A sermon for the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost, August 8, 2021
Before we continue exploring John 6 this week, I want to take advantage of the stories we’ve been hearing from our Old Testament readings. The Old Testament readings come to us from the thematically-tied “Track 2” of the Lectionary, sharing stories of our faith that inform our understanding of what is being shared in our Gospel lesson. These lessons are especially important here in the bread discourse of John 6, as the people come to Jesus with this knowledge of story already in hand. They know the stories of their faith deeply. They know that God has provided for the faithful. They know that God has specifically provided bread for the faithful. And, it is these stories that open their eyes to what is happening in front of them in the person of Jesus, even if they aren’t quite yet ready to accept it.
In this selection from 1 Kings, we get the story of Elijah at a point in time where he is discouraged. The weight of his task and the failure to find success as he understands it, leads to his utter despair. He comes to rest under a tree and asks God to simply end his life for it’s all too much.
Elijah falls asleep and God sends an angel and bread and water.
Elijah sleeps again, and the angel implores him to get up, eat, be filled, and in doing so Elijah is filled with the energy and strength for the 40 day and night journey that will take him to Horeb.
This story speaks to the spiritual importance of a nap and a snack.
This story speaks to the spiritual importance of taking our rest as we walk down this path that will challenge us, that will leave us wanting, that will not always if ever be defined as success in the way our society would like to define that word.
And, this story speaks to the challenge that prophets have.
And, that God will provide for those who spread the word.
That God will provide for those who follow the path, the way.
Jesus stands before us today as the path, the way, and as the sustenance, the bread, that has been provided by God, time and again.
But, the people aren’t sure.
Isn’t this Jesus?
Isn’t this Joseph’s boy?
You know, Joseph and Mary, the normal, ordinary folks who live down the street.
How can he be bread?
How can he be the sustenance from God that has been provided to our people, our prophets, time and again?
“Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Jesus is offering not just sustenance in this moment. Sustenance to feed the stomach, to fuel the work, to carry the people forward to the next challenge.
No, Jesus is offering something radically different. Jesus is offering something that is hard to conceive, hard to grasp, for this talk of a bread that feeds eternally is a bit of a new concept at the time.
How would that work, exactly?
Bread has a shelf life.
Even if you put some preservatives in it, bread only lasts so long before it spoils and becomes inedible.
So, how could this bread that we eat give us eternal life?
Do we need to go back again and again to live forever?
How do we access this eternity, how do we eat this bread?
It is the last line spoken in today’s pericope (that is, the selection of verses chosen for today’s lesson) that points us towards a new framework and understanding of how this will work, of how we will access eternal life, of how we will share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world.
“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The flesh of Christ is the bread given for the world.
The flesh that is whipped and stripped bare.
The flesh that Christ sacrifices for us on the cross.
The flesh, the very real, physical embodiment of creation by God, the part of Christ that isn’t divine, the part that feels the warmth of the sun and bleeds when broken, the part that is most assuredly shared with all of us in creation, the flesh of Christ is the bread that is being offered for the life of the world, the bread that we are given to eat to live forever.
It’s no surprise that the ancient Romans referred to the earliest followers of Christ with rumors of cannibalism, given all this talk of eating flesh.
The Roman Catholic Church which would shape and form those earliest expressions of following Christ into a formal, organized religion, would impose many man-made structures and understandings unto the divine mystery that is presented before us in Christ and creation, but one thing they would hold as a central piece of the faith is understanding the importance of the actual flesh of Christ for providing that bread of eternal life.
Hence, the theology and practice of trans-substantiation, that is, the practice in the Roman Catholic Church of celebrating communion wherein the bread and wine being offered are literally transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit into the flesh of Christ.
Now, in our tradition, we do not practice trans-substantiation, but this bread and wine before us each week is also not merely a symbol of Christ, a symbol of our faith, a symbol of the eternal bread.
Rather, through our celebration of eucharist, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ is really present within the bread and wine, becoming more than a symbol, asking of us a reverence that we do not afford to the bread we consume at home. Christ’s body and blood are really present in the sacrament of the eucharist and received by faith by us, for it is this reception through faith that feeds us with the bread of eternal life.
We eat of this bread that Christ gives for the life of the world each week here at this table that knows no barriers, that welcomes all people, that unites us in worship, practice, and seeking of the Good News that Christ has offered himself for our own sustenance so that we may know him, know God, know our neighbor, and move out into this world on the way of love that has been laid out before us.
We eat of this bread that Christ gives for the life of the world because Christ is “the bread of life. Whoever comes to [him] will never be hungry, and whoever believes in [him] will never be thirsty.”