This Teaching is Difficult: A Sermon for Proper 16B

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Madison,Wisconsin, is built around the readings assigned for Proper 16 in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

Here is a recording of the sermon

 

Here is a transcript of the recording:

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Amen.

Please be seated.

So, this is Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary.  We have a three year series, or cycle of readings, and in Year B, the second year, we read primarily from the Gospel of Mark.  But here, right in the middle of summer, every three years, we abandon Mark for five weeks to read from a single chapter of the Gospel of John.  We’ve been reading from the Gospel of John since July 29th, and on that first Sunday we started, at the beginning of that sixth chapter, with the story of Jesus feeding the 5000.  A few loaves of bread, a few small fish, and well over 5000 people are fed, and there are twelve baskets of leftovers at the end of the meal.

The next week, the crowd has followed Jesus even as he and his disciples and tried to escape to find some time to be apart, and to pray, and to rest, and Jesus turns to the crowd and he says, “The only reason you all are here is because your bellies are empty.  You haven’t followed me because of the sign that points to who I am, and to God’s presence in the world.  You’re here because you want some more food.”  And then Jesus says to them. “Look for the bread that does not perish, but the bread that leads to eternal life.” And he claims to be that bread.  He offers himself to the people as a way of giving them eternal life.

The next week, Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever,” and the people around him say, “Wait a minute.  Isn’t this Mary and Joseph’s kid?  We’ve known him all his life.  How can he tell us that he came down from heaven?”

The next week, Jesus says, “My flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed,” and the Pharisees are horrified because consuming blood is against their dietary laws, the laws that set them apart from the other nations, and the very idea of eating flesh and drinking blood sends them into a frenzy.

This week, as all of this comes to a head, we hear some of Jesus’s own disciples saying “This teaching is too difficult.  How can we accept it?” they turned back and they stop following him.

But Jesus is offering them eternal life. Jesus is offering them a way of being in the world that’s suffused with, that is filled with, a sense of the eternal; something that started at the beginning of all things and stretches to the end of all things; a way of being in the world that connects with all of that.  And which, in the words that we here at the end of the service every week, brings the peace of God which passes all understanding.  And yet this teaching about flesh and blood is too hard, and some of Jesus his disciples abandon him.

Now we have a little bit of an advantage over Jesus’s contemporaries, because from our post-resurrection point of view, some 2000 years later, we know what Jesus was pointing towards, and we know what John is talking about, as he conveys these stories.   In the beginning the Word became flesh and that lived among us.  And that flesh living among us gives up its life on the cross, and becomes bread and wine, so that we might be nourished by the flesh that was the word; so that we might be filled, and nourished, and given strength, and commitment, and conviction, to live an eternal life here and now.  So the whole idea about cannibalism, a charge that Rome made against the early church, doesn’t even come into our minds, I hope, as we hear these stories in the middle of every August.  And it seems like a silly thing to say this teaching is too hard and to walk away because of it.

So, while our post-resurrection perspectives gives us that advantage, I have to admit that I also think it causes us a completely different challenge.

Jesus’s contemporaries didn’t know yet that Jesus was headed for the cross when he said these words.  And John’s community was wrestling with the meaning of all of that.  But we know, we know, that eating the bread and drinking the wine, eating the flesh and drinking the blood that is the word that created all things, calls us to follow in Jesus’s footsteps.  Taking that word into ourselves, consuming it, embracing it, allowing it to nourish us, and become the foundation of who we are, calls us to live by that very word. I think that’s way scarier than thinking about eating flesh and drinking blood!

As an example of what I’m talking about…  In just a few minutes when we say the Prayers of the People, Sherry will stand here in the middle of the center aisle at the microphone, and she will pray on our behalf, “Awaken in us a sense of wonder for the earth and all that is in it.  Teach us to guard its beauty and care creatively for its resources.”  Those are great words, and they sound wonderful here in church on Sunday morning, but think about what we’re being called to do in that moment.  Think about what we’re being asked; to pray for the strength to accomplish, and it might seem a little daunting.

We’ll pray, “O God give us power to reveal Christ in word and action.”  The bread and the wine are an outward and visible symbol of an inner and spiritual grace, and we are called to be that same thing to the rest of the world; by our word and action, to make Christ present, and knowable, and real, to the people around us; upholding the marginalized and the oppressed, caring for the widow and orphan, upholding the poor, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison.  Eating the bread and drinking the wine calls us to live that life!  And I think if we really pay attention to what we’re saying, that can be pretty scary.

A little later Sherry will ask us to pray for our elected leaders.  That’s way scary!  And then, to strengthen all of us to be willing agents of God’s compassion?  That’s really scary stuff!

But what’s at stake here, what’s at stake for all of us, is eternal life.  So, I don’t think I can say this often enough.  I, I wrestle with people around this idea all the time.  Eternal life isn’t something off in the future, something in the next life, or in the next world.  Jesus is talking about a way of living here and now, that allows us to sense God’s presence in ourselves, in the people around, us and in the world in which we live.  God is here.  Jesus is telling us that if we can follow in his footsteps, eat his flesh and drink his blood, then we can participate in a life that’s filled with, surrounded by, lit up by God’s presence; a life that is infused with the eternal, and where we will find the peace of God that passes all understanding.

So, some of Jesus’s disciples left him in this moment.  Others stayed.  They said, “We have come to believe that you have the words of eternal life.  To whom else can we go?”  I think, I hope that’s why we’re all here this morning, because we believe that in Jesus’s words are the keys to eternal life.  And all we have to do is follow in his footsteps…

Paul knows how scary and how hard this is too, and in the reading that Dennis offered for us this morning he tells us, “take up the whole armor of God so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm…”  Fasten the belt of truth about your waist… put on the breastplate of righteousness… get some comfortable shoes, so that you are ready to go out and proclaim the gospel of peace.  Take the shield of faith, take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit… So, in the locker downstairs after the service… come down I’ll check out all of that stuff…  Where do those things come from?  How do we find that strength?  How do we find that courage?

The first answer is, here with one another, with the people seated around you in the pews, all of whom are struggling, working, to follow in Jesus’s footsteps; to be transformed, nourished, and sent by the bread and the wine.

The second answer is that bread and that wine itself, because they are the symbol and the sign of God’s ongoing presence.  And when we hold out our hands we are asking to be changed, to be commissioned, to be nourished; to be fed, and to be comforted, and reassured that we are never alone; that God will never abandon us; and that where God calls us to go, God has been before us; and that on the journey to which God calls us, God will be our constant companion.  Daunting, scary, maybe, maybe, but the promise, the promise is eternal life.  The promise is the Peace of God which passes all understanding, the joy that comes from becoming the people God created us to be, the joy that comes from fulfilling our vocation and finding our meaning in the truth that began with all things, and that stretches to the end.

We are offered the opportunity to live in that light.  So, when you come forward this morning, hold out your hands.  Receive your identity.  Receive your vocation, your calling, your purpose, your meaning. Receive who you are.  And know that you are indwelling in God, and God is indwelling in you, and all that you could ask for is yours, in that moment.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s