses us – “no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him” says Jesus. It is through the grace of God that He invites us into relationship with Him, not the other way round.
Peter understands this – his words are both poignant and clear. “To whom shall we go? he asks. Peter knows that there is only one true God and that Jesus is of Him “we believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”
Those of you who are familiar with the liturgy used in Celtic Morning Prayer will recognise these words as being part of the declaration of faith that is said during worship.
Peter needs no convincing that the words that Jesus speaks are indeed those of eternal life – Jesus is the answer to the question the Jewish people were asking themselves since the time of Abraham, when will the Messiah come, how will we know? At that moment Peter does know – yet we know that in a relatively short time he will deny this knowledge. His faith is not yet strong enough to withstand what he perceives as a dangerous challenge.
Strength is a very broad concept – it’s not just about physicality, it is just as importantly about emotional strength, about facing the challenges that life throws at us even when they feel like a mountain too high to climb.
Strength in whatever sense of the word requires commitment and dedication. Some people are born with a gift for physical strength but they still need to train hard in order to maintain and improve that strength. I am sure you all know people who always seem to be strong in the face of adversity,
who meet life’s difficulties full on and seem to breeze through them with no effort. But to be able to do so also requires training and hard work.
In our epistle this morning Paul is anxious to encourage his friends in Ephesus to maintain their spiritual strength.
“Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” he writes. Paul knows that it is only through God’s strength that we can hope to be able to fulfil our role in his mission for the world. It is very easy to slip into complacency, especially when things are running smoothly.
It is very easy to begin to believe that it is in our own strength that we achieve things, to forget that without God we are mere shells, unable to achieve the plans he has for us.
Paul is all too aware of the forces of evil that exist, that are intent on disruption and chaos. He is writing to the Ephesians from a prison cell, deprived of his liberty as a result of those forces.
Paul uses the analogy of putting on armour to illustrate all the gifts that God has given us to use throughout our Christian journey – truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, scripture and prayer. These are the foundations of our belief in God – without these we are on rocky ground, our faith may not survive the turbulence of the world around us if we don’t root it in the teachings of Jesus and if we fail to remember that just like it is God who chooses us, it is also Him who gives us the strength to withstand the difficult times. Without God’s strength and grace in our lives we are mere shells, shadows of who he intends us to be.
Paul goes on to remind his friends of the importance of prayer – “pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests”
Prayer is our logistical lifeline. God re-supplies us with everything we need for spiritual battle through prayer.
But for many people prayer can be a real block in their openness to pursuing a relationship with God. When I was a hospital chaplain, the number of people who would ask me “to say one for me” was amazing – and when I suggested that we might pray together they were always very reticent citing that old chestnut “oh I don’t know how to pray” as a reason to step away from the reality of engaging with God in person
Yet prayer is simply a conversation between God and members of his family. Like any conversation, though, we have to be open to it, we have to not only speak but to listen, we have to allow the conversation to take place by giving it time, by respecting it and not allowing distractions to encroach and that can make it feel too difficult.
Maybe we make it too difficult because we don’t really want to do it, we don’t want to have to open our hearts and really let God speak into that place deep within our souls. Thus, we are doing what those followers of Jesus did in John’s Gospel – we are walking away because we fear the consequences of what God may say to us.
Sometimes it’s easier to pray for others than for ourselves, it’s easier to raise the issues that we aren’t so deeply connected to than those that cut into our very core, those that are so very personal that we find them difficult to articulate.
Sometimes it’s good to have others around us, to be able to share those things that lay on our hearts, to ask others to join with us in our prayers.
One of the things I really missed in lockdown was praying with other people
– to do so is incredibly special for me, it feeds my soul and reminds me that I am part of a huge loving and caring family.
Prayer doesn’t have to be at fixed points of the day. Yes, it is good to have some discipline in our prayer lives, committing to pray perhaps for 10 minutes before we get up or before we go to bed but as Paul says pray on all occasions – we can pray anywhere at any time, God is always listening, he hears us whether we’re in church, at home, in the car, on the bus, in the queue at Tesco.
God knows that our prayers are important to us whenever and wherever we lift them to him and because they are important to us they are important to him. It is God that has given us the gift of prayer – all we need to do is accept it with grace and use it whenever we feel moved so to do.
I am reassured by Paul’s request to his friends that they pray for him as well. You’d think that a leader such as Paul would be very self-sufficient in his devotions but Paul has the gift of humility and he is all too aware of his limitations. We all need prayer and we all need to be able to ask for it – there is no issue too small to take to God and there certainly nothing too huge for him to deal with.
The way in which we each pray is unique and we should never worry that we are not doing it correctly or that others are more equipped to do it that we are. God loves each of us as his unique and wonderful creation and our prayers are a reflection of our differences in all their beauty.
I’m going to close with one of my favourite quotes about prayer. It’s from Martin Luther and he says this
“A Christian without prayer is as impossible as a living person without a pulse.”
We all have pulses, we are all living breathing people, let us ensure that our prayer lives have pulses as well, that they feed us and keep us healthy and alive in our faith. Prayer is our bread; it keeps us strong and enables us to do things we might never have thought possible. And it is through prayer that we come to the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, just as Jesus himself promised we would.