Today’s gospel reading picks up where we left off last week, with Jesus saying, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” He then goes on to say, “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever”.
As I mentioned last week, the words Jesus uses are what we would describe now as ‘Eucharistic language’, but we know that with the benefit of two thousand years of theological discussion and interpretation. But imagine if we were hearing these words for the first time, without any explanation or knowledge and understanding of what they really mean. We might well respond in the same way that many of Jesus’ disciples did when they said, “This teaching is difficult to understand”. Those particular disciples found it all a bit too hard to believe, and they made the decision to stop following Jesus.
Now we know that in today’s world, the Christian message can be also difficult for a lot of people to accept. In many respects, the situation in the world today is similar to what it was in the time of Jesus some two thousand years ago.
People today are still trying to make sense of the world they live in. They are trying to find meaning and purpose in their lives, which is probably what people were doing in First Century Palestine as well.
We know, not only from the Bible, but also from the recorded history of many ancient civilisations, that most people (perhaps with the exception of the Jewish people) believed in a number of different gods. These people sought to explain the events of their lives, and the events of nature around them (such as earthquakes, floods, drought and volcanic eruptions), as the direct action in the world of these different gods. They believed there had to be a reason for the things that happened in their lives, and they attributed such things to the gods.
Now of course I’m not suggesting for one moment that people today attribute different happenings and events in their lives and the world to such gods, although perhaps in religions such as Hinduism they may, but I do believe that many people today are still seeking answers to questions that can’t be answered by science or other sources of reasoning. Questions such as: Why am I here, or, what is the meaning of life?
We know that people in the world today, especially in Western societies, place great meaning and value on material objects and possessions. But we also know that there are some people who, despite having every possible material luxury one can think of, are still not satisfied with their lives. It’s as though they have a hole within them that they are seeking to fill, and often such people will turn to different forms of spirituality to try and find meaning and purpose in their lives.
Of course for Christians, God is what fills that hole within them, and what gives them meaning and purpose. As Jesus said in today’s passage from John’s Gospel, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe”.
As I’ve said many times before during various sermons, God was revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and in these verses that I’ve just read for you, Jesus tells his followers that it is the spirit of God, not the flesh or material possession, that is of true value and meaning. But Jesus knew then, as he knows now, that not all people would believe in what he was telling them. He knew that some would struggle to accept his teaching, that they would face an internal struggle or battle to believe, a battle that Paul, in the Letter to the Ephesians, describes as ‘spiritual warfare’.
Even though Paul was extremely successful in establishing many churches, and in converting people to become followers of Jesus, he also experienced great resistance, opposition and outright rejection of his message of the gospel of Jesus Christ that he was proclaiming. Paul saw himself as being involved in a form of warfare. But it wasn’t warfare against human beings, rather it was against the devil and the cosmic powers of evil. And the warfare being described, was the advance or proclamation of the gospel.
So Paul, being like the General preparing his troops for battle against the enemy, exhorted the Ephesians to prepare themselves to “stand firm” against these powers of evil. He encouraged them to protect themselves with the armour of God; and he explained to them what each piece of that armour was. The belt of truth; the breastplate of righteousness; the shield of faith; the helmet of salvation; and the sword of the Spirit, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And now having armed themselves with these necessary defences, Paul encouraged the Ephesians to do one more thing: to pray. To pray always; to pray for the saints; and to pray for him.
It was a Torah–based commandment for Jewish men to pray three times a day, and being a devout Jew, we know that prayer would have played an important part in Paul’s life. We also know that ‘at several points in his letters, he adapted Jewish prayers and liturgies to include Jesus, in recognition that Jesus represented a new way for people to understand and interpret the ancient tradition of the Messiah’.
Our first reading this morning, from the First Book of Kings, showed us that prayer was also important in the life of King Solomon. In today’s passage, after he had finished building the Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon prayed to God that God would heed both Solomon’s prayer, and the prayers of the people of Israel, whenever they prayed either in or towards the Temple. And prayer remains a crucial aspect of Jewish life today, with people in Jerusalem coming to pray at the ‘Wailing Wall’, which is the only remaining section of the wall that was originally erected as part of the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple by Herod the Great.
We too, shouldn’t underestimate the importance of prayer in our own lives, especially when we consider that today we are also engaged in a form of what Paul referred to as ‘spiritual warfare’. If we define that warfare as being the proclamation of the gospel, which it obviously was in Paul’s day, then we would have to concede that the battle needs to be fought just as hard today. In fact, some might argue that it perhaps needs to be fought even harder today, given the increasingly secular nature of our society here in Australia.
The number of people in Australia who identify themselves as Christian continues to decline each year, and we have seen the teaching of Christianity removed from our public schools. With fewer people attending church these days, for a variety of reasons, not least of which has to do with the loss of trust that people have in the Church as an institution, it is becoming more and more difficult for the Church to reach people with its proclamation of the gospel.
By way of reminder, let me read for you now what our own Parish Council agreed last year was the Mission of the Parish of St Andrew’s Aberfeldie: “Loving God; Living our Faith and making the Word of God fully known in the local community.”
Making the Word of God fully known in the local community, requires us to proclaim the gospel. Our Parish Mission Action Plan outlines the strategies that we are employing to do this. So we can say that we are already actively engaged in ‘spiritual warfare’. We are proclaiming the gospel in the face of those powers who would love nothing more than to see Christianity slowly die out. So let us follow the advice that Paul gave to the Ephesians. Let us stand firm, and put on the armour of God to protect us. And let us pray.
In May, the parish took part in the global prayer movement of Thy Kingdom Come, where we prayed with millions of people around the world for others to come to faith in Jesus Christ. We have retained in our church building the Family Tree and Wailing Wall prayer stations that we set up during Thy Kingdom Come. So let us use those to do what Paul would encourage us to do if he were here with us today: to pray always, to pray for the Church, and to pray for ourselves, as we seek to proclaim the Gospel, and make the Word of God fully known in our local community.