Primate preaches at Jerusalem cathedral

What follow is the text of a sermon preached by Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the Primate, at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem on Aug. 23. Archbishop Hiltz is on a week-long visit to the Holy Land, accompanied by Andrea Mann, coordinator of global relations with the Partnerships department of General Synod.

I bring you greetings from the bishops, clergy and all the faithful of the Anglican Church of Canada and the assurance of our thoughts and prayers for you and your witness in the city of Jerusalem and throughout The Holy Land. My visit, along with Andrea Mann who co-ordinates global relations for our church, fulfils an act of the General Synod of 2007 requesting “the Primate of The Anglican Church of Canada to make a solidarity visit to Anglicans and other Christians in Israel and Palestine, and with others seeking peace in the region…”  (Act 58, p 70 Proceedings of General Synod 2007)

It is a great joy to be here and I take this opportunity to thank you for the warmth of your welcome and  for your gracious hospitality.

Throughout the Anglican Communion, your beloved bishop is known and respected as a bridge builder committed to interfaith initiatives for reconciliation and lasting peace. By word and by action he heralds hope for the peoples of the Holy Land. In his Easter message this year — he wrote of our witness to the Risen Lord, “we are defined by our love, by our compassion.” I look forward this week to visiting a number of parishes, schools and health care facilities operated by the diocese. I am hopeful we will also see the Baptismal site where you plan to build a church and retreat centre to serve as a place of pilgrimage, worship and education in the ways of peace.

While I come as a first-time pilgrim to the Holy Land, I come with a commitment to be a partner in the Gospel. I have a deep desire that our church in Canada draw closer to you in prayer and action. It gives me great pleasure to extend an invitation to your bishop to come to Canada next year and to address our General Synod meeting in Nova Scotia on Canada’s Atlantic Ocean coast. I assure you, dear bishop, and your wife, of a warm welcome in the Lord.

The readings for today are about discipleship. The Gospel calls us to follow Christ for “the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). The Epistle calls us to be steadfast in our witness to those glorious words.

In the text from John’s Gospel we are at the end of the Bread of Life discourse (John 6). You will remember that the context for it was the feeding of the 5,000 beside the Sea of Galilee. Following that miracle, or sign as John would call it, the crowds sought Jesus and found him and his disciples in Capernaum.

Three scenes unfold.

In the first scene a great crowd was gathered around Jesus in the synagogue. He was teaching the people that they should not labour for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, that the Father gives them true bread from heaven, that that bread gives life to the world, and that He is that bread. Whoever feeds on Him has eternal life. Reactions to this teaching are varied in the crowd. Some marvelled at it, saying, “Lord, give us this bread always” (John 6:34). Some pondered its meaning in light of their tradition. Some murmured about Jesus’ identity and the authority with which he spoke. Some disputed even among themselves as to the nature of his teaching about giving life to the world through the giving of his own flesh and blood.

In the second scene the crowds had dispersed and only those who were following Jesus from place to place remained with him. And even among them there was confusion about his teaching. “This teaching is difficult” they said, “who can accept it (John 6:60). It’s in the context of that questioning that Jesus says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” This scene concludes with a number of the disciples withdrawing from Jesus’ company and no longer going about with him. The teaching was too hard. He was not speaking plainly. Overwhelmed by his claims of relationship with the Father and His will, many began to fall away from Jesus.

In the third scene only the twelve remained and Jesus said to them, “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:67) Then comes that wonderful moment when Peter said, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). It’s a moment not unlike The Confession at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). It’s a magnificent moment — one in which as Jean Vanier said, “the disciples are drawn into the mystery of Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh and dwelling among us”. They are drawn into that life of which he speaks through words and signs that accompany it.

Like a thread running through a beautiful tapestry, life is the theme of John’s account of The Good News of Jesus Christ. In the Prologue we read:

“In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life and that life was the light of all people” (John 1:1-4)

Throughout the gospel there are a number of declarations known as the “I am” sayings. Each one reflects what Archbishop Rowan Williams describes as Jesus’ rightful claim to the divine title, “I am” — a sign that he bridges the past, present and future just as he bridges Jew and Gentile, men and women. The archbishop goes on to say, — “alongside this infinity, the Jesus of John’s Gospel offers us the tenderness of intimacy.” (Preface, “I AM — Journeying with The Gospel of John through Lambeth, 2008”)

Each one of these “I am” sayings is in fact an invitation to experience life in Christ — life that is new and full and eternal. And with the invitation is a promise.

For example, Jesus says:

“I am the bread of life.
Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and
whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6: 35)

“I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me
will never walk in darkness, but will have
the light of life.” (John 8: 12)

“I am the resurrection and the life.
Whoever lives and believes in me shall
never die.” (John 11:25)

And then of course, John’s Gospel concludes with his declared purpose in having written it, “These signs are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Here is the essence of discipleship in the Johannine tradition.

Let’s go back to that scene where only the twelve are with Jesus, and to his question, “Do you also wish to go away?” and to Peter’s response, “Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

“Do you also wish to go away?” Sometimes our answer is a resounding “No!” and there is evidence of our discipleship. In our endeavour to be faithful followers of Christ, we pray as the hymn writer says,

“Thou art the way, the truth, the life;
grant us that way to know
that truth to keep, that life to win
whose joys eternal flow.”
(George Washington Doane)

Sometimes our answer is less strong in its conviction. Sometimes we want to go away from the struggles in the church, to run away from the suffering in the world. Sometimes we want to walk away when Jesus’ sayings are hard, when his claim on our lives is great, when discipleship is costly, when it demands courage, when it presses us to speak in the name of God’s love and justice.

Yet Jesus calls us — again and again into fellowship, or as the Johannine tradition would put it, friendship with him. This call is perhaps most profoundly expressed and celebrated in the Eucharist. Here he gathers us. At the table he himself is host. Here he feeds and refreshes us by his very presence in the holy mystery of bread and wine that become for us his body and blood. Here he nourishes us for loving service in bringing food to the hungry, healing to those in pain, hope to those in despair — in bringing peace to the nations and life to the world.

In some African cultures the Eucharistic bread is called “bread of wonder”. Lost in wonder, love and praise at his presence in the eucharist, we sing, “Alleluia, thou art here, we ask not how.”

By this bread we are drawn together — men and women, old and young, rich and poor, strong and weak — drawn together as his guests and then sent out as ambassadors of his great love.

For us the eucharist is a way of life. It is at the heart of our discipleship. In it and through it we are renewed in our vocation to follow Christ and to be steadfast in our witness to the Gospel.

To quote the Epistle for today, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians — we are made strong in the Lord — firm in the truth, joyful in salvation. We are filled with the knowledge of God’s righteousness and ready for work in the service of peace among all peoples. (Ephesians 6: 10-17)

Finally let us recall that the moment when Peter said, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” is remembered at every eucharist. That moment when he said of Jesus, “we have come to believe and to know you are the Holy One” is enshrined in the Gloria, that ancient hymn of the Church. Peter’s confession of faith in the Lord Jesus, and that of the saints and holy men and women in every age are united in the words,

“For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father.”

May we be given grace to make that same confession, to sing those same words with heart and soul and voice, and then to set our very lives to that melody of love and praise.


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