“The Living God”

Psalm 84; John 6:56-69

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. The one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you?”

Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’

Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’

When the disciples say “This is a difficult teaching, who can accept it?” I am right there with them.   At the mention of drinking blood and eating Jesus’ body, it sounds like something out of the Twilight series.  Supernatural books and movies are very popular these days but this scripture passage still leaves me with goose bumps.  I knew there had to be some deeper meaning behind this passage that I was missing.  To find clarity, I went back to the book of Leviticus chapter 17:4 which says

For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood”

Episcopal priest Rick Morley explains that in the Old Testament there are many passages that talk about animal sacrifices and blood was considered to be holy.

“A good portion of the Book of Leviticus concerns itself with what to do with the blood and body parts of sacrificial animals. When animals were ritually sacrificed to God, various portions of the carcass were given back to the person making the offering, given to the priests, or burned on the Altar and given over to God.

The same thing always happened with the blood: it was always given to God. Why? Because God considered it holy.  It was the blood of the animal that embodied its very life. The life force of the creature is its blood.” So, when Jesus tells his followers to drink his blood, what he’s saying in the ancient biblical language of Leviticus is: take my life, and pour it into your bodies, your lives, your souls.  Jesus’ life force will then be coursing through us.  God’s life force is what strengthens us and gives us life.  This is a powerful idea.  And again I think of the disciples saying “This is a difficult teaching, who can accept it?”  Jesus was a realist.  He understood that some people would not accept it.  He asked his followers, “Do you also want to go away?” and they reply where else would we go? No one else is offering us such a good deal.

The Bible contains difficult teachings, like the passage today.  Faith is challenging.  Spiritual wisdom is not gained easily.  We spend our whole lives struggling to understand the mystery of God and the challenges of being part of a community of faith.  In the face of difficult teachings about faith and difficulties in a community of faith, what do you say?  When confronted with that question, Jesus asked his followers “Do you also want to go away?” What is your answer? You are here today so at least some part of you is willing to come face to face with the tough teachings of faith and not turn away.  I am curious what keeps bringing you here?  What keeps you following, believing and searching?  Is it history, or habit?  Is it hope? That’s why I’m here. Hope. I’ve lived parts of my life without faith and without church and I’ve lived it with church and with faith and it’s better with than without.

I choose life with my flawed faith and my imperfect community of faith over life without it.  I don’t even know if I can call it a choice.  It is a need, a longing.  In psalm 84, our first scripture reading this morning, it says: How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.

Psalm 84 is a celebration of the temple as the dwelling place of God.   The Psalm speaks of traveling to the temple in Jerusalem and of the powerful experience of entering into that holy place. This psalm was spoken and sung by pilgrims who sought God, who desired the presence of the Lord.  This Psalm was a reminder that God would meet Israel in a particular place.  Many of us here today would say that God has met us in this place in particular.  We are pilgrims meeting God in this temple, this house where God dwells.  Our church is a home for God and for us.

The late Bartlett Giammatti was the commissioner of baseball, and before that, the president of Yale University. He was once asked about the popularity of baseball. “Why is it so enduring?” His reply was “Baseball is about coming home, and we all want to get home.”

Just this past week, Toby, Amalee and I had to move out of the manse because of the work they are doing to repair and repaint the outside.  We spent the better part of the week at the Hampton Inn, which was comfortable and convenient, but when we came home this weekend we had such a feeling of relief and relaxation.  Many of you have been away on vacation this summer.  Do you remember how it felt to walk back into your home?  Hopefully it was a very good feeling, knowing you could relax and totally be yourself.  And that is how we should feel when we come to KUC.

I recently spoke to a family who had lived here and became members of KUC.  They were active in the church until they had to move to England for work. When I talked to them, they were back visiting and made sure to come here for worship while they were in town. They said that even though they lived far away now, they still considered KUC their church home, and they planned to move back to the area in another year and they couldn’t wait to come back to KUC.  When we have the ability to come here all the time, we may take how special this place is for granted, but it is truly sacred ground.

Eugene Peterson offers an interesting translation of one part of Psalm 84 in The Message.  It says: “One day spent in your house, Oh God, this beautiful place of worship, beats thousands spent out on Greek island beaches.”  We are drawn to KUC as a place where we know we are in God’s presence and it feels so good to be in God’s presence that we would rather be there than anywhere else.  Some places we go feel sacred but we doubt if God is there.  When we are at church, we do not need to doubt.  We are at home with our God in our church.

The Methodist minister, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Carter points out that “home has a present and future dimension. There is the temple, the sanctuary of our present experience. We look around and we see its beauty, and maybe we remember something from the past, a wedding or a baptism or a stirring anthem or a word spoken to us by a preacher. I have had weeks that were difficult–more negative than positive, more going out than coming in. And I have sat down in a sanctuary, and it was as if I could hear the church choir of my youth soothingly singing “you are home.”  What memories come to you when you enter our church doors?  Were you married here?  Were your children baptized here?  How many times have you gathered in this very spot to pray and sing and listen for God’s Word?

Not only do we think of the past, there is also a need for a sanctuary in the present and the home of our future. Yes, “God is our help in ages past and our hope for years to come, a shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.”   Kenilworth Union Church is one of God’s dwelling places.  It holds our treasured past and it brings us closer to God in the present, and it will continue to do so in the future.  We face a time of change.  It unsettles us.  It may even make some of us feel uprooted from our church home, but we do not need to fear change.  What is it the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said? “The only constant in life is change.”  As people of faith we may add, the only thing constant in life is change and God.

Looking again to scripture we see that God chooses to dwell among us, with us and in us.  There is a progression in scripture. First, God’s dwelling place is the temple.  The temple is a physical place; you can go to it, touch it, worship there.  And then, in the Gospels, Jesus teaches us that his body is the temple.  In Jesus, the fullness of God’s presence dwells. And then later in the Gospels and in the letters of Paul, we discover that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 3: Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you?)  God dwells in us. God lives in us. We are the temples of God. Our living God dwells in our hearts and lives. When someone comes to worship in our church, they may discover a beautiful sanctuary. And then they meet someone, and they begin to know the people, and realize that it is the people who are also the temples where God is present.  Take heart and remember that God not only lives in our church, but that God lives in each of us. Changes will come but God will be our constant.  Live into that hope, so that we may greet our future with optimism and faith, knowing that there will always be difficulties but our living, loving God will be our guide.