Rev John Howard, United Methodist Church Great Britain
Sunday 26th of August 2018
No turning back.
Ephesians 6 10-20 John 6 56-69
Year B 21 in ordinary time.
Today we live in a culture where its not (thought appropriate) cool to be different. The modern media communicates fashion. Fashion has been around for many generations, look at the photos of old Jerusalem and you see fashions of yesteryears but the pressures on us to conform are more subtle and pervasive. Standing out from the crowd today is not easy.
That is not to suggest that it has ever been easy. Most if not all of the great Christians over the years, in whatever age they lived in, had to find the strength, the courage, the moral integrity to be willing to resist the pressures to conform, and even to face the stress of being deserted by those who had been their supporters.
One of the most famous campaigners for the abolition of the slave trade was William Wilberforce. A Christian in politics, he was determined to use his position as a Member of the British Parliament to serve Christ. When he was asked in 1787 by the then Prime Minister to look into the rights and wrongs of the slave trade he was horrified over what he saw and from that moment became determined to do away with it. It was however twenty years later before the bill ending the slaves trade went through, years in which the ebb and flow of politics frequently left Wilberforce out in the cold, as the slave traders used all their wealth and influence to defend themselves. Frequently Wilberforce found that even friends he though he could trust, changing what they said as a result of bribes or intimidation. He needed all the strength of his faith in God to do what he knew was right and not simply to follow the crowd, not to turn back and accept things as they were.
Today’s Gospel describes that situation for Jesus, when times got hard, when his message got tricky and he began speaking of the deeper, more difficult issues of faith, then as verse 66 makes clear, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”
Its not just great leaders that have to face this experience of desertion. In many ways in the church in the West and even here in the Holy Land today we face a situation not unlike of Jesus in the reading. Many today are “turning back and no longer following him”. Many who came and heard Jesus knew in their heart that he was right, but couldn’t find the moral courage to do what they knew they should. Many people today know that what the Gospel stands for, the way of love and justice, living life in a loving relationship to God, is right. Not everyone, some honestly have doubts about where right and wrong lie, about belief in God, about being in the church. Many though know that following of the way of Jesus is right, they simply find the attractions of the world, the focus on self rather than others, materialism, closing of their eyes to the needs of others near or far away, attracts them away from what is at times the hard of the way of faith. Many are turning back.
How do WE resist the temptation to “turn away from following Jesus?” and how do we encourage others to resist this temptation? To answer that question lets turn to our other reading, Paul’s passage on the “Full Armour of God.” He says “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth”… with “the breastplate of righteousness” “With your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the Gospel of peace” “Take up the shield of faith” “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit” “and pray in the spirit on all occasions.”
The belt of truth speaks both of faith’s robust foundation, the fundamental beliefs Christianity gives us, and of the importance of personal integrity. Many times in life little untruths seem attractive, the odd white lie, they don’t really seem to matter, …. but they do, the Christian way is the way of truth.
The breastplate of righteousness. Actually doing what is right. Righteousness in the bible usually describes activity. If we observe every religious occasion, worship every Sunday, but fail to try to do what is right, we haven’t begun the Christian path. Daily trying to do what is right is the breastplate of righteousness.
The soldier uses his feet to go into battle. The weapons of the Christian in this battle stem not from physical strength, but from inner spiritual qualities. The peace of God is one of the most special of gifts. When we go to difficult situations, in the activity of life, we should be peacemakers, we should bring peace, the Gospel of Peace.
The shield of faith speaks of the resolution the Christian knows as a result of the assurance that what we are doing is for God. His purposes never change, each culture might do things differently, and every age may have their particular interests, but the building of relationships of love, of the community of Justice and Peace, remains an eternal work for the Kingdom and this protects us from the swings and drifts of fashion and fortune. The shield of faith.
The helmet of salvation. The helmet protects the head, we wear them today whenever injury could occur, on motorbikes and building sites. Salvation gives to us the personal assurance that even though we have many failings, we still have a place in God’s heart. Can there be any greater comfort, in dangerous times than that? The Helmet of Salvation.
The sword of the spirit. With the sword the soldier of old took the fight to the enemy. The spirit leads us. The spirit is with us when we need the words to speak, when we need the inspiration to know what to do, right from wrong, to help make the world a better place.
Finally Paul makes it clear that prayer is needed if the Christian is to win through. Prayer keeps us in tune with God, both prayer times, set aside during the day and the arrow prayer that is said in the heat of the moment, “God help me I don’t know what to do”.
Together these make a great difference to us, the Armour God gives us for the battle of life.
Many turned away from Jesus, and they continue to do so today. In contrast the Disciples make their confession of faith “We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”. It is a fundamental sorting out of one from the other, and it comes when people find the following hard. Where do you stand? When it really matters, when it is difficult, then we show whether we are committed or not. Truth, Righteousness, Peace, Faith, Salvation, Spirit and Prayer. Each plays its part in the full Armour of God.
Can you honestly say with Peter “I believe and know that you are the Holy One of God?” Can you remain saying this today? Don’t turn from your faith, don’t fall away when its difficult, but live life in service of God through the gifts that he offers.