for the life of the world

This is a sermon preached on Sunday, August 16, 2015 at United Presbyterian Church/First Christian Church in Pawnee City, NE.

The scriptural reference is:
John 6:51-58.

A recording of the sermon is available here.
The Children of God Storybook Bible was the resource for the children’s message during the service. 

I remember distinctly riding down the road in the backseat of the car with my parents in the front when we had the discussion about how to serve and receive communion in a worship service. Daddy was driving while he and I entered a pretty intense debate on the subject matter. Daddy, the ruling elder, felt that the way the pastor that evening served the elements was just fine. I on the other hand, being the know-it-all, first-year-seminary-student, knew better and heartily disagreed! You see, Daddy didn’t have a problem with the fact that the pastor took the elements himself before serving the congregation, and I did; for no other reason than that’s not the way my childhood pastors served communion on Sunday mornings and therefore it was wrong. I had no theological basis that I could voice to my stance, but I felt deep in my gut that what we had experienced was not how Christ would have intended us receive the elements.

Although I have since graduated from seminary, been in the ministry a while, and have “properly” studied theology and passed the ordination exams, today’s text has me wrestling with my understanding of the Presbyterian order of worship a bit more than I’m comfortable admitting. I’m used to approaching the table for the Lord’s Supper after the sermon has been shared, doing so in response to the Word proclaimed. Today, however, in our worship together we came to the table before the Word, much like Christ has done with the disciples and followers in the Gospel of John all through chapter six. Christ fed the people before he peached to them.

While chapter six is full of goodness, it is also full of bread. The bakers dozen of bread messages exists right here in John’s gospel – and today we’ve picked up just a portion of the lot. Over the last few weeks of the revised common lectionary we’ve studied: the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus walking on Water, Manna/Bread from Heaven, the Bread of Life, and here we wrap up the bundle of bagels with Living Bread before ending next week with some very confused congregants and disciples. The more time I’ve spent in the midst of this talk of bread and cup, the more I’ve been thirsting and craving an invitation to the table. My taste buds salivated at the mention of bread from Heaven while my throat scratches as if to remind me it’s parched, demanding a tiny sip of the cup of Salvation. These stories lavish the reader with layer upon layer of the grace of God, leaving us wanting nothing more than to join Christ at the table for the food that brings us eternal life so that we may be raised up with Christ on the last day. I want all 13 pieces of that bakers dozen of Grace, don’t you?

Delving into the goodness a bit deeper, however, I realized the chronology of what’s taking place here: God is gifting us food for the journey before sending us off on our way. Jesus is giving us traveling food. Bishop Craig Satterlee says this: “I am struck that Jesus does not give the crowd in the wilderness (what for us is) a four-Sunday discourse on the Bread of Life until after they have eaten their fill of the loaves and fishes. Jesus did not make the five thousand sit down on the grass and give them a lecture so that they understood before he “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted” (John 6:11). It almost seems that, if Jesus hadn’t fed the large crowd, he wouldn’t have much to say.”[1] The importance of what we’re to get here is not so much the focus on the elements themselves as what the elements mean for our life, and…for the life of the world. Even in our verses today, it becomes clear that Jesus’ concern is not so much that we understand the nature of the elements we are consuming, rather that we actually consume them. He wants us to eat. Jesus wants us to become embodied with God so that we’ll be sustained for the work of our new life ahead.

Satterlee continues: “And in these verses where Jesus picks up on the feeding by speaking of giving his flesh to eat, his concern is less with getting his hearers to understand as getting them to eat. Jesus tells his hearers of their absolute need to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Humanity. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:53-54). The words “flesh” and “blood” point to the cross, where Jesus’ flesh will be broken and his blood will be spilled, Jesus associates the separation of his flesh and blood in his violent death on the cross as the moment when Jesus will totally give his whole self for the life of the world.”[2]

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum while he’s sharing this discourse on flesh and blood and making promises of salvation. This image of eating flesh becomes disgusting to us quickly and was certainly startling to the kosher laws of the Jews to whom he was speaking. Levitical law clearly prohibited the ingestion of blood, for life was in the blood. Animals had to be slaughtered and drained completely before meat could be eaten, and penalty for breaking the law meant offering a “living” sacrifice to God – a sacrifice of an animal and his blood – at the altar in Temple. Christ’s teaching is truthful and easy for us as Christians to understand immediately, but also disturbing, confusing, and off-putting to his disciples and other followers. In future verses they share their difficulty with the words. They wrestle to understand, and Jesus knows they are offended but challenges ahead regardless. After all, the importance here is not that we understand, like or agree with what is being said, but that we do what Christ is asking. We will need food for the journey, sustenance for what we are called to be in the kingdom.

A United Methodist colleague, Rev. Jennifer Karsner, shares her reflections on the bread of life:

I remember going on a lot of long car rides as a child. Most of our extended family lived several time zones away from us and my parents couldn’t afford to fly the whole family so when we went to visit family, it usually involved long car rides. My mom was great at keeping us occupied on those trips. But one of the things I always looked forward to on those long rides was the food. Our family had certain travel food. My mom would pack the car full of more snacks than you could even imagine needing. I remember bags and bags full of snacks. And anytime one of us kids called out, “Moooooooooooom, I’m hungry!” she would remind us to look in the bags to see what we could find. But not any food could be travel food. It had to be something that wouldn’t spoil without refrigeration. It had to be something that wouldn’t be too messy. It had to be something that didn’t require any preparation. There seemed to be an endless supply of those bags of fruit and veggies, and yes even chips and candy! I am so grateful that Jesus knew this journey of life was going to be long. That there would be stretched of road like the Midwest plains where you can go hundreds of miles between rest stops. I’m so grateful Jesus knew that this faith journey would be difficult, that there would be times when we need food for journey, that there would be times when not just our bodies but our hearts and souls would need to be filled as well.[3]

Jesus promises us in these very verses that he will abide in us and we will abide in him. He promises that we will live because of God’s actions through him. Christ promises us that we will live forever. We are promised to be raised up on the last day. These are the promises of grace made on our behalf by God in Christ. But until we reach that last day, we remain in the kingdom on earth with work to do. And when we belly-up to the table to receive our traveling food, we receive the grace to sustain us for the journey through this life until we reach life eternal. Karsner concludes saying, “I’m so grateful that Jesus not only knew that we would need those things, but that he took steps to provide some travel food for us.”[4] Amen! Aren’t we all?

Looking through these passages in chapter six we see that Christ feeds the multitudes first and then speaks about everlasting bread. God’s emphasis is that we internalize it all. Every last crumb. Take it all in, and then…only then…work on understanding. For when we internalize God, we are transformed into the body of Christ for the world. We become God’s newest vessels for bringing the kingdom into fruition on earth…“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.” (v. 51) After we eat, inhale, ingest, embody our Lord, we have work to do, my friends. We become part of God’s plan to bring life to the world. Through the salvific life, death and resurrection of Christ that we experience through the Holy Spirit in eating the bread and drinking the cup of communion, we become instruments of the risen savior…for the life of the world. For the life of the world… Ingest that for a moment. Christ is using you and me through him for the life of the world.

In his book Christian Doctrine, Professor Shirley Guthrie, shares what we experience in the Lord’s Supper: “On the one hand it is a way of reminding us that we do not live from our own strength. We have to be fed, nourished, given new life over and over again. On the other hand, the Lord’s Supper means that we are fed, nourished and given new life. We share in it not just so that we may flex our spiritual muscles for everyone to admire, but so that we may be empowered to be a community of people who are agents of the risen and coming Christ. This Christ is at work in the world to feed, nourish, and bring new life to people who are desperately hungry – hungry for bread to fill empty bellies, hungry for forgiveness and acceptance, hungry for new beginnings and fresh starts, hungry for justice, hungry for a God who cares.”[5] We have a job to do. Once Christ fed the multitudes (John 6:11), he then went to work teaching. Once we’ve been fed, we become a dwelling place of God available for others to experience Christ through us. Incarnational theology is this: everything. God “wants all of us, and…wants us to have all of …[God].”[6] Our God gives us all hoping that we’ll in turn give all of ourselves back, and to others.

“God’s word comes to us in the all-too-human words of preachers,” Guthrie says. “In baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God is at work calling, renewing, forgiving, nourishing, and helping us through the use of plain old tap water, grocery store wine (or grape juice), and store-bought or homemade bread. The preacher is not God, and the preacher’s word is not God’s word. The few drops or tubful of water do not in themselves do what only God can do – wash away sins or drown the old self in us to create a new self. The bread and wine are not literally the body and the blood of Christ. But through the church’s word and sacrament, in these indirect ways, God really speaks and acts.”[7] Today God has spoken. Today we’ve eaten of bread and drunk of wine (juice) that symbolize the body and blood of our risen savior. Today God has scandalously, intimately become available to us so that we, knowing this, will know how to live forever.[8] We must be true to God. We must respond to the call to share life with the world. We have been fed, nourished, prepared, empowered and given new life. Now we must go forth and share with the world that our lives depend completely and exclusively on the grace of God in Christ.[9]

I don’t remember how long the conversation over communion lasted that evening in the car, but I do remember my mom and my now-husband both joining in with their opinions. Daddy eventually saw things my way, I think. Or at least he just decided there was no point in arguing with a hardheaded know-it-all. Either way, I remember sharing my opinion that Christ himself served before receiving and as servants in the church pastors should do likewise. Follow Christ’s example; lead by example to the congregation during the most important meal of the parishioners’ lives. Give first and receive last. Ingest Christ, devour Christ, then go forth to share.

Today, our lives were radically changed again as we shared in the Lord’s Supper. “We take Christ’s body and blood into our mouths, into our stomachs, into our bodies, so that Christ remains in us and we remain in Christ. As we eat and drink, Christ moves us closer to himself. Christ moves us closer to the very life of God. Christ moves us closer to himself, so close that we are as intimate with Jesus as the Father is with the Son.”[10] As we move closer to Christ, becoming incarnate with God through the Spirit’s work in the meal, we move closer to the responsibility of the ministry to which we’ve been called. We must emulate that which we’ve received; for our purpose is to be agents of Christ in the world. In remembrance and gratitude for the grace bestowed upon us in this lavish meal at the table, we move forth as Christ did – feeding the world and then sharing God’s love. We do so not of our own strength but because we’ve been prepared for the journey by the servant who gave to us first, of himself for our salvation and for the life of the world.

To God in Christ be all glory, praise, gratitude, and honor.

[1] Craig A. Satterlee, Commentary on John 6:51-58,, August 10, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Rev. Jennifer Karsner, Traveling Food Communion Introduction Liturgy, August 2015.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Guthrie, Shirley Jr. Christian Doctrine, pg. 358.
[6] William Willimon, John 6:51-58 Homiletical Perspective in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3, pg. 361.
[7] Guthrie, pg. 59.
[8] Willimon, pg. 361.
[9] Guthrie, 44.
[10] Satterlee, 2015.

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