Archive | August 2012

13. Pentecost: A Difficult Teacher

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

26 August 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

“A Difficult Teacher”

Based on St. John 6: 56-69

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            For the past five weeks we have followed Jesus throughout chapter 6 of St. John’s gospel. We began by hearing the story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes for the crowd of over 5,000. Though there were only a few loaves and a few fish, somehow it was enough for all present. As the disciples went away after this sign, Jesus walked on the water to meet them in their boat. The following week the crowd who had been fed returned to Jesus looking for more bread when he proclaimed to them that he was the bread of life that would never run out. He continues explaining being bread of life in the next portion. Finally, last week, amidst people arguing over how he could say such things, Jesus ramps up his rhetoric and says that one must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life.

            But today the rubber meets the road.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, eventually the bread that Jesus shared would not be enough for those following him. Some of them would turn away and no longer be his disciples. A distinction needs to be made here – these are not his primary disciples who leave, the twelve who would become apostles, but others who had been following him. In any case, Jesus says to the crowd, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” Last week I addressed how surprising Jesus’ language, and how it discomforts us. So it is no wonder then that some in the crowd say, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” If those of us who are Christians struggle with this teaching, of course it is difficult for those hearing it for the first time. But Jesus doesn’t back down, he doesn’t dial down his language – he doesn’t simplify. He says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” Even people who saw Jesus in the flesh had trouble believing. They did not have faith. Remember these are some of the same people who ate the bread and fish Jesus multiplied for their bodily nourishment. But for some of them that wasn’t enough, and they failed to grasp the spiritual nourishment that Jesus offers. Today we marvel at that miracle. Some might wonder how it is possible that they could not believe after such an event. Many people ask for a sign from God, and here was one. But they failed to see that the bread and fish pointed to something much bigger. And after they had their fill, Jesus’ teaching got more and more complicated, and ultimately they couldn’t swallow it. And so we read that “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” They turned back and went to their former lives. It’s kind of surprising isn’t it? That Jesus’ group of disciples gets smaller, not larger. That seems counter-intuitive. In an age of booming mega-churches it goes against the grain of our thinking, especially when the largest church in Missouri has 10,000 members. More does not necessarily mean more faithful, especially when in Jesus’ case when his crowd was larger, not everyone believed.

Reformed theologian Scott Hoeze writes, “It’s sad to see people abandoning Jesus as John 6 concludes. But do you think that precisely such a winnowing out of the crowd was Jesus’ intention all along?  Do you think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing in being so provocative in his language about eating and drinking his own flesh and blood?  Surely he was not ignorant of the fact that people would find this gross and offensive.  When in verse 61 Jesus asks, “Does this offend you?” you have the feeling that he knew full well that it was offensive, at least to those who were not being granted the gift of faith by the Holy Spirit and at the Father’s behest.”[1]

            When Jesus was told that his teaching was difficult, he didn’t backpedal. He doesn’t go running after those who leave. He lets them go on their way and focuses on the twelve who remain. Jesus in his wisdom, while he might have still been perturbed that some weren’t getting it, knew that the teaching was difficult. Instead of dialing down, Jesus cranks it up. It’s as if he’s creating a pressure cooker atmosphere, putting on the heat to see who will commit. I really do think that Jesus was using this difficult teaching to force a decision. He wants the crowd to know that it’s about more than a free lunch of some bread and fish miraculously multiplied. He wants them to see that it’s not always going to be easy – that they are going to have to accept some difficult things. Following Jesus isn’t about getting your needs met, it’s about the Kingdom of God come near, making the first last and the last first. It takes commitment and dedication, which ultimately the entire crowd was not ready to make.

            Father Rick Morley, an Episcopal priest says,

“Jesus didn’t launch these rhetorical bombshells so that they’d fizzle with time. No, I think it’s clear that Jesus was stirring the pot on purpose. He wanted to say things that challenged people, even to the point of having to decide that they’d have to leave. One thing is clear here: Jesus isn’t about people-pleasing. He’s not about glad-handing, and smoothing out the wrinkles so that everyone can go away happy, and come again happy. But…following Jesus means…sometimes you need to say the hard thing. Sometimes there is no win-win situation where everyone goes home happy. Sometimes people get mad, and they leave, and they never come back. And, all because you said something like, “No, this is God’s Church, and all of God’s Children are welcome here.” Or, “No, their love is a gift of God, and it will be celebrated in God’s Church.” Or, “Eat my flesh and drink my blood, for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”[2]

            After the others turn away, Jesus asks the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” I’m no Jesus, but boy can I relate to that. But listen to Peter’s response, “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 of God.” That statement alone is enough justification to refer to its speaker as St. Peter. Lord, to whom can we go.  These twelve had made their commitment. They had left their old lives behind and had no plans to return. They received the Good News from Jesus, they knew the words he spoke transcended their current reality. Like the rest, they didn’t fully understand the message and would often stumble, but unlike the others, had put their faith and trust in Jesus. They were there not merely for some bread or fish, but the very presence of God. To whom can they go? They know of no one else who can so embody God’s promise. They assent to his teaching, even when it is difficult because he has the words of eternal life.

            Jesus gives us the same challenge that he gave to the twelve and to those who left him. Can we take the difficult teaching along with the loaves and fishes, and along the way see that they point beyond ourselves, beyond our comfort to a God in charge of it all? Are we willing to withstand the trials that come with following Jesus? The path of discipleship isn’t always easy. In our United Church of Christ statement of faith we say that we accept the “cost and joy of discipleship.” We commit to going the journey with Jesus. We commit to leaving old lives behind, and finding a new, transformed life with Christ. There will be times when life with Jesus might feel like you’ve been put in a pressure cooker. There will be times when we might want to say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But remember, whatever the risks, whatever the obstacles – it is in Jesus that we hear the words of eternal life. He is the Holy One of God. In Christ we are changed, transformed and given new life. The twelve that remained, they could be thick-headed, slow on the uptake. They were common fishermen and tax collectors. They were simple village people. And yet we still tell their stories today, we still remember their faithfulness. Those who left? Who knows who they are? Really, it’s not whose name we still know, but the faithfulness even in times of trial. The point is that the disciples stayed, because in Jesus they saw the Holy One of God.

            They weren’t perfect, and sometimes they failed. Sometimes they made themselves scarce. But when push came to shove, when the rubber met the road, loaves and fishes mattered little compared to the bread of life that Jesus offered. May we say with them, “To whom can we go? You have the words of life.”

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

 

 

 

12. Pentecost: Enfleshed in the World

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

19 August 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Enfleshed in the World

Based on St. John 6: 51-58

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            The words are shocking. Jarring. Disturbing. Disconcerting.

And they come from Jesus. Speaking to a crowd he says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” This should startle us. It should make us uncomfortable. On Monday, the day I begin my scripture study for the week, I was struck by Jesus’ words, and even a little queasy. Jesus is saying we should eat his flesh and drink his blood – not quite words of comfort one would expect. As shocking as his words might seem to us, we have perspective and distance. His hearers had not yet witnessed the crucifixion. We celebrate the Eucharist when we re-member Christ’s crucified body and spilt blood, broken and shed for us, in the symbols of the bread and wine. But those who heard these words for the first time had no Eucharist meal to point to, but just heard the literal words. It would have been even more jarring and shocking that first moment Jesus said “eat my flesh and drink my blood.” The Jewish people were forbidden to eat meat with any hint of blood. In Genesis, God commanded Noah, “Every living thing shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” To drink blood would have been an abomination to the Jewish people. Blood was saved from the animals to be offered in the temple to God. Yet, here Jesus says to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It is no wonder that early Christians were accused of being cannibals, and even today some nonbelievers criticize the Church because of our communion meal where the bread symbolizes the broken body and the wine is the shed blood. British commentators Catherine McIlhenny and Kathryn Turner write that, “Here is a real flesh and blood man saying unless you eat this flesh and drink this blood, you cannot have life within you…it is small wonder that the Jews argued about what he meant. Was Jesus advocating some kind of cannibalism? Was he encouraging a satanic rite of drinking human blood? What did his words mean and how – in culture which honoured the body and held blood to be sacred – how could he mean what he said? Early Christians were indeed accused of human sacrifice – cannibalism – and the drinking of human blood as people heard snippets of their beliefs: “they meet to eat flesh and drink blood”. These accusations were cited as cause for persecution – after all, what civilised society would tolerate such behaviour?”[1]

            If Jesus had meant the words literally, we would all be cannibals and zombies. But he didn’t. He often spoke in metaphors and parables that would shock and jar persons out of their complacency. I’m reminded of William Sloane Coffin’s words, “We take the Bible seriously, not literally.” We take Jesus words seriously, not literally. So what is he saying here? Is this just foreshadowing of the Lord’s Supper? I think Jesus is reminding us of the incarnation here. The incarnation is God taking on human flesh, being part of the world as one of us. St. John’s gospel begins with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being,” and continues on saying “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” It is some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. The Word became flesh. Jesus is reminding us that he is God enfleshed. When he tells the crowd that by eating his flesh and drinking his blood that they will have eternal life, he is foreshadowing that by his crucifixion, death and resurrection we will have everlasting life. United Church of Canada minister Rev. David Ewart says, “John wants us to SEE that God so loves this world of human flesh and blood that the Word, which created that Garden, became flesh and blood light, life, and truth in our flesh and blood reality. When Jesus invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, he is inviting us to ingest God’s Word, to feast on God’s light, God’s life, God’s truth, God’s love.”[2]

            Love, light and life! Those are comforting beautiful words. Why didn’t Jesus use them? I don’t know particularly why, but Jesus felt the need to talk in a more visceral way, to challenge and shock. Perhaps if he hadn’t used such bold language it wouldn’t have even registered with the crowd. He’s talking about something new and different here. Something that won’t be comfortable for the society. Something that will challenge. Something that will shake up our regular way of thinking. He wants us to see that God is doing something new. He wants us to see how bold it is that the Son of God lives and walks among them and that he will even give up his flesh and blood, his very life for them, and for us throughout all time and space.

                When we partake in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we make memory of Christ’s nativity, incarnation, life, ministry, passion, death, resurrection and ascension. We make memory that God took on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and gave it up for us, in order that we may live. By our prayers and the Holy Spirit, Christ is mystically and really present in the holy meal. By partaking of the bread and cup, we ingest Christ’s Spirit into our very selves. Rev. Karen Campbell, from the Church of Scotland, says, “In the consumption we are celebrating and entering into the life of Christ in all its forms. We are entering into salvation history and carrying the story on.”[3] Christ wants us to participate in his very life – that is why he metaphorically says to consume his body and blood, which are powerful and potent symbols of life.

            Christ wants us to see once again that he is more than yet another traveling preacher or powerful healer or fascinating teacher – but the very bread of life. For those that followed Jesus, they often struggled to afford to eat a bit of bread each day. Jesus says to them and us that his bread does not run out, and it comes without a price. Jesus Christ is the living bread, and when we eat of this bread we have eternal life. We have life that lasts beyond decaying buildings and bodies. We have life in God our very Creator.

            How does Christ call our attention to this life? He calls us with words that are shocking. Jarring. Disconcerting. Words that shake us up and make us uncomfortable Christ calls us out of our comfort zones, out of the narrow, exclusive worlds that we have created for ourselves, to the vast, expansive, inclusive universe God is still creating. So listen for the words that challenge, that call you out of the ruts of the life that doesn’t really last. Listen for the words that lead to life eternal. Listen for the words that make you a bit queasy. Listen for the words that say God is here among us in the flesh. Listen for the words that say, “Take and eat, this is my body, this is my blood, for the life of the world.”

 

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

 

 

 

 

11. Pentecost: Cutting Down and Building Up

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

12 August 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

Cutting Down and Building Up

Based on Ephesians 4: 25-5:2

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

            The church at Ephesus, to which the letter of Ephesians was written, was an important congregation. The church is also mentioned in the book of Revelation and was later the site of a major council in the 400s. There is a possibility that St. John and Mary, the mother of Jesus lived in Ephesus and were part of the church there. What is believed to be the last home of Mary is located there, and is still a pilgrimage site today. In the time of the letter, Ephesus was a booming city of 250,000 – one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean. It was Rome’s capital in Asia Minor, and the site of a major Greek temple. The church there was most likely largely made up of Gentiles. St. Paul lived among the Ephesians from 52-54 AD. If he indeed wrote this letter to the Ephesians, which is debated, it was likely while imprisoned in Rome around the year 63. William Loader says that, “Ephesians wants hearers to make the connections between the new relationship they have with Christ, with each other (including with Jews), on the one hand, and real living, concrete behaviour, on the other. It is important to see both aspects. They assume a new state of being which makes such changes possible.”[1]

Throughout the letter to the Ephesians, a central theme is unity. They are told, “So then, you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but citizens in the household of God.” In our passage today, the author says to the Ephesians, “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.” He continues to urge thieves to give up stealing, and others to not speak slander or do malice. Now this is not advice unique to the Christian faith. You can find such moral teaching in Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and other religions. What does make it unique is how the command continues. The writer says, “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” He later reminds the reader that they are to forgive just as Christ has forgiven them. The Ephesians, and we, are reminded that we are members of one another. That is language that recalls Paul’s letter in I Corninthians when he says that we are all members of the Body of Christ, likening each to a different part of the body. Because we are members of the Body of Christ together, we need to speak truth to our neighbors. The Contemporary English Version of the Bible puts it this way, “We are part of the same body. Stop lying and start telling each other the truth.” The Good News Bible says, “Everyone must tell the truth to his fellow believer, because we are all members together in the body of Christ.” In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, it is put this way: “What this adds up to, then, is this: no more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself.” All this is to say that because we are united together in the Body of Christ, we need to speak truth in love to each other and hold each other accountable in honesty.

The next admonition is familiar, at least in part. Many of us are familiar with the phrase, “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” In fact, I know more than one couple that uses this adage in their relationship. Notice too though, the phrase that precedes it – “Be angry, but do not sin.” We are actually told to be angry! Too often Christianity gets confused with the niceties of society and Aesop’s Fables. Here we see plainly that anger can be a Christian virtue. There is a place for righteous anger, as long as we don’t let it fester and burn up inside us. Anger can actually be productive in that it can lead us to right what is wrong and to work for justice in an unjust system. Eugene Peterson rephrases it this way, “Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry – but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry.”

The writer of the epistle continues by writing, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” What we say matters. Words have power. They can build up, encourage and support – or they can completely destroy. I know that in the most difficult times of my life a few well-chosen words by a friend made all the difference and helped me persevere. Several months ago, I was having a particularly difficult weekend. I saw the light on my answering machine flashing. I was loathe to check my messages. I thought, “What is it now?!” I checked the message anyway, and it was one of our shut-in members with a message of thanks for visiting her. She has no idea how much her words of gratitude meant to me. And of course, we also each have had times when particularly harsh words cut deeply. Such words can cause deep and lasting pain – more than we often know.

The Pultizer Prize winning play Doubt deals with this issue. It is about a priest, Father Flynn, and the principal of his parish school, Sister Aloysius Beauvier who has leveled accusations against him without evidence. From the pulpit one Sunday he tells this modern parable:

“A woman was gossiping with her friend about a man she

hardly knew – I know none of you have ever done this, and that night, she had a dream: a great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’ Rourke, and she told him the whole thing. ‘Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. ‘Was that the Hand of

God Almighty pointing a finger at me? Should I ask for your absolution? Father, have I done something wrong?’ ‘Yes,’ Father O’ Rourke answered her. ‘Yes, you ignorant, badly-brought-up female. You have borne false witness on your neighbor. You played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed.’ So, the woman said she was sorry, and asked for forgiveness. ‘Not so fast,’ says O’ Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow upon your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me.’ So, the woman went home: took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed. ‘Did you gut the pillow with a knife?’ he says. ‘Yes, Father.’ ‘And what was the result?’ ‘Feathers,’ she said. ‘Feathers?’ he repeated. ‘Feathers; everywhere, Father.’ ‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out onto the wind,’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’ ‘And that,’ said Father O’ Rourke, ‘is gossip!’[2]

This modern parable illustrates just how far words can go particularly in regard to gossip or rumors. We can’t retrieve our words once they have been said – they float away, irretrievable like feathers.

In the past two weeks, there has been a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin killing six people and a fire completely destroying the mosque in Joplin. It is no wonder when a local Congressman freely calls those who disagree with him, “Godless,” and the dehumanizing and demoralizing rhetoric so often thrown at those one is in conflict with, that such speech leads to physical actions that destroy and kill. In such a time we should be especially careful that “no evil talk” come out of our mouths. I have been appalled to hear the ways in which so many people have gone beyond civil debate over politics and religion, to vitriolic attacks with no respect or concern, let alone Christian compassion. I have been ashamed of the way people have degraded Governor Romney’s Mormon faith and accused President Obama of being a secret Muslim. It is one thing to disagree on issues and to calmly and rationally debate, but another to descend into a pit of name-calling and cursing anyone who disagrees.

Because we are indeed members of one another, we should not use our words to tear down, but to build up. There is such a great need in our country to build up. So many people are despairing in the midst of all the problems our country faces, that the infighting and baseless accusations across aisles only aids and abets ignoring our problems. Rather, with our speech and actions we should be building bridges to better understand and care for one another. Rev. Kate Huey, Minister for Stewardship, Scripture, and Discipleship in the United Church of Christ national office, says, “If we claim our identity in Christ, if we know ourselves as members of a body, how can we be at war with one another, outwardly or underneath the surface and behind one another’s back? If we truly belong to one another and to the Body of Christ, how can we, for example, hurt one another with angry words and actions? When we act out of anger, we hurt ourselves, in a very real sense, as the members of a body should not and would not hurt each other.”[3] Since we are all members of the Body of Christ we should remember that we cannot simply cast each other aside, but care for each other for the health of the whole body.

In Joplin, Ashley Carter, a student at Ozark Christian College, is building up. CNN reported this week that when she heard that the mosque in Joplin had been burned to the ground, likely because of arson, she said, “I was very saddened. I thought it was very evil. I was pretty discouraged,” Carter said. “Regardless of what you believe, I think everybody’s entitled to loving whoever.”  So she organized a “rally of people coming together, from all walks of life, all religions, a really diverse group of people trying to promote this radical love.” To date, over 400 people have committed to attend on August 25. Ashley says she was inspired by “my love for Jesus. And I know that Jesus calls us to love people.”[4]

This is indeed the kind of speech and action that builds up across divisions. The author of Ephesians reminds us, “be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Eugene Peterson continues his paraphrase of this passage saying, “Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love.” Once again, it comes down to love. We should be loving in telling each other the truth, in our dealings with one another and our speech. God loves each one of us. Each one of us are beloved children of God, gifted and created with marvelous potential. And yet each one of us is flawed, and each one of us has said and done things we wish we could gather back up like feathers. Yet, God loves each one of us unconditionally. That is what we should imitate in how we speak to each other. We are told to speak in such a way that our “words may give grace to those who hear.” You see when we imitate God in showing unconditional love, we share God’s grace with those with whom we communicate. Truly may our words be gracious, that we may share God’s love whenever we speak.

+To God be the glory. Amen.

10. Pentecost: Bread for the Soul

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

5 August 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Bread for the Soul

Based on St. John 6: 24-35

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            Have you ever been in a one-way relationship? It’s the kind of relationship where you’re the only one putting forth an effort. You express your admiration, adoration, and adulation, showering them with love and support and encouragement, but receive nothing in return. It can be a romantic relationship, or purely platonic. It can be a frustrating, even heartbreaking position in which to be. You can come away from such experiences just feeling used.

            I actually think that’s how Jesus felt after feeding the 5,000 the loaves and fishes. I don’t know about you, but I never really thought about Jesus being or feeling used, until studying our gospel lesson this past week. As I said last Sunday, many of us are familiar with the story of just a few loaves and fishes being enough for the crowd of 5,000. It’s an amazing miracle contained in all four gospels. But few of us are familiar with what happened after the feeding. Fortunately our lectionary, that is the official listing of scripture passages for each Sunday, follows this story closely for the next several weeks and we get to see what the after-effects really were, closely reflecting on the bread of life.

            Our reading today picks up right where we left off. After the feeding, after Jesus walked on the water to the disciples in the boat, after having reached land – who should be on their heels, but the people who had just been fed, who had just been shown a sign of the bread of heaven. Jesus is perturbed. He says to the crowd, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” He knows they are back not to experience God, not for the nourishment of their souls, but their bellies.

            Jesus understands physical hunger. He was fully human. After all in one of his resurrection appearances the first thing he asks for is something to eat. He doesn’t begrudge the crowd having eaten the first time. What he does begrudge is that they failed to see the sign that the feeding pointed to – that Jesus is not some magical baker, but is the Bread of Life himself. They failed to see beyond their immediate need.

            Mennonite minister Michael Danner comments, “Jesus’ miracles seemed to serve a two-fold purpose. On a concrete level, his miracles set people free from tangible burdens. Illness. Social isolation. Physical limitations. Demonic possession. Hunger. On an equally concrete level, his miracles also put God’s power and reign on display. Jesus’ ministry among the people provided tangible proof that, indeed, the Kingdom of God was at hand. The question is, do people have eyes to see and ears to hear one within the other? If they don’t, their relationship with Jesus will become manipulative and exploitive. They will end up using Jesus for bread and miss out on the Bread of Life.”[1]

            My guess is that Jesus felt used here. We don’t often think about how our actions make God feel, do we? But if we truly believe that God wants a relationship with each and every one of us, maybe we would do well to think about how we are living and maintaining our relationship with God. Is it one-way? Do we pray, go to church, do works of mercy and justice for our “Get out of jail” card, to ensure an eternal reward – or is it in response to God’s grace and the relationship God seeks with each one of us? Those are questions we really need to ask of ourselves.

            Jesus continued speaking to the crowd saying, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” How hard it is to focus on the food that does not perish, the living bread, when our bodily needs press before us and we feel and hear the rumble in our stomachs. But spiritual starvation is just as real. We need to feed our souls as well, to partake of the bread of life, to not let our faith and spirituality grow stale.

            The followers ask Jesus what they must do. Jesus’ answer is: believe in the one whom God sent. Jesus doesn’t even say that he speaks of himself. But the followers get where he’s going with this and say “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?” I really would like to know who in that crowd had the chutzpah to ask the question. Jesus had just hours ago fed the 5,000 – as much of a sign as they should have needed, and here they have the gall to basically say, “Eh, that wasn’t enough the first time. Do another trick.” But they  don’t stop there. Then  they work the guilt trip angle, saying that Moses gave their ancestors manna, that “‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus reminds them though, that manna was not from Moses but from God, just as Jesus is from God.

            Alyce McKenzie, Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, writes that Jesus is treated almost as a reality show contestant, saying, “Let’s see your act again, Jesus. If it holds our interest, we won’t buzz you, and we’ll vote you through to the next round. They’re treating Jesus like a talent show contestant who has to prove himself to them so they’ll advance him in his career. The crowd’s demand of Jesus … is incredibly insulting. Jesus breaks out of the mold. He demands that this “audience” do some work. To receive the food that will nourish them to eternal life they need to bring belief to the table. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”[2] Jesus challenges the crowd to see beyond their immediate need, to see beyond the miracle, to see the sign of the Bread of Life, to respond by believing in him.

            When Jesus reminds the crowd that it was not Moses but God who gave the bread, he said, “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”  Again the crowd wants to be recipients of what Jesus has to offer them, rather than participate in his work in the world. It isn’t so hard though – to receive the bread of life we only have to believe and live our lives in response to this everlasting bread. This is the bread which nourishes our souls as well as our bodies. This bread never grows stale or crusty – this bread always feeds our hunger for divine connection. It is no coincidence that when Jesus gathered his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion, that he broke bread, blessed it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body broken for you…do this in remembrance of me.” Whenever we eat bread for our earthly bodies, we should recall and make memory of all that Jesus Christ, the Bread of Heaven has done for us.

            UCC theologian Bruce Epperley reminds us that “Jesus gives us the bread of everlasting life; soul food and not fast food. Feasting on Christ’s bread gives substance to every meal: apart from the abundant life God provides and promises – the abundance of interdependence and relationship with God – nothing can satisfy.  Nourished by divine bread, we become large-spirited, having the mind of Christ that embraces the body of Christ – not only in the church but in the world – in all its wondrous variety.”[3] We are nourished by Christ’s love and sacrifice and intercession for us. This is true living bread. We should respond as Christ tells us to: by believing in him whom God sent. By the signs, revealing God to us, we can say, “Truly, you are Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior, our Messiah, the Bread of Life.”

            Jesus said to the crowd, “Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” This is Good News! We don’t have to go chasing after Jesus for sign after sign to get more bread. He offers it freely if we only just believe. In Christ our souls and spirits are fed and sustained. As we receive Holy Communion today let us remember that it is truly the Bread of Life which feeds our hearts and souls through all eternity.

To God be the Glory. Amen.