Readings: Proverbs 9.1-6, Ephesians 5.15-20, John 6.51-58
As you have probably heard by now, I am a Grandad. As a grandad, I’m re-discovering many of the puzzling questions I used to ask when I first became a dad. Like ‘why can’t this child tell me what’s wrong with it?’. Or when’s he gonna to learn to speak English? Or the most important question of all…when’s he going to be old enough to buy me a pint?
Growing from childhood into maturity is a recurring theme of the Bible too. The whole of the Bible is, in many ways, a metaphor for growing up. There are all those wonderful tales of biblical heroes who grow from children into adults – the show-off Joseph with his coat of many colours who grows into the second most powerful man in Egypt. There’s the young daring boy David, afraid of not even the mighty Goliath, who grows into a wise King and leader, a song-writer and poet. Even the primary story of Adam and Eve is ultimately a story about growing up and growing beyond the garden of one’s youth.
The very religion that the Bible relates also ‘grows up’ through its pages. It moves from an early dawn of realisation that this God, this Jewish God, didn’t require child sacrifices, through to an assumption that God wants to lay down lots of complex rules, through to the ultimate revelation of the God of unconditional love and mercy revealed to us through Jesus. It’s all about growing up, you see.
As we’ve just heard, the book of proverbs echoes this theme. The wisdom of God, usually characterised as a woman, invite the immature, and the simple, and those without sense to feast at her table of wisdom. “Come,” she says, “Lay aside immaturity and live – and walk in the way of insight.
Writing to the Ephesians in our second reading, St Paul also encourages his readers to grow up, or specifically to ‘grow wise’. “Be careful how you live,” he says. “Not as unwise people, but as wise.” And then, a little later, “…do not be foolish, but understand”. Next weekend, I shall be attending the wedding of my oldest niece, at which we will hear those other poetic words of St Paul, from 1 Corinthians 13 – read so often at weddings: “When I was a child, I thought as a child. But now that I am a man, I have put away childish things”. St Paul’s own life was a story of growing up. By God’s grace, he grew away from being an angry Pharisee, who stoned the early Christians to death – into one of the wisest and most revered of Jesus’ followers.
At yesterday’s parish conference, entirely by co-incidence, Mike Fluck introduced us to some further thinking about what it means for us to grow up in our faith. He reminded us of the thinking of theologian Gerard Hughes, who teaches that mature Christian faith has three stages to it. The first in the ‘institutional’ stage. This is the childhood stage of Christian faith. This is the time when we want certainty, and the comfort of being told what we should believe and how we should behave – both in our lives and in the way we worship. We want our faith to be institutionalised…so that we know where we are. Nothing disturbs us. Our Christian club is secure…and like the Famous Five, or the Secret Seven, we know who are friends are.
This is the stage in which we want to be led by strong leaders, who will praise us when we do things right, or correct us when we are wrong. People we can look up to, who we trust to do the hard work of thinking about our faith for us. Just like we did when we were kids.
But this, says Gerard Hughes, is just the starting point for a Christian. The next stage – the adolescent stage if you will, is the ‘critical’ stage. This is when we start asking questions for ourselves. It’s when we become open to hearing what others might have to say, and when we begin to challenge our more child-like notions about our faith. For many, this stage can be characterised by things like realising that God is not an old man sitting on a cloud, but a living presence in the world - and not a man at all. It’s the point at which we realise that all our language about God is meaningless, in the face of the infinite mystery of God-self.
And these insights lead us onwards into an even more grown-up faith; into the phase which Gerard Hughes calls the ‘mystical’ phase.
The mystical believer is the one who knows that God is not just encountered on the mountain-top, or in the church, but also and profoundly deep within us. The mystical believer recognises that their life-events have shaped them into the person they are, with the beliefs they hold…and that God is ever at work within them, shaping and changing, moving further and further away from those old institutional certainties into a belief which is so much more profound, so much deeper, so much more rewarding. Perhaps, it’s the moment when we realise that life is so much more complex than we assumed in our childhood.
It’s the moment, perhaps, when we realise that our intercessory prayers to the God on the cloud are pointless, because God doesn’t need to be reminded of the needs of the world. God isn’t an old man on a cloud - God isn’t deaf and forgetful! It’s the moment when we realise that prayer doesn’t change God, but it does profoundly change us. Through prayer, we bring the needs of the world into our immediate focus, not God’s. We undertake the vital task of being reminded that we are not the centre of the universe, and the needs of the world are our needs too. And we reach out to hear the voice of God in our hearts, calling us and equipping us to be part of the solution. That we are part of the answer to our prayers. That we are part of the process of healthy growth in the world.
But we are not alone in that task. Understanding that we are part of the solution doesn’t mean that we have to do it alone. The mystical Christian knows that he or she is connected spiritually to all of humanity, through the Spirit of God, revealed to us by Jesus. And Jesus himself offers us his presence and his strength on the path of life…the path of growth. As we heard in our Gospel reading “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me”
These are mystical words…not institutional ones. In these words, are huge depths of meaning which may take us a life-time to begin to understand…and certainly not something I can explain in the two or three sentences left to me this morning. Perhaps the best that any of us can do, in the face of such depth, such mystery, such profound wisdom is to submit to it, and let it transform us. Perhaps all we can do is fall to our knees in front of the mystery of the Eucharist, and say to the Lord who calls us: help me to grow up!