a homily on John 4:46-54
It happens every now and then – you’re tired, you’re discouraged, you’re depressed. You don’t know how things are going to work out. Circumstances are overwhelming; life’s burdens have become too much to bear. What do you do? How do you cope? Where do you find the strength to go on?
The sermon series we’ve done, going through the Old Testament stories of God’s people surviving in the midst of hostile cultures has also provoked similar concerns about our state of affairs today on a larger scale. How do we go on being Christians in a world like this? Last week I addressed that question on the larger scale, summarizing each sermon from the entire series. Now we’re looking at the same sort of question on a more personal level. How are you, how is she, how am I, going to find the strength to go on being a Christian in today’s world?
It’s popular wisdom to say “when your schedule is full, cut something out.” It’s exactly the same on the spiritual level; when you’re exhausted from the demands of religion, put aside the extras and focus on the basics.
To give an example, our worship service today is cut back almost to bare bones. Almost all the optional bits are removed, laying bare the basic essentials. Even though music and candles aren’t required, I’ve kept them in anyway because certain people really enjoy them. But look at what’s left: some prayers, some Scripture, some more prayers, some scriptural prayers, and the Body and Blood of Christ. This is a great example for us. When the Christian life feels like it’s too difficult to keep up with, it may be time to drop the usual “devotionals” that we frequent, and get back to basics.
Think about the hundreds of years of history when most people didn’t learn how to read. All these books and pamphlets and internet articles that vie for our attention today would have been of no interest to the ordinary Christian in those days. Instead they had to memorize the core basics. Three of the most important things learned were the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. There we find the basic foundation of Christian teaching, the basic foundation of Christian worship, and the basic foundation of Christian behavior.
Sometimes we might feel overwhelmed by all the things demanding our attention and attracting our interest: a worship event to attend here, a certification course there, a project at work, a ministry opportunity through the church, volunteer work, small groups, personal downtime for leisure and fun. How do we maintain that basic but necessary link to Christ and His Body?
A few examples of the basics we need to return to can be found in this morning’s Propers – the Collect and Readings.
#1 – Faith
The Collect of the Day, for this 21st Sunday after Trinity, is a prayer that is also used in the Daily Office; it is a prayer for forgiveness. After we confess our sins, we pray for God’s pardon and peace so that we can have the strength to go on and live godly lives filled with His peace. But notice how the Collect begins: “Grant to your faithful people.” Assurance of pardon, the forgiveness of sins, is not something God throws around willy-nilly in some arbitrary fashion. Rather, it is given to those who turn to him in faith. Jesus died for all who put their trust in him. The whole world is invited to the Cross, even drawn to the Cross, but only those who recognize the Cross as the only sufficient sacrifice for their sins will receive the benefits of the Cross, namely God’s pardon and peace. So we must turn to the Lord in faith, and thus we can confidently ask and pray for forgiveness of our sins.
#2 – Word & Spirit
In the Epistle reading from Ephesians 6 we heard the famous passage about the Armor of God. As with the Collect, the role of active faith in Christ is highlighted as a strong source of divine protection. But what these verses particularly add to this discussion is the offensive weapon: the sword of the Spirit, which is also the Word of God. This union of Word and Spirit is echoed in many parts of the Church’s ministry. We see it in the Bible – God’s written word made effective in the hearts of His people by the operation of the Holy Spirit. We see it in the Sacraments – God’s spoken word made effective in the hearts of His people by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the dynamic of Word and Spirit is the very stuff of our salvation: the Word of God died for us on the Cross, and the Spirit of God applies the benefits of that sacrifice unto our own spirits.
#3 – Immaturity
But it is the Gospel reading (John 4:46-54) that I most want us to explore this morning. There we find all the themes at work together: faith, the Word, and the Spirit. Jesus, the Word of God, is speaking the word of God, calling a man to true faith. The official wants to see a miracle, some extraordinary work of God to make manifest His power. Jesus sees a problem here. “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe,” he rebukes the man.
This is a classic problem that we see today too: we often find ourselves wishing and asking for some sort of sign. Copies of the Bible are on our shelves, by our bedsides, on the internet, in our phone apps, in the church facilities, all over the place, and here we are wandering around wishing God would speak to us. And so people eagerly chase after all sorts of visions and prophecies by popular Christian authors who claim to have heard these words from Jesus himself. Similarly, the Sacrament of Holy Communion is celebrated weekly, even daily in some churches, and yet here we are wandering around wishing God would work some sort of miracle. Is the Spirit still alive and active, we wonder, as we scroll past emails about Confirmations, Ordinations, Baptisms and the like being celebrated all over New England, the country, and the world? “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe,” Jesus wisely rebukes us. If we would just open our Bibles and read, we would hear the word of the Lord we so desperately need. If we would just visit our churches’ worship services, we would see the powerful work of the Spirit we so aimlessly seek.
#4 – The Need
Undaunted, however, the official keeps up his request to our Lord: “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Regardless of the state of his faith, the man knew that he had a son who would die without God’s help. It’s all well and good to be rebuked about insufficient faith and a lack of maturity in discerning God’s Word and Spirit, but how does that help his son right now? We might almost perceive Jesus’ rebuke as somewhat coldhearted, there’s a boy’s life at stake, and he’s fussing around with the state of one man’s faith? Perhaps this should give us pause for thought: the state of one person’s faith is itself a matter of life or death, not just for this world but also for the next!
The official was concerned about the life of one person, good for him. Jesus was concerned about the eternal life of one person, even better! So our earthly problems, while very real and very valid, are often a lot smaller than the bigger problems of life and death, salvation and damnation. Before we freak out about money, employment, and comfort, we should be sure to know where our faith truly lies.
#5 – The Test
And so, with this official’s persistent asking for healing for his son, Jesus gives the man both an answer and a test: “Go, your son will live.” Here’s a big moment of decision for the man. He has been asking Jesus to come and rescue his son from certain death. Jesus challenged his own faith first, but now is saying that the boy will live. Is Jesus just brushing him off, or can he really be trusted to be right even though he’s not answering the request in the expected way? The man wanted Jesus to heal the boy in person, but can he trust Jesus to heal from a distance?
This is much like the examples I’ve already talked about – we so easily and often want to hear God’s Word and see the work of God’s Spirit in one way, while God has already promised the effective presence of both in another way. Is the Bible really good enough to be God’s voice to you today? Is the sacramental ministry of the Church real enough for you? Is it not enough to see people converted from service to the devil to service to Christ, or does the Holy Spirit need to sweep through the congregation with gifts of tongues and extraordinary visions for you to know for sure that He’s there?
#6 – The Provision
So this is a big moment for the official; what is he going to make of Jesus’ unexpected response? Thankfully “the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.” He didn’t get what he came for in the manner in which he asked, but he decided to trust that God had somehow done what needed to be done. And as the final verses describe, he got home and confirmed with his servants that his son began to recover at the very hour that Jesus had spoken the word. And finally he and his household believed. He had asked for a sign, Jesus warned him that faith based on signs alone was a weak foundation, and he provided a sign on his own terms, and the man accepted it and believed.
This, too, is our position before God. God does not heartlessly brush off our childish prayers and requests; He hears them all and provides for us, but He does so on His own terms. St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians begins with the thanksgiving that God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (1:3). That means, in a sense, that everything we could ever ask for, God has already provided. Every sign, every strengthening, every empowerment, every testimony for true faith, is already available to us through the ministry of the Word and the ministry of the Sacraments. The Bible may not be written in a style we like, the Sacraments may not be as vivid as we might like, but they are all gifts from God that bear His promises of His presence and action. As Isaiah said about God’s Word, “it will not return to me empty; but it will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it” (55:11). And as Paul said about the Sacrament of Holy Communion, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). These are the basics of our spiritual life, the solid foundational promises of God’s continued active presence among us through the course of everyday life.
Back to Basics
Jesus’ challenge to the official in our Gospel reading this morning remains a challenge for us to this day. When life gets busy and complicated and overwhelming, we naturally tend to respond with better time management, time-saving devices, and organizational assistants, all of which eventually seem to make life even more complicated than before. There comes a point when we’re forced to see the wisdom of the simple call to return to the basics. What do I really need to know? What do I really need to read? Where do I really need to look for God? The answers, simple and predictable as they may feel, are all but staring us in the face. Pick up the Bible, listen to it read and preached, get a chance to study it with others. Attend the worship services of the Church and participate in her three-fold cycle of guilt, grace, and gratitude, where we are confronted about our sinful natures, given grace to heal from our sin-sickness, and have opportunity to express gratitude to our God who has done all this for us.
There are many resources out there to help us overcome this or that challenge in life, but it’s a huge red flag that when you walk into a bookstore you’ll usually find the Religion and Self-Help sections kind of jumbled together. That may be accurate for some religions, but that is completely untrue for Christianity. Self-help, ultimately, is worthless. As sinners, all we can do is sin more. It is only the grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, that lifts us out of the mire and gives us fresh strength and new life. As Solomon or his spokesman wisely observed, “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:11-12). That one Shepherd is Jesus Christ, and his collected sayings through the Prophets and the Apostles is the Bible. This doesn’t mean that all other books are worthless, but that we can drown in them if we don’t keep coming back to the one book that God wrote. If you have time and energy for reading theology, or lives of the Saints, or devotionals, or other such Christian books, that’s a great and useful thing. But if you only have time and energy for a little bit of reading, make sure it’s the Bible you’re reading. Of all the books, that’s the one we really need the most.
So, when in doubt, go back to the basics. It’s no use burning out on busy and complicated things when we could be living simply and strongly on the firm foundation of Christ and his promised provisions in the Church. Thanks be to God.