Thought for the week - 8 August
Trinity 10. Gospel John 6: 35 & 41-51
In today’s gospel, John picks up, or rather continues, Jesus’ theme of The Bread of Life – a wonderful theme, a wonderful theology, about which Fr Harry preached so eloquently last Sunday – thank you Father.
But there is another continued theme hidden away in the readings. It is the theme of grumbling, murmuring, or in our gospel today, complaining. Last week, it was the Israelites grumbling about their lot in the desert. They had been rescued by God from slavery in Egypt, brought miraculously through the Water of the Red Sea, but now, now, they complained about everything.
This week it is in the gospel that St John picks up the phrase. ‘The Jews began to complain.’
This might seem to be a minor point – after all, we all complain from time to time. In fact, I sometimes think that we should complain more! The waiter comes to take our plates away after a rotten meal and asks us how it was: ‘delicious’ we say as he takes away our still laden plates!
But this is not the real meaning of complaining, murmuring, grumbling that Jesus picks up. Here it is altogether a more serious thing.
In the Rule of St Benedict, the rule for living in community, murmuring is taken very seriously indeed. Benedict knew well that such murmuring can destroy community life and undermine faith. In chapter 5 of the Rule Benedict means a tendency to create little “followings”—little “fan clubs”—little groups who would be more devoted to the counterpoint than to the point. Grumbling was egotism’s “fast track” to destroying unity, purity of intention, and singleness of action. Grumbling drained and deflected energy away from the mission and wasted it on complaining. It was more about “kingdom building” than kingdom advancing.
Again, let’s be clear. Benedict was not talking about doing things without questioning them—and he surely was not talking about embracing anything false. But he knew that even when good and true things are being commended, there is still a temptation to “opt out”—not so much by public denial, but by words and actions that undermine the will of community and even the will of God.
It would be nice to think that this kind of thing only happens in monasteries, but it happens everywhere. It happens in car parks after meetings have finished. It happens on the phone when people keep the resistance alive. It happens whenever and wherever people will not surrender their individual wills for the will of the larger body. It happens when our egos prefer to keep a strangle hold on the community rather than letting go, so everyone can breathe. A sure proof of this happening is when someone starts a conversation with “A few people are saying!”
But even that is not the core of what Jesus and Benedict mean by combatting ‘grumbling.’ If we go back to last week’s reading from Exodus, we see that despite everything God has done, some through their own negativity, undermine the faith and progress of the community, they cause division by dividing people off with their negativity.
In our gospel today, because in their attempt to undermine Jesus and his authority, to form a resistance group, the grumbling Jews lead people away from the wonderful, central message of eternal life in Christ.
In our churches we can so sadly have the same experience. It is so easy to be negative, to draw attention to the negatives than to celebrate the positives. We clergy are by no means immune! We are for example, always complaining about the people not present rather than celebrating the ones who are!
Congregations, PCCs can so often concentrate so much the problems that we forget to proclaim the wonderful works of God and the promise of eternal life. Our task is a Church is to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and not show people instead, a community of those who grumble!
As St Benedict put it so simply and so well “Prefer nothing to the Love of Christ.” (ROB Ch 76)
We all like a good moan – but let us try hard put that phrase into our daily prayers and rule of life – especially when we feel like grumbling.
Prefer nothing to the Love of Christ.