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

Flesh and Blood

It is never helpful to split the world into broad-brush, false dichotomies, but there seems to be two kinds of people in this world: those who can handle blood and gore, and those who cannot.  I’m mostly in the latter category.  I hate horror movies, not because I don’t like to be scared (though the older I get, the more I don’t like that either), but because of my weak constitution when it comes to blood and guts.  Even war flicks are too much for me, and as a result, I’ve missed out on classics like Saving Private Ryan.  I chose to do my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training in a tiered-care retirement facility rather than the Level 1 Trauma Centers all of my friends were flocking to.  I’ve resisted the urge to volunteer as a police chaplain, because I don’t want to be the new guy in the corner, puking my guts out.

a48d8834-9507-4023-94bd-12264fd63606_text_hi

It may come as a surprise, then, that one of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer is the Prayer of Humble Access.  This is an optional prayer as part of the post-fraction in Rite I.  It may or may not be said, with the congregation joining in or not.  We say it most Sundays here at Christ Church, even though in the wider culture, its themes would seem to by fairly unpopular.  For those who maybe don’t know it, I’ve copied it form page 337:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful
Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold
and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather
up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord
whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore,
gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him,
and he in us. Amen.

From the uncomfortable reference to that time Jesus made a racial slur, to the idea that we might be somehow unworthy of God’s grace, a wildly unpopular concept in 21st century mainline Protestantism, to the imagery of eating flesh and drinking blood, this prayer challenges the modern American mainline Protestant at every turn.  Yet, this prayer is also profoundly, if uncomfortably, biblical.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is round 3 of our five week foray into the bread of life discourse.  This week, Jesus doubles down on the idea that the bread that God has given for eternal life is his very own flesh.

There is some comfort in the knowledge that this was as difficult to hear at the time as it is now.  Yet, there is also the ongoing reality that we need the nourishment that can come only from Christ’s own self.  For those, like me, who don’t enjoy blood and gore, this imagery can be hard to swallow, but Jesus is clear that we need to come to the Table, to eat the flesh of God and to drink the blood of Christ, in order to be continually renewed for the ministry to which we are called.

I’ll give you…

… Something to be angry about!

As our interminable summer foray into John 5 and 6 continues this week, our Gospel lesson doesn’t just start where the last one left off, it helpfully includes the last verse of last week’s lesson as the first verse for this week (then immediately skips five verses that actually help that first verse make sense in context because RCL).  Having taught the hungry remnant of the 5,000 what the miraculous feeding was meant to represent, Jesus declares himself to be the bread of life.  Those who eat of this bread, Jesus says, will never again know hunger or thirst.

If one were to try to figure out the most offensive thing someone could say in the 1st century Jewish context, this was pretty close.  As I noted last week, this “I AM” statement by Jesus, the first of seven in John’s Gospel, would have been fairly obviously blasphemous, unless that person really was the Messiah, the Anointed one of God.  To claim the holy name, that which has gone unspoken even about God in Judaism, for one’s self would have been unimaginable.  Yet, in a very public setting, Jesus was willing to say “I AM.”

143_-_yhwh_gold-42115913_std

The tetragrammaton – the Hebrew name of God

When confronted by the crowd for making such a bold statement, Jesus essentially says, “U MAD BRO?  I’ll give you something to get mad about!”  Jesus doubles down on his claim – saying twice more “I am the bread of life” and “I am the living bread.”  He claims that he will raise those who believe up on the last day.  He is even so bold as to suggest that the true bread that gives life to the world is his flesh.

One of the leading complaints about Christianity in the early days was that it was a cannibalistic cult.  Jesus does himself no favors here, and yet, he feels compelled to make such outlandish claims because he knows that all of it is true.  Jesus is “I AM.”  Jesus is the bread of life that God has chosen to offer to the world.  Jesus’ flesh, in the bread of the Eucharistic feast, will be the nourishment of all who come after and the sign by which Christ’s Church will signify the ongoing life of faith.

It would have been hard to imagine Jesus going further off the deep-end than his initial “I am the bread of life” statement, but deeper he went.  All the while, even in this polemical rhetoric, Jesus is offering an invitation.  “If you want eternal life.  If you want the salvation that comes from a relationship with God.  If you want to know life abundant, then believe what I am saying, as outlandish as it may be, for these words which I speak are the true bread that gives life to the world.”

The Bread of Life for All – a sermon

The new cecbg.com is now up and running, which means audio will soon be available.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, you can read today’s sermon here:


I grew up the child of blue collar folk in a decidedly white-collar community.  Manheim Township was one of the richest tax bases in Pennsylvania.  As McMansions came into fashion, they were built in spades in my school district.  I went to school with the children of doctors, lawyers, and more than a few stockbrokers.  Folks drove nice cars, had vacation homes down the shore, and generally lived very comfortably.  My family lived in 1,300 square foot, post-war house nestled in a quiet, older neighborhood.  My parents both worked hard, but my sister and I knew that we’d never have everything our friends had.  Still, we were always comfortable.  We never knew hunger, and were always sure that our next meal would come.  The same couldn’t be said for some of the kids who rode our school bus, however.

Thanks to some political maneuvering over the years, the Manheim Township School District had come to include two blocks of Lancaster City that sat right alongside the railroad tracks.  The kids who lived in those rowhouses lived very different lives.  My shoes were knock-off Chuck Taylors, theirs were hand-me downs.  My clothes were always freshly cleaned, but theirs obviously were not.  I maybe didn’t have the spare lunch money to buy that Chaco Taco I wanted, but some of them didn’t have enough lunch money to buy anything at all.  Being a self-absorbed kid, I noticed the differences, it was hard not to, but my attention was mostly fixed on my own perceived need.  As I’ve matured in my faith, I often think of those kids and the thousands like them that I’ve met over the last decade for whom the desperation of hunger is a very real thing.

Last Sunday, we heard the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people out of fives small barely loaves and two fish.  In that crowd, there were folk from every walk of life.  Some in the crowd would have been quite well off – religious leaders, lawyers, and tax collectors.  Some likely lived day-to-day existences – farmers, fishermen, and the like.  Many, no doubt, were the poorest of the poor – widows, orphans, and lepers, for example – living at the very margins of society, never knowing when their next meal might be.  For this group, to eat their fill and have food left-over was an unimaginable luxury.  It is unsurprising, then, that the next day, some out of the crowd of 5,000 would be out in search of another meal.

After a rough night on the lake, it would have been easy for Jesus to focus on his own needs.  Yet, as we’ve seen several times lately, Jesus is quick to see to the very core of people, to assess their needs, and to offer grace.  Jesus understood that the remaining crowd had been unable to experience the fullness of the miracle the day before because they knew nothing but hunger.  As the old adage goes, “a hungry stomach has no ears.” They only knew that for a moment, the desperation of living in constant hunger had gone away.  It is no wonder that they went in search of Jesus when they couldn’t find him – they sought him out in the hope that he might be able to feed them another meal.  It is easy to hear this passage as Jesus condemning this group of people for missing the miracle, but I think that it is much more likely that Jesus’ response to their hunger for literal food was compassion, and so he took the opportunity to teach them about what had really happened the day before.  “You missed the sign.” Jesus says, “What you are searching for today isn’t just another bit of bread, but rather, food that will abide – food that will endure – food for eternal life.”

I was struck, this week, by the reaction of the crowd to Jesus’ words.  As I heard the response of the crowd, I could see the faces of the myriad men and women who have come into my office desperate and hungry.  They come for all sorts of reasons and in need of all kinds of things: diapers for their child or the assurance of God’s love; gas to get to work or hope in the midst of hopelessness; money to have the lights turned back on, or someone who will just care enough to listen.  As they tell me their stories and we both come to realize that I might have some resources to be able to help, more often than not, their reaction is the same as the crowd, “what work can I do to earn this?”

Grace is really hard to comprehend.  Grace is antithetical to the American Way.  There is no bootstrap theology in the Gospel, but rather, the stark realization that everything we have is a gift from God, and there is nothing we can ever do to earn it.  For the hungry crowd, it was hard to fathom that someone would just give you food that endures forever.  For those of us who know only comfort, I think grace is even harder to imagine.  Only those who have known desperation can begin to understand grace.  Only those who have cried out in hunger, fear, or despair can begin to know what Jesus is talking about when he says that the only work we have is to believe, and even that, the tradition teaches us, is a gift from God.  It is only those who have known what it is to live in need who can experience what it means to cry out to God and say, “Lord, give us this bread always.”

The good news of God’s grace is that even if we can’t comprehend it, even when we don’t know we need it, we are still invited to receive it.  To the hungry crowd, Jesus is eager to share that all throughout history, God has been in the business of freely giving away the true bread of grace. From Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah.  From Moses and the people of Israel to the here and now.  In the person of Jesus, God continues to offer the bread of life.  This bread, which the crowds don’t know they really want, which we often don’t know we really need, is made fully known in Jesus who declares, “I am the bread of life.”  In the Greek language and in Jesus’ Jewish context this declaration puts Jesus on par with God who, when Moses asked for a name from the burning bush, proclaimed the name “I AM,” and it affirms Jesus as having been present when God gave life to humanity.  Zoe, the Greek word used here for life, is the thing that animates, the soul, the breath of God, which was breathed into Adam and Eve at the beginning.  There is no one out there who isn’t in need of this bread of life.

Four blocks away, there is another set of railroad tracks that draw a dividing line.  On the other side, there live many families who know what it means to experience real hunger.  As followers of Jesus, our response to the grace of God should be the same sort of compassion that Jesus had for the crowd that sought him out.  As we gather today to ask God’s blessing upon a new school year, we pray for our own kids while also remembering those who will attend Dishman-McGinnis, where we will once again have the opportunity to serve as mentors, reaching out with the love of God to children, many of whom have known the real hunger of the crowd in today’s Gospel lesson.  We who have been given the bread of life are called to share it.  And so, let us continually pray that being nourished by the bread of life, we might have eyes to see, hearts to love, and hands to serve.

Open our eyes, O Lord, to see your hand at work in the world about us.  Help us to see the bread of life which has been offered to us, and be thankful. Help us to see those with whom you invite us to share that living bread, and be generous.  Give us hearts of compassion to reach out in loving service that one day, by your grace, the whole world might know the gift of your Son, the bread of life.  Amen.