August 26, 2018
14th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
I missed almost all of the “Bread of Life Sermon.” While I’ve been away on a mission trip and vacation, you’ve been reading through the sixth chapter of John. Jesus has been saying “I am the bread of life” for about five weeks now. I get to come back for the dramatic conclusion when the crowd goes wild, thousands join the way of Jesus, and the world is transformed into God’s image with abundance and love for all.
When Jesus is finished with his sermon, many of his disciples decide that they don’t buy it. They find the teaching difficult and they walk away. In one way, it’s comforting to the preacher to know that, for many, the reaction to Jesus’ own sermons was, “Ummmm. Not really sure about that.” Jesus in the flesh doesn’t seem like enough.
This is actually a fairly common reaction to God’s Word in the Bible: “Really? That’s all? That’s how you’re going to solve our problems?” Behind Jesus sermon about bread is the Jewish memory of manna in the wilderness. Remember the story? They had just been brought out of Egypt across the Red Sea in dramatic style. And it’s not a week before they think maybe it would be nicer as a slave. At least, there would be consistent food. So God sends bread for them to pick up on the ground in the morning. Manna,” which in Hebrew means, “What the heck is that?”
Jesus takes that story and says that he is the answer to the bread problem. He’s the connection to a life of meaning, depth and peace, which is in John’s way of saying it, “Eternal life.” To the writer of John, the answer to every issue is “Abide in Christ.” Be connected to the vine, like a branch. Be connected to Jesus like Jesus is connected to God. It’s all about this one thing: a relationship.
Most of us would probably prefer something more concrete. Even something like manna would be great, or better yet, an end to suffering, or an answer to our heart’s deepest prayer. We want our pain to go away right now, or, at least, feel all warm and fuzzy inside. If God is going to be God for the sake of the world, shouldn’t there, at least, be something a little more dramatic.
Many still walk away over these kind of things. When death or a terrible diagnosis comes, it’s natural for us to ask, “Where is God? How can a loving God allow such things?” We discover that the people in the church are really a bunch of phonies. Discipleship turns out to be boring a lot of the time.
We come wanting complete transformation or a compelling social action strategy, and we get Jesus. It hardly seems like enough. Even as a preacher, I feel like I want to give you something more than Jesus. Some great story that will make you laugh and cry at the same time. Or a sentence that will convince you, once and for all, of just how deeply you are loved. I want to tell you how to handle the daily onslaught of lying and otherwise bad news. Maybe even stir up some outrage so we can all feel righteous and connected to others who know the same truths as we do. Oh, there’s a temptation to do that in preaching.
There’s an inscription on a pulpit in Atlanta that only the preacher sees. It says, “Sir (it was built in the old days when there were only sirs), we wish to see Jesus.” That’s all we are called to give one another. Belief is this not-quite-logical-or-provable trust that in Christ, both the world and our own selves, are made right. Christians aren’t the people who show up with all the answers, only this beautiful statement of faith from Peter, “We weren’t sure where else to go. Jesus, you have the words of life.” Peter believes, not in his head–because it never works that way–but in his heart. He chooses to receive this bread of life; to abide in the real presence of Jesus.
I’m wearing a necklace that was given to me on our mission trip to Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s made out of a piece of moose antler, beads, and leather. After an afternoon of filling up a wheel barrow with firewood, lugging it to the woodpile, and heaving the logs in the huge stack that our team had created through the week, I was ready to be done. The rest of the team had worked hard splitting that wood and building a cabin. Yvonne, the wife of an Athabaskan Native Chief, invited us into her home. She had gifts for all of us. It was only the second time she did that for a group all summer. She was impressed with how hard our group worked. She came first for me, because, as she reminded us always, “we honor our elders,” and she held out this necklace. I reached for it. But she said, “No, you just have to receive what I give to you.”
She placed it ceremoniously around my neck. I had been quick to grab, take initiative, be proactive, but she reminded me that life only makes sense when we are able to receive. The week of mission hadn’t been, after all, anything about what we produced, but about receiving what gifts were being offered, like manna in the wilderness.
This is the bread of life, broken for you.
It may not seem like enough most of the time, but it’s what we offer every Sunday: Jesus, the full love of God, offered without condition or cost to those who have tried to follow Jesus and those who have failed; those who depend on this meal, and those who find it a bit weird.
I heard a recording this week by Danny Gokey. Remember him? He was one of the singers on American Idol. He sang, “Give me Jesus.” The power of the song hit me. We usually sing it during Lent. “In the morning when I rise; in the morning when I rise, Give me Jesus. You may have all the world. Give me, Jesus.” It’s one of the hundreds of spirituals written during slavery by unknown artists who were grappling the massive violence and injustice of slavery. They saw their children sold on auction blocks. They were beaten, murdered, raped. They sang of a future that would likely only come beyond this life.
It hardly seems like enough to sing for Jesus, but the black church did, and its prayer was answered. It received Jesus, which in turn gave birth to hope, to the underground railroad, to Harriet Tubman and Dred Scott, to Black Lives Matter. To be given Jesus is to be given God’s future.
It’s hardly enough. It’s as tiny as a piece of broken bread, a bit of yeast, small as a mustard seed, one flame in the dark, a pinch of salt, a song. Jesus Christ. Yet on this, everything turns. Maybe Peter has given us the prayer we need to start and end every day, “Jesus, to whom shall we go? You have the words for abundant life.”