16 September 2009

Proper 21 B - Mystery

Sermon for 23 August 2009

John 6: 56-69

By Sharyn Hall

I am a fan of mystery stories, particularly what you might call the classic British mystery stories of the great detective Sherlock Homes, and the detective characters of author Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Over the years, several actors have portrayed these famous and unusual characters on stage, in movies and in television series. In all cases, these mystery stories involve the terrible crime of murder. When my sons were growing up, they often reminded me that my criticism of the violent killing in some of their computer games was at odds with my fondness for murder mysteries.

I would try to explain that the attraction is the mystery, not the murder. I like the puzzle of the clues, also the setting, the characters and often the psychological insight needed to unravel the mystery. A good mystery writer will be fair to the reader and give sufficient clues, so that when the mystery is solved, the reader exclaims, “Of course, that makes sense.”

As human beings, we generally like things to make sense. We like to unravel mysteries and understand their meaning. When things do not make sense, we are puzzled and sometimes annoyed. We see this happening in today’s gospel story when the disciples say, ”This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” What Jesus was saying to them did not make sense. He said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We believe that Jesus was referring to the mystery of what we call the sacrament of communion.

We associate his words with the consecration of bread and wine. In the prayer of consecration, the celebrating priest repeats the words of Jesus – “This is my body given for you. – This is my blood shed for you.” We do not hear those words as strange, but can we imagine how strange those words sounded to the disciples? The words of Jesus sounded bizarre and a little frightening. When Jesus offered his followers to eat his flesh, not surprisingly, some turned away, perhaps with bewilderment or even alarm.

This kind of language sounded too much like human sacrifice. One of the most disturbing criticisms of Christian communities in the first century was that their worship practices included human sacrifice. The ritual meal of bread and wine was not understood as a symbolic mystery; however, clues to the mystery were given by Jesus in several ways. Over the past three weeks, we have read some of these clues in the gospel of John. Jesus said, ”Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures for eternal life.” “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life…The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

The clue which gives us insight into the mystery of the sacrament of bread and wine is the Spirit. Somehow and in some way, the Spirit of God enables each one of us to live in Jesus and in God by accepting a piece of bread and a sip of wine that has been dedicated to represent the presence of God in Jesus. This is a mystery which scholars, mystics and branches of the Christian faith have attempted to describe and unravel over many centuries. It is an unsolved mystery, which can be welcomed only by faith. If it is accepted by faith, if we welcome the work of God’s Spirit, then consuming the sacrament of bread and wine can strengthen our belief that Jesus brings us closer to God.

Unlike the popular mystery stories, there is no exclamation of understanding that the mystery of the sacrament makes sense. We do not come to an understanding by solving a puzzle, and that is what makes a sacrament a sacrament. The definition of a sacrament is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The outward and visible sign of receiving bread and wine is the inward and spiritual acceptance of the grace of Jesus to bring God into our lives. Our acceptance of Jesus as the one sent by God to abide in us is also our acceptance of the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are baptized into the Christian faith with water as a symbol of the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan, but it was the presence of the Holy Spirit which confirmed the presence of God in the baptism of Jesus. In the sacrament of baptism that we celebrate, we use the symbol of water to remember God’s blessings of creation, salvation and redemption, but it is the Spirit, which conveys God’s blessing of welcome into the community of Christ, a community which often is called the body of Christ. As priests, we enact the ritual, but the mystery and significance of baptism is a gift of God’s Holy Spirit.

Baptism is the beginning of a life in Christ. What does that mean? It means that Jesus abides in us as God abides in Jesus. It means that the Way of Jesus is open for the one who chooses to follow. Our guide for the Way of Jesus is the Spirit. How the Spirit works in the sacrament of baptism, in the sacrament of communion and in the moments of our daily lives will always be a mystery, but the mysterious work of the Spirit is a gift from God to be gratefully accepted and joyfully celebrated.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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