This sermon was preached at Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 22 August, 2021. (Pentecost 13B)
“Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built” 1 Kings 8:27
W S Gilbert has his Sergeant of Police complain that “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one”, because, “when the enterprising burglar’s not a-burgling, when the cut-throat isn’t occupied in crime, he loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling, and listen to the merry village chime”.
It takes a certain maturity to recognize that other people have a complexity, a richness that sometimes shows itself in ways that we admire, and sometimes in ways that we dislike. We seem to have a tendency to label people by one particular characteristic, good or bad ( but mostly bad!). We have seen this lead in many cases to break-downs in relationships. It clearly is unfair to the one whom we label, but it makes it so much easier to justify our having nothing to do with them! [Think how, in wartime, we demonize the enemy by portraying them in terms of a particular hateful or merely different trait, and so make it thinkable that we should go about exterminating them!]
Now this takes place on a number of different levels — we make a one-dimensional picture of someone else — especially one from whom we differ. We can then turn that back to refer to the way we believe the other person thinks of us, “Of course he/she only sees me as…”. And then we can do it about ourselves, “I’m only a…” “I’m completely …”.
I remember in our pre-marriage counselling being given advice on how to fight constructively within the relationship — and one of the rules was “Do not label!” — keep well away from the “You are always doing/saying such and such” kind of weapon. Perhaps in a quiet moment you might like to reflect on the ways such behaviours have contributed to unhappiness in, say, a parish community! Each of us is more than our faults or irritations. The Spirit of truth demands that we acknowledge that, especially in our relationships with one another. That Spirit demands also that we persevere even in relationships that we find difficult.
Our liturgy today has the theme “Lord, to whom shall we go?”, which of course comes from the end of the gospel reading. We’ve read, over the last few weeks, the great 6th chapter of Saint John’s Gospel which began with the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and continued with some very deep reflection about food and drink. This reflection on food and drink states specifically that Jesus gives his body and his blood to be our spiritual food and drink. That is what causes “many of the disciples” to say “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” and then to “turn back and no longer go about with him.”
Jesus then turned to the twelve and asked “Are you also going away?” And John has this version of Peter’s “confession” in that somewhat guarded form, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” In spite of not understanding it all, not being able to hold in himself all that Jesus is and all that Jesus says, Peter feels that he must say, “You have the words of eternal life”.
The words that cause “many of the disciples” to leave the fellowship of Jesus concern what we would identify with the Eucharist — that holy partaking in food and drink that Jesus says is his body and blood, and is the spiritual food that is needed to give us life beyond life-in-this-world.
What does it mean to us as we receive these strange symbols with the even stranger words? As we pondered the words of this passage the other day Laura told us of a group of theological students discussing the significance of the Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ. Even in this group of relatively theologically-literate people there were vastly different views. None of us is capable of holding the full reality of Jesus’ gift in our limited minds and hearts. Perhaps, though we also say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”. [I remember the words attributed to Queen Elizabeth I about the Eucharist: “His was the word that spake it: he took the bread and brake it; and what that word doth make it, that I believe and take it”.]
With the twelve at least, there was an understanding that there is more to Jesus than any one can comprehend — than any one person can grasp. Jesus is always greater than any understanding, any portrayal, any characteristic, any writing can convey. And the grasp that our neighbour has may well have another facet of the richness of his being to convey — one that our own understanding has not yet made our own.
We might say the same about that other manifestation of the Body of Christ, our worshipping community: “We are the body of Christ: his Spirit is with us”. This community is a collection of different people, with different understandings, different priorities, different ways of working. Now those differences may make for tension, but each of them actually adds to the richness of the whole — my parish community is bigger than me, and the other members have something to add to my understanding, my priorities, my preferences! Remember the picture that Paul uses of the body with many members, and each of them has its own particular function! We may not find this comfortable, but we too, have to say from time to time “Lord, to whom shall we go? This is where I am to seek and find the words of eternal life.”
Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple reminds us that all this is true also of God. “Heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you!” [Peter will recognize his father’s teaching if I tell you about the little boy who asked his mother “Is God everywhere?” “Yes dear.” “Is God is this room?” “Yes dear.” “Is God in this box?” “Yes dear.” “Got him!” ] We are sometimes guilty of thinking of God in a one-dimensional way — we have a particular view of God, a particular experience of God, a particular way of relating to God, but God is always much more than that! Just think of the different aspects of God’s nature and work that we have already spoken of in this morning’s liturgy[: Presence, Promise-keeper, uniter, Lord, Trinity, life-giver, Almighty, Inspirer, Forgiver, King, Father, Lamb, Holy One, Most High, Creator, God of armies, Light, Shield, Giver of good, Bread of life, Covenant-keeper, Hearer of prayer,…. And there are other attributes that some would add like Lover, Mother, Friend, Peace-maker, — and] while one or other of these may be the dominant way any one of us approaches God, all are true, and there is more beside. We cannot box God in, or make God one-dimensional: “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you”!
Solomon adds to that ascription, the rider, “how much less this house that I have built”. God is so much greater, richer, more wonderful than any house that humans can build, and God cannot be contained in walls of any kind. Nor, of course, can God be contained in my own life and experience: “how much less, this house of human flesh” we might say. So let us rejoice in the God whom nothing or no one can contain, and search diligently for God’s richness in the experience of others as well as in ourselves!