Sermon No 70
Feeding the Hopelessness of Life: A suicidal approach
11th Sunday After Trinity
A sermon preached by Roger Laing (Parish Evangelist) on Sunday 12th August 2018 at the 8 & 10 am Eucharist Services at St. Paulinus Church, Crayford, Kent. (Based on John 6:35, 41-51, 1 Kings 19: 4-8)
May I speak, and may you hear in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who comes to Me shall never thirst’ (John 6: 35)
That is what Jesus said, but what does it all mean. Two weeks ago I spoke of the feeding of the five thousand and the Church of the Multiplication, situated on the banks of the Galilee, where Jesus is reputed to have fed those thousands of people. Now I mentioned in that church there is a mosaic floor depicting the loaves and the fish, yet only four loaves and not five were included in that mosaic. And I asked you to consider the implication of the meaning behind a mystery where the fifth loaf might be found on the altar. And that is where we are today, considering that very thought of Jesus being found in the bread on the altar of His Church, ready to be broken, multiplied and distributed in the Eucharist? But more of that later.
Our old testament reading once again links with the new and really sets the scene for what is to come here in the gospel of John. It tells of the prophet Elijah and how he fled into the wilderness to escape Jezebel (1 Kings 19:4-8). Now the words I want to focus on here are what Elijah says as he sat down under the tree, for in his desperation and hopelessness, Elijah prayed that he might die. Let’s hear what he says, ‘I have had enough Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors’ (v4 NIV)
Elijah in other words, had reached the end of his human ability to serve his God, he had experienced first-hand ‘ministerial burn out’. He exhibited, what would now be deemed symptoms of depression and saw that death was actually preferable to what his future might indeed hold.
I wonder how many of us have felt like that at one point or another, when all seems too much to bear, where there is a sense of hopelessness that we simply can’t go on?
Well according to the World Health Organisation, for 800,000 of us each year, that feeling of hopelessness of life is simply too much, and suicide seems the only possible way out from the suffering. So, to put that into perspective, every forty seconds someone in the world will end their life (World Health Organisation) And further to that, according to the research, more than half of those people will not even have a recognised known mental health condition (Suicide research
Some of the famous names who we have lost recently are: – Anthony Bourdain (Celebrity Chef), Robin Williams (Comedian and Actor), Kurt Cobain (Rock Star) and Alexander McQueen and Kate Spade (Fashion Designers) …. I could go on with many more, and that is not even including those that have died seeking fulfilment through drugs or those killed by seeking excitement by other means?
Indeed, I am sure some of us here today will know personally friends and family that also have found the burden of life too much, and for those that have, I empathise with your pain and grief.
For such acts, don’t just end with the death of that one person, it leaves a trail of grief and sorrow that is literally unforgettable, especially for those that find the victim and carry the picture for the rest of their lives.
On average, according to an article in Christianity Today, that number left behind to pick up the pieces of suicide is between six to ten people. (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/april-web-only/when-suicide-strikes-in-body-of-christ.html ),
Now I don’t claim to be an expert in mental health by any stretch, but it seems to me that there is some connection, or link, between faithlessness and suicide and there is some evidence to support that claim.
For over the years there has been numerous studies into the whole aspect of suicide, and overall, the results suggest that religion does appear to play some kind of a protective role against it.
There is even some evidence done by the Queens University Belfast to suggest that those that follow a more catholic approach to life, are even less likely to commit suicide than their protestant brothers and sisters (https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/pdf/Mowat%20Swinton%20et%20al.%20Religion%20and%20Suicide.pdfQueens University Belfast).
So how do most people deal with life and the misery that it can sometimes give? And why are some just not able to see that light at the end of the tunnel?
Well, many in life seek and strive for happiness through wealth and by status. We are constantly pressured, especially in this modern age, to seek out that next promotion at work, or do that overtime to keep the boss ‘sweet’ or pay for that ‘all- inclusive’ holiday that will sort everything out.
Of-course it never does, and once returned into the hum drum of the daily routine, you will often hear the words, ‘feels like I have never been away.’ So money, holidays and career promotions will not satisfy our inner spiritual self and that is clear to see.
Some people seek out solace, peace and enjoyment through societies such as:- freemasonry, rotary clubs and similar fraternities. Not necessarily wrong or bad in themselves, for many of their members do lots of charitable good, but these organisations cannot ultimately fulfil our lives, and they certainly cannot offer an eternal co-existence with God, for they are without Jesus at the centre. For Jesus made it quite clear when He said, ‘No one can come to the Father except through Me.’ (John14: 6)
Others place their faith in occultic practices in an attempt to search for the meaning of life and to satisfy their earthly lusts and desires.
Mediumship, Tarot Card readers, crystals, astrology and other such undesirable groups are all means by which people seek out satisfaction in life..
Yet, it always seems to me that those that participate in such occult groups are the always the least secure people, always searching for something else to fill that void in their lives, whether it’s trying to make contact with their deceased family members or wanting to know the future for themselves. They always seem to be searching for something and are never fully content with life and all the joys it can bring.
Some of you slightly older ones may be familiar with the song called Rock and Roll suicide by David Bowie released in1972. The lyrics tell the story of the rise and fall of a mythical character called Ziggy Stardust. A great song and one of my favourites, but interestingly the ‘B’ side of that record is a song called ‘Quick Sand’ and the dark lyrics of that are actually influenced by the occultic group called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, with words such as ‘I’m frightened by the total goal, Drawing to the ragged hole, And I ain’t got the power anymore, No , I ain’t got the power anymore’. (Quicksand lyrics by David Bowie, Universal Music Publishing Group)
The song sums up the hopelessness of life provided by an imagery of quicksand, as something that just slowly overpowers, and finally totally overwhelms you.
And so, for me, as a Christian preacher, I view these sorts of occultic groups with some fear, and would caution anyone from a participation in them. Yes, they may claim to have the answer to the struggles of life, but really all they offer is a temporary false and empty hope.
But what makes following Jesus any different? And what can we make of the claim that Jesus is, the ‘Bread of Life?’ providing everything that the human soul may need?
Well Jesus is rooted in history from the very dawn of the world. In-fact the gospel of John commences with the words, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ (John 1:1)
In other words, John is clear from the outset, there is no confusion, he is saying that Jesus is God Himself. This fact you will of course find scattered through the bible from the beginning to the end.
Jesus is the One that demonstrates His divinity through the miracles he performs. Miracles that are documented not only in the bible but in other antient texts. His actions are not mythical fantasies, but recorded fact and witnessed by many.
Jesus is the only one that purposely uses the phrase ‘I AM’ to describe Himself, for those were the words that were given to Moses by God back in Exodus, when Moses questions God about who he should say had sent him, and God replied to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. Thus, you shall say to the children of Israel, I AM has sent me to you’ (Exodus 3: 14)
And this is the first of what are known as the ‘I AM’ statements recorded in John’s gospel, all of which are joined by tremendous metaphors, which emphasise the sovereign nature of Jesus.
I AM the Light of the World,
I AM the Door of the sheep,
I AM the Good Shepherd,
I AM the Resurrection and the Life,
I AM the Way, the TRUTH and the Life
and I AM the True Vine.
In our gospel this morning, we heard again the fact that the Jews are again unable to make that connection between Jesus and His divine nature, just as they couldn’t on the hillside previously, as they observed the multiplication miracle. And is another example of the blindness of people, even though they might have seen something miraculous before their eyes, they still failed to believe it, just as we might tell others about Jesus today and what He can do, but still they dismiss our claims and turn to groups that are spiritually empty.
But what upset the Jews so much in this reading, was that Jesus referred Himself to be that ‘bread that which came down from heaven’ (v38). Yes, they knew what they had seen through the miracles that He had performed, but still they only saw Jesus as a man, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?’ (John 6: 41) They only saw the man!
But moving on, what of the words of Jesus claiming to be the ‘bread of life?’ And how does the bread that we partake in at the altar, become that life giving food?
Well here it becomes a little trickier to explain. For there are different understandings of how this miracle might occur.
Some of you may have heard of theological words like transubstantiation or consubstantiation? Which are mans feeble attempts to try and get some understanding to that very question of‘what happens, and what changes take place, if any, to the bread and the wine?’
Thankfully for you, I am not going to even attempt to convey what those words might mean this morning, for they are big words and people have written big books on all that if you care to explore them in your own time!
But for me, as a simple Yorkshireman, I try and keep things simple. For ultimately, despite all those clever thinkers attempting to understand the nature of God, we will never truly know what happens during the eucharistic part of our services, but I am of the view that somehow, something just mysterious happens, when through the actions of the priest, Jesus becomes present amongst us, and by feeding on the bread and the wine, we are taking inside us the very nature of Jesus.
Yes, it is a mystical process, there is no doubt, but it is a process that is rooted in our biblical history and provides us with strength and sustenance to get us through life.
But even if the thought of an actual physical change to the earthly commodities of wine and bread is simply too much to contemplate, we cannot dismiss the mystery entirely, for we are still left with the symbolic nature of what both the bread and the wine represent. For, if you recall from story of the last supper, Jesus shares with His disciples the bread and wine and says, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me, Likewise He also took the cup after supper saying, This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you’ (Luke 22: 19-20) So He commands us to meet together and eat in remembrance of Him.
Now, I am conscious of talking about death a little more than I would like today, but unfortunately death is as much a part of life as life… if you see what I mean!
So, in an attempt to turn suicide on its head, and turn something quite negative into a positive, we might want to consider suicide in a different way? For to be a follower of Jesus, we all need to die spiritually and come before Christ. We need to put to death our old sinful nature and be reborn in Jesus, and we can only do that if we repent of our sins before God.
And then if we do, Jesus will come to our aid, no matter what we have done…. even murder. [And there are many examples of God’s forgiving nature in the bible, just take a look at the story of David, God’s chosen King, yet a man who commits adultery, gets the girl pregnant, then orchestrates the husband’s death on the battlefield to hide his shameful act. (2 Samuel 11) God will forgive anyone and anything, so long as we come to Him with a repentant heart.]
Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians talks of a ‘newness’ of spirit that Jesus can give to everyone and the rules for how that new life should be lived. In verse twenty-two of that discourse Paul says, ‘You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds.’ (Ephesians 4:22-23 NIV)
Jesus wants us to feed on Him and to become strong. He wants us to have hope, not despair, by putting to death that old-self.
That is not to say though that, we cannot continue our lives without taking a weekly sacrament, of course we can. For God is much greater than just a symbolic gesture and can minister to each and every one of us in many different ways.
For Elijah at the time of his deepest despair he was touched by an angel of the Lord and given food and drink, for some they are healed through the actions of another. And for others it may be through something quite different. Our God is an omnipotent God with unlimited power. And can surprise us in a way and a time that we least expect?
So, this morning come to the altar repentantly and in faith, prepared to meet Jesus, however hopeless life might presently feel. Feed and drink on that which Jesus Himself ordained and just believe in the hope that he brings. And when you leave this place today, take that message of hope with you and pass it on.
Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst’ (John 6:35 NKJV)