John 6:35,41-51Elizabeth M. Deibert
11th Sunday after Pentecost
11th Sunday after Pentecost
12 August 2012
If we stood out on the streets today, shouting and waving signs, free bread – will make you live forever – many people would scoff and laugh. Ha, yeah, right.While pumping gas this week, Marilyn and I were approached by a woman offering us a free Godfather’s pizza and liter of drink. I looked at the saleswoman with skepticism, assuming there was some deception in this offer. No, she said, a man bought this pizza and wanted me to give it away. I was truly convinced that there had to be a hidden agenda. Most free things in life are not free. Like when I signed up for a Southwest credit card just to book one free flight for Andrew home from college, only to learn that they would charge me an annual fee before my “FREE” flight would be available. Not quite so free.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true, except in the realm of God. Jesus is bread of life. He gives us this bread to make us live forever. Sounds too good to be true, but it is truer than anything else we know.Let us pray: You satisfy the hungry heart with gift of finest wheat, oh give to us, O Saving Lord, the bread of life to eat. 521
Hear now our Gospel for today, from John, chapter 6, verses 35 and 41-51.
John 6:35, 41-51
35 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.
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said,
"I am the bread that came down from heaven."
42 They were saying,
"Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?
How can he now say, 'I have come down from heaven'?"
43 Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves.
44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me;
and I will raise that person up on the last day.
45 It is written in the prophets,
'And they shall all be taught by God.'
Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.
46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God;
he has seen the Father.
47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.
48 I am the bread of life.
49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.
50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven.
Whoever eats of this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
You are what you eat. If you want to live forever, you need to eat Christ’s bread of life, which he calls his flesh. Seems like we should have people pounding on the doors to eat this bread. But this mystery is under-appreciated, and under-celebrated. But many Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans are coming back to the regular weekly celebration of the Sacrament of communion as normative for worship. In an over-reaction to medieval Catholicism, we lost a crucial element of weekly worship – the unity of Word & Sacrament.
In the not so great Enlightenment age when all that was rational and subject to clear explanation was more highly valued, many Protestants distances themselves from that which we could not explain. Until thirty years ago, we Presbyterians would not allow children to partake of the sacrament because they did not understand. I was one of those children who watched the plate pass by me until confirmation. What does it mean to understand the sacrament? Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” Do you understand that? He says, “The bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Can you explain that? I cannot.
And I spend a chunk of most weeks studying these matters. Eucharist, by the way, means thanksgiving. It comes from the Greek verb, eucharisteo, which means to give thanks. The center of the word is charis, which means grace. I have just finished reading a book called “One Thousand Gifts.” It is the story of Ann Voskamp’s journey toward spiritual health through a life of giving thanks to God. That is supremely the purpose of our sacramental worship and of our lives as Christian people – to give thanks. Not to figure everything out. Not to be perfect. Not to master control over your life, but to give it all up to God in thanksgiving.
There’s a book written by Alexander Schemann called, “For the life of the world” in which he tries to help us appreciate the mystery of the eucharist, this bread, which makes us live forever. He claims that we misunderstand symbol as being the opposite of real. Symbol stands in place of what is real, but symbol from a sacramental perspective also becomes real in the experience of it – the real presence of Christ. All I can do is fall on my knees and say “Wow” This bread makes me live forever! Sing, pray, stop trying to figure it out, just fall down in adoration. “When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, O, Lord, have mercy on me”.
The Jews who were struggling to figure out Jesus, challenged not just his message about being the bread of life, but also his claim to have come from heaven. Their intellect getting in the way, they argued, “How can Jesus say he came down from heaven? We know this man as Mary and Joseph’s son.” So it is with us, if we struggle to believe the mystery of the incarnation – that God entered Mary’s womb and became one of us, making Jesus fully divine and fully human – then it is also hard to accept this message that eating this bread will make us live forever. Our intellect gets in the way of our faith. “Faith seeking understanding,” St. Anselm’s motto, cannot be reversed to understanding seeking faith.
When Gia was just out of surgery in May, only home a day, I was so glad she said to me, “I’d like you to bring communion.” Gia’s high view of the sacrament meant that she understood her need (not just desire) for the sacrament. She needed, just as we all need, the Sacrament to help her get well.
Saint Irenaeus calls the Eucharist, “the medicine of immortality.” He was surely reading John 6 when he wrote that.
John 6, the part we did not read, goes on to emphasize that unless we eat this bread and drink this cup, we have no life in us. No life in us. Many rise up to debate with Jesus then and now. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat? How can this bread and this wine, fermented or unfermented, make anyone live forever.” I’d love to offer you a rational explanation, because that’s what our generation loves. Give me proof. But I cannot.I can only testify that these mysteries have captured me, and that I believe they are necessary for our life. We need the Sacrament as much as we need the air we breathe, as much as we need hydration to keep our bodies functioning properly. If you don’t drink enough water, over time, your joints will suffer, your organs will suffer. You may not feel that for a very long time. If you eat processed foods instead of real fruits and grains and vegetables, your body will suffer over time. Nobody can look at you and see that you had Twinkees or Cheezits for breakfast, but over time, it might affect your health. So it is with your spiritual health and this sacrament. Our souls need the Sacrament.
Our father in the Reformed faith, John Calvin, pointed out that God instituted the sacraments as a means of confirming in us the truth of His promises. We have these signs, these symbols, Baptism and Eucharist, which prop up our faith like good nutrients prop up our immune system. Calvin called the Sacraments a crutch for his faith. We limp around in faith, without Christ’s body in our body, without Christ’s body mingling with our body. We are what we eat. We need these mysteries, these physical symbols of reality, which become for us our reality in the experience of them. We need this supreme mystery to touch with our hands, to smell with our noses, to taste with our mouths, to see with our eyes all the things that we have trouble trusting with our minds.People often ask people like me, because of the role I play, “How do you believe? How can a person just trust that this faith is real.” One of the answers to that question is by participating in this mystery, by taking this bread and this cup and subjugating my inquisitive and very pragmatic mind to the fact that God is larger than my understanding, beyond my ability to comprehend. I can worship when my questioning mind is subject to a mysterious faith which simply calls me to taste and see that the Lord is good, to eat this bread and drink this cup and never hungry or thirst any more. We should be on the streets, calling people in for live eternal. Yes, they would scoff at us, but oh, how they would be transformed little by little, week by week, year by year, by participation in the real but inexplicable presence of Christ at this shared feast.
This Sacrament is not just a memorial service to remember Christ’s sacrifice. This Sacrament is not just a social-justice meal to remind us that Jesus welcomes all people to his table – the rich and the poor, the outcast and the powerful. This Sacrament is not just a unifying moment for us to recall that we are in communion with one another and with all Christians around the world. This Sacrament is not just a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, to remind us of the day when we will hunger and thirst no more.
“Bread of heaven, bread of heaven. Feed me til I want no more. Feed me til I want no more.” This bread from heaven we will tear off from the loaf, baked in this room today. This Sacrament nourishes us with the flesh of Christ, our Gospel lesson tells us. By nourishing us, it gives us power to trust, which is the word I would use for the Greek verb, “Pisteo” in translating this passage instead of believe.
One of my most vivid memories of youth group in the Faison Presbyterian Church was of the dark night in the parking lot playing the trust game. We were blind-folded and had to fall back trusting that our friends, representing Christ to us, would catch us. What is trust, but belief in the not knowing with certainty. It is an act of faith. Just as coming to this table is an act of faith, but participating in this meal is also a faith-builder, as falling backwards was.
You have nothing to lose but a futile, rational grip on life. You have everything to gain – belief, life eternal, Christ flesh intermingled with yours. It is for the life of the world – we are fed so we might be bread. Let us prayerfully sing our middle hymn.