John 6:56-69 and Ephesians 6:10-20
It’s the last Sunday of August and we have come to our final serving of bread. This sermon series has been a challenge for me: to preach for a whole month on just one section of text and just one topic. I have to admit it has gone better than I thought it would. If nothing else, everyone here ought to remember what we have been talking about in church. We have been talking about (and eating) bread.
We are in our final reading from John chapter six. You will remember the setting. The day before Jesus fed 5,000 people with 5 loaves and two fish. He crossed the sea, walking on the water, and the crowds followed him in boats. They came looking for more bread, but Jesus challenged them to consider a different kind of loaf. Not the barley loaf of yesterday but the bread of life of tomorrow.
Jesus then began a discourse on how he himself was this bread of life. Like manna he came down from heaven but unlike manna those who eat him will never die. People begin to be offended and ask questions. Rather than make things easier Jesus makes them harder. He begins to use graphic language about how folks need to eat his flesh and drink his blood for life. He talks about rudely eating him, chewing with the mouth open, and that this is the only way to eternal life.
Our new material for this week shares the final reaction of the crowds to this strange discourse. The disciples appear to have had enough and say to Jesus “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” I think at this point everyone is in the same boat. The things Jesus says are strange and challenging. His teachings are offensive and they draw us out of our comfort zones. I am sure that at some point this month you have probably thought something very similar; “This teaching is too hard!” I know I have thought that.
Once again, instead of making things easier Jesus continues to spin a complicated theological web. “You think this is offensive?” he seems to say. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet! I am so much better than manna that I don’t just come down from heaven but I am going to go back up again!” That’s it, the last straw, and the writer of the gospel of John tells us that because of this many of Jesus’ disciples turn back and no longer went about with him.
Jesus’ actions here in John chapter six fly in the face of what many consider to be the most successful way to run a church. Pastor Wallace Bubar in this week’s Christian Century illustrates it wonderfully when he writes . . .
“What was Jesus thinking? He had such a great following before he spoke. He’d just fed 5,000 people, and they were ready to sign up to become disciples. This would’ve been the time to use his best preaching material – toss out a few Beatitudes, or tell a couple of stories about farmers or sheep. Jesus could have had the biggest church in town.
But instead he launched into a ridiculously long, convoluted discourse about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, which – let’s face it – sounds creepy. And when he was confronted with raised eyebrows and expressions of bewilderment and a barrage of questions, Jesus didn’t let up but just kept getting more and more obscure.
No wonder his followers started grumbling: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Many turned away and went home, never to be seen again.
And Jesus let them go! He let them just wander off and made no attempt to stop them. He didn’t say, “Hey, hold on a second! Let me break it down for you.” He didn’t offer a Jesus for Dummies version of things. Instead he made things difficult. He left his followers with their questions unanswered, apparently preferring to let them go off and wrestle with those questions rather than give them easy answers or a user-friendly faith."
As a pastor, I have to admit, that I love that Jesus just lets folks go. Sometimes it feels like the only mark of a successful pastor is growing the church and bringing folks in. Let me tell you, every single church wants to grow. But that’s not the example that Jesus sets. Jesus shows us that teaching the gospel is more important than growing the church; and that if folks leave, we shouldn’t feel compelled to chase after them.
I have always been of the opinion that everyone is on their own faith journey. You can do it in my church or you can do it in the church down the street. As one friend of mine put it; the church has an open door policy: the front door is certainly open, but the back door is open too! People will move in and out of the community of faith. It is God who works in each person’s life to determine these steps. As Jesus said, “No one can follow him unless it is granted by the Father.”
After the crowds leave, Jesus turns to the disciples and shows them the door as well. “Do you also wish to go away?” he asks. Peter responds “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I love Peter here. While some read this as a bold declaration of faith I read it as a shrugging of the shoulders. Perhaps it is simply a reflection of my own faith journey, or my own experience of the front and back doors of churches; but I hear Peter say “Where else would I go? This is hard, it’s confusing, and frankly it stinks sometimes, but it’s still the best thing going.”
Our faith is one of questions, and it always will be. It is a faith of mystery and complex ideas and things that we are just never gonna get. And yet we keep coming back for more. We keep coming back, because we have tasted the bread of life. And after eating the bread of life, nothing else in the world will satisfy.
This whole month we have been pairing these readings from John with the letter to the church in Ephesus. Our final reading from Ephesians is one that sounds offensive at first. Using military imagery, the writer encourages us to put on the whole armor of God. I am one who bristles at the image of shield and sword. I also bristle at the language regarding spiritual warfare. This passage is a challenge.
And yet upon further study, the scripture reveals that these implements of war are not for war at all, but are for peace. The purpose is not to fight, but to go out into the world spreading the gospel of peace. Now that is something I can get behind.
Our reading concludes with a word on prayer. The writer says that we should pray in the Spirit at all times; praying for each other, praying for the world, praying for peace.
When I pair these readings, I find that prayer might just be the answer to our questions. When things of the faith get tough, and Jesus is leaving us with more questions than answers, and that back door begins to look awfully good, the place to turn is prayer. If we can simply quiet the mind, and commune with the divine, it gets better. We find not answers exactly, but we find that though we have questions, we can be OK with questions, we can be OK with ambiguity, we can be OK with not fully understanding but believing and following anyway.
As I mentioned last week, this church is hungry for the bread of life. We are hungry to go deeper in our faith. In Sunday school we are sharing with each other what we believe about God. All are welcome and it is never too late to join this conversation.
Paired with that, on Tuesday nights, we are going to gather here in prayer. We are going to gather here in a way that just lets questions be, rather than searching for answers. We are going to gather here to use our bodies and our hearts a little more and our minds a little less. We are going to gather here to just be with each other, and to just be with God. I hope you can join me here in the sanctuary at 6pm, with quiet and candles starting on Tuesday September 4th
You know, I called this sermon, “One Last Serving of Bread” but it’s really not the last serving of bread you will have here. Every Sunday, this is a place to gather with others to celebrate and enjoy the bread of life. We will gather again for communion in just a few Sundays and eat bread together. And we will gather next week, to chew on the bread of life in Sunday school. We will even begin to gather on Tuesday evenings to search out deeper nourishment to feed our spiritual hunger. This church is a church of bread, this church is a place to come and be fed.
Like the early followers of Jesus, there will be times in our lives when our faith leaves us with more questions than answers. That’s OK. One of the few things that Jesus actually makes clear here in John chapter 6 is that if we are to follow him, than we need to be willing to be confused, even offended, by the things he says and the places he takes us. But as Peter said, “where else would we go” Jesus still has the best game in town. Amen.