A Failure in the Kingdom? – a sermon

The audio for this sermon will soon be available on the newly updated Christ Church website.  Click here to listen, or read along.


This afternoon I’ll be flying out of town again.  After my delightfully awkward 20th high school reunion, it might seem odd to rush off again, but this time, I’m headed to a continuing education event at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  The two-day course is called “Stepping up to Staffing,” and there I hope to expand upon my year and a half of on-the-job training supervising a team of high-quality employees.  This continuing ed. opportunity, like every other one that I’ve ever attended, assumes that the goal of every congregation is to move forward, to maintain health, and to grow.  There just doesn’t seem to be a market for continuing ed. events that will teach you how to shrink your church, but given the trajectory of the last five weeks in John 6, maybe that’s something we should be studying.  The ministry of Jesus wasn’t always popular.  It didn’t always grow.  In fact, sometimes, it was an exercise in ineffectiveness to the glory of God.

As you might recall, our triennial summer excursion into the Bread of Life Discourse began with Jesus looking out upon a crowd of more than five thousand hungry followers and having compassion on them. With five loaves and two fish, he fed the multitudes with such an abundance that twelve baskets of leftovers were gathered.  In our time, that was a month ago, but in the context of John’s Gospel, it was only yesterday.  Yesterday, there were more than five thousand people following Jesus around the Galilean countryside.  It had likely been days on end that the crowds followed Jesus, listening to his teaching, experiencing his healing ministry, and longing for the salvation that he was promising.  Yesterday, the crowds were so impressed with Jesus that they openly proclaimed him as a prophet.  Yesterday, the fervor grew with such intensity that it looked like the crowd was going anoint Jesus their king.

A good church growth consultant would point out all the good things that Jesus did yesterday.  He preached the Gospel of grace.  He offered true healing.  He connected with his community, learned what they needed, and worked to make a difference.  To the hungry, he gave food to eat.  And when it became clear that the crowd was missing the point, trying to make it all about Jesus and not the Kingdom of God, Jesus retreated into the wilderness to pray for strength, to take stock of his ministry, and to give the crowd time to figure it out on their own.  Jesus was doing a lot of things right, and as a result, his ministry was flourishing.  Yesterday.

Today, things are very different.  By morning, Jesus and his disciples were on the other side of the lake.  Many weren’t willing to travel that far to continue to listen to Jesus, and so they returned to their daily lives.  Some were so desperate that they followed Jesus, if only to call dibs on the twelve baskets of left-overs from last night’s meal.  As Jesus looked upon this smaller crowd, he again had compassion on them.  It wasn’t just that they were hungry.  John tells us that this time Jesus’ compassion wasn’t for their physical needs, but rather for their spiritual ones.  “They were like sheep without a shepherd.”  They were lost, wandering in the wilderness, destined to follow anyone or anything that would offer them the relative security of food, water, and shelter.

Today, after yesterday’s miraculous feeding, Jesus chooses to feed the soul rather than the belly, and so we get the Bread of Life Discourse.  This short teaching by Jesus is less than 900 words.  It probably took him less than 10 minutes to preach it, and in that time, he managed to finish the miraculous shrinking of his ministry from more than five thousand to a grand total of twelve.  That is some unprecedented contraction.  Every step along the way, the crowd has asked questions, and for every question, Jesus had a more pointed and difficult response.  By the time this fifth passage from John 6 opens, Jesus is commanding the crowd that is still gathered to chew on his flesh like a cow chewing its cud and to wash it down with a cup full of blood so that they might live forever.

Yesterday, they were eating their fill in the wilderness.  Today, in the Synagogue in Capernaum they are being asked to gnaw on their teacher.  Not on his teaching, mind you, but to actually munch down on Jesus.  “This teaching is difficult,” they say, which doesn’t seem like an outlandish reaction to the direction Jesus’ teaching has taken over the last ten minutes.  “Who can accept it?”  Already Jesus has lost most of his followers.  Yesterday, it was a crowd of five thousand.  Here, all that is left are his disciples, his most faithful students, who had followed him for close of a year now.  Whether this group consists of 70 or a couple of hundred, it is already much smaller than the enamored and hungry crowd that approached Jesus on the hillside twenty-four hours ago.

This teaching from Jesus is difficult.  He is asking for their full faith.  He’s hoping that after more than twelve months together, they might be willing to follow Jesus no matter the cost, to risk hunger and thirst, to risk personal danger, to risk family embarrassment, for the sake of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus is pressing in the hopes of figuring out just how far his disciples are willing to go for the bread that gives life.  It turns out that for many of them, they just aren’t willing to go quite that far.  What we don’t know is what actually scandalized these would-be disciples. Was it the eat my flesh stuff or the running away from being crowned king bit?  Were they disgusted by the imagery of bone and blood, or were they afraid they had hitched their wagon to a loser? Whatever it was, they begin to grumble, just as their ancestors had in the wilderness when God gave them manna – the bread of heaven.

Just like their ancestors, these disciples were unable to trust fully in what God had in store for them.  Lost in the wilderness, their ancestors cried out to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die?  Wouldn’t it have been better to die in Egypt?  Oh, that we could return to the fresh produce, meat, and wine that Egypt had to offer.”  Ultimately, they didn’t have much of a choice but to continue to move forward.  Returning to Egypt would have meant certain death, but for the disciples of Jesus who are having trouble trusting in the promises of God, turning back seems easy.  Most of them would have been from Capernaum and the surrounding areas.  Their families would be glad to have them back.  Whatever they had lost to follow Jesus, they could have picked most of it right back up again.  And so most of them leave.  They walk away from the gift of eternal life for the relative safety of the here and now.

From five thousand followers to twelve in 24 hours is no way to run a ministry.  The church growth consultants would certainly recommend that Jesus choose a different path, and yet, the story ends with a note of promise.  Jesus turns to the twelve who are left and challenges them, “Do you want to turn back too?” Among them are Judas, who will betray Jesus to the Temple authorities; Peter, who will deny Jesus three times on the night of his arrest; Thomas, who will go missing for more than a week after the crucifixion; and at least eight others who will flee from the scene when the going gets tough.  Yet, this rather inauspicious group will, one day, take the message of the Kingdom forward.  Despite the challenges that are to come, it is this occasionally faithful remnant who will abide with Jesus, confident that the word Jesus brings is eternal life.

“Where else could we go?” Peter wonders.  No one else in the world was offering eternal life like Jesus was.  From this remaining group of twelve, some two thousand years later, 2.3 billion people[1] now call on the name of Jesus, the Holy One of God, for the bread that brings eternal life.  As we wrap up our five-week tour through this challenging teaching, I’m grateful for this final word of hope.  It won’t sell a continuing education event, but there is much to learn from the scandalizing message of Jesus in John 6, and I give thanks for five weeks to gnaw on the Bread of Life.  Amen.

[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/

Advertisements

Powers and Principalities

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, SHW, the kids, and I joined some friends for Worship on the Water at the Florabama Lounge.  It was one of my sabbatical goals to worship there, but to be honest, I found it disappointing.  I didn’t drink a beer during church, though I suppose I could have.  The music was entertaining, but nobody was singing along, even when they sang Amazing Grace.  The theology was what you might expect, conservative and evangelical, though with a healthy attitude toward outreach, especially to those battling addiction.  What I found most disappointing, however, was the sermon.

The founding pastor preached.  I’d heard good things about him, his ministry, and his preaching ability, but it was really quite flat.  He told good stories and he had a few good punch lines, but he was sprinting the entire time.  Maybe it was the heat, but he left us with no chance to laugh at the jokes because he was already on to something else.  You didn’t come here for a review of Worship on the Water, however.  You came here to read something about the Bible.  Coincidentally, the sermon preached that morning was the last in a series on the armor of God that Paul writes about in the lesson from Ephesians appointed for Sunday.

While battle imagery has gone out of fashion in most Episcopal congregations, this image of being strong in the Lord is one that is vitally important, especially as we’re already 6 years into a 4 year presidential election cycle with another 15 months to go!  The call to be ready to stand against the wiles of the devil and his “rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil” are perhaps even more crucial today then they were in the first century because if there is one thing the media is good at, it is hyping up what the King James’ version of the Bible calls “powers and principalities.”

For those who are sure how these different dangers all fit together, I found this handy chart.

Whether it is Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, or Ben Carson, the key to primary presidential politics these days is building and allaying fears.  Immigrants are bringing drugs and taking your jobs, but I’ll deport them.  Republicans want to leave the poor to starve to death in the gutters, but I’ll feed the masses.  Hilary can’t be trusted with national security, but I’ll keep you safe.  Liberals are spending us into slavery to China, but I’ve got a plan to cut taxes, stimulate growth, and remove all entitlements.  The power and principality of fear is alive and well in our culture, and if we aren’t careful, if we aren’t strong in the Lord, we will easily succumb to its wiles.

Let’s put on the full armor of God and take on the fear that threatens to overwhelm us.  Let’s place our trust in the LORD, not the rulers of this world.  Let’s follow after the will of God and see about changing the world.

Talk About Offensive!

As I noted yesterday, in Sunday’s Gospel lesson we hear that even Jesus’ disciples were having a hard time with his teaching on the Bread of Life.  “This teaching is difficult,” they lament, “who can accept it?”  Jesus is fully aware that what he is teaching is hard to grasp: John even tells us that Jesus knew from the beginning who would be able to accept it and who wouldn’t.  It is the response of Jesus, which, as usual, brings us short.

“Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”

Remember that in John’s Gospel not only is there no institution of the Eucharist, but there is also no ascension into heaven.  Yet more than once, Jesus foreshadows an ascension.  Scholars are quick to suggest that for John, the moment of ascension, when Jesus is lifted up, isn’t as he rides a cloud into heaven, but when his cross is lifted into the air on the hill called Golgotha.  Talk about offensive!

Crucifixion, Matthias Grunewald

Jesus is keenly aware that things are only going to get more offensive as the years wear on.  This teaching about bread and wine and flesh and blood is nothing compared to what will happen on a Friday later called “Good.”  As Jesus ascends to his rightful place, his teaching will move from difficult to damn near impossible to accept.  Even his closest disciple, the one who says “where else would we go?” will turn away and hide, unable to accept what it means that Jesus is the King of kings.

Lent, Holy Week, and Easter are a long way away, but as the calendar turns toward fall and the second half of the Season of Pentecost approaches, we will hear more and more about the crucifixion.  We’ll find the disciples, even the 12, having a harder and harder time accepting what Jesus is teaching.  We’ll be reminded again and again that Jesus isn’t inviting us into a faith that is easy or simple, but rather, we are invited to follow Jesus through the most difficult parts of life.  He’s been there, in the depths of human depravity – hanging fully offensive naked and bleeding on a cross –  even as he was lifted up to his rightful place on the throne of heaven.  Yeah, I guess all that is pretty offensive.

Logosclerosis – a hard word

As we begin what feels like our 41st week in the Bread of Life Discourse from John 6, I’ll once again point you to the good work of Evan Garner, who, like me, isn’t preaching this week, but takes some time to look again at what Jesus is really trying to get at in this “difficult teaching.”

It is a difficult teaching that Jesus offers, at least that how the NRSV renders the original text.  In Greek is sounds more like a medical condition than anything else, “logosclerosis,” which in the proper tense it reads something like “eipan-scleros,”  literally it is a hard word or a hard saying.  Note, as Evan has, that this push back isn’t coming from the Jews, John’s polemical code-word for the Jewish leadership.  It isn’t coming from the crowd either.  No, this time we have “the disciples” wondering just how anyone could possibly accept this logosclerosis, this hard word.

After 96 weeks in John 6, you might be asking yourself the same question.  How can something seemingly so dense make any sense in the everyday muck of Christian discipleship?  I think that’s probably why the Lectionary gods decided to spend 2.654 years in this one chapter, because eventually you have to deal with it.  If it gets read enough times, the preacher will have to speak to it.  If we hear it enough, the congregation will be forced to consider the ramifications of this logosclerosis.

Jesus places before us the same choice Joshua offered the people of Israel, telling the swollen group of disciples that they can choose flesh that dies or spirit that lives forever.  John tells us that many went on to choose the life of the flesh, they trusted their bellies over and above the Lord.  From thousands, even tens of thousands, who had been fed by Jesus, we find the sixth chapter of John closing with just the 12 left.

“To whom shall we go?”  Peter knows that the way of Jesus is logosclerosis, it is a hard word that Jesus offers, but it is a word that leads to eternal life.  Thanks be to God that at least 12 remained faithful.  It is from their witness, their example of living with logosclerosis that we are able to continue in that way.  It isn’t easy.  The temptation to return to Egypt is strong.  The temptation to follow the god of the belly, the checkbook, the Jones’ is always nipping at our heels, but the way of Jesus is a daily decision to choose the hard road that leads through the cross to eternal life.