28 April 2009

Homily for Tuesday of the Third Week of Easter


Acts 7:51 – 8:1
Portions of Psalm 31
John 6: 30-35

How often throughout human history have people felt more than free to reinterpret God’s own words to suit their purposes? In our own day we see such practices running rampant, but it is important to remember the old adage that I so often use when illustrating points in my homilies: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Yesterday we heard the beginning of Stephen’s prosecution at the hands of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Today, Stephen speaks up and convicts the lot of them of opposing the Holy Spirit; effectively challenging and rewriting the teachings of Scripture to suit their desires. “They were stung to the heart,” records the Book of Acts, but being stung resulted not in repentance and contrition, but in “grinding their teeth in anger” at Stephen. Stephen would go on to witness to his Savior through the blood of martyrdom for his refusal to revise the Gospel to suit the prevailing opinions of powerful people.

And yet, it is not only the powerful whom we must exhibit a consistent witness before. In our Gospel reading today from the sixth chapter of John, we hear the beginning of the heart of the Bread of Life discourse, which finds its roots in response to the request of the people, “Sir, give us this bread always!” Jesus responds to them: “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me shall ever be hungry, no one who believes in me shall thirst again.”

Though we won’t hear it in our setting this week since Friday’s readings will be pre-empted for the Feast of Saints Philip and James, Jesus goes on to tell the multitude that has followed him: “I am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” And then, even more clearly, “Let me solemnly assure you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” This seemed like a pretty nasty idea to at least some of Jesus’ followers. “This sort of talk is hard to endure” they said… their faith suddenly slacking off in the wake of Jesus’ words. “How can anyone take it seriously?” they ask.

For over fifteen hundred years, the vast majority of Christians took Jesus at his word… that he had given his true flesh and blood to us under the forms of bread and wine in the usage of the Lord’s Supper. And yet, in the sixteenth century, a new teaching began to surface. It was impossible, the purveyors of this new teaching claimed, for Christ to be present both on earth in the Eucharist and in heaven at the throne of God. Thus, the Eucharist was just a symbol, and there was no presence of Christ. “Besides,” some of them would argue, “that’s cannibalism… that’s nasty… that’s awful!” What a poverty! The very seal, the means of grace, in which the atoning death of our Lord Jesus Christ is communicated to us becomes a shell for those who would reject the plain words of Christ “This is my body… given for you” and “This is my blood… shed for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus did not give us a symbol, he gave us his Body and Blood. To ignore his clear words in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, and in the various narratives of the Last Supper is tantamount to rejecting all of his work outright, for through the Sacramental means of grace that God pours out on us the grace and strength of his work.

And so we are left to wonder why so many other basic Christian doctrines are being denied today; why groups like the Jesus Seminar can find such an audience. We are so convinced that the Word has no authority that we freely renegotiate what it means. Sadly, this trend began five hundred years ago in the name of restoring the Church to what it once was. But when you attack the power of Baptism and the Eucharist, you must attack the authority and power of Scripture. Thus, if you can redefine the Sacraments, you can redefine the Scriptures which establish those sacraments… and then all hell breaks loose in the Church.

Today’s Church must accept the conviction of rejecting the plain word of Scripture, as was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and then must determine how the sting in the hearts of her leaders is going to affect them: do we recover the primal place of Word and Sacrament, purely preached and ministered, in our congregations and ministries, or do we continue to embrace a Gospel that denies the very basic beliefs and practices of the Christian faith in the name of inclusively and kindness?

Surely it is a question we will not be able to answer for anyone else, but you… what do you believe? How will you choose? Will you embrace God’s Word and Sacraments at face value with faith, or will you reject what Christ has spoken about his own creation and sacraments for the sake of substituting your own belief, one more palatable to you?

Those who refuse to accept Christ at face value, no matter how much they may like elements of his Gospel, will ultimately drift away (regardless of what they call themselves on the door of their building or what kind of clothing they wear). No number of fish stickers on the back of their cars will ever change the fact that when we reject the plain Word of God, we reject God.

May God have mercy on us, and strengthen us to confess the pure Gospel and receive the Sacraments in purity of belief and of heart… and when we falter, when we fear, when we find it impossible to believe, let us cry out to God, “Lord, I want to believe… help my unbelief!”


All original material (C) 2007-2010 by Father Robert Lyons.

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