August 23, 2015, Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, RCL Year B

JESUS LOSES THE CROWD

A SERMON BY PASTOR CHICO MARTIN

Lections:  Ps 84; Eph 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

The general attitude of an individual and more broadly a society is expressive of an orientation toward thinking and knowledge that we call a world view.  Americans share an empirical belief system and a pragmatic sensibility. The world view expressed in today’s Scripture readings is one we rarely broach outside of church, that is, the supernaturalism that runs through our Christian beliefs.  The hearers of Jesus in John’s gospel are thoroughly challenged to understanding the means of grace, which will become the focus of liturgical worship, and even within the church 2,000 years later, some question the supernatural power of the bread and wine administered at Communion.  Our credulity is further stretched, however, when Paul tells the Ephesians that our everyday struggles to choose between good and evil should be viewed in a cosmic context that locates the significance of our choices in an unseen ‘heavenly’ realm.  “Our struggle,” Paul says, “is against the rulers, authorities, masters, and powers of darkness in the heavens.”  His reference is to the remnant of Satan’s band of fallen angels, former residents of God’s Kingdom who devote themselves to shooting fiery arrows of deception at weak and unprotected persons in the Body of Christ.  There are always evil powers of darkness aiming to infect our hearts and minds with despair, bitterness, shame, resentment, and pride, so that we cannot follow Jesus and do the will of God.  

The heavens these powers operate from ascend from earth in an ordered number, as we know from Paul’s account of the 3rd heaven in 2nd Corinthians. “Whether in the body… or out of the body,” Paul was suddenly snatched up into the third heaven.  Paul identifies this 3rd heaven as Paradise. There is biblical support for considering the first heaven to be the earth’s atmosphere (Deut. 11:11; 1 Kings 8:35; Isa 55:10) and the second interplanetary and interstellar space (Gen 15:5; Ps 8:3; Isa 13:10).  The dwelling place of God (1 Kings 8:30; Ps 33:13-14; Matt 6:9), although in heaven, is not counted among the heavens, although Paradise (Luke 23:43) may be equated with God’s abode if we rely on the Book of Revelation, which places the Tree of Life in Paradise (Rev 2:7, 22:2, 14, 19).[i]

What do we know about heaven?  It is the Kingdom of God, described most prominently in Revelation as a place of incomparable beauty and glory, where angels sing.  We know it is a place without death, sorrow, tears, or pain, where “the former things are passed away” (Rev 21:4).  We know Jesus ascended into heaven and “sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb 8:1) “to appear for us in God’s presence” (9:24).  The word ascended, in the Greek reads, has gone through the heavens (4:14), and Jesus, who is “holy, blameless, pure,” is described as “set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (Heb7:26).

Recognizing the difference between the singular heaven and plural heavens, we are able to consign the conduct of the spiritual warfare that we are always engaged in to the heavens between heaven and earth.  Again, the analogy that comes to mind is of skirmishes between a defeated foe and victorious conqueror.  The Evil One has been defeated, and Jesus has triumphed.  Satan is powerless; he no longer appears in God’s presence, as he did in the story of Job (Job 1:8-2:7), and the Kingdom of God is established here on earth.

This is the central principle of salvation history:  Jesus changed everything.  Before his incarnation, life, and death, human beings were lost.  We were cut off from life by sin, and without hope.  We were unable to avoid evil.  Our lives today and everything that God finds pleasing about us depend upon what Jesus did for us when he descended from heaven, took human birth, and lived among us   We are able to be good rather than evil only because we have grace through faith in Him.  A place has been prepared for us in heaven because Jesus exchanged his righteousness for our sins on the cross at Calvary.

The despair, bitterness, shame, resentment and pride that infect our faith are the antithesis of purity.[ii] Paul uses metaphorical language as he exhorts us to safeguard our salvation; he addresses us as if we were soldiers being put on guard. Jesus was not a soldier, nor were the early Christians, but military imagery was common in the ancient world.  Paul tells us to be ready to resist evil, to stand firm with truth, to live righteous lives, and to keep ourselves planted “in the stability of the Gospel of peace.”  Faith will guard us in all circumstances, for matched against faith, Satan is powerless.  The faithful have salvation “and the sword of the Spirit which is a word of God.”   In the Sacrament of Baptism, we were marked in Christ “with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph 1:13).

This seal, Paul says, enables us to pray to be strengthened in the Lord.  Prayer is a kind of wrestling, for all that we have received; it is our response, “praying every kind of prayer and intercession at every opportunity in the Spirit.”  The Spirit that lives within us, the Comforter Jesus sent to his church on Pentecost, will pray for and with us, indeed, is at every moment praying for and with us.  This is why “we are vigilant with all perseverance.”  As the Spirit prays, we are told to intercede “on behalf of all the saints.”  Commenting on this verse, John Wesley says we are to 1) repeat and urge our prayer, as Christ did in the Garden; 2) inwardly attend on God, “to know His will, gain power to do it, and attain to the blessings we desire, and 3) continue “to the end in this holy exercise that others may do all the will of God and be steadfast.”[iii]

Paul leaves no doubt that our intercessions are urgently needed.  There are all sorts of prayers and ways of praying, and Paul says to pray “all kinds of prayers and requests.”  Then he says, “be alert, and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” These are not prayers for the world, but for the saints:  prayers for our brothers and sisters in Christ, that we may be steadfast in our faith and avoid the schemes of darkness.  Surely we have all experienced firsthand what it means to turn our backs to Jesus; the demands of discipleship can seem overwhelming, and when we give in to the urge to set them aside, are we not joining in with the crowd that Jesus has been addressing in the synagogue in Capernaum?  We need to be called back.

Today we witness Jesus as he loses the crowd.  He has scandalized it with his teaching about his flesh and blood, and He has offended it with his claims to be greater than Moses.  He has regarded the crowd as his disciples, and now he hears his disciples disparage his teachings.  “Who can listen to this,” they grumble, but Jesus doesn’t back off.  “If you find what I’ve just said to be offensive,” he asks, “what are you going to do when you see me ascend back where I was before?”

Truth is not something we encounter unaided in the world.  Our skin and bones, our hearts and minds, are mutations of the uncorrupt form God created in His image.  Because we have tarnished that image, we no longer work in the way we were designed to work, and consequently, on our own, we cannot distinguish truth from falsehood.  The one leads to life, and the other to death, but when we let down our guard, we accept death as part of the natural order of things and proliferate its many guises. We spread the Infections to which we are vulnerable.  Our self-destruction would take out all of creation had God not come, from His abode outside of this world, and spoke the truth.  The words God speaks to us are spirit; they are life. And when Jesus sees he has lost the crowd, as he watches his disciples pack up and head for home, his heart surely breaks. To the twelve that remain with him, Jesus says, “This is why I have told you: no one can come to me unless it is given to him by the Father to do so.” And then he asks, “Do you want to go away also?”  Peter answers without guile: “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.”  Even when our understanding is challenged, we can experience belief, like the brilliance of a sun-lit sky.

Christian teachings challenge the person; considered in their entirety, as a whole, they are marvelously beautiful, and the logic that relates their parts transforms practical concern into supernatural experience.  One aspect of this experience is its language:  grace, redemption, and salvation.  This is a language that is no less difficult to grasp today than during the lifetime of Jesus.  It is a living language that the world, because it cannot hear, because it will not listen, thinks of as dead.  But we know better, for we have an assurance that rests on Christ. We have confidence that our hearts can be fixed on the joys found in God, and we have come to love what He commands and desire what He promises.

Jesus would continue during his ministry to meet with resistance and rejection.  His triumphant entry into Jerusalem was overturned by the end of the week.  Judas would betray him and Peter would disappoint him.  The crowd would mock him.  We are to turn our back to the crowd.  We are to walk with Jesus, in sorrow and in joy.

When we pray for the church, we pray for those who are in the faith to be here now in the faith, as children of God.  And we recognize that the obstacles the Lord’s people confront are not other people but forces of evil operating remotely from the heavens.  Thankfully, these forces are powerless against the strength of the Lord, and in our prayers, we are strengthened by the Lord, who “will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you” (Isa. 26:3).

The Gospel of Christ, as Paul writes to the Ephesians, is a Gospel of Peace.  Peace is the basis of the church’s readiness, for peace comes from a place of strength.  The world distorts this truth.  In the world, we are made strong by our efforts; in Christ, we are strengthened by God.  Peace is the calm place in our hearts where we gather strength in the midst of crisis, pain, sorrow, and death.  Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (Jn 14.27).  When we love God, when we delight in his will and walk in his way, we know perfect peace and joy.  We are one church, gathered in the unity of the one body, interceding on behalf of each other, and worshipping the one true God, whose will for us we embrace as our will for ourselves.  Amen.

[i] John Macarthur, Commentary on 2nd Corinthians, posted on Grace To You (gty.org)

[ii] Barbee and Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, 105.

[iii] How to Pray:  The Best of John Wesley on Prayer

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