It is the worshipping life that can transform the world

Peter Seal, 12 August 2018

Ephesians 4: 25–5: 2; John 6: 35, 41–58

This past week three families and an older couple from our parish went on the New Wine Christian holiday. It met at the Bath & West Showground near Shepton Mallet. For two weeks each year this festival welcomes thousands of Christians from across the country, and from many different Christian denominations. It’s a huge gathering of all ages. There’s a wide-ranging programme of events you can attend. The groups for children and young people are especially good.

I visited for the day on Tuesday, arriving just in time for the morning worship. It took place in a huge – and I mean enormous – marquee. There were literally thousands of people there. The worship was in the charismatic evangelical style, characterised by extremely lively, easy-to-sing worship songs, played by a band and at a high volume. You could literally feel the beat of the music through the ground under your feet. People were really caught up in something big, vibrant and entertaining. As someone said afterwards, it was a bit like a pop concert, but without the drugs!

What impressed me most during the day as a whole was that here were thousands of Christians, drawn together because of their faith – people who were really keen to worship God in the name of Jesus. There was a strong feeling of individuals gathered together with a clear, shared conviction. These are people faithfully working out what God wants them to do with the rest of their lives.

The speaker during the morning worship was someone called Jo Saxton. I hadn’t heard of her before. She describes herself as a Nigerian Londoner who now lives in southern California. She works to help church leaders make discipleship and mission the heartbeat of the local church. She was a great speaker. The title of her talk was ‘The wander years: in the wilderness’. She spoke powerfully about how, for all of us, there are times when we feel lost and alone, disappointed and let down, without hope and despondent. What she said felt very real; it resonated with human experience. What I will remember was her message: ‘Whatever happens to you in your life, resist letting your heart become hardened’.

Whatever happens to you in your life, resist letting your heart become hardened.

Listening to the news early this week I heard reporting of what seemed to be very different behaviours from those I experienced at New Wine. I found myself concluding that the views, and writings, of some politicians are a long way from the sort of opinions and behaviours our country needs – that is, if it is to make the best of the agonising challenges of the coming months.

Politicians, it seems to me, have an absolute duty to resist the power of their own egos. Their calling is to commit themselves humbly to the good of all whom they are called to serve. Self-seeking ambition is a deadly enemy. Honesty and integrity are surely the only way.

After the Brexit vote two years ago, many, but I know not all of us, were stunned and disappointed. Someone reminded me the other day that at the time I suggested that, rather than letting our hearts become hardened, we could focus on the little things we can each do each day that make a real difference.

In the spirit of New Wine, let’s hold on tight to our individual discipleship, and to our shared commitment to serving our local communities, in whatever way. Today’s epistle reading expresses it so well:

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another … live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.

And so to today’s gospel from John. Jesus invites everyone to receive the life-giving wisdom that he personifies. Our Lord finds himself speaking here in explicit terms of the cost of his life and work. There is a foreshadowing of the cross – of that place where the Christian family will be born, and where we, the church of our day, are called to live.

Jesus says quite simply, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven’, and goes on to add, ‘Whoever eats this bread will live for ever’, and concludes, ‘and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’.

This was a shocking thing to say then, and it shocks us too. It’s highly unlikely that a single soul in the crowd understood what they were hearing. Possibly one or two of the disciples had some inkling, but the evidence suggests that even they were not prepared to understand.

The people are genuinely puzzled. They ask, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ Jesus’ language becomes even more explicit: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them’.

We know from our perspective what he meant, not because we are wiser, or more understanding, than the people in the crowd then. We understand because two millennia have taught us about the power and the beauty of what we have come to call the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.

The best image I know of what it means to receive the very presence of the Lord at Communion, under the forms of bread and wine, is the picture of a mother feeding her baby at her breast. The baby receives the very life-giving power it needs from the mother’s body.

Jesus the Lord invites us to the banquet. No qualifications, code of dress, or even goodness, are needed. All that is asked is that we have a simple hunger for God.

Jesus the Lord invites us to the banquet. No qualifications, code of dress, or even goodness, are needed. All that is asked is that we have a simple hunger for God.

The fruit of receiving the life-giving power of Jesus in worship is an abundance of wise living. Archbishop William Temple wrote, ‘The Eucharist divorced from life loses reality; life devoid of worship loses direction and power. It is the worshipping life that can transform the world.’

In conclusion, hold on to these words: ‘It is the worshipping life that can transform the world’.