Trinity XI at Westminster

23 August 2009

This is intolerable language.  How can anyone accept it?  (John 6:60, JB)

Intolerable Language: we hear an echo in what has been around these last few days:  Mr al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion, but compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as people, no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated. said Kenny Macgaskill, Justice Secretary in Scotland. For these reasons alone it is my decision that Mr al-Megrahi be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die.’-  Outrage, intolerable  language.  Why should we the Scottish public or anyone else show him compassion?  Compassion for a bomber? We cannot give it.  This is intolerable.  AND: then such as  Hilary Clinton should keep her nose out.   There seems a certain amazing synchronicity, whatever the rights and wrongs of the Megrahi case, that the Collect for this week speaks of God’s almighty power  being chiefly shown in the exercise of mercy and pity. 

But to return to the text. Intolerable language?  We are brought today to the end of the long Chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel with which we have journeyed for some weeks. We were reminded last week by Canon Bob that the words we have heard are more likely to be those of the Early Church than of Jesus himself, but that does nothing to lessen the sense that today we are invited to decide once again on our response to the extraordinary claims that are being made. In the OT Lesson the Hebrews had to make a decision about their allegiance to the God revealed to them. And we here are  faced with a call to a new response to Jesus and Jesus’ claims.

This intolerable language (not like complaints about swearing on the BBC) faces us with a similar need to choose.  It seems true to experience that some people were so outraged that they  left the company of Jesus , a bit like some today who complain about our Archbishop’s seeking compassion and justice for persecuted minorities in society. ‘And,’ says Jesus to the Twelve, ‘are you going off too.?’  Peter magnificently generous and impulsive replies (for all of us too, I ask myself?). ‘Where would we go.  You alone have the words, the whole secret of that quality of life which is called ETERNAL.’

What were these intolerable words?  If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you. ..Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life.’  What a claim and in what mysterious and quite off-putting, intolerable? language. 

Some years ago in response to an appeal in the pew sheet of our church in Melbourne, I volunteered  to take two classes of 7 and 8 year olds  for RE in a State Primary School. Having taught O and A Level students  in UK I realised this was a different challenge.  Before I began I told myself that if the heart of our Faith was not accessible  at their level to these children it was not Good News, it was too complicated. We had lots of fun. In thinking about the words of Jesus today I asked myself  how would I have shared them with my little Melburnians.  Perhaps   we could speak of picture  language ?  For Jews flesh and blood a way of speaking of a whole human person?  Would it go something like this: Be nourished by me, draw life from my life. As I draw life from my Father so you can draw life from me. MY Life in you.. 

Which brings us to the word abide an important word/concept in John’s Gospel.  ‘If you eat my flesh and drink my blood you abide in me and I in you.’  This abiding word runs through Chapter 15 with the imagery of the vine ad branches, and here  too..: ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in them.’   What image might help us  here? I might have used a magnifying glass in the hot Australian sun, or even a bit of ordinary glass dropped in the bush where it could cause a bush fire; anyway glasses  in which the sun’s rays and heat are powerfully concentrated.  The fire is kindled by nothing we do but by sunlight falling on the burning glass.  So, as one of our Anglican Divines wrote many years ago (my colleagues here are too young to remember!) the mystery of this intolerable language is ‘Jesus Christ entering us, Jesus Christ under the skin, the sacrifice of Jesus and his resurrection spreading and fulfilling themselves in us.’ This union with Christ has consequences for us, our life styles, our relationships, our behaviour and commitment to global issues.

If this seems all too complicated we need to remind ourselves that this is not achieved by our own frantic effort but by openness to it as gift, allowing it to happen.  The Epistle from Ephesians tells us that all that is needed  is provided and we are urged to pray on every possible occasion.  But again  it is not a matter of screwing ourselves up to it.  There is a lovely saying, ‘I am thy prayer and all thy prayer is said if thou but look at Me.’

These claims that  we hear in the Gospel today, this call to prayer could be expressed in the ancient prayer, The Anima Christi which begins Soul of Christ sanctify me. It encapsulates much of the truths which the  so called intolerable language has spoken..  But in view of all that the passage from John 6 sets before us we might find the modern version  speaks to us.  Here it is:  

Jesus, may all that is you flow into me.

May your body and blood be my food and drink.

May your passion and death be my strength and life.

Jesus, with you by my side enough has been given.

May the shelter I seek be the shadow of your cross.

Let me not run from your love which you offer,

But hold me safe from the forces of evil.

On each of my dyings shed your light and your love.

Keep calling to me until that day comes,

When with your saints, I may praise you forever.