John 6:35-51 (The Message):
Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever. I have told you this explicitly because even though you have seen me in action, you don’t really believe me. Every person the Father gives me eventually comes running to me. And once that person is with me, I hold on and don’t let go. I came down from heaven not to follow my own whim but to accomplish the will of the One who sent me.
39-40 “This, in a nutshell, is that will: that everything handed over to me by the Father be completed—not a single detail missed—and at the wrap-up of time I have everything and everyone put together, upright and whole. This is what my Father wants: that anyone who sees the Son and trusts who he is and what he does and then aligns with him will enter real life, eternal life. My part is to put them on their feet alive and whole at the completion of time.”
41-42 At this, because he said, “I am the Bread that came down from heaven,” the Jews started arguing over him: “Isn’t this the son of Joseph? Don’t we know his father? Don’t we know his mother? How can he now say, ‘I came down out of heaven’ and expect anyone to believe him?”
43-46 Jesus said, “Don’t bicker among yourselves over me. You’re not in charge here. The Father who sent me is in charge. He draws people to me—that’s the only way you’ll ever come. Only then do I do my work, putting people together, setting them on their feet, ready for the End. This is what the prophets meant when they wrote, ‘And then they will all be personally taught by God.’ Anyone who has spent any time at all listening to the Father, really listening and therefore learning, comes to me to be taught personally—to see it with his own eyes, hear it with his own ears, from me, since I have it firsthand from the Father. No one has seen the Father except the One who has his Being alongside the Father—and you can see me.
47-51 “I’m telling you the most solemn and sober truth now: Whoever believes in me has real life, eternal life. I am the Bread of Life. Your ancestors ate the manna bread in the desert and died. But now here is Bread that truly comes down out of heaven. Anyone eating this Bread will not die, ever. I am the Bread—living Bread!—who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live—and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self.”
So I guess before I get too far into this, I should say a few words about myself. As you may know my family and I recently joined St. Luke’s, and my boys were baptized. I have two boys- Samuel, who’s 7, and Nathan, now 1. All parents hopefully think their kids are special, and that’s no less true of me. Samuel was born at 24 weeks gestation, and almost didn’t make it. He spent his first four months in the NICU. Today, he’s a happy, amazing, vibrant kid, with few scars from his traumatic birth. He’s an avid, phenomenal reader who challenges me with the most amazing questions, like, “Why are there two church buildings across from each other?” He knows to call them church buildings, not churches, but more on that later. Nathan, on the other hand, is precocious and delightful. He’s just about walking now, and it’s clear he’s going to be our athlete and troublemaker. He loves it when we tell him, “No!” and is sure to keep doing whatever we’ve told him not to, hoping to get more of our attention. He’s got an infectious laugh. My wife, Kirsten, is an overnight RN at Akron Children’s. She usually works Saturday nights and so usually is sleeping on Sundays. In fact, she worked last night, but she’s a trooper and is here now. She’s an incredible cook and is the best friend a person could have. I love her dearly. In fact, on Friday we celebrated our 16th anniversary, thanks be to God.
As for me, I grew up in Texas. My upbringing was hard in many ways, as my mother was abusive, and my Dad was an enabler, though my home was “Christian,” but that’s a story for another day. I didn’t grow up Lutheran, though. My family belonged to an Assembly of God church, which is Pentecostal for those who don’t know. Our congregation was one of those large, suburban mega-churches. Looking back on that congregation now, there’s a lot about it that I don’t particularly agree with, but at the time I think it was good for me, as I certainly encountered God there. It took leaving Texas, mostly for good, when I was 18 though to realize, as I always say, that “God is not a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant who lives in the ‘burbs and shops at the mall and otherwise spends his time pursuing the American dream.”
Anyway, to make my very long story much shorter, I went to college at a small liberal arts college in MA. That’s where Kirsten and I met. I left school after my junior year to get married and move to Philly, where I had spent the previous summer working with kids in the inner-city. After a couple of years in Philly we moved to MN for five years, which is where Kirsten’s family is from. While there I finished my undergrad degree and went to Luther Seminary. I did most of an MDiv there before eventually graduating with an MA, which is another long story for another day. So I’ve certainly preached before, but it’s been a while, which is why I was so honored and grateful when Pastor Bob asked me to fill in today.
Some say that as a preacher you really only have one sermon to give, one story to tell. That’s certainly been the case for me. Whatever the Scripture for that week, whatever my title or topic, what I end up saying will in one way or another be a variation of what I’ve said before and will likely say again. This is so because the story I can best tell is my own story, but good preachers tell their stories artfully enough so that others can see how that story connects to the story of us all, and ultimately to THE story, the good news, the Gospel. Paul said it this way in I Corinthians 2: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” I would add: “and resurrected,” but why quibble? Actually, it’s no small point, though, the resurrection. Paul would go on to say in I Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (I Corinthians 15:14).
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in a useless faith. Life is far too hard, and short, and frankly so is struggling to follow Jesus for it all to be for naught. Don’t get me wrong, I think Jesus’ social teachings were amazing and inspirational, and so was his short life. Frankly, though, I think Gandhi’s social teachings and even more so his life were likewise amazing and inspirational, as were Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. No, if the resurrection isn’t true in any way that means something, if God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead, then I’m out. I’m done. You see, the resurrection is the heart of the Gospel, which is the good news of and about Jesus. It’s the Good News OF Jesus because it’s the Good News that he himself proclaimed, that the kingdom of God is upon us, even now, that God himself is with us, that our sins are forgiven. In Luke 4 Jesus declared that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, that he was anointed to proclaim good news to the poor. He was sent to proclaim freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. He was sent to set the oppressed free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Those words were right out of Isaiah’s scroll, and audaciously Jesus walked into a church service one day, read those words and then declared them fulfilled. Really? Good news for the poor? Freedom for prisoners and the blind healed? No more oppression? The idea seems absurd even to our sensible ears and we are literally the richest people in the richest nation in the history of the world. I know I am anyway. I actually looked it up. I may be in the 99% in this country but globally I’m one of the richest people who has ever lived. 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. Heck, sometimes Kirsten and I will spend that much in one afternoon on smoothies. We’re fabulously wealthy, and so are you. But it sure doesn’t feel like it, at least not if we watch the news or want to vote for President. My point is I, as one of the richest people ever, find Jesus’ proclamation of good news for the poor nearly unbearable. In fact, it makes me angry. “Good news?!” I want to rail. What good news? The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, right? Unemployment is high. Cancer and AIDS and West Nile and the Flu are rampant. We’re not just the richest people in the history of the world, but the most incarcerated too. Captives aren’t free. And freedom from oppression? For Christ’s sake, literally(!), we still have slavery in our modern world, even right here in the U.S., if only we had eyes to see it. So how could that scripture possibly have been fulfilled? What good news?
I said the Gospel is the Good News OF Jesus and ABOUT Jesus. Of course it’s the Good News about Jesus because we proclaim Jesus Christ and him not just crucified, but resurrected. There are actually a number of theological theories about why Jesus had to die, about how exactly that works cosmically. Did Jesus die, for example, to satisfy God’s anger at sin, or to rescue us from evil? Some even wonder if God engaged in cosmic child abuse when he sent his son to die. Honestly, these theories are interesting if you’re a theology nerd and delving into them may be a fine way to spend an afternoon or even a semester, but I’m not sure that it matters. What matters is that my story, our story, hinges on this seminal event. Either the resurrection is true, or it’s not. If it’s true, then everything changes. If not, then as I said before, count me out. So what is the gospel? What is the story I tell my sons, and am trying to tell you now? What is the story I tell myself when the storms come, and the lights go out, and it seems as if all hope is gone?
The Gospel, as I understand it, is this: God is, and God is love. And because love cannot be contained, because love is something you do, God made you- and the world itself- in and for love. God loves you, and God made you to live in harmony with him and his world and with one another. God also made us free however; free always to choose harmony, to choose love, or its opposite. So to help us maintain that harmony- that right relationship he made us for- he gave us rules, but as I always like to say, “rules are for relationship.” They’re not an end in themselves, to be obeyed for obeying’s sake or to keep us in line. The rules are there to point us in the direction of right relationship, but it is always that right relationship that is the aim, the end, the objective. As Jesus himself said in Mark 2, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In any case, because in our freedom we keep choosing to be slaves, slaves to love’s opposite, which are those actions that take us away from right relationship and therefore away from love and away from God, God sent Jesus. He sent Jesus not only to show us the way to love and live in harmony, but to be that way.
We couldn’t and wouldn’t see it, however, and still we struggle to see it today. In Lutheran theology especially, there is Law, and there is Gospel. The Law is “the rules” I just spoke of, and it’s called the schoolmarm to Christ. It points us in the right direction, but can never get us where we need to go because we can never perfectly follow it. It serves then to reveal our sin- our separation from God, from right and loving relationship. And whether we realize it or not, we find this separation utterly devastating. I know I do. This, then, is why I think Jesus had to die. Sin is an assault on the right relationship we were made for. By definition it separates us from God, from the Love that we were made in and made for, and this is a death sentence. I would contend, though, that the judge handing out this death sentence isn’t God; it’s us. It’s me. Somehow I know that I was made for better, for more. Again, as Paul said in Romans 7 (and this translation is from The Message), “I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.” I don’t know about you, but I can certainly relate.
So I am my own worst judge, my own worst enemy, and because I cannot forgive myself, I remain stuck, mired in my sin that is separation, that is death. But God, who is love, “demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5). Jesus meets me in that place of death, that place of separation from God, from love, and provides a way back. With Jesus I too am resurrected. I am born again into a new life where right relationship with God and his world and with all of you is again possible, not because I’ll never do the wrong thing, because I am still free after all. No, right relationship is again possible because I know that when I screw up not only does God forgive me but I can forgive myself. Jesus “has set me free, and I am free indeed” (John 8). But where before I was free to sin, to harm relationship, now I am free to try again not to. Before I was free not to obey the rules that lead to right relationship; now I am free to obey. More importantly, I am free to love.
All of this begs the question, then, “So what?” Or, “how, then, shall I live?” In our gospel passage for today Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus’ story as John tells it is interesting as always. In the events leading up to today’s passage Jesus broke the “Law” by healing on the Sabbath and telling the person just healed to do “work” by getting up and carrying the mat he had been confined to for years. (And this, by the way, is why I say that rules are for relationship. What was most important there was not the rule to observe the Sabbath by doing no work, but the relationship of the man with his own broken- and then healed- body, and that of the man with Jesus and the man with those to whom he told his story of God’s favor.)
Jesus’ actions here really ticked off the religious leaders of his day, and for good reason. Not only had he disobeyed the Bible by healing on the Sabbath, he had also called God his “Father” and thereby put himself on a level with God. So Jesus explains himself. He tells them that he is the Son of God, that he is, in effect, the one they’ve been waiting for, the one who can give them eternal life. As he says in John 5:39-40, as it’s translated in The Message: “You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.” I really like that translation because far too often I think that’s exactly what happens, even still today. We bury our heads in our Bibles, the written Word of God, and somehow forget that its function is to point us to the Living Word of God, Jesus. Even the Bible is not an end in itself; nor is it the basis of our faith.
Jesus put it plainly to the religious leaders in the passage just before what I just read, when he said (and again I’m reading from The Message): “But my purpose is not to get your vote, and not to appeal to mere human testimony. I’m speaking to you this way so that you will be saved. John was a torch, blazing and bright, and you were glad enough to dance for an hour or so in his bright light. But the witness that really confirms me far exceeds John’s witness. It’s the work the Father gave me to complete. These very tasks, as I go about completing them, confirm that the Father, in fact, sent me. The Father who sent me, confirmed me. And you missed it. You never heard his voice, you never saw his appearance. There is nothing left in your memory of his Message because you do not take his Messenger seriously.”
After this confrontation with the religious leaders, Jesus punctuates what he had just been telling them by showing them when he feeds the five thousand with just a few loaves of bread and two fish. Then, in case they missed the point, he walks on water, and this finally brings us to our gospel lesson for today. When word got out that Jesus was handing out free food- wherever it came from- another large crowd had gathered. Jesus first challenges the crowd, suggesting that they had come not because they saw God in everything he was doing but rather because he had given out free food. He says, “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.” When they ask how to get that lasting food, Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever. I have told you this explicitly because even though you have seen me in action, you don’t really believe me. Every person the Father gives me eventually comes running to me. And once that person is with me, I hold on and don’t let go.”
So Jesus has just told them that what they’re looking for- the bread from heaven that will stick with them forever so that they never hunger or thirst again- is him. He repeats the point when he says, “I’m telling you the most solemn and sober truth now: Whoever believes in me has real life, eternal life. I am the Bread of Life. Your ancestors ate the manna bread in the desert and died. But now here is Bread that truly comes down out of heaven. Anyone eating this Bread will not die, ever. I am the Bread—living Bread!—who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live—and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self.” He goes on to say that his body is real food and his blood, real drink, and basically says that if they want to live forever they should go ahead and eat up!
This was literally- no pun intended- a hard thing to swallow, and Scripture records that many folks stopped following Jesus right then and there, and really, who can blame them? This teaching, after all, is downright offensive to our delicate sensibilities, isn’t it? Is Jesus really calling us to be cannibals? Even if the meaning is only symbolic, if we’re only to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him, as he himself would later explain, isn’t that a bit offensive too? How can remembering this one man’s death give us life that never ends? How can it satisfy our hunger so that we’re forever full, or sate our thirst so that we’re never thirsty again?
I would suggest to you that we hunger and thirst for real food and real drink, yes, but mostly what we hunger and thirst for is the love out of which we came. I said before that God made us in love, and for love. I said that God himself is love, and that love is something you do. This is what we yearn for, this love that creates, and heals, and makes all things new. We get caught up in the daily affairs of our lives, the routines that keep the lights on and the bills sort of paid. Sometimes a slightly bigger story captures our imagination like the Presidential race or the Olympics, but these rarely hold our attention for long and soon we settle in again for living as if on auto-pilot, almost as if we’re waiting for something. As Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel said:
Man cannot live without acts of exaltation, without moments of trembling and revering, without being transported by grandeur. For weeks and months he may be confined to the routine of sensible interests, until an hour arrives when all his habits burst under the strain. Common sense may sign a decree that life be kept under the lock of average conceptions, but much in our lives is made to be burned up in a holy flame or it will rot in monstrous deeds, in evil thoughts. To satisfy his need for exaltation, man will plunge into rage, wage wars; he will set the city of Rome afire. When superimposed as a yoke, as a dogma, as a fear, religion tends to violate rather than to nurture the spirit of man. Religion must be an altar upon which the fire of the soul may be kindled in holiness.
Whether we’re waiting to graduate or for that long hoped for raise or promotion or job or husband or wife or house or child, we shuffle along from one moment to the next hardly noticing that we’re always waiting and never really living. We hunger and thirst; so we eat, but never are filled. Even when we get the thing we thought we were waiting for, our hunger and thirst, our ache and yearning remain.
Again, I would say to you that what we hunger and thirst for, what we yearn for from the very depths of our being is that love that the very depths of our being were created to participate in. And the Good News is that this love is here, it’s available to us even now. Jesus is that love. This is a hard teaching too though, because faith is required. It takes faith to believe that we’re forgiven and to then forgive ourselves. It takes faith to believe that love really will win in the end, and that there’s enough of it to go around. We’ve been conditioned to think of resources being finite and scarce. But love isn’t like that. Love works quite counter-intuitively, because the more you give, the more you have, but as I’ve said, living like that takes faith. If we were to live like that, though, the world would be a very different place.
I suspect if we lived like that maybe they’re wouldn’t be two church buildings across the street from each other. Maybe the world would come to understand that the church is a people, not a place. This (building) is not the church. WE are the Church. Maybe the world would finally know us as Christians, then, by our love. We love when we stop bickering over whether the President’s a Socialist or the Ryan budget is evil and exhaust ourselves trying to figure out how to make sure every one of our neighbors has not only enough to eat and drink, but also enough love. What if we spent our time, talents, and treasure securing not just a roof over our own head but over our neighbor’s too. In this global economy, what if we finally realized that our neighbors are the many Iraqi orphans and the Chinese peasants who made our smartphones?
What about us? If we’re going to put so much effort into maintaining this building and refurbishing the parking lot, what if we ripped out the pews and put in beds for the homeless, or turned this space into a job training center? Cuyahoga Falls is known as “Caucasian” Falls. What if St. Luke’s became known not for our liturgy or the various programs we support, but rather as a leader in listening, in really getting to know our non-white neighbors so that we could become a community in which they felt welcome. The possibilities for loving are endless, because the love we’re called to participate in is endless. We are what we eat, after all, and Jesus calls us not only to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, but to live in his love. So what are we waiting for? Let’s get to it. Amen.