Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inaugural Post: Sermon for August 23, 2009

I never title my sermons, since they are all generally Saturday Night Specials. The Lord's Supper follows the sermon, which should explain the odd ending.

John 6:56-69

"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 live 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." He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father."

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered 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 of God."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I am indebted this morning to Cynthia M. Campbell, president of McCormick Theological Seminary, for her insights in preparing this sermon.

"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 live because of me.”

The words echo off of the stone walls of the synagogue, and the confused, shocked, horrified murmurs of the gathered crowd rise in answer.

They came looking for another free meal. They came looking for an earthly conqueror and king. They came looking for a show. If Jesus had been politically astute, if he'd had advisers around him, speechwriters and spin doctors and marketing experts, he would have given them a little of what they want – more food, a quick water-into-wine or parting the Sea of Galilee or something. He would have spoken more carefully, he would have generalized and given “big-picture” answers, inching his disciples ever closer to the knowledge of who Jesus was. Over time, in carefully orchestrated moves, he would have eased the crowd slowly into understanding that Jesus had not come to give them a full belly and freedom from the Romans. He had come to bring them eternal life.

But sugar-coating isn't Jesus' style, is it? No, he lays it all on the line, and in words both shocking and unmistakeable: you seek the bread of death. I offer you the Bread of Life.

Soon, in that hall where hundreds had been crammed in, only thirteen remain. Some had left in anger, certain that this man, this charlatan, this heretic would be the downfall of the nation. Some left, disappointed that they hadn't gotten more free bread, but otherwise unchanged by the experience. A few remained, not because they understood what Jesus had said, but because they trusted the one who had said it.

And that is the key, because, as those arguing about what Jesus said that day acknowledged, the teaching is difficult, and it goes to the root not only of who Jesus is, but who we as followers of Jesus are.

In our post-Resurrection world, we tend to interpret Jesus as the Bread of Life in terms of the Lord's Supper, the bread and the cup, to greater or lesser degrees depending on the theological viewpoint of the person and body of believers who participates. Yet while the act of receiving the elements is a sacred one, they are symbols – reminders of who Jesus is, and what God in Jesus Christ has done to restore humankind to relationship with God. The deeper question of who Jesus is and what it means to eat his flesh and drink his blood – what it means to follow Jesus, to believe in Jesus, to be a Christian – remains unanswered. Or, put more precisely, it is a question that each age and generation has had to answer for itself.

Sometimes we've answered right – the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon, for example, or the Reformation. Sometimes we've answered horribly wrong – slavery comes to mind, and the Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials.

But the point is that we are still asking, even today, who Jesus is and what it means to be a follower of Christ. Those who left the synagogue, whether they were angry or apathetic, never looked back to wonder what it all meant. They had all the information they needed and no further discussion was warranted.

Yet for those of us who, like the Twelve, remained behind because we trusted the One who spoke even if we didn't understand the words, the question is ongoing – not unanswered, but re-answered in the context of the needs and challenges of each new generation.

It is, after all, not so much a question of getting the right data (or getting the data right); it is a question of faith and of relationship. Each generation, in its own peculiar and particular context, will have new questions and new insights. There will always be mistakes, and all our our scholarship will sometimes lead to dead ends. But because each generation of believers enjoys the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, even the dead ends lead to new insights and fresh understanding.

John Dominic Crossan points out that one of the most popular visual representations of Jesus in the early years of the Christian movement was the feeding of the multitude. Long before Christians portrayed Christ crucified they showed him breaking bread.

Jesus and bread, eating and feeding, table fellowship and faith, food and life, these things go together.

And look! The table is ready! Let us join together now with that great cloud of witnesses across the millenia, men and women who, with the Apostle Peter, have said to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

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