Advent I – Revd Matt Harbage, 2nd December 2018

“When these things begin to come to pass, look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.”

It is a real privilege to be welcomed into this community especially at the very start of this liturgical new year. Advent is such a rich season: A time of reflection and preparation, of expectancy and joyful hope.

Over lunch this week, a friend remarked, “We often think that love is the most important virtue in the Christian tradition, and indeed it is,” he said. He continued, “However, perhaps hope is even more foundational to our faith.

As we find ourselves starting to think perhaps about sending loved ones Christmas cards, buying presents, or booking holidays and making arrangements, — amongst all the busy activity, we might forget to be people of hope.

As the Church begins a new liturgical cycle, I find this first week of Advent always feels particularly special and a time when I look back at the year gone by.

For me, this year has been marked by transition and joy – not least getting married in October to my wife Catherine, also a priest; completing my curacy in the diocese of Lincoln and moving to Central London.

I am really excited for the months and weeks ahead, especially having the opportunity to get to know you and the wider St. Mark’s community and where God has been at work.

As we look back at the past year as Advent begins, we might also reflect on the life of the world and of the nation. We find ourselves in a time which is perhaps not unfamiliar in the chaotic description given by St. Luke:

For … There is much distress amongst the nations; in the Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen. People desperate for hope.

The ‘sea and the waves roar’ as we observe sea level rises, and climate change claiming islands. The powers of the heavens twist and turn.

Our hearts too might fail us as we engage with the constantly evolving news surrounding Brexit.

And into all these signs of the times, which might easily lead us to look ahead into Advent with fear, doubt and despair, we are called to remember our identity as people of hope.

For hope is at the very heart of our Christian life together.

Our hope is a joyful hope. Rooted not in a naive ‘hoping for the best’, eyes closed, fingers crossed. But rooted rather in our loving God & his Son Jesus Christ.

This hope is rooted in history, in the concrete person of Jesus and his holy Incarnation as Emmanuel – God with us. It is rooted in his teaching and his active witness to the forgiving, generous character of God. And [our hope] is rooted in Jesus’ death and resurrection, which he promises will be our pattern too, when our time comes.

The apocalyptic language of Saint Luke invites us to explore the traditional Advent themes of Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell and in our order of service, we are offered a depiction of the Last Judgement by Michelangelo.

This painting of the second and final coming of our Lord Jesus Christ is I think a striking image.

And as I reflect on it, I feel uncomfortable with all the movement and activity. Souls ascending (towards the left) and descending (towards the right), in fact there’s movement pretty much everywhere.

The warning of St. Luke to keep watch and keep alert feels all the more important amongst all the activity. I wouldn’t like to get lost in this picture.

But there, at the centre of it all, drawing us in, is Jesus with his Blessed Mother Mary. Our Lord, surrounded by light.

Our joyful hope is a simple one, although it is a mystery.

It offers comfort, a fixed point amidst the busy, activity of life. Importantly it allows us to sit with contradiction and pain, knowing things will change. It shapes us as people of prayer, and in the light of God it challenges us and stirs holy fear.

I wonder where this Advent, here at St. Mark’s, will take you as we journey together in this beautiful space, accompanied by our sacred music.

How will we carve out space to sit with God, sharing with Him our hopes and desires?

As we journey through the Season and get busy with preparations, may we make time to pause and centre ourselves so that we might make space for Christ’s arrival in our hearts, and thus be a people of hope for the world.

To end, I’d like to conclude with a prayer, by Padraig O’Tuama:

Let us pray:

God of fear,

God of the night,

God of the expectation.

You visited shepherds in the night,

With songs and sights of joy.

In all of our nights, turn us

towards hope, because

Hope might just

Keep us alive





Such a welcome into the house of God surely reflects the welcoming tone of Jesus as given in the New Testament.  In Matthew, chapter 11, Jesus encourages people to come to him for rest from heavy burdens and for their souls.  In Luke’s Gospel the disciples order people not to bring their infants to Jesus to touch them but Jesus refutes this rejection saying: ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’.

This welcome extends to those who are your enemies.  Again in Luke, Jesus says: ‘But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’.

So in the sayings of Jesus and in the attempts we make in our own time to welcome people we can see the love of God for his creation manifesting itself in such welcome; particularly when challenged to love our enemies as ourselves.

This call to love your enemy as yourself is absent though in the attitude of the chief priests, scribes and elders of Jerusalem when in the Gospel narratives they engage with Jesus in a series of controversies.  These controversies culminate in the response of Jesus given in today’s Gospel reading concerning the First Commandment.

In these controversies, the aim of Jesus’ opponents is to trap him by putting him in a position whereby they can undermine him and what he stands for, which is the love of God.

The first controversy concerns the authority of Jesus.  His opponents want to trap him into a public claim that his authority is from God, thus laying the groundwork for a charge of blasphemy.  Jesus avoids the trap by asking a counter question about the origin of John the Baptist’s authority.  This strategy has the effect of reducing the opponents to silence while making clear the divine origin of Jesus himself.  It does so because if the opponents admit the divine origin of the Baptist’s authority they would have to explain why they did not welcome him and would have to admit the divine origin of Jesus’ authority.  If they deny the divine origin of the Baptist’s authority they would run the risk of opposition from the people who held him to be a prophet from God.  Their dilemma reduces them to silence.

Still keen to trap Jesus, the opponents send him to some Pharisees and Herodians to ensnare him by another controversy. This concerns their paying poll tax to Caesar.  In effect they are saying hypocritically: ‘since you are so great and teach the way of God, do you believe that we should defer to Caesar by paying the poll tax?’  Jesus sees through this hypocrisy and eludes the trap by calling upon them to be as exact in serving God as in serving Caesar.  Thus he says to them: ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’.

The third controversy is about the Resurrection.  The opponents here are the Sadducees who said there was no Resurrection as it is not given in the Pentateuch. They ask Jesus whose wife would a woman be in the Resurrection if seven men had married her.  Jesus once again eludes the trap by teaching on the nature of resurrected life where none marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.

These three controversies culminate in today’s Gospel reading.  In all of them we find what may ensue when there is not welcome but hostility.  We find cunning, hypocrisy and a desire to trap and bring to the ground the unwelcomed person.  All this runs contrary to the all encompassing love of God.

Thus, as given in today’s Gospel reading, when the scribe, having heard the responses of Jesus to his opponents, questions him on which commandment is the first of all, Jesus asserts the love of God forcibly in the First Commandment, as he says: ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and with all thy strength’.  In the first words ‘Hear, O Israel’ we find the first two words of the Jewish prayer, the Shema Yisrael, which is the centrepiece of morning and evening Jewish prayer services. In the words that follow ‘the Lord our God is one Lord’ we find the monotheism of Judaism.  The commandment to love God flows from his nature as the only God.  The whole person should love God in heart and soul and mind.

This leads into the second commandment to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’.  Here Jesus shows his orthodoxy as a Jewish teacher ‘getting to the root of things’.  There is an emphasis on inner and basic dispositions as can be found also in the Gospel of Matthew.  Matthew calls for reconciliation between brother and sister and the need to come to terms with your accuser.  Nor should you murder as you will be liable to judgement.

The second commandment to love one another is a new commandment given as a final instruction after the Last Supper.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: ‘owe no-one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law’.  This second passage is considered to be a form of the ‘Golden Rule’ which in effect says ‘do as you would be done by’.  As Matthew expresses it in his Gospel: ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you’; for this is the law and the prophets’.

The two commandments are connected by the word ‘love’.  I would add to this the connectivity of welcome that reflects this love as distinct from the rejection and discarding produced by hatred.  Such rejection can leave a person isolated and trapped in a negative state and with low self-esteem.  This was the aim of Jesus’ opponents in the controversies so in avoiding being trapped Jesus is leaving himself free in the love of God.

You could speak against this and say that ultimately his opponents trapped Jesus on the Cross but that was only a temporary state of affairs as Jesus himself says to the criminal being crucified alongside him: ‘Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’.

The First Commandment to love does not mean that the law does not exist but that as Paul expressed it in his second letter to the Corinthians, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in Christians and writes God’s law in their hearts in letters of love.  The whole basis of life is not law but grace.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  It is this self-giving love of God revealed in Jesus Christ that is the motive for Christian living.  In today’s Gospel reading we learn that the scribe understood this message of love and Jesus responds by saying that he is then not far from the Kingdom of God.

Let us hope, then, that we Christians today can continue to be welcoming to all as a manifestation of the love of God.




The light provided by restored vision is a gift indeed with many benefits but there is also the light of understanding which does not necessarily involve sight.  In today’s Gospel reading we learn that disciples James and John, even though they can see Jesus, have not fully understood who Jesus is.  They have a perception of  him in the kingdom of heaven as an enthroned monarch and are very much hoping to share the glory of this enthronement by sitting on either side of Jesus enthroned.  As Mark expresses it, they say to Jesus:’ Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’.   Their perception may have had its origin in seeing Jesus as the Messiah presiding over a Messianic banquet.  There is an association too between heaven and enthronement in the Bible in the Book of Revelation, which gives us the twenty-four elders ‘sitting on their thrones before God’.  The elders, though, rather than basking in shared glory, fall on their faces worshipping God and singing his praises.  This leads us to wonder what James and John have not understood about Jesus  as they seek a privileged place in the kingdom of heaven.


What they have not grasped is that Jesus does not have the prerogative to determine status in the coming kingdom. He does not have it because in the divine hierarchy he is the suffering servant who has made himself a servant so that the Sons of Man may be the Sons of God. Thus in response to the request of James and John for shared glory he replies: ‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all’.  So leadership means service.  The suffering of the servant lies ultimately in the death on the Cross but that suffering is where the true glory lies and it is only by this means that Jesus can then ascend to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father.  We express this in the Easter hymn: ‘when I survey the wondrous Cross on which the Prince of Glory died…’.  So in Mark’s Gospel Jesus says: ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’.


With regard to suffering, as Dorothy Sayers writes, in the Christian faith evil is real and perfection is attained through the active and positive effect of wrenching real good out of real evil.  Then there is the suffering of missionaries who gave their lives for the proclamation of the Gospel.


It appears from Mark’s narrative that the remaining ten disciples were angry at the request of James and John for shared glory.  Was this because they had a better understanding of Jesus as the suffering servant?  Perhaps so.  Their anger prompts Jesus to explain to James and John that greatness lies in servitude.  In his explanation, Jesus illustrates his point by contrasting the greatness of servitude with the tyrannical rule over the Gentile Christians in Rome.  Here we are given the audience for Mark’s Gospel, being a small community of Gentile Christians in Rome who had seen their leaders executed by tyrannical rulers and needed to hold fast to their faith.  In the  response of Jesus to James and John Mark takes the opportunity to reassure the Gentile Christians that their faith could remain steadfast in the knowledge of where true greatness lies.  It lies in the humility of the suffering servant who stands in stark contrast to tyrannical rulers.


Having considered Jesus as the suffering servant now let us consider the nature of the kingdom of God.  Here, again, James and John lack the light of understanding.  As they seek privileged places in heaven they do not see that the hierarchy of God is based on dignity of service.  Nor do they see, as Jesus teaches them, that it is not his prerogative to grant them places in the kingdom of heaven.  What they can do, he says, is to drink the cup that he will drink and be baptized as he was baptized.  The cup and the baptism  concern his suffering and death which are for him alone but we can unite with him in the cup and the baptism.  The association of the cup with suffering can be found in the Book of Isaiah where Jerusalem has drunk the cup of the Lord’s wrath and is to be met with devastation, famine and the sword.  In Psalm 69 we have the association of immersion in water with suffering: ‘I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.  I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.  My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God’.  What James and John might not also have perceived is that the glory of the kingdom of God is not just in the heavenly realm but, as Luke writes in his Gospel, the kingdom is within us here on earth.  It is present where Jesus is present and exercising his influence.


All this presents rather a negative view of the disciples which Matthew in his Gospel attempts to offset.  He does this by making the mother of James and John the one who calls for the shared glory.  To further defend James and John we could say that they are learners who do not yet have a full understanding of the nature and purpose of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. They call Jesus ‘Teacher’ and make the child like request to him ‘to do for us whatever we ask of you’.  Jesus then takes on the role of schoolmaster to direct them towards a new way of thinking based on humility and suffering and servitude.  We do not know from the Gospel narratives what the response to this teaching was but we can see what Jesus was pointing towards in his teachings.


Let me return to my starting point with the words used by the CBM ‘Let there be light’.  There is joy in being able to see the world around you and there are many instances in the Bible of Jesus restoring people’s sight.  Yet from today’s Gospel reading we have an affirmation that seeing does not always mean understanding.  Nor does faith depend upon sight for ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and believed’.


So we have the light of vision, and the light of understanding but let me go to the Gospel of John for a final word on what light means.  According to John the light was the Word becoming flesh which was to light all people.  It is this light that enlightens us all.




dedication festival read more

Today we shall hallow above that 1962 installation, a roundel by Graham Jones in memory of Anne Griffiths, long-time, neighbour, pillar, churchwarden, flower-arranger friend. And how lovely that her family have been so much a part of this project.

How dreadful is this place, Jacob says, this is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven.

As you enter this church, engraved above the door are those very words.

We often say that pictures speak louder than words and the icon in the order of service is a complex and beautiful telling of aspects of this morning’s first lesson where indeed Jacob says “How dreadful is this place, this is none other than the house of God.”

What have we got in the pictures, how do they relate to the story we heard, our Gospel reading and what we are saying about this building in relation to our faith?

What’s in the icons. You have to look at them: right-left-middle.

So, on the right is a depiction of today’s reading. Jacob has fled from his parents’ home, escaping his brother Esau’s wrath. Jacob means heel, he was born second grabbing his older brother’s heel. He was a heel, he stole his older brother’s blessing. A usurping toe-rag his only option was to skulk off to cousins to do the best he could for himself. In his lonely wanderings, he falls asleep, and has this extraordinary vision. He sees God himself at the top of a long ladder, the connection between heaven and earth. And he is promised that not just in this place, but everywhere, he might encounter God, for the Lord will be with him. Jacob awakes, assured by this blessing, but aware of the holiness nevertheless of the place itself. It is named Bethel, House of God, and its place in the early history of Israel will go on to be significant. So much for the first picture on the right. Twenty years elapse. Jacob  makes his way in the world, marries his cousins, Leah and Rachel, and hears that Esau, whom he has not seen all this time, is nearby.

The night before, Jacob does not sleep, the depiction is on the left hand side of the picture as you look at it. Instead he wrestles all night long with a mysterious figure. It’s a very potent story, which Rembrandt did a famous painting of and Epstein sculpted a marble statue of which is in Tate Britain. No one wins. Jacob contended with God all night, and it was a draw! The day dawns. He asks to be blessed. He is renamed Israel – the one who contends with God. Jacob/Israel declares “I have seen the face of God and been preserved.” The icon of Jesus above the image of the wrestling makes this point. But he is also struck in the thigh. Wounded by this encounter, inevitably. The sun rises (the first time we hear of day break for 20 years), and Jacob limps into the new day. Then he meets his brother. The feared fraternal rancour has gone and, face to face, the brothers embrace and Jacob can barely cope. “Truly, to see your face, is to see the face of God” he says. The face of Jesus in the icon hangs over the image of the embrace in the icon connects the two stories.

In a talk an Old Testament scholar and Interfaith expert, Clare Amos gave to the WCC she cites this story as vital in grasping of the significance of struggling, wrestling for reconciliation. She also says the Book of Genesis has two connected themes that run throughout. First the key Theological truth that we are made in the image of God. Secondly that from the beginning there are splits which become pairings: night and day; land and sea; male and female. Yet creation is the expression of a God who is One: Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God.

She says the task of humanity is to live as she says at the heart of this conundrum.

So the question the writer of Genesis is posing throughout the book is how can or should the one and the two relate to each other so that neither dominates or disappears? Both unity and duality are necessary. And it is our task …. as created beings to be part of the world of duality, in which ‘otherness’ is important and honoured, and yet also, because we are made in the image of God, to reflect also within ourselves the divine unity. We are if you like to be a sort of sacrament, showing through our human life, just what it means to be inc

There are a lot of brothers in Genesis. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his eleven others. All of these typify how opposites, splits, pairings of all sorts need the other, to complete the vision of God; so that with Jacob we can say, “Truly to see your face is to see the face of God.”

Jesus in today’s Gospel is in the Temple, as that extraordinary complex of buildings was celebrating its Dedication. In 168 BC, Antiochus, a Seleucid Greek invaded and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. He assumed the name Epiphanes, God made manifest. The trauma of what took place incited an almighty rebellion and a brief period of self-rule for the Jewish nation. Rededicating the Temple in December each year, the Feast of Hannukah, commemorated the triumph that period. Jesus is walking in Solomon’s portico, the ancient precincts of the Temple, which you see copies of in the order of service. I have said it before, but it bears repeating, that my abiding memory of our brief parish visit to Jerusalem in November 2015, at the tomb Princess Alice of Battenburg and Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia is of Anne, whose window we shall dedicate, looking at the dome of the Rock as the sun set. She was contemplating the Court of the Lord beneath her, which I am sure now she contemplates with even clearer vision.

How dreadful is this place is this place, it is none other than the House of God, the gate of heaven.

The central icon in the triptych is of the Transfiguration – the manifestation of the true glory, the seeing face to face by the disciples, by Moses and Elijah, of who Jesus was. John’s Gospel omits this account, every episode is the revelation of that glory, being seen face to face. Matthew, Mark and Luke have it at the centre of their narratives.

Jesus’ glory seen face to face is not confined to buildings, it is seen in one another. But these buildings, loved and cherished, retain the memory of those whom we love, by association, or memorial, and they help us to renew our glimpse of the gate of heaven.




Marjorie Brown sermon continued

It brings home very powerfully the whole idea of how we are shaped by the way we are raised and taught. It also asks the question, what kind of wisdom do we live by? What is its source and its authority? How do we judge if it is really wisdom or folly?

Today’s first reading is from one of the books of the Hebrew Bible that are known collectively as wisdom literature. The Book of Proverbs used to be favourite reading for both Jews and Christians. St Paul quoted from it. Medieval rabbis turned to it frequently. The 17th century English Puritans regarded it as a guidebook for living a righteous life. Children used to be strongly encouraged to memorize much of it.

A modern commentator, Ellen F. Davis, describes the proverbs as little poems, about the length of a haiku or a Zen koan. They are a collection of oral literature, and they are meant to be said out loud and mulled over, bit by bit, not read straight through like a story with a narrative drive. They are an introduction to the wisdom of a faith community. The proverbs are small nuggets for chewing slowly, suitable for children and new enquirers, but also providing material for mature believers to meditate on.

Teaching by poetry is a way of going straight to our heart rather than our head. Our heads are filled with knowledge, especially in the information-rich 21st century. We know that our technical expertise can have both excellent effects and devastating consequences for ourselves, our planet, and future generations. Knowing a lot of things isn’t enough. We also need the wisdom that enables us to judge the good from the bad. We need to be formed into habits of wise living. Without early discipline, we will naturally tend to folly, as human beings always have the tendency to do.

Early formation of our thinking and judging is the responsibility of our parents, and the Book of Proverbs makes that abundantly clear. Some parents shirk this task and their children flail around in later life without any structure or boundaries to guide them. Other parents take the task to heart but form their children’s minds and hearts in ways that are ultimately destructive – this is what is shown in Apostasy, and we can see this outcome in many sad human situations. Whether it is the effect of belonging to an unbalanced cult or the consequence of parental addictions or abusive behaviour, the children are harmed for life. They have not been given what they should have been given, something far more important than material goods or genetic advantages, and that is the habit of wisdom.

In this short reading from Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as the mistress of a house. It is a fine house, large enough to be able to accommodate many people, with seven pillars. Wisdom has prepared a banquet, and she sends out a general invitation to come and eat and drink and learn. Hospitality in the ancient world, and in many cultures today, is a serious work of virtue. It is not mere social etiquette. Refusing an invitation has bad consequences, as we know from Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet. Those who made excuses and failed to turn up came to a bad end.

So we readers should be warned that disregarding this invitation from Lady Wisdom would be a major error. It’s a free and generous offer. And it’s an offer not just of nourishment but of life itself. Forsake the foolish, and live, she says. Come and learn.

So it’s no surprise that this reading is paired with today’s gospel. For the past few weeks we have been reading the words of Jesus in John’s gospel about the bread of life. Today we have a passage in which he uses some strong and surprising language about himself. Essentially he is making an offer to us, like Lady Wisdom, to come and be fed. His hospitality is not just to his house, but to his very self. We are to eat not just his bread but his body, to drink not just his wine but his blood. The outcome of doing so will be eternal life. Jesus will dwell in us and we will dwell in him.

At every Eucharist we accept this invitation. We receive the free gift that will form us, slowly, over a lifetime, into a person who is indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. It’s not an instant transformation. There may well have been a moment in our lives when “my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed thee”. But that was just the beginning. Like a child being carefully natured by a wise parent, we are fed and formed in the likeness of Christ over a lifetime’s pilgrimage.

Receiving Christ in the sacrament is not a routine matter. Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we renew our relationship with God. We learn a little more of the wisdom we need. We are reminded that all is gift and that our lives should be shaped by thankfulness. In the readings from scripture, we are given morsels to chew on for the week ahead. Slowly, with two steps forward and one step back, in the way of all human beings, we are shaped into the person God created us to be.

We live in an age of instant access to almost everything we need or think we want. Having grown up in a time when you had to save up to buy something, and then go out and find it in a shop, I still reel at the ease with which a couple of thumb-strokes on my phone will bring me an Amazon delivery the very next day. I suppose in the future it will be the very next hour as a drone drops the package at my door!

We can answer any question by turning to the internet. No more of that enjoyable riffling through encyclopedias to find things out, with lots of random information turning up along the way.

Today’s world promises that we can learn a skill or a language or get fit or beautiful in almost no time at all by buying whatever product is being promoted. But wisdom doesn’t come this way. It’s not on sale by any huckster. It isn’t quick and expensive. It’s slow and free.

Wisdom, leading to true life and flourishing, is on offer to all. But it takes work. We have to dedicate ourselves to the discipline of learning it over our whole lifetime, and we have to take the time and trouble to induct our children into the habits of wisdom.

These habits include reading the Bible slowly and chewing over what we read, taking it into our heart as well as our head. They include constant remembrance of our state of dependence on God, so that we review our lives and give thanks for our blessings day by day. And they include coming to church to feed on the bread of life, week in, week out, so that we know our need of this food and miss it when we do not receive it.

The fruit of this long, slow, formation will be lives that other people look to for examples of wisdom. This is what God offers us, and what we in turn can help our children to grow into. If we don’t give this formation the time and attention it needs, we, or our children, will be easy prey for the merchants of folly, the cults, the addictions and the sins that look so alluring on the surface.

The collect today is one of my favourites, describing God as wont to give more than either we desire or deserve. It reminds us that our hunger isn’t strong enough! We don’t even know how to desire what God wants to give us. Blessed are those who feel hungry for the bread of life, and who hear the invitation to the house of seven pillars. If we accept the offer, we will live life in all its fullness, and dwell with God forever.


Ros sermon continued

Yet in today’s Gospel reading John takes this search for proof a step further.  Even when the crowd have seen signs they do not perceive their full significance.  In the verses that precede today’s reading we learn that the crowd regarded the healing and feeding work of Jesus as signs that Jesus was ‘a prophet that has come into the world’ and want to make him king because he has healed and fed them in the feeding of the five thousand.  This is a very understandable response to someone who has healed and nurtured you.

Why then, would Jesus call for anything more?

In today’s Gospel reading John gives us the answer.  Jesus wants the people to understand the spiritual significance of bread that he gives them as ‘food that endures for eternal life’.  Jesus explains to them that when their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness it was not Moses who gave it to them but God ‘who gives the true bread from heaven’.  It is this bread ‘that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’.  Jesus reveals to them that he is ‘the bread of life’ and whoever comes to him will never be hungry and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty. Hearing this, the people comprehend now the full significance of the bread.

We do not have to conclude from this spiritual significance that John was steering us away from earthly reality.  We do not have to reach that conclusion because in John’s Gospel we have a ‘realized eschatology’.  By this I mean John invites us not to consider the end of the world but its rebirth instituted by Jesus and continued by his disciples.  In the Johannine literature the setting of God’s activity is one in which earth and heaven, time and eternity have been conjoined.  By this means eternal life can become a reality in the present as the worlds ‘above’ and ‘below’ intersect.  Jesus wants the people to understand the full spiritual significance of the bread but the bread is actual bread given to the five thousand.  Actual bread is given in John’s Gospel by Jesus to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, just before Judas betrays him and this makes the betrayal of Jesus by Judas so devastating because John has given us Jesus as ‘the bread of life’.

So an earthly reality is there in John’s Gospel that conjoins with the sacramental quality of life in Christ.  There is also reference in today’s Gospel reading to a seal.  Jesus says: ‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.  For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal’.  Here the reference is not primarily to the bread of the Eucharist but to Jesus’ word of revelation.  This is an example of John’s realized eschatology as Jesus in the present moment is telling the people that God has set his seal upon the Son of Man whilst the word ‘seal’ is also in the language of the Book of Revelation which is concerned with the end time.  In Revelation there are the seven seals, the first four of which depict the imminent eschatological future in which the salvation of the faithful is a major theme.

Let us come down to earth again from the awesome heights of Revelation. The words ‘sign’ and ‘seal’ in our present day earthly reality bring to my mind the postal system.  We use the expression ‘signed, sealed and delivered’ when describing the finalising of post, its despatch and arrival at its destination.  So we might say that the signs revealed in the New Testament by Jesus and the seal set upon Jesus by God are there in John’s Gospel to deliver his message.  In this message Jesus provides the living water and the heavenly bread which develop the Christology of Jesus as the Mosaic prophet king.

This Christology is a “high Christology” of Jesus as divine, pre-existent and identified with the one God talking openly about his divine role.  Yet John gives us a realized eschatology because unlike the remaining Synoptic Gospels where the chief theme is the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven, in John’s theme Jesus is the source of eternal life and the Kingdom is only mentioned twice.  Nevertheless there is an identification again with the Book of Revelation because Jesus as the living water in John’s Gospel is echoed in Revelation where it is written: ‘I will give to the thirsty from the spring of the water of life without payment’.  Again, in Revelation, ‘the river of living water will flow from the throne of God and the Lamb’.

Moving forward once again through time to our modern world, in the lyrics of the song dedicated to his girlfriend, Stevie Wonder sings that he said goodbye to his girlfriend but he now realises that she is his heart’s only desire and so he presents himself to her again in the words ‘here I am, signed, sealed, delivered I’m yours’.

I believe that John invites us also in his Gospel to turn to Jesus as the seal set by God who has offered us signs offering us eternal life and that we can return the compliment by seeking God through Jesus by saying the words to him: ‘signed, sealed, delivered I am yours’.