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…

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