Sermon preached at St Barnabas, Downham

Week B21: Joshua:24,1,2,15-18; Eph 5: 21-32;
John 6: 60-69


"After this, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him" All of us, I suppose, must know someone who has "stopped going to church".

We probably know several such people.

Whenever that happens, and for whatever reason it happens, there is a sense of bereavement.

The closer we are to that person, the more acutely we feel the loss, and the more embarrassing it becomes to keep up any social relationship with them other than of a most superficial kind. It is as if they had slammed the door between us.

Many of us have had it happen inside the family. We have children, or a brother or sister or parent who have stopped coming together on the Lord's day to fulfil his command to "Do this in remembrance of me" So today seemed a good opportunity to look more closely at the whole business of "staying away" or "apostasy" as the technical term for it is.

A good opportunity, because a comparative "outsider" to St Barnabas like myself today will not be thought to be "having a go" at anybody in particular: I have been long enough detached from the Downham scene not to know how many people have fallen away since I was here.

Secondly it is a good opportunity to examine a matter which is deeply serious for all concerned but which seldom gets looked at objectively or rationally in a parish setting.
* * *

Apostasy is nothing new. People attached themselves to Jesus as learners (or "disciples" which is another name for learner) because they wanted to be taught by him.

Then he said something that offended them and they went away.

Some, we know, found the cost of discipleship more than they were prepared to pay; others, no doubt, found other interests which distracted them from their studies and discipleship; some people were looking for instant results and gratification which Jesus didn't provide; and yet others found that their apparent lack of growth and progress in the way of life he taught them led to a sense of general disillusionment with him.

The same is true of people today. But the curious thing is that these same people would never suppose that difficulties like these would justify them in any way in reneging upon their earthly commitments.

"Jesus said something that offended them": Most children at some time or another are rude to their parents or have a disagreement with them; quite a lot of parents, by the way, are appallingly rude and inconsiderate towards their children. Yet neither parents nor children imagine that the sensible thing is to break off relationships permanently, then and there: that is a last resort.

"Discipleship costs too much": Most worthwhile things in life cost something. The more they cost us, the more we tend to value them. If we've spent months or years saving up for a bike or a car or a house we don't imagine that it's going to cost nothing to maintain, or be trouble free: we don't put it on the scrapheap as soon a something goes wrong with it.

Then what about "distractions"? Goodness knows, there are enough of them around, but we know, don't we, that we're never going to achieve anything worthwhile in life if we let ourselves get endlessly distracted. We need to shut out the distractions by main force of will, turn of the TV, find somewhere quiet to work, or say "Sorry, not just at the moment: I've got my exams next month" when someone invites us out to a party.

"Lack of growth and progress?" Don't our instincts tell us to go to someone who is professionally qualified to give us advice and help when that happens? If your baby is failing to put on weight, wouldn't you go to the clinic or your GP? If your business is consistently losing money wouldn't you go to an accountant or a management consultant? If your car is losing power wouldn't you take it to a garage or ask some friend to have a look at it? If your roses aren't flowering properly, what do you do? You go and ask a friend, or get a gardening encyclopaedia out of the library, or go back to the nursery where you bought them.

What I'm sure you don't do is simply pull the roses up and throw them on the rubbish heap, or just sit there and watch whilst your baby gets thinner and thinner.

Do you see what a curious thing apostasy is? It is the one answer to the difficulties of being a Christian which is bound not to work! And it's a response which we would never make to anything else.

The nearest equivalent to it it that of a child who has been given a present which it is not old enough to appreciate. All of us must have seen this happen at Christmastime. The toy needs co-ordination, the game needs to have its rules properly understood, the kite needs a particular skill to make it fly. The child doesn't have this and so loses interest, the toy is laid on one side and perhaps forgotten about.

Writing to the Ephesians, St Paul compares our relationships within the body of Christ, that is the Church, both the the human body and to the institution of marriage. On this pattern apostasy, cutting oneself off from the body, is like amputating one's own finger because it is hurting or getting a divorce the moment we have a disagreement with our spouse. In a way it's a kind of suicide: an extreme reaction which gets nobody anywhere.

Apostasy springs from a lack of love and respect, not only for others but for ourselves.

People sometimes talk as if self-love and self-respect were bad things in themselves.

Not at all! without proper self-respect we become careless or despairing; and without a proper measure of love for ourselves we shall have little love for our neighbour. "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" only works if we have the right amount of self-love.

In my recent experience as leader of Deptford JobClub, helping people to find employment, I have discovered that for every one person who has too much love and self-respect there are twenty who have too little of either or both.

Which brings us back to the words at the end of the gospel.

When those people had gone off in a huff, for whatever reason, had apostasised themselves from their discipleship with him, Jesus turned to his remaining disciples and asked, "What about you? Do you want to go away too?" To which Simon Peter replied, "Lord, whom shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God" Fine words indeed! We know of course that Peter didn't live up to them when it came to the crunch. He denied his master and ran away with the rest of the apostles.

But his apostasy lasted barely 36 hours, from late on Maundy Thursday night to very early on the Sunday morning when he and Jesus were reunited.

If our apostasies were equally short-lived they would do little harm. When we meet our Lord in the breaking of bread on Sunday morning it is a real kiss-and-make-up time.

Like the teenager who has a tiff with her parents and goes out slamming the front door shouting "I never want to see you again!" but comes back the following day having spent the night at a friend's house, there's no real harm done.

The real harm is done when they don't come back. The real apostate is in danger of losing everything that really matters. For in Jesus Christ, and in him alone, we have the message and the secret of eternal life.


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