“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6: 68
Last time I preached on July 29th there was a boy whose lunch of five barley loaves and two fish fed a crowd of 5,000 people in a cover-dish supper bonanza. A lot has happened since then and because in August so many of us are away on vacation, let’s begin with a quick recap.
As the twelve baskets of left-overs were being collected, some were about to make Jesus king. He slips away while his disciples get in a boat and head across the Sea of Galilee. The crossing’s treacherous and during the night Jesus walks on water to be with them, but winds up terrifying them. By morning, they’ve all arrive in the beach town of Capernaum and are on vacation “down the shore.” Meanwhile the crowd gets into boats and heads to Capernaum where they find him. So instead of going fishing with Peter, Andrew, James and John or relaxing on the beach with Matthew, Bartholomew and Thomas, Jesus has to go back to work and in the local synagogue tells them about bread.
Scholars call this his Bread of Life discourse in which he explains he is the living bread. It’s a problematic teaching, demanding the listeners to move from a literal understanding to a deeper spiritual one in which the bread of life is the shared lunch of a young boy, but also Jesus, who has come down from heaven. I confessed I was pleased to be on vacation, while Pastor Kochenderfer served as St. John’s preacher on these challenging texts. He wrestled with this discourse and I trust made sense of it.
In our Gospel for today, we learn that Jesus is well aware of the difficulty of his teaching. His listeners struggle with the issue of his parentage – how he said that he is the Son of God the Father when they full well that he was the son of Joseph and Mary. They also fail to comprehend his reference to the manna their ancestors ate in the Exodus wilderness. But it is the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood that offends them the most. Its cannibalistic overtones are simply too much to bear. God’s law is clear, both Genesis and Leviticus they were told not to eat any blood whether of animal or bird. And now the one they thought would enhance their life, was offending them and by the time he finishes teaching only the original 12 disciples remain and one of them would betray him.
So, what’s going on here? How could Jesus turn a wildly successful evangelism crusade where 5,000 hung on his every word even when the day was growing late and their bellies were grumbling from hunger, and hundreds traveled across the sea of Galilee, all ready to follow him, to name him king, into no more followers than he started out with? If our Welcoming Team reported similar results, 5,000 perspectives dwindling down to just them, our Council would want to know what happened!
Could it be that Jesus refuses to be something we simply add to our lives –like whipped cream on an already made sundae? You know, we build a nice life, a family, a home, a career, but feel there’s something missing so we add in little religion to bless it all. Not too much. Sunday School to help us raised decent kids. Confirmation to get through their teenage years. Give some offering, do a few good works, say our prayers thanking God for all the blessings given to us. And all of that is nice, even good, only it falls far short of eternal life. Then something terrible happens, something that reveals that no matter what we have done to have a good life, it’s fallen short And no matter how hard we try to make it better, it doesn’t work. As our AA brothers and sisters put it in step one of the 12, we are powerless and our lives have become unmanageable. The bread we earn or bake is not enough. We desperately need God, but not on our terms, only on God’s.
I arrived at Emanuel Lutheran Church in the Spring of 1975 quite full of myself. I’d convinced the Sociology department of Susquehanna University to let me do an urban internship in the Southwark Housing Projects. 6,000 or so people lived there extending over four city blocks from Christian Street on the north, Washington Avenue on the south, 3rd Street on east and 5th on the west. My supervisor was Pastor John Cochran and at our first meeting he outlined his expectations. Yes, I could do research in the neighborhood, but I was also to teach science in the Parish School, oversee an afternoon children’s club, do some tutoring and be in worship – morning prayers and evening Mass, what the people of Emanuel called Holy Communion, every day except Saturday. I didn’t say anything but even though I grew up in an every-Sunday-in-Church kind of family, I thought it excessive. At first, I went reluctantly. It was just one more thing to do in an already busy day. But it wasn’t long before my very full self was running on empty. Dreams of making a difference, of being a force for good, of helping to create social change fell into pieces because of my naivete, my ego, my in-bred racism, my middle class assumptions, because of me. And by grace alone, receiving Holy Communion every day became far more than fulfilling my supervisor’s expectations. It was the bread of life itself. When I was given the body of Christ and received it there was always enough, indeed more than enough. Because you see, the sacrament bore eternal life and those around me, including those junior high students who challenged me every chance they could, became the body of Christ too. Once in a while, one of those students, now all grown up in their mid-fifties “friends” me on Facebook and through a sentence or two I discovered that they too experienced those days as eternal life.
As I’ve listened to our team that went on the Appalachia Service Project Mission Trip in July, I’ve learned that they had similar experiences of letting go of fear and expectations, prejudices and egos, and in the letting go, God showed up in many and various ways. God, not as a topping on already made lives, but God as life itself, as eternal life, life rich and full, life now and forever.
So how about us here and now? Not us on an urban internship or a mission trip to Kentucky, but us in our day to day life where we are so often stuck in patterns of behavior the keep us caught in routines where we endlessly repeat that which does not work. And the reason we do so is because the last time did not satisfy us deeply. So, we go on-line and with a few clicks buy one more thing or we set out on another trip to collect experiences or have another drink or eat another sweet, or binge watch another show or have another argument. All because as English poet W. H. Auden put it, “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die.” But what if Jesus who by his own flesh and blood, abides with us, now and forever, what if letting our illusions die frees us from sin and death and opens us into a new day? What if it is true so that we can let go of all that is false, all that has failed and be embraced by life eternal? What if we can be changed? Not just with the façade of religion, but changed through and through, so that nothing, separates us from Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
This past week our sister in Christ, Dottie Cassavecchia, whose whole is life a mission trip, was honored at a party where the people of Episcopal House thanked her for her ministry among them. When they asked her to speak she said, “Everything I do wherever I am is for God’s glory and I let him show me and guide me. It’s all my Lord.” And dare I say, “Our Lord too!” Amen.
W. H. Auden as quoted by Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water, Franciscan media, 2012, 6.