Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Choice...

My thanks this week to the writing of the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, Lindy Black, and Charlene Fairchild, among (I am sure) others.

I have to say that I am going to miss the "bread" passages. As I have written each week, I've been challenged to try and find a fresh perspective. I don't know whether I succeeded in those efforts, but the journey has been enlightening.

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 don’t know how they ended up in the synagogue from the lakeshore, but there they were, shocked, puzzled faces turned toward Jesus as he invited them to gnaw on his flesh and drink his blood and to live in him.

The noise in the little synagogue was deafening. Not only did you have the folks who had eaten of the leaves and fishes the day before, now enraged that Jesus was claiming to be greater than Moses, incensed that Jesus claimed to have come from and be returning to heaven, apoplectic over Jesus calling God his Father… you had the rank-and file disciples, dozens of them, perhaps more, who had been following Jesus for months – perhaps years – now throwing up their hands in disgust and frustration.

“Dude, I mean, Rabbi, I just don’t get what you’re saying. I mean I hear the words, and I know what each individual word means, but when you put them together they make no sense!”

But the fact is that there is nothing more to say. Jesus has laid it all out for them, if they will listen: “I am the bread of life… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world…”

So all Jesus said in response was, “Fellas, if you’re scandalized by this, you are gonna have a real hard time with what’s coming up.”

It’s funny. The people who went and found Jesus so they could see another miracle, get another meal? You’d expect them to leave; in fact, I’d be surprised if any of them had stayed around this long.

The ones our reading refers to as “disciples,” though… maybe they weren’t in the boat when Jesus calmed the storm, maybe they hadn’t seen him walk on water, or turn the water into wine at Cana, but they had seen lepers healed, they’d seen strength return to withered limbs and sight restored to blinded eyes, they had heard Jesus speaking the very words of the living God!

Why would they leave?

I guess up until now it had been fun. Maybe they had nothing better to do… maybe they just followed Jesus around on their off days, I don’t know. What I do know is that now they are faced with a choice: understand that Jesus Christ, in fulfilling the Law of Moses, is in fact calling them beyond that Law, beyond a system of rules and regulations and into a relationship with the Living God.

There’s no doubt that this is the hard choice, the dangerous choice, the scandalous choice. It involves moving beyond everything they have ever known, and everything the society they are surrounded by expects from them, and moving into the now-and-coming Kingdom of God, embracing a sacrifice on their behalf which hasn’t even happened yet.

But it’s that, or…

Go back to the familiar, the safe, the popular, the accepted.

And though they had seen the miracles, had eaten the bread and fishes, had heard the words of God… one by one, or in groups of three or four, these disciples chose…

And soon, all too soon, the synagogue – not a very large room to begin with – felt cavernous in its emptiness. A sandal scuffed the gritty stone floor, and it echoed. Jesus turned to those who remained. Where there had been dozens, perhaps a hundred or more… there were twelve. Some of them looked at the open door. Others looked at the floor, or off into space.

“How about you?” Jesus asked, softly. “Do you want to go, too?”

In my imagination, the question actually confused Peter, because (do you notice?) he never says “yes” or “no.” For him, and for the others, the question is moot.

Oh, no doubt they are sickened by the graphic words Jesus has used… the idea of gnawing on his flesh, like an animal tearing at the carcass of a fresh kill, is a difficult image for anyone to take.

But these men know things that they can no longer pretend to be ignorant of. Maybe the others, those now walking back down the dusty road to their villages and homes and comfortable old lives, can rationalize it and explain it all away, maybe they can ignore it, but these twelve cannot.

Jesus is asking them to make that same hard choice. Like Joshua standing before the newly-formed nation of Israel, and challenging them to “…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” the choice facing these remaining disciples is between the comfort and tradition of the life they had always known, and going against all of that, going against their vary culture, becoming social and religious outcasts, all based on the word of a man who claimed to be from God… who demanded they gnaw on his flesh, and slake their thirst with his life’s blood.

But for these disciples, this is not some blind choice, like picking a door on “The Price is Right.” It’s funny: they had seen and heard and experienced exactly the same things as those who had walked away. They’d seen a dead child live again, seen demons forcibly evicted from the bodies they possessed, watched five small barley loaves somehow keep feeding and feeding and feeding until thousands of people could eat no more…

Somehow, though, for these disciples, when Jesus spoke about being the bread that came down from heaven, it all clicked. Not that they had perfect comprehension, mind you – there would be many times to come where they would falter and miss the point – but in this moment, when Jesus asked the question, for them it came down to a matter of putting their future into the hands of the One who had been there for them in the past. And for them, the choice was already made.

Peter spoke for all of them when he spread his hands and said, “But where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe… no, we know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

The choice was made.

For far too many people, believing in God is like believing in UFOs or believing in the Loch Ness Monster – they acknowledge the probability that God exists, and that’s about it. Nothing really changes for them because nothing needs to change.

The easiest, most comfortable place to be is where the majority of the people that day in the synagogue at Capernaum were: straddling the fence between commitment and rejection, relying on Jesus just so far as the fulfillment of their perceived needs go, but unwilling to lay aside those “needs,” take up their cross, and follow Jesus.

But God calls us to get off the fence – pushes us off if necessary, like Jesus did that day on the lakeshore and in the synagogue with his hard words. For the Twelve, just like for you and for me, the decision to go all in, to place our lives and eternities into the hands of the One who gave us life in the first place, is one that we make anew every day.

In many ways, on some days the Twelve weren’t all that much different from those who turned away from Jesus. The Twelve made mistakes, lost faith, missed the point, and when things got really dangerous that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, they scattered.

But when Jesus rose from the dead, they saw him alive. And when the wind of the Holy Spirit blew on the day of Pentecost, they were there, the tongues of fire rested on their heads. Perhaps the difference between the disciples who stayed and the ones who left began when they chose their path that day in the synagogue.

Harry Emerson Fosdick put it like this: “He who chooses the beginning of a road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determine the end.”

May we be like the Twelve, who though they didn’t understand it, didn’t know where it was going, and had a lot of ideas and expectations that were almost exactly wrong, chose the pathway of eternal life, looked to Jesus, and said, “Who else could we go to? You have the words of eternal life.”

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Flesh and Blood...

I am indebted to the work of the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary," and Rev. Lindy Black for help in composing this week's sermon.

For those of you offended by the graphic language of the audible gnawing of flesh... that's kind of the point.

John 6:51-58
"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."
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Sometimes, getting a little distance between yourself and a given situation allows you to gain perspective, to look at the big picture, to examine a situation logically, without the emotion of the moment getting in the way.

Sometimes, though, that distance actually serves to cloud perspective, blur the big picture, and confuse logic.

Two thousand years removed from the day on the lakeshore, it seems that, for many Christians, we suffer – at least in part – the latter fate when it comes to what Jesus is telling us in our Gospel reading today.

Though, to be honest, it’s easy to interpret what Jesus is saying here in a merely Eucharistic manner – in the language of the Lord’s Supper. After all, even though our Reformed Theology does not interpret the elements of the Lord’s Supper as being altered in any substantive manner in the ritual of communion, we use the language of the Body and Blood at the Lord’s Table. “The Body of Christ, broken for you…” “The Blood of Christ, shed for you…”

This passage has been used as an argument for the Catholic and Episcopal theology of transubstantiation, where the elements of communion become in some manner substantially transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ, as well as for the Lutheran theology of consubstantiation, where the fundamental substance of the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the bread and the juice, or wine.

And after all, hasn’t Jesus been talking this whole time about bread?

Well, yes. And to those of us on this side of the Resurrection, it’s a very familiar conversation, manna in the wilderness, bread from heaven, Jesus as the Bread of Life. It is a comforting, reassuring picture for those of us who have taken the name of Christ. And please understand that there is nothing wrong, and everything right, about that picture! We have the words, as well as the testimony of the body of believers and the affirmation of the indwelling Holy Spirit to help us make those connections.

Yet there is more… and the picture is violent and troubling, but it is a picture of liberation.

The people listening to Jesus that day were getting their face rubbed in the picture, you see. Jesus’ words were challenging them, pushing them to expand their understanding of the Almighty, to open their hearts to a measure of love they had never imagined, an inconceivable truth.

Here was this human being standing in front of them… granted, an extraordinary human being, someone who could perform great signs, who spoke the oracles of God… but a person, nonetheless. Bad enough he claimed to be better than Moses, but the crowd really got steamed when Jesus went so far as to say, “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.”

Our reading says the people “disputed.” The Greek word there actually carries a much stronger connotation – one of physical fighting! The crowd had erupted into violence! They were coming to blows with one another over this! Jesus had better say something quick to calm them down!

Well, Jesus did speak... but...

Have you ever actually seen someone throw gasoline on a fire? The closest I’ve come is starter fluid on flaming charcoal, but I’m willing to bet that it’s a pale comparison to what Jesus’ next words could have done to the crowd…

But they stood there, stunned, frozen, aghast, sickened and horrified.

“Eat my flesh… drink my blood?” Could he really be telling the crowd to roast him up and make a feast of him, like some band of ancient pagans? No wonder they stood there gape-mouthed, speechless!

But it goes further than even that! Jesus is not merely using the language of cannibalism, he is using words of violence. “Eat my flesh?” The Greek, trogein, is generally used of animals gnawing audibly on their food! No wonder we so quickly retreat to the comfort of the language of the Lord’s Supper! No one wants to dwell on such an abhorrent image!

And I can, in good conscience, do nothing to lessen the dreadfulness of the language… I dare not, because of the Cross.

Why would Jesus use such violent, such graphic and bloody language, when he knew it would offend and enrage the crowd, when he no doubt knew that even we, who call ourselves by his name, would recoil at these words?

Yes, it is a visceral, bloody, discomforting picture that Jesus paints for us in our reading today. Out of the mouth of any other person in history, it is the language of hyperbole, of gross exaggeration, of wild and fevered fantasy.

But not that many days after Jesus speaks to that horrified crowd, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will, of his own free will, and out of a deep and abiding love for humankind, bear the torture of the scourge and the humiliation of the crown of thorns, take up his cross, and as his blood drains from him, Jesus will allow death to gnaw at his flesh until he appears to have been consumed.

The cross is offensive. The very idea! That the God of all creation would hang, naked and bleeding, until his life is drained from him, and do it as an act of love for that creation… it’s ridiculous. Gods don’t die, and they certainly don’t die to redeem humankind to themselves.

Besides, even if God could die, why choose such a slow, torturous and humiliating method? Why the cross?

Because, quite simply, it is in that act of submission to the will of God that death itself will be defeated in the Resurrection. It is in that act of unrestrained, vibrant love that humankind will at last be reconciled to God. Jesus not only said the offensive, shocking, gruesome and horrifying thing, he lived it… and he died it! And through it all, Jesus demonstrated for us, lived for us, the truth of what God’s love for you and for me and for the whole world is!

Oh we have done our best to calm it down over the millennia, distilling it into theological statements and doctrines and creeds. In fact, the very community that the Gospel of John is written to had been struggling with a Gnostic heresy which said that Jesus hadn’t really been human, he had just appeared human.

But make no mistake, Jesus stood before that crowd as a real person, with real flesh and real blood, and that real flesh and blood was sacrificed as evidence – stark, shocking, irrefutable evidence of God’s love – a violent, passionate, burning, all-consuming love.

God’s love is the kind of love that finds us at our lowest point, on our worst day, takes our hand, lifts us up, and guides us through.

God’s love finds us in the darkest corner of the farthest reaches of our separation, when we have done the thing we swore we would never do, when we have done our best to alienate ourselves from our Creator, when we have consciously and willfully done the worst we could do, God shines a light, destroys that darkness, and brings us out, forgiving us before we have even asked for it.

God’s love knows no bounds. God’s love doesn’t wait for permission, doesn’t pay attention to propriety or convention, is not at all interested in cultural mores or acceptable standards. God just loves.

Yes, it is really that simple.

The Gospel – the Good News – is that Jesus really, truly came down from heaven to live among us as the fleshly love of God – the wildly passionate, recklessly abundant, vibrantly inclusive love of God.

The Gospel is that Jesus really, truly died upon the cross, giving up his flesh and spilling his blood, to save us from our sins.

The Gospel is that God really, truly raised Jesus from the dead, brought him out of the grave to a new and eternal life.

The Gospel is that God, through Jesus Christ, really, truly has just such a future in store for each and every one of us.

Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us. May we, every day, walking in faithful fellowship in the Holy Spirit, keep the feast!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Bread of Life

I am indebted to the "Saturday Night Theologian," as well as the writings of Jude Siciliano, D. Mark Davis, and (I am sure) many, many others.

John 6:35, 41-51

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."
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." 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'?" Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves. 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. 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. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

They had come to the lakeshore looking for another free meal… looking for another floor show, miracles, signs and wonders… they had come to see if this man was the King they had hoped and prayed for so long, the one who would deliver them from servitude to Rome and establish Israel’s supremacy in the world.

They came looking for things that are temporary, for less than everything God had intended for them, and for the world. After all, as full as they’d been on the bread and fishes the day before, they had woken up hungry again. And if anyone should know how temporary kings and kingdoms were, it should be these people of Judea, whose history was full of the ups and downs, the triumphs and disappointments, of earthly kingdoms.

And I guess Jesus could have eased them into the whole idea of who he really was, of his greater purpose in coming. With the proper grooming, bringing the crowd along a little at a time, keeping them fed and providing just enough miracle-performing to keep their interest, Jesus would have eventually had everyone, if you’ll pardon the pun, eating out of the palm of his hand.

But even now, time was short. Jesus had an appointment to keep... an appointment with a cross. It was time to lift the gaze of the people from the earth, where they sought a replacement for Moses, a replacement for David, a return to the ease and power they had hear stories of all of their lives… because as glorious as it all sounded, as deeply engrained in their cultural DNA as the memory of kings and prophets and conquests and victories was, all of that had been and forever would be far too temporary, far too fleeting.

They remember the stories of manna in the wilderness, yet forget that their ancestors had grown sick to death of the monotony, eventually treating the daily gift from God as a curse. For every great king there had been countless bad ones… for every time the Kingdom of Israel turned their eyes to the one true and living God, there were far too many days spend bowing to Ba’al.

They wanted an earthly king, but what they needed was an eternal Kingdom. They wanted barley loaves, but what they needed was Jesus, the Bread of life.

Their sights were set too low, but they were, in the end, looking for the same things we all look for: Saint Augustine called it the “God-Shaped Hole,” the part of each of us that longs for our Creator. Augustine said that every person is created by God and for God, and so we remain restless until we find our rest in him. The crowd that day sought to fill their God-shaped hole with fantasies of enough to eat and freedom from oppression; not in themselves bad things at all, of course.

And today, we try to satisfy these deepest desires of human nature with work and wealth, family or fame, prestige and power. Again, not, in and of themselves, bad things. While far too many people in the United States go to bed hungry every night, for most of us there is plenty to eat, countless entertainment options, an inexhaustible supply of information, we don’t have to look very far to find that many of us are spiritually malnourished. Yet humankind continues to strive for temporary fixes to an eternal problem.

 We want success and comfort, when what we need is to fill that vacuum, that God-shaped hole.

If Jesus is the Bread of Life, then could it not be true that many of the things humankind uses to fill the God-shaped hole are in fact, the bread of death – a bread that, when eaten, only makes us hungrier and hungrier until we are exhausted? It seems that every entertainment, every recreational activity, every enjoyment can become an obsession, an addiction.

Blaise Pascal said, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in us a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This we try in vain to fill with everything around us, seeking in things that are not there the help we cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

Jesus looked at the crowd, and listened to their complaints – “who does this guy think he is? He isn’t from heaven, he’s from Nazareth! I know his mom and dad, for cryin’ out loud!” It was time to lift their gaze, by force if necessary, to the heavens, to see the eternal Kingdom, the living water and Bread of Life that God intended for them, and for the world, to forever enjoy.

Then he spoke. It was time to set the record straight.

“Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”

Food is necessary, but by itself, food is not sufficient to sustain human life. As miraculous and life-sustaining as the manna in the wilderness had been, the people who ate that manna eventually died. Jesus, the bread of life, frees us from the slavery of death. Death did not end his life and, in him, it will not end ours either.

What Jesus offers the crowd is nourishment that will not fade, a food that will sustain beyond mortality, true eternal sustenance – the Bread of Life.

It’s interesting that when Jesus speaks of eternal life he uses the present tense, not the future tense. Those who believe in Jesus have eternal life. The term has many meanings in the gospel, but it primarily means a life in communion with God – beginning now. The Greek word translates “life age-during,” which is awkward, but it refers not to a time without end as much as a state of being without time, and thus without beginning or end.

We who have faith in Christ understand that faith is not an escape from reality. Rather, faith provides hope, and fellowship with God in Christ assures us that God has not left us hungering and lost in one desert or another, but has come to nourish us, stay with us and with our human family. In Jesus our life has purpose and hope. We trust that God will not let us down.

Those of us who have faith in Christ, the Bread of Heaven, are called to be hope in a world of despair; compassion in a world of pain; loving in a world of chill; truth telling in a world of deception. In other words, to live the "eternal life" we already possess.

We cannot neglect the need for food. 34,000 children still die every day from starvation or preventable disease, and more than 20% of the world's population lives in abject poverty. As Christians, we can and should provide food for the hungry. However, filling the stomach is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for a meaningful life. The physical bread of life is necessary to sustain the body, but the spiritual bread of life is vital to sustain the soul. A person living in a dark room, who receives food and water but has no opportunity to hear music, view art, read books, or interact with people is not really living, but only existing. Similarly, many people in the world today go to work, go home, bounce from relationship to relationship, and do not really live their lives. They do not understand the value of partaking of the bread of life, of communing with God and with others who are part of God's fellowship.

So if people are starving for food, feed them. But then, when their bellies are satisfied, Jesus who is our Bread of Life calls us to share with them the joy that we have found in relationship with God.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bread and Unity - Wants vs. Needs?

I confess that this sermon started out as two completely different sermons. I switched between one and the other, struggling with which message God had for the congregation (which, let's be honest, is not only those who join me later this Sunday morning, but all of you who take the time to read it here).

I can only hope that the result, which follows, is at once cohesive, coherent, and faithful. I drew on many resources and writers, including "Sermon Illustrations," Mark Tranvik and Ginger Barfield of "Working Preacher," D. Mark Davis of "Left Behind and Loving It," Kathryn Matthews Huey, and "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary."

Ephesians 4:1-16
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it is said, "When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people." (When it says, "He ascended", what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.

John 6:24-35
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 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." Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."
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 the Word of the Lord.

It didn’t take long, did it?

That next morning, after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, everybody woke up, and though they’d eaten of the bread and fishes until they thought they would pop, soon enough they had felt their stomachs grumble, and started looking for Jesus and his disciples. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that they were looking for people who weren’t there, hop in their boats, and set sail for Capernaum.

This sensation they had all shared – the feeling that, for once, there was enough to eat, that from now on, to quote Scarlett O’Hara, they’d “never be hungry again,” was intoxicating, compelling. They needed to know more about this rabbi, to find out where he came from and why he was here, and perhaps – just perhaps – in the midst of finding out all they could about him, Jesus would feed them again.

But of course the Feeding of the Five Thousand had never been about having a full belly, but about who Jesus really is. Certainly, the crowd knew that to some degree, because they had been on the cusp of forcing Jesus to become their king. But as they climb out of their boats and try to start a conversation, Jesus begins the arduous task of setting their sights higher, of bringing their minds out of their stomachs and into the now-and-coming Kingdom of God.

They ask about when he got there – and while Jesus’ answer appears convoluted and enigmatic, it speaks to the heart of the matter – they aren’t there for signs but for food. Make no mistake, Jesus is all about providing them with bread, but the food they’d had yesterday was not the food they needed.

That crowd who sought out Jesus thought they needed bread for a day, when what they needed was bread for eternity. Jesus’ purpose in providing that food was not to fill their bellies, but to demonstrate the nature of who he really was: the Bread of Life, the bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

I find a strange kind of comfort, knowing that the crowd that day was so much like me – and, if we’re honest, so much like all of us. Think of it: how much of our attention, efforts, time and treasure is spent seeking and maintaining the things we want, rather than the things we need? And how often do we confuse those two things – not just materially, but spiritually?

Certainly, the church at Ephesus had some things confused. Since it was a matter of record in Jewish culture that contact with a Gentile made a person ceremonially unclean, in an effort to maintain purity, the Jewish Christians made it a point to separate themselves from the Greek Christians.

When the Apostle Paul got word of this, he wrote from his prison cell to set the record straight: what the church at Ephesus needed was not to be “clean,” but to be united.

And that is a message we need to hear today.

We used to know this, I think. Once, long ago, perhaps only for a moment, we knew God’s dream for us. I think it was that night of the Passover Seder, just before the garden and the betrayal and the arrest, when the Rabbi, arms outstretched and face turned heavenward, spoke with his Father, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…

We knew it, but we forgot. Somewhere along the way, we lost track of the one-ness of this Body, the truth of our unity in Christ. At some point, the struggle to comprehend what it means to say “Jesus is Lord,” to understand what it means to have faith, to walk with the Living God, to discern the nature of baptism and of God as Parent became an argument, an insistence that the only possible way to do and think and interpret and live was my way!

And let’s face it, Christianity is easier that way, isn’t it? The unity that Jesus prayed for may be what we need, but it’s hard work. It’s far easier to strive for doctrinal purity, theological perfection, spiritual supremacy, to convince ourselves that we are right and everyone who doesn’t see the clear logic of our position is either stupid or an agent of the devil. It’s easier to define our denomination as the one out of over thirty thousand Protestant denominations that has it all right.

Make no mistake, though, each one of those thirty thousand denominations thinks the same thing about themselves.

We think it, we argue about it, we ignore and exclude one another… and all the time, we – and the world around us – starves for the Bread of Life.

Just like the crowd who had been fed with the loaves and fishes, who tried to make Jesus their earthly king one day, and who went in search of Jesus in order to be fed again the next day, we Christians have become experts at missing the point, at setting our sights too low. Our efforts, our energy, our focus and intentions were never meant to be wasted on being right, but to be invested in being one.

The story is told about a day in 1917 when the Russian Orthodox Church was holding convocation, and the bishops were locked in a loud and contentious argument. A few doors down, another meeting was going on – Bolsheviks plotting the overthrow of the Czar, and the beginnings of Communism.

While their world was crumbling around them, the bishops were fighting over how long the candles they used in worship were to be… 18 or 22 inches long.

One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…

We who call ourselves by the name of Christ think we need a spotless spiritual walk, when what we need is one another. We are called, individually and corporately, in ways that – when used correctly – promote a unity which serves to demonstrate the nature of who the risen Christ really is. The mark of spiritual maturity – of being grown-ups in the faith – is not in having all the answers, but in being comfortable enough with one another to live in the questions.

Please understand that the point of unity in the Body of Christ is not simply to have a singular voice to affect social or political change in the world. It is not simply to offer a united front in efforts to bring the Good News to unreached people, any more than the sign of the Feeding of the Five Thousand was about feeding five thousand people.

Rather, the unity of the Body of Christ and the Feeding of the Five Thousand have a similar purpose – a demonstration of the nature of Jesus Christ. When we do that – remember who we are and the purpose to which we are called, and act as a unified Body of Christ, growing together into maturity, all of those other things will, as a part of the overall process rather than as the focus, be addressed!

May we remember who we are, and may we nourish ourselves, one another, and the whole world with Jesus, the Bread of Life.

Let us pray…