A sermon for the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 12, Year B) July 25, 2021
In Year B of the Lectionary Cycle (our current assigned Sunday readings), we take a departure from the Gospel of Mark in the middle of the season after Pentecost to explore John 6. This detour always lands in the middle of the Summer for us in the Northern Hemisphere, and is known as the “bread” discourse, as each of the next 5 Sundays will be related to the phrase “I am the bread of life.”
We start this discourse here with the opening verses of the chapter and one of the most famous of Jesus’ miracles in ministry: the feeding of the 5000. The people follow Jesus out into the wilds of the region, numbering into the thousands, just to hear him preach. To listen to the words he shares. To feed the gnawing hunger that many didn’t even know they had, or at least couldn’t express, until word of this healer, teacher, miracle worker came into their lives, as word of his ministry spread throughout the communities.
And, as they gather to listen to Jesus, to hang on every word, they have left everything to come out and be filled by his presence among them. They have not worried about food, the time of day, the crowd amassing, it is simply enough to go and be in the presence of Christ.
Jesus, seeing this crowd, and in the divine manner that is the hallmark of the Gospel of John, puts to his disciples: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”
Now, we of course know the rest of the story: a humble boy brings forth a whole bunch of bread (5 loaves is a lot for one humble boy, let’s be honest here), and two fish, perhaps fish that he himself has caught this day on the edge of the sea. After Jesus gives thanks for this bounty shared by this boy, he offers thanks and orders the food distributed, as much as anyone needs to be satisfied, and then we gather up the remainder: 12 baskets full of bread.
This miracle is the physical manifestation of what Jesus is about to teach us in the remainder of John 6.
This miracle is the physical manifestation of Jesus telling us that “I am the bread of life.”
This miracle informs our own understanding of faith and the emphasis, the centrality that we place on the practice of Holy Communion in our worship and in our lives as a community together, coming to the table knowing that we will always be fed with what we need, that we will never run out, that, in fact, we will always have more than we need for everyone who is hungry and comes to eat at this table with us.
This story then challenges us today.
We just lived through a time where we were basically refused the bread at this table for a full year.
We lived into a different expression of worship.
We fed on the word of Christ as the bread of life.
But, it must be said that the physical manifestation of this belief is a different experience than solely receiving the word.
In the history of the Episcopal Church, the practice of communion as an every Sunday practice is very new, only since the 1979 Prayer Book in fact has the practice of Eucharist as the principle service become the standard worship offering. Before this shift, Eucharist was typically once a month, sometimes as infrequent as once a quarter, in most Episcopal churches. But those Sundays were circled on folks’ calendars. Those Sundays were Sundays you DID NOT miss. Those Sundays were a crucial part of the life of the faithful. Because the physical manifestation of our faith in Christ as the bread of life, fills a different hunger within us that we can’t even begin to express until we have it filled for the first time.
This is part of what made our time apart so challenging.
This is why we brought back communion in an altered fashion at Easter, the earliest we felt safe in doing so.
And, we must ask ourselves what we have learned from this time of distance, this time away, this forced season of fasting from the eucharist, the physical bread of Christ.
Even though this time of pandemic isn’t yet over, we can begin to reflect on what we have learned, because it is this learning that will inform our practice of faith for years to come. This season of pandemic has asked us to examine our faith and to know Christ in a new way, or perhaps an old but forgotten way.
On this Sunday that we begin this discourse on bread, that we begin to mine the scripture for a deep understanding in our faith of what it means for Christ to be the bread of life, of how we live into this reality, of how we practice this reality in our worship, of how we share this reality with our neighbor, it is fitting that we continue to regain our practice of Holy Communion with the re-introduction of our common cup in an altered fashion. We continue to fast in many ways, even as we continue to regain much of what was lost in our worshipping life and practice together. As we continue to fast, we continue to explore the depths of our faith and grow into a deeper appreciation for what it means to follow Christ. For what it means for our Christ to be the literal bread of life given for creation.
I would be remiss too if I didn’t follow the little side story that the editors of the lectionary decided to leave in our story today. We will continue to hear stories of bread for the next 4 weeks, all coming from this discourse in John 6, but instead of ending the pericope (that is, the selected verses assigned for today) following the feeding of the 5000, we get this little aside of Jesus’ walking on water. Now, there are much more robust stories of Jesus on the water with the disciples, John’s version is comparatively pretty simple and straightforward for once, but I think the most important piece of the story, and why I think it is included, is Jesus’ line spoken to the disciples: “It is I; do not be afraid.”
Jesus is about to fundamentally shift the understanding of who he is, what he represents, what the promise of his life means, and his first message to the disciples as they once again witness his divinity is, “It is I; do not be afraid.”
It’s just me.
It’s just Jesus.
Do not be afraid.
Yes, I am walking on water.
Yes, this is a lot to take in.
But, do not be afraid, because it’s still me, it’s still the teacher, the healer, the brother you know and love, and no matter what may come in this world, no matter what challenge you may face, do not be afraid, for I am with you, always.
“It is I; do not be afraid.”
It is I, and what I’m about to teach you will forever change you.
It is I, and what I’m about to teach you will forever change the world…