Page last updated



John 6:55-69
Paul Overend, Anglican University Chaplain Cardiff University

Have you noticed how religion separates things into the holy things and the unholy things – the things of heaven and the things of earth – the sacred and the profane? In todays’ gospel we get the distinction made between the flesh and the spirit, a distinction Paul made often, and uses again in his letter today.

It is to misunderstand that distinction to make of it a world denying hatred of the body and a love of lofty spiritual thoughts. We know that to be people of the spirit involves the world in which we care for other people. If we believe that god made the world and saw it was good, the body is not something bad. What is at the heart of that distinction – flesh and spirit – (that is physical desires, and the spirit with its desires for God) is the same code of holiness, applied to moral order - separating greed as unholy from generosity as holy.

The use of these distinctions (holy and unholy) are long-standing, and go back to well before Christianity. The people of Israel and Judah thought of themselves as the godly people – set apart (for the praises of God) from the ungodly, (who did not put their trust in God). They were consecrated or set apart – in their case by circumscision. The church adopted this distinction calling herself holy - the one holy catholic and apostolic church. We still consecrate people and things – not only in baptism, but in the consecrated lives of religious vows of monks and nuns. We consecrate object, like chalices and icons, dedicating them for religious use as holy things.

But in fact this idea of the holy and the unholy is a progression – not black and white but shades of gray – not the saved and the damned but degrees of holiness.

Churches are built on this design – separating the heavenly (as the place of God), and the reality of earth (as this fallen place of mortals). Only Christians could be buried in the church grounds. The rail round the altar isn’t supposed to be there to lean on when you received communion and struggling to stand up again. It was there to mark off the sanctuary as holy place of the building, the sanctified place. The aumbry or tabernacle – where the sacrament of communion is kept – is locked and curtained off in a quiet place as the most holy place – as the presence of God. So from the church gate to the tabernacle, there is a progressive order of holiness.

I tell you all this as it has an important bearing on our faith. It is a misunderstanding to think of faith in terms of the saved and the damned – as when eager enthusiasts ask ‘Are you saved?’. Salvation is more of a progression of holiness, a pilgrimage to eternal life. Christ saves us not simply by being a substitute for our sins on whom divine punishment was sent, - that would make him just a willing pawn in the terror of divine justice. No, he saves by living a life perfectly dedicated to God, in that he is the Holy One, and it is this gives us the assurance of eternal life, the assurance of justice.

John says that the words Jesus gives are spirit and life. And this is why, at the end of the Gospel today Simon Peter wants to follow him’ Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the holy One. This then is our faith – to seek to follow Christ – to live a holy life dedicated to following Christ’s holiness.