August 16, 2015

12th Sunday After Pentecost, Intern Pastor Catharine Simler

One of you told me a story this week that has stuck with me. The story came from an elderly pastor who was reminiscing about his seminary days.  As a student, he had been assigned to lead worship at a local mission.  The men there knew the drill.  If you wanted a meal ticket, you had to attend worship. As soon as the service was over, the men went straight to the dining hall.  The pastor joined them and sat down at one of the long tables. The man sitting next to him was famished and yelled out for someone to pass the bread, but he was ignored by the others. Pass the bread, he yelled, and again was ignored. Finally, it total frustration, he stood up and shouted, “For Christ’s sake, pass the bread.”

“For Christ’s sake, pass the bread.”  This is either blasphemy or a profound theological statement.

We all know that the word “bread” can mean lots of things. It can refer to all those things that sustain human life:  nourishing food, clean water, safe shelter. It can also refer to those things that sustain our spiritual life – the love of God, the proclamation of the Word, the sacraments, grace, forgiveness, and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Scripture abounds with bread images.  Today’s gospel is one of the most powerful.

This story takes place the day after the miracle of the loaves and fishes. You may remember, the people who experienced that miracle wanted to make Jesus their king, by force if necessary.  Jesus and his disciples managed to slip away, but the next morning the crowds caught up with them.

Then Jesus lays it on them.  “You still don’t get it,” he tells them. “You want to make me king because I gave you bread that will only sustain you for one day.  Why would you settle for so little, when I want to give you so much more?  You were given a sign yesterday, a huge, flashing neon sign, but you still don’t understand who I am.  I am living bread come down from heaven, the bread of life, the only bread that will satisfy your deepest hunger and deepest thirst.  If you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will have true life, everlasting life.

We tend to hear what we’re conditioned to hear.  Most of those who followed Jesus, heard blasphemy.  They heard Jesus urging them to violate God-given laws – laws that defined them as God’s chosen people and set them apart from Idol worshipers:  You shall not consume the blood of any creature.  Human sacrifice is an abomination.  You shall not eat human flesh.  So, they were horrified.

On the other hand, maybe these words don’t shock us enough.  We hear the words “flesh and blood” as a reference to the sacrament of Holy Communion.  We love the sacrament. We love knowing that Christ feeds us with his very body and blood, just as a loving mother feeds her child with her milk. We love that very physical feeling of the bread and wine coursing through our veins, nourishing us body and soul; Christ’s flesh and blood becoming our flesh and blood, making us one with him and in him one with each other.

When we hear Jesus say “The bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” we don’t hear “human sacrifice” or “cannibalism,” we hear a passion predication. We know Jesus will give his life on the cross for the life of the world, and we know he will be raised.  We know he lives and will live forever.

But if we make this text all about the crucifixion and the resurrection or Holy Communion, we are getting ahead of the story.  This story takes place in Galilee, before Jesus makes his final journey to Jerusalem.

So, just for a moment, let’s pretend we don’t know the rest of the story and just feel the love.  Hear, really hear, the promise Jesus made that day.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  

To abide is to live, to dwell, to make your home.  How can you live in something that lives in you?  Well, ask any mother.  A baby in utero lives, literally, in his mother.  His mother’s blood, her very life, flows through him.  She breaths for him, she eats for him, she envelops and nurtures him.  At the same time, she and his father live in him, the flesh of their flesh.  They pass on their genes and, perhaps more importantly, their love, their faith, their values, and their dreams.

Do you hear the tenderness of this image?  God wants to carry us in her womb.  God wants to feed us, breath for us, shape and nurture us through Christ — not for nine months, but for eternity.  God wants to flow through our veins.  God wants to be our life blood.  God wants to live in us through Christ.  God knits us together as the living body of Christ and invites us to participate in Christ’s saving work.

How do we live in God?  Picture this. When we make our home in Christ we become like the smallest Russian nesting doll.  We live in Christ and Christ lives in the Father, and so we dwell at the very heart of the Trinity.

It turns out living bread is not a substance, it is a relationship.  A very intimate relationship, bordering on oneness. 

It begins with God, calling us, pursuing us, giving us the grace to believe in Christ, but the more we attend to our relationship with Christ, the stronger and closer and more life-giving it becomes — and the more it transforms us – we become more like Christ and as we do, we become who truly are, we become who God always intended us to be.

God has given us many ways to deepen and strengthen this relationship.  We are also heirs to a rich variety of spiritual practices passed down by those who came before us

Here’s a spiritual practice inspired by this text.  Christ promises that those who believe in him abide in him and he in them.  What would it mean to take this to heart?  How might it change you?  How might it change your life?

If Christ dwells in each of us, that means Christ goes with us wherever we go. To work, to school, to the gym to the grocery store. Every encounter is an opportunity to be Christ to someone.  It has become clichéd, but try asking yourself “what would Jesus do?”  You may need to ask God for help.  Jesus is a lot more forgiving, compassionate, loving, and generous than any of us.  Try it for one just one hour during your busy day. Then reflect.  How did it go? How did it feel?  What did you learn?

There’s another side to this. Christ may dwell in everyone you meet.  What would it mean to see Christ in every encounter? Maybe you’re thinking, “Christ would never be as difficult as some of the people I meet.”    Buddhists call difficult people “treasures,” because they help us grow spiritually. They see these people as the Buddha assuming a disguise to teach them how to truly love others.  After all, as Jesus said, it is easy to love those who love you.  Anyone can do that.  So try this tomorrow when you go to work.  Treat your most annoying co-worker as Christ. Then reflect.  How did it go?  How did it feel?  What did you learn?  I’d love to hear your stories.

Here’s the good news.  It’s true what they say. You are what you eat.  When we eat the living bread, when we believe and place our trust in Jesus, we ourselves become bread for a hungry world.

For Christ’s sake, pass the bread.

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Scripture: John 6:51-58