You know, after nearly 36 years, I’m tired of preaching.
OK, that was a bit of a storyteller’s exaggeration, to get your attention. After 36 years, I’m tired of preaching – sometimes. Because of course preaching is the best thing. As many of you know, it was a call to preach that was the heart of my call to be ordained in the first place. It was about the second or third time I went to church as an adult believer, and undergraduate here in Oxford, and I was listening to the sermon, and I suddenly had the powerful thought: I want to do that! And it was like God said, OK, you’ve got it. And I love it, it’s the best job in the world: telling people about Jesus, about God; doing your best to make that introduction: Harry, this is Jesus; Jesus, Harry. I can’t understand why anyone would want to do anything else, really. It’s the best thing in the world – and you get paid for it, too.
But preaching is heartbreaking, too. You preach your heart out (on your good days), and yet you don’t see lives dramatically changed week by week as people are converted. You don’t see revival beginning in this nation. You don’t see people flocking to church and bringing their friends because word has got about that when you preach, God is really there and doing something. None of that is the heartbreaking thing. The heartbreaking thing is that I’m not listening to what I say; that I don’t really live out the word I preach. I am not that disciple of Jesus, that I invite others to become and to be.
At the festival some Greeks – Gentiles – came to Philip and said to him, We want to see Jesus. No problem! Philip went and told Andrew, and they both went and told Jesus. I suppose they took the Greeks with them and made the introduction, though it doesn’t actually say so. Some people wanted to meet Jesus, and his friends introduced them to him.
Where are the people today, who are saying, We want to see Jesus? Do you know where they are? Do they come and ask you for an introduction?
People can still meet and see Jesus now, even though he lived 2,000 years ago, because he did not cling to his life, but became like that seed he talked about, the seed that falls into the ground and dies. In obedience to the Father, he gave up his life for all of us, so that he might (rise again and) keep it for eternal life, and – and! – make that same eternal life available for everyone who sees him. Jesus wants people to meet him; but the thing is, he chooses first of all to be visible, for people to meet him, in his body: the men and women and children he calls to be his church.
But you know, maybe Christians get in the way so much, like the tiny moon crossing the face of the sun, that people can no longer see the glorious light of the Son of God, it’s eclipsed for them. Perhaps people have stopped wanting to see Jesus, because they can see Christians all too clearly, and if Jesus is anything like that, they don’t want any. Or, maybe there still are people crying out to see Jesus, but they sure as hell aren’t seeing him in the Church.
Why, why, why? Why do we hide the face of Christ? Because we forget what Jesus is like… Preachers tell you about God, rather than tell you how to find God. Actually, that’s one of the better case scenarios. What often happens, rather, is that Christian leaders are intent on painting a picture of a hating and hateful God, a God who is against this or that or everything, instead of showing you a God who is so much for the world, for us, that he endured the very worst we could do to him, the cruel and senseless death of the cross, and then said, Is that it? Well, I still love you. I still want you to be my friends.
When we think of the present state of the Church: the people wanting to tear it apart in disputes about human sexuality, or about the ministry and place of women, or just generally judging other Christians for one thing or another. The Christians who resort to hateful words or threats or violence to try and impose their views on others, or who are quick to give their blessing to the use of military force to try and solve problems, instead of weeping tears of repentance that we live in a world where that has become necessary. The Christians who are so sure that they are right, they are the sole possessors of truth, and everyone else is wrong. Is it any wonder that Jesus is obscured, hidden from view, that people have stopped looking for him, or stopped looking for him in the church?
We are the people of the covenant, the new covenant, that God has made. We heard this in the reading from Jeremiah. The first covenant was that of the Law given at Mount Sinai, it was an external kind of law, that required being taught it, consciously learning, deliberately obeying. The new covenant God promised was an internal one: God’s will would be written in his people’s hearts, so that they wouldn’t need anyone to teach them, to urge them to know God; they would all know him for themselves, they would intuitively know what God wanted, and be able to do it. That’s what it means, that we have the Holy Spirit, the life of God within each one of us. You don’t need a preacher! (Well, maybe occasionally it helps to have someone articulating what we all think and know?) What you need, what we all need, is to let the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, breathe in us. But remember, this new covenant was first new 2,000 years ago. It only goes on being new if we make it new, day by day and minute by minute, living this new relationship that God makes between himself and us.
Go home and be quiet. Turn off the noise in your life for a little while. Find something that will help you to pay attention to God. It may be a short passage of scripture. (Short!) A simple repeated word or prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Or if that’s too long, just the name Jesus. Or the contemplation of something made: a flower, a fruit, a stone, a child. God needs no introduction from me or any preacher: you will know him. He will be found by you, if you seek him with all your heart.
And then: we don’t need to know more or be taught more about God. We just need to do what he says. To feed on him in the word and the sacrament. To love God with all our heart, to love ourselves and then to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Do this, and you will know God, and people will catch a glimpse of Jesus in his Church, and if all the people who profess to follow Jesus would do this, people would once again start coming to us with that request: We want to see Jesus.