One of the stranger stories asociated with C B Fry (who died in 1956) was that he had been invited to become the King of Albania, though he had no Albanian ancestry nor even any Albanian connections. Whether this story is true or not is debatable: there are certainly some stories about him which are true – he held the long jump world record for a time, and he was an advisor to the Indian delegation at the League of Nations; but other stories must rate as ‘doubtful’, such as that he could jump from a standing start onto the mantelpiece and balance there. My cat can do that – but it must be very unlikely for a human being!
But the story of his being invited to become King of Albania leads me to ask why any nation would wish to look to a total outsider for salvation. There could be reasons for doing so – nobody from their own community had shown sufficient ability, for instance, or perhaps there was too much fighting between different groups, so that it became necessary to look to someone who had no history of siding with any one of the groups. It was for similar reasons (among others, no doubt) that Robert Willson, a priest of the diocese of Nottingham, in the mid-19 century was appointed Bishop of Hobart, Tasmania – he had no connection with the two groups of priests working there, neither of which would trust or work with the other.
But there is a downside to being the saviour from outside the community: as soon as he (or she) made any unpopular decisions, or even once the community thought they could make good on their own again, the comments would start – what does he (or she) know about life here? Who right does he (or she) have to tell us what to do? So it seems as though the leader in this situation can’t win: an outsider is needed, and yet there will come a time when the outsider is no longer acceptable.
So the Jews, who complain at the start of the passage we have heard today from St. John’s Gospel, are set on a leader and saviour from outside. He is to be sent from God, and must be more capable or more powerful than anyone from their own community. So someone who is too close to home, whose family they know, will not do. He is no better than we are – what can he possibly know that we don’t? What can he possibly do, that we have not tried already?
The matter is made worse by the fact that he is claiming to speak the words of God. He quotes from Holy Scripture, and claims to be able to interpret it. He even goes so far as to claim some special relationship between God and himself: that God has sent him to them, that he has seen God (and is the only one to have done so), and that God is the one who will draw people to belief in him (or not draw them), and that it is through Jesus that people may attain eternal life – which surely can only come (for those who believe) as the gift of God himself.
But the message that Our Lord has for the Jews is more subtle than they realise. He is saying to them that he is an outsider: he is from God, and not from any human power; but he has not come to them as and outsider: for the ‘bread that has come downfrom heaven’ has become a human being, a Jew, precisely one of themselves. So Our Lord is at one and the same time a complete and total outsider, and a person so close to them that they know his mother and father. When theyneed the wisdom, the power, of God, then they have that and more in Jesus; and when they need a ffriend, neighbour, companion, they have that and more in Jesus. He is at once the most distant from them – as God is higher than any creature, so the Word of God is higher than any human word or thought or power; and at the same time he is the closest to them – not only a fellow human being, but a Jew, a neighbour, one who has lived and worked among them.
What does he want of them? He wants them to be open to the Word of God – as he says, it is written in the prophets that they will all be taught by God – and to learn from God’s Word and come to believe; and through believing they will receive the bread of life, who is Jesus himself, and through this receive eternal life.
We also are called to accept the bread of life; we also are called to eternal life through believing in him. Whereas the Jews whom he was arguing with in today’s Gospel were called to relate to him in his bodily appearance, we are called to relate to Jesus, Lord and Saviour, in and through the Church. It is here thatwe receive the bread of life in Holy Communion; it is here that we become the body of Christ, the communion of the Church; it is here that we listen to God’s Word and are fed and encouraged to live with God’s life and (by the power and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit) to follow his ways. This is the reason why the Church is important for us – not the buildings, or the individual persons (however eminent they may be), but the communion of the body of Christ, our fellow believers.
So perhaps today we should commit ourselves again to listening to the Word of God, to receiving the body of Christ, to living by the power of the Holy Spirit. As we renew our commitment, perhaps we need to ask ourselves what we will do in the future which is different from what we have been doing in the past.
Father Ken O’Riordan, who was a good friend of mine, and who died a few weeks ago, always invited the congregation to spend a few minutes talking about what he had said in his homilies, and reflecting on the passages from Scripture which they had heard. I’ve never yet had the confidence to follow his advice. But now I’m wondering whether that would help us all to reflect and to make our reflections known to Bishop Malcolm.
The questions for reflection I have been asking for a few weeks now:
Bishop Malcolm takes very seriously his responsibilities to those God has given to him, which is why he is consulting so widely at the moment with ‘You Are Living Stones’. He does ask us to join him in this process, so that he will preserve and care for God’s gifts,and that nothing will be wasted of all that God has given to this diocese. So please do reflect on all the issues that I have been raising for these past two months.
What do we need the priest for?
What do we want the priest to be doing for us?
How do we wish to look after our priest?
What do we do for our priest?
How would this parish maintain itself as a Christian communion
without a resident parish priest?
if we had to relocate elsewhere?
Bishop Malcolm asks us all to reflect on such questions, and to pool our thoughts so that he can discharge his responsibility to make appropriate and wise decisions for the whole diocese.