Bread for the sake of the world

John 6:56-69

Jesus said, “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.”…

 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.” (Read the whole passage)

In the last 5 weeks we have been given our five loaves. For the last five weeks we have been slowly making our way through the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John. 5 weeks that started with 5 loaves and 2 fish, followed by ongoing argument between Jesus and the crowds. Arguments over what is the true bread, about who can receive the power of God, about trying to be God in God’s place, about where we abide and in whom we abide. 

But today Jesus has ramped up his argument, and Jesus has challenged the crowds and they do not like it. Instead of backing down, Jesus has pushed back. Pushed back so hard that the crowds give in and walk away. The crowds were impressed with the miracles, but were not impressed with Christ’s teaching. But the crowds aren’t the only ones who walk away in disgust, some of the disciples walk away too. Not the 12, but some of the larger group of followers that had been with Jesus. The same ones who had collected the excess of the five loaves and two fish, they too turn and walk away.

So what is the fuss about? What has caused not only the crowds, but some of the disciples to walk away? Jesus said to the crowds,

 “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” 

Or in other words Jesus has said to the crowds:

Come and meet me, 
come and be a part of me, 
and you will see God, 
you will meet God, 
you will be a part of God. 

Jesus has offered God in flesh to a Jewish audience. An audience who does not understand Yahweh to be a God that suffers the unclean, Yahweh does not get dirty, Yahweh does not forgive the unrighteous. And Yahweh would become a lowly human being. But still here is Jesus offering himself, offering God the Father as bread. 

And for five weeks we have been hearing how Jesus offers bread to us too. Bread for the Hebrew people 2000 years ago, and bread for the Church today. Bread for the Church and bread for the world. The body of Christ for the world. As the Body of Christ, as the Church and as Lutherans, we are defined by the presence of that bread, that body. In the Augsburg Confession, Martin Luther and the Reformers defined the Church as, 

“…the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.” 

The Church is place where the grace and forgiveness of God is preached. The Church is the place where we are washed and forgiven of our sin by Holy Baths. The Church is the place where we share with each other Holy Meals. Bread and life for all that are hungry. The body of Christ found in bread, and the body of Christ that is this community, one in the same, given to us by God. 

It is these three things, the preaching of the Gospel, Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper that make us the Church, the body of Christ. And yet, like those disciples who walked away from this radical gift we walk away from it as well. We walk away from the promise and the gift that we are given by Christ. We walk away because its too free. We walk away like the crowds and disciples because we cannot imagine that such an amazing and radical gift could be given to us at no cost, that it could be given completely freely out of God’s love for us. 

We live in a world that tells us “you get what you pay for”, that “there is no such thing as a free lunch”, that “you have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”. We are so conditioned to believe that nothing is free, that when something free is given to us, we cannot accept it. It almost as it we need to pay a price for God’s love, for God’s bread. We want to have to know enough, understand enough, pray enough, feel it enough, come to church enough, be good enough, believe it enough. If we only do enough, God just might love us.  

And somewhere in the midst of all that. In midst of arguing about bread, in the midst of walking away because the promise is too radical, in the midst of trying to be enough, we find our selves asking, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

 Where do we go God? We do not know the way! Who will do it for us? We cannot do it on our own!

We ask with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” And somehow, not by ourselves, not as individuals, but as a community of faith, somehow by the Holy Spirit we then say. “You have the words of eternal life”. 

In fact the same spirit in us proclaims it every Sunday, the same spirit draws us to the Father and we are given Christ the Word, Christ the Bread of Life.

And by these words of eternal life, Jesus leads us to the cross. The Gospel, Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, these three signs of the Church, they all lead us to the cross. 

They all lead us to the cross of promise and new life. 

70 years ago, an expressionist painter and poet by the name of Oskar Kokoschka, sketched a drawing. The inscription on the drawing reads “In memory of all the children of have to die of cold and hunger this Christmas”. The picture is of a cross. A cross on which Jesus hangs, surround by children. Poor grubby children. Cold and Hungry Children. And with one hand ripped free of its nail on the cross, Jesus reaches out to a child below him. Jesus reaches out and puts his hand into the child’s mouth. Jesus, while dying on the cross, is still offering himself, offering the Bread of Life to the cold and hungry child who stand before him. 

Today, Jesus reaches down from the cross for us. Jesus reaches down with word, water and bread.

We the cold and hungry before the cross, we the Church, we the beggars who stand before the cross, we who are defined by the Gospel, by Holy Baptism, and by the Lord’s Supper, we are shown the cross week after week, year after year, because on the cross we find hanging the Word and Body of God. There in the unlikeliest of places, we are given bread, we are given New Life. 

It is, of course, too radical to accept, too much to believe, it does make sense to walk away from craziness of this gift. But this is the radicalness of God. This is who God is, showing us the most radical love of all, by becoming bread, and by giving Godself up on the cross. 

And so here are. Five loaves. Fives small of loaves bread and five weeks of one conversation in the Gospel of John. And yet in five loaves we discover that God is doing so much more than we can imagine. God is giving us more than we can accept. And no matter if we walk away from it all, or whether we find ourselves asking “Lord, to whom shall we go?” or both… God continues to give us this the gift of forgiveness, of grace and of love, Gifts of the Gospel, Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. 

“Lord to whom shall we go? You have ARE the Word of Eternal Life. You are the Bread of Life given on a cross, for the sake of the world. 

Amen.

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The Bread of Life: The hardest loaf to swallow

John 6:51-58

… 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…. (Read the whole passage)

Today we receive our fourth loaf of bread. We have been abiding in the 6th chapter of John’s gospel for 4 weeks now, and still there is one more week to go. The ongoing discussion that we have been eavesdropping in on, between Jesus and the crowds, began with the feeding of the 5 thousand, with 5 loaves and two fish. But soon after the food had been eaten and the baskets of leftovers collected, the crowds and Jesus get into a debate. A debate about what the bread means. A debate about who Jesus is. A debate about who God is. A debate about life in the community of faith. 

And now, instead of just celebrating the simple and beautiful miracles of 5 loaves and 2 fish becoming enough for all and then moving on, we have delved deep into the heart of the issue between Jesus and crowds. We are dealing with the big issue for the people listening: Abandon all they know to be truth, and accept the promise of life and grace, a promise made by wandering carpenter turned preacher. Abandon their families, friends, culture and all sense of security that exists in a troubled world and life, for a promise that has no guarantee. 

For the crowds listening to Jesus, the idea of eating flesh and blood would have made them squirm, as it does us. Yet, for the Jewish crowds, the challenge to their religious practice and tradition would have been equally hard to accept. The eating of flesh and blood was something done in pagan temples. The pagans believe that by ingesting the sacrifices made to their gods, they could acquire their god’s powers. 

In the temple in Jerusalem, some of meat that was sacrificed was permitted to be eaten and it was not because it had any special power, but because it was good food. And the blood used in temple rituals was understood to have purifying effect, not magical powers. 

But what Jesus was talking about was on a whole other level. Eating my flesh. Drinking my blood. This is a direct challenge to the way the Jerusalem Temple and religion operated. Jesus is suggesting that there are other ways to obtain God’s forgiveness than temple sacrifices. There are new ways of acting and being under the law. That there is a new understanding of how God feels about sinners and the unclean. 

Eat this bread, eat his flesh, and you will live forever Jesus says. But at what risk? Giving up the system, the traditions, the practices, the worship that everyone knew and understood. Give up knowing how the world works, even if it is hard and exclusive world. Even if often the poor and common people cannot obtain forgiveness or be made clean or find God’s love because it is simply too far from reach. 

_______________

American Lutheran Pastor and Professor Joseph Sittler wrote about his experience with a parishioner who held fast to her understanding of prayer. Sittler’s congregant often boasted about her prayers for parking spots. 

“Whenever I am going to work or to the mall or to church or to the theatre, I pray for parking spot. And without fail there is always one waiting for me when I get there.”

This understanding of prayer bothered Sittler, and often he would try to show her different ways to view prayer and how God answers it.

“Have you ever not found a spot? What about others praying for parking?” he once asked. Yet these questions did not sway the woman’s view. 

Another time Sittler asked, 

“What if there was a mother with a sick child driving to the hospital? And what if you were on your way to a routine doctor’s appointment? What if you took her spot? Which prayer did God answer?”

“Well mine of course” responded the woman fiercely. “Because I prayed harder and had more faith”. 

_______________

As modern Christians, we understand Jesus’ words today in a eucharistic context. We know, we can feel it in our bones that Jesus is pointing us to the Lord’s Supper. To that holy meal that we share each week that feeds our faith, that binds us together as a community and that gives us strength for service in the world. 

But we also know what it is to squirm with the crowds who are debating with Jesus. We may feel icky at the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood, but we can place this idea within a larger understanding of what Jesus is getting at. 

Yet, like the crowds, we too have our own views and understandings. We have traditions and our system for religion. Like the crowds, we know how good faithful people worship and pray, how we keep the laws and rules and act morally. We know who among us has the sincerest faith and the most studied understandings. And when we begin to differ, we also know the arguments that prop up our point of view best are the ones that condemn others. 

And so while we share in Jesus body and blood, we don’t escape the challenge that Jesus presents today. We don’t escape the challenge that Jesus gives to our traditions and systems, to our abilities to keep the rules and judge those who don’t. And most importantly, we cannot escape the fact that Jesus is telling us today, that it is God and God alone who obtains, who gives, and who allows us to be forgiven. It is God alone who gives us life. It is not by our own merits, or faithfulness, or acceptance of Jesus that saves us or makes us pure. It isn’t by being a good Christian that we save ourselves. It is always in the moment we think we can wrap our hands around this faith stuff and the moment we think we know what God wants and likes, that we lose it all. It is in the moment when we think we have got the right understanding, that Jesus steps in and reminds us that it is always different than we think.  

_______________

Over the course of years, Joseph Sittler tried again and again to convince his parishioner that parking spots were not likely to be one of God’s chief concerns. And again and again, he was rebuffed. “You need to pray harder and more sincerely” was the response he got over and over again. 

Until finally, one day in Advent, and the topic of praying for parking came up again, Sittler knew how he would respond to this certain and self-assured parishioner. After hearing once again, that when this woman prayed for parking spots God always provided, Sittler said, 

“What do you suppose a very pregnant Mary was praying for as she bounced along on the back of that donkey while riding to Bethlehem.”

“I don’t understand what you mean, Pastor”, the woman replied. 

“Luke 2 verse 7” Sittler offered. “And she gave birth to her firstborn and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

_______________

Just when we think we have the world figured out, just when we think we have God figured out. Just when we think we can point to God and say, if you worship, or pray, or act, or serve in this way, you will be in God’s good books, Jesus lands in front of us again. Jesus lands in a manger when there are no room at the inn. Jesus lands on a mountain top with hungry people needing bread, but needing God’s love even more. Jesus lands on a cross, and transforms death into life. And here, Jesus lands as body and blood in our midst, at our table, in our mouths and into our bodies. Jesus lands in, with and under us, reminding us that just when we think we have God figured out… Jesus is the one who is giving us life, and we are forgiven, not because of our efforts or faith or ability to know, but solely because of God’s love for us. 

This fourth loaf of bread might be the hardest to swallow. The first loaf was a miracle, a miracle reminding us that with Jesus there is enough for all, enough for us. But today, as we hear again of the Bread of Life, as we hear about who the bread of life is and what it means for us to eat this bread… we are stripped of our comforts, of our traditions and systems that help us to be self assured and certain of our understandings. Today, Jesus feeds us bread from the living Father, and we will live. It might not be comfortable and it might make us squirm, but in this Jesus, this God who turns what we know upside down, in Christ there is life. 

Only Messiah would be born in a grave

John 6:35, 41-51

Jesus said to the people…”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.” (Read the whole passage)

We are talking about bread again… and in fact, we have been talking about bread for several weeks now, and we still have one more week to go in this detour into John’s Gospel. We have been slowly, piece by piece going through this conversation between the crowds and Jesus. The crowd of 5000 that was first fed with 5 loaves and 2 fish, and now the crowds that do not and will not understand who Jesus is and what Jesus is offering to them. 

But John is drawing our attention to a debate about bread, John is telling us what this bread actually means. In the Gospel of John, the dynamic between Word and Sign, word and bread is always lying underneath the surface. Jesus proclaims his Gospel in words, Jesus IS the Word of God, yet those who hear that Gospel, the crowds, the disciples, the pharisees and scribes, they all want signs, they all want bread. The words are supposed to be enough, but the demand for bread and signs never ends, and so Jesus shows who he is, as the Word made flesh, by doing miracles, healing the sick and the lame, casting out demons and finally by dying on a cross and being raised on the third day. And so in the Gospel of John, Word and Sign – Jesus and bread – are inextricably bound up together, they cannot be separated. There is the Word, the Good News of God’s Love, and then there is the Sign, the bread of Christ’s body to be shared. Word and Sign – Jesus and bread.

Today in the Gospel of John, we see that the good news and bread are one. Jesus is the Word made flesh to hear, Jesus is the bread made flesh to share. For John, we are given grace and we are given bread, and God gives them to us in the same package. The Good News comes in bread and body to be shared. Jesus gives himself to us in the flesh and in the bread of life. 

But today, this conversation about bread takes a turn. Up until now, the conversation has been about the divine, about the unwillingness of the crowds to see Jesus as God. Last week the crowds wanted to be able to perform the works of God. But today, Jesus goes a little deeper, goes right to the heart of reasons why the crowds, and why we, try to be God in God’s place. Its the reason that our sinful self wants to be in control. Jesus reminds the crowds, “Even your ancestors ate manna in the desert, they ate the bread from heaven provided by Yahweh Elohim, the God of Abrham and Isaac, the God who delivered you from Pharaoh and slavery in Egypt.  They ate that heavenly bread, and yet, even they died. 

Jesus is getting to the heart of what all the quibbling about bread is about. Jesus is reminding us of that fact that none of us likes to be reminded of. It doesn’t matter if your ancestors were the ones whom Yahweh fed with manna in the desert and it doesn’t matter if your ancestors were the ones whom God fed with bread grown in the fertile land Manitoba, WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE. The crowds wanted to do the works of God, but the work of God is New Life, something that we must rely on God to do for us.

And so for us, death is real and death in unavoidable. The Old Adam, the sinful self, would rather quibble about bread any time. Being reminded of the reality of death, to be reminded of its constant presence, is never easy. Instead, its unsettling and for the Old Adam in us, it is the ultimate reminder that we are indeed not God. 

While we may live in perhaps the most peaceful country in the world, and while as a society, we try to pretend very hard that death is not real, or at least does not affect us, it does not take much to be reminded of how close it truly is. Read the newspaper or watch the news, and the stories of death abound. Drive by any number of the cemeteries that dot the highways here, and it does not take long to be reminded that dying is OUR reality. Death is our reality so much so, that we are born dying. We are born as beings unto death, our lives are aimed, right from the beginning towards our end. 

But just because death is our reality does not mean that death is God’s reality. Just because death is our end, does not mean that its God’s end.

American Pastor and Scholar, Paul Tillich, once told a story about a World War II. There was a Jewish man who managed to escape being sent to concentration camp in Poland.  After leaving his home and all that he held dear, the man was finally forced to live and hide in a Jewish cemetery with many others wartime refugees. In fact, he lived in an empty grave, all the refugees did. And there, they hid from the Nazis. 

One day, in the grave next to the one where he had taken up residence, a young woman was giving birth to a baby, giving birth the unlikeliest of places. In her delivery, she was assisted by an Old Man dressed in a dark shroud, presumably the grave digger. When the newborn child uttered its first cries in the world, the Old Man lifted the baby to heaven and said, “Great God, hast thou sent us Messiah? For who but Messiah could be born in a grave?”

(Pause)

 In the moment when death is certain, when the reminder that we all will die is so certain and life seems to be over, God in Christ is doing a work so amazing that the Old Adam in us does not want to believe its possible. God is making new life happen, God is making eternal life happen. In place where death’s power seems to be certain and absolute, God is granting us eternal life through Messiah, through Christ. 

Starting with 5 loaves and 2 fish, and onwards with quibbling about bread, quibbling about who Jesus is, God is there offering us eternal life. It is not John’s original idea to make bread and eternal life go together, but rather, this is the work of God. It is the work of God to offer us life in the Word of Christ, and life again in Body of Christ. It is, of course, no accident that the blessing after communion goes, 

“Now may the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen you and keep you in his grace until life eternal”. 

Today, Jesus reminds us that we will all die, no matter who we are, no matter who our ancestors were. But for Jesus, death is not the end, and there with us in the grave, we are given eternal life in body and blood. Jesus gives us God the Father, and along with the Father, we are given God’s love and mercy and grace. Death is real, death is unavoidable. We are not immune to its effects, we are not immune to the reality and constant presence of death. And still for God, even in the grave there can be new life. New Life that sometimes can come in something so totally unimaginable to us, new life that comes to us OUT of the grave. But the greatest promise of New Life, is that it always comes in God’s gift of eternal life. 

We are three weeks into the Gospel of John and its discussion on bread, three weeks into this story about the 5 loaves and 2 fish. And yet, in Christ in the Word and in this Sign of bread, we are reminded first that we will all die. But more importantly, we are also promised that we shall all live. We are promised that God is working in the world to bring us new life, new life in unexpected and surprising ways. New life out of the grave. Because only God would sent us good news in bread. Only God would be born in a grave.