Sermon for 11th Sunday after Pentecost 2018
2ndSamuel 11:26-12:13a Psalms 51:1-13 Ephesians 4:1-16 John 6:24-35
A devout cowboy lost his favorite Bible while he was mending fences out on the range. Three weeks later, a sheep walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The cowboy couldn’t believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the sheep’s moth, raised his eyes to heaven and yelled, “It’s a miracle!” The sheep said, “Not really, your name is written inside the cover.”
It’s not a miracle that the Bible was returned. Anyone could’ve done it since the cowboy’s name was written in it. The miracle is the talking sheep, which no one expects and the cowboy doesn’t recognize. It is similar with the miracles of John. The point isn’t the miracle; it’s the nature of the one who performs the miracle.
Miracles in John’s Gospel are not magic: they are not tricks intended to amuse or impress; indeed, they are not even acts of compassion, where people are fed or healed. Miracles for John are signs. They are a disclosure of the very nature of God. So the heart of the narrative is the conversation with the crowd. The crowd tracks Jesus down. Jesus explains that the crowd is missing the point when they just see their hunger satisfied. The truth is not the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but is a miracle about the revelation of God and the very sustenance that God can provide through Christ.
Some may think that Jesus is more difficult to comprehend than he ought to be. We believe that Jesus is the full revelation of God, but the revelation doesn’t come to us directly. In the beginning of John’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus is the light of God shining upon us in such a way that we “saw his glory.” We are also told that we “love darkness instead of light” to the extent that we did not receive the light when it dawned upon us.
The Gospel of John can be challenging. In chapter 6, the crowds who clamor after Jesus just don’t get it. In this Gospel, those closest to Jesus don’t get it either. Earlier readings tell us that Jesus is successful in attracting great multitudes. Yet immediately, John warns us not to get too excited by the big numbers. They are attracted to Jesus, not for any of the right reasons, but merely because of his miracles. The reaction of the crowds is a clear indication of how widespread the misunderstanding of Jesus really is. The Christ has “come to them”, but he has not yet truly appeared to them, at least not appeared in a form that they can understand.
The crowds just don’t get it. They didn’t get it when Jesus talked about the “temple”, didn’t get the meaning of “new birth”, “water” and now they don’t get this talk about life-giving bread. They hear Jesus talk about “bread” and they immediately assume he is talking about food. Jesus serves them miraculously feeding them; they attempt to make him king. They just don’t get it.
Jesus doesn’t fail to bring attention to their lack of understanding. The people are looking for Jesus, but Jesus dismisses their searching in saying, “You look for me because you do not know who I am.” They can’t see. They lack faith. They need faith in the one whom God has sent, the Word made flesh. Their faith is in their idea of a Savior. By rejecting their attempt to make him king, Jesus is critiquing and rearranging their idea of God’s reign, just as he attempted to reframe and redefine their notion of temple, birth, water, and life.
With this, Jesus launches into an ambiguous and farfetched explanation of something called the food of eternal life. With focus on bread and food, John reframes our notions of spiritual. In this Gospel, in this faith, the spiritual is incarnational, tied to the stuff of this life, present here and now. When the church wants to embrace the spirituality of the Bread of Life, we meet at the table with eating and drinking of the bread and wine.
John’s Gospel can be challenging. We preachers think we are communicators. Our job is to communicate the gospel, to help the hearers “get it.” The purpose of a sermon is to make the gospel fully accessible to all hearers, without the risk of confusing anyone. We simplify the complex and make fully apparent the difficult and the ambiguous.
But Jesus risks ambiguity, metaphor and difficult communication. He is not trying to darken the truth, but rather to reveal a difficult, counterintuitive, countercultural truth. “Faith”, as it is used here, means more than clarity about the facts. Belief is a set of propositions. Faith means encounter with a person, one who speaks to us, one who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” The one who speaks to us this way, is the one who desires not only that we think about him, but that we feed on him, know him, love him, implying that we could starve to death without him.
The truth being communicated here is so peculiar that shallow comprehension won’t help us understand. We have to go deeper. Our attempts to understand Jesus’ words is to use everything we have. When asked to explain the Eucharist, John Calvin said that he would “rather experience it than to understand it.” Actually, to feed upon the truth who is Jesus Christ, to find primary sustenance in him, is better even than to understand him. We don’t have to fully understand the mystery of God – the mystery of the Eucharist – to receive and grow in faith with each encounter.
In going on vacation to the Holy Land, I wanted to experience Jesus in Jesus’ stomping grounds. The village of Capernaum was a large part of Jesus’ mission and ministry. We visited the ruins of the synagogue and Peter’s house next door. We went to the place where the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand took place. On that site, there is a sweet little church with bread and fish icons everywhere. A group was singing in the chapel. I didn’t know the language or understand the words, but could hear the praise of God and worship of Jesus’ gift to us. Then, we went to the place recognized as the place where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount – the chapel was filled with the beatitudes from Matthew 5.
To be in those places where Jesus walked and taught was amazing. But, what brought it home to me was sharing communion beside the Sea of Galilee. To know that it is not just words, but actions – commitment to be a community - in taking what we have received and going out into the world to share with others. Jesus, the Bread of Life, begins this Sunday and continues the next three Sundays. Encounter and comprehension of the Word made flesh takes time, humility about what we can and can’t know and a worshipful willingness to be taught by a Savior who does not come naturally.
Jesus came from God and he came to do the work of his Father, to give his life for the sake of the world, so that those who trust in him might receive everlasting life. We are to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, not because we deserve it, but because we need it. We need it to be connected to Jesus and connected to each other. We need it to feel as if we belong to a community. It is the soul food that we desire and soul food in which we will rejoice, long after our bellies are full and our lives know justice and mercy in this world.
He was old, tired and sweaty, pushing his homemade cart down the alley,
stopping now and then to poke around into somebody’s garbage.
I wanted to tell him about Eucharist, but the look in his eyes, the despair on his face,
the hopelessness of somebody else’s life in his cart,
told me to forget it.
So I smiled and said, “Hi”—and gave him Eucharist.
She lived alone, her husband dead, her family gone, and she talked at you, not to you, words, endless words, spewed out.
So I listened—and gave her Eucharist.
Downtown is nice. Lights change from red to green and back again, flashing blues, pinks and oranges. I gulped them in,
said, “Thank you, Father,” – and made them Eucharist.
I laughed at myself and told myself, “you with all your sin,
and all your selfishness, I forgive you, I accept you, I love you.” It’s nice and so necessary, to give yourself Eucharist.
My Father, when will we learn – You cannot talk Eucharist-
You can not philosophize about it. YOU DO IT.
You don’t dogmatize Eucharist.
Sometimes you laugh it, sometimes you cry it, often you sing it. Sometimes it’s wild peace, then crying hurt,
often humiliating, never deserved.
You see Eucharist in another’s eyes,
give it in another’s hand held tight, squeeze it with an embrace. You pause Eucharist in the middle of a busy day,
speak it in another’s ear,
listen to it from a person who wants to talk.
Eucharist is as simple as being on time and
as profound as sympathy.
I give you my supper, I give you my sustenance,
I give you my life, I give you me,
I give you EUCHARIST.
R. Voight, “The Eucharist” in The Other Side of Silence: A Guide to Christian Meditation, ed. Morton T. Kelsey (New York: Paulist Press, 1976).
Jesus is the bread of life, the heavenly bread that feeds us, renews us, and sustains us. It is this coming together in creed and deed, receiving communion and affirming our beliefs that allows us to go forth and use our gifts. It is this sharing of hopes and dreams, creeds and bread that we are brought together. In this unity, we celebrate our diversity and find promise and purpose. Jesus loves us, feeds us and sends us out into the world to be his hands, heart and feet. I give you Eucharist. Amen.