The following sermon was preached at WBB on 15 November 2022 by Robert Revington, the ministry’s emerging leader.
Let me begin with a question. How many of you, at some point in your lives, have had a sandwich from the chain Subway restaurants? I have many times and liked the taste. However, Subway has a bit of a reputation for the fact that their ingredients aren’t always what they claim to be. For example, one lawsuit argued that Subway’s tuna sandwiches had little actual tuna, but were a mixture from a variety of animals.1 Perhaps even more damning, two years ago, a court in Ireland ruled that the bread used in Subway’s sandwiches did not legally deserve to be called … bread.2 After analyzing their ingredients, the court found that Subway’s bread had a surprising amount of sugar relative to the amount of flour, and so, it would be more accurately labeled confectionery than real bread.3 Subway released a statement saying that they believed their bread really was bread.4 I think we can agree that in Gospels, when Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life,” (John 6:35) he didn’t have Subway bread in mind. No. But it is a recurring theme in that Gospel that Jesus uses metaphors to represent himself which point to some of the basic and most foundational things in existence. I titled this sermon “The Holy in the Common.” It’s taken from a line by the British theologian John A. T. Robinson. Robinson wrote that many people today “are more likely to respond to the sacred in the secular, the holy in the common … than in the distinctively religious.”5 Robinson laments that too often, “localizing the holy in the sanctuary in fact for many makes it more difficult to recognize.”6 Robinson also says that the phrase “the holy in the common” is “basically the meaning of the holy communion.”7 There’s something symbolic about that: the coming of God is represented in one of the most common of all things—a piece of bread. It was like that in Jesus’s time. So much so, that in the New Testament, the Greek word ἄρτος means “bread,” but can be used interchangeably just to mean “food” in general; when the Lord’s Prayer tells us, “give us today our daily bread,” it means keep us fed—not just to keep us well stocked in grain products specifically. Jesus chose one of the most common of foods to represent his body. He came into our common history—into the real world. Not just the world that we hear about in church, but in the world where people wait in line when they go shopping at the store, or get put on hold when we make a phone call, or get stuck in traffic. The world where kids have school and someone has to do the vacuuming and do dishes. That world. As the Gospel of John tells us, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The holy can be found among the common because the Incarnate Lord came in common flesh for common people. When Jesus calls himself “the Bread of Life,” he is identifying himself with the essential food we need to sustain ourselves. Because we need him to live. Sometimes, the most common things are the things we need the most.
Similarly, when the preacher G. H. Lang visited the Middle East in 1928, the meaning of another of Jesus’s metaphors in the Gospel of John was brought home to him in a striking manner.8 It was a hot June day; the temperature was 102 degrees Fahrenheit.9 The sort of day that gets you all sweaty, leaves your tongue dry, and makes you long for a sip of cool water to quench your thirst. Lang visited an ancient well “and drank of its cold and clear water.”10 It was refreshing on such a hot day. But it wasn’t just any well. It was the site of the story in John 4, where Jesus meets the woman of Samaria. Here, Jesus speaks of how he offers living water (John 4:10). Jesus says of the well, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). Drinking of the water in that same well on such a hot day made Lang understand that story in a new way. And he reflected that as wonderful as it was to get those sips of water on a 102 degree day, it was nothing compared to what Christ offered: living water from which one would never thirst again.11 We see again that Jesus is identifying himself with something pure and almost elemental: the water we need to live. There’s something hard to beat about having something in its pure, elemental form. I have liked drinking orange juice for many years and always thought Tropicana orange juice was particularly good. But until recently, I didn’t know what I was missing. When I was studying in the U. S. earlier this year, after going to an American grocery store chain called Trader Joe’s, for the first time in my life I tried freshly-squeezed organic orange juice. It was like I’d never had orange juice before! It was so pure and tasty and natural. If Jesus had made a metaphor about orange juice in the Gospel of John, he would have said: “I am the freshly-squeezed organic orange juice.” And he would not have said, “I am orange cocktail made from concentrate.” Because it’s not the same thing—especially once you’ve had the real thing. A little like Subway bread compared to the warm, fresh baguettes I had some mornings when I went to France.
I’d like you all to take a look at a picture. This is a painting from around 1850 by an Englishman named John Everett Millais. It’s called Christ in the House of His Parents; it shows the young Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and other members of the Holy Family—including a young John the Baptist carrying water.12 And it’s dense in biblical imagery in the background—like the Good Shepherd and Jacob’s Ladder. Surprising as this might sound, when this painting first came out, it caused a scandal. It was considered irreverent, even though this wasn’t the author’s intent. There were a lot of different reasons people reacted this way, but here’s one: in Victorian England, people were scandalized by how, in the painting, Joseph’s carpentry workshop wasn’t spotlessly clean—and this was the Holy Family! You can see scraps of wood all over the floor. Shocking, isn’t it? Now, you’d expect that this is what you’d find in a real carpenter shop where people did real work. But sometimes, the world of the Bible is treated as unreal—and not the world of common things.
In fact, an American Presbyterian theologian named Robert McAfee Brown once went to a church conference in the Philippines. He went to a worship service that used a Filipino dialect called Tagalog. Although Brown didn’t know the language, he discovered “that the Tagalog word for ‘holy’ was banal.” At first, he was put off by that, because in English, if something is “banal” that means it is uninteresting, unimportant, or ordinary. But when Brown reflected on it further, he realized that for these Filipino churches, “the ‘holy’ was not located in some far-off place, but in the very midst of the banal, the ordinary, the apparently unexciting—the places we North American folk would not be likely to notice.” Brown writes: “Even the coming of the Messiah into the world was an example of banality: Jesus was a nobody from the boondocks.” He concludes: “I count this interpretive key one of the major theological discoveries of my life.”13
Similarly, if you read the Book of Colossians, you’ll discover an interesting thing. The early chapters of the book talk in great, cosmic terms and speak of how the whole universe is under Christ’s dominion. In Colossians 1:15-17, Paul writes of Jesus that
he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
But we need to remember that when Paul says, “all things,” he means “all things.” Even the little things of everyday life. In the later part of the book, Paul gives rules for how people are to live at home or treat the people around them—for example, how husbands and wives are to treat each other, how children ought to obey their parents, but parents ought to treat their children well. Today we might think that Paul stresses the authority of the husband too much for modern tastes or not like how he has to tell slaves to follow their masters. Still, there’s an underlying point here. As the Bible scholar Luke Timothy Johnson writes, in that letter, Paul went from talking about these great cosmic ideas to something more grounded: the household.14 As Johnson says, “this illustrates Paul’s point made throughout: instead of seeking the ‘extra’ or ‘higher’ things, Christians should look to their own community and their present experience of God, for there they will find the manifestation of everything they so fervently desire.”15 In other words, when Paul said that “all things” come together in Christ, he meant the cosmos and the rulers of nations—but also the things of everyday life.
G. K. Chesterton writes that when Jesus chose the leader of his movement, he picked “a shuffler, a snob, a coward—in a word, a man.”16 It was Simon Peter. Chesterton adds:
All the empires and kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian church, was founded upon a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.17
In essence, Jesus chose to make the rock of his church not a great man, but a common man. Likewise, the minister Peter Marshall reminds us that “Jesus liked people—all kinds of folks—red blooded folks … for he himself was red-blooded.”18
And another important thing also comes in common forms: love. Throughout history, there are so many stories and poems about love. We might think of descriptions of young, beautiful people in a meadow on a sunny day. Yet, I would submit to you this: sometimes, love is most pure when it’s least glamorous. What, then, is love? Love is what makes a parent get up in the middle of the night to bring a bowl to a child who has thrown up and then clean up after them. Love is pushing someone in a wheelchair around a hospital floor, and giving them something to lean on for support to help them walk. And love is visiting someone in a nursing home when they may not always know who you are and won’t remember that you came.
Where does this leave us? Jesus came in a common form and we commemorate him in the breaking of bread. He came in the humdrum existence of everyday life. Sometimes the most holy things are found in the most common places, because the most common things are the things we need the most. As with bread, and as with love, let us remember each day, that, the holy is in the common. What could be clearer evidence of it than this: the Good News that the Son of God came down in human form to save us common people? Amen.
1 Tim Carman, “The Subway Tuna Lawsuit Is Back, Alleging That Samples Contain Chicken, Pork, and Cattle DNA,” The Washington Post, 10 November 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/food/2021/11/10/amended-subway-tuna-lawsuit/.
2 Sam Jones and Helen Sullivan, “Subway Bread Is Not Bread, Irish Court Rules,” The Guardian, 1 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/01/irish-court-rules-subway-bread-is-not-bread.
5 John A. T. Robinson, “Where May I Find Him?,” in Where Three Ways Meet: Last Essays and Sermons (London: SCM Press, 1987), 165-66.
6 Ibid., 165.
7 Ibid., 165-66.
8 G. H. Lang, An Ordered Life: An Autobiography (Shoals, IN: Kingsley Press, 2011 ), 200.
12 For the discussion which follows, see Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church, vol. 2(London: Adam & Charles Black, 1970), 62; 67-8.
13 See Robert McAfee Brown, Reflections over the Long Haul: A Memoir (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 263.
14 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 355.
16 G. K. Chesterton, Heretics (London: The Bodley Head, 1905), 60.
17 Ibid., 60-61.
18 Catherine Marshall, A Man Called Peter: The Story of Peter Marshall (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951), 301.