May it be so. Amen.
Sunday, August 5, 2012
This Week's Sermon: "I am the Bread of Life"
35 Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.40 This is my Father’s will: that all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (CEB)
36 But I told you that you have seen me and still don’t believe.37 Everyone whom the Father gives to me will come to me, and I won’t send away anyone who comes to me. 38 I have come down from heaven not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 This is the will of the one who sent me, that I won’t lose anything he has given me, but I will raise it up at the last day.
“Ego Eimi: The I AM Discourses of Jesus Christ,” Week One
Something profoundly amazing is happening in churches across America today.
People are worshiping around mealtime. Breakfast, lunch, dinner…all are becoming opportunities for worship, not just the Sunday morning sit-stand-kneel routine.
There is a church in New York City called St. Lydia’s, whose entire Sunday worship life is centered around dinner. Their meal and their worship has been combined into one singular act, where as they eat together, they hear Scripture read, they sing, and they pray together.
When I lived in Berkeley, before coming here, I would sometimes worship with this new church plant that met in the historic building of a former Disciples church, where we would begin every Sunday worship with a potluck meal together. Instead of dinner and a movie, it’s dinner and a worship service. We do something similar with our fellowship time that we always have after our morning worship, but here, we’re in pews, not gathered around tables where we can see each other and talk to one another.
I love this trend because it combines two of my greatest loves—food and worship—but I also love it because it is so Biblical. Jesus uses the trappings of physical necessity—bread, water, wine—to describe what he offers as the trappings of spiritual necessity—love, and mercy, and grace. And nowhere is this more on display than when Jesus is confronted after walking upon water in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.
Welcome to the beginning of a brand-new sermon series for us—a series that will take us through the month of August. A lot of Jesus’ most famous teachings are immortalized one-liners—turn the other cheek, do unto others, love your neighbor, that sort of thing. We’ve done a pretty good job of remembering the one-liners themselves, but perhaps less of a good job remembering the contexts from which they came. And the one-liners Jesus uses to describe Himself fall into the same camp—we may remember that Jesus says He is the Way, the Truth, and the Light, or that He is the Good Shepherd, but we may not remember the circumstances in which He said those things. Well, all of those “I am” one-liners come from the Gospel of John, and we’ll be walking through John’s Gospel to visit almost all of these one-liners in turn, beginning with today’s “I am” statement: Jesus proclaiming that He is the bread of life.
For me, one of the coolest things about Jesus in the Gospel of John is that He is a master of the double entendre. When He talks to Nicodemus in John 3, and says that everyone must be born again, or born anew, Nicodemus goes, “How is that possible?” as though Jesus is talking about literal birth. When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman in John 4 about the living water, she asks Him to give her that water so that she doesn’t have to come back to the well to draw more, as though this living water was, you know, actual H2O. John’s Jesus is a clever teacher who is unafraid to give new depth and meaning to language in order to bring the message of God home to His audiences.
And this ability is put sublimely upon display here, in the bread of life discourse. As with the examples I noted earlier—of birth and water—Jesus is taking something profoundly simple and foundational to life and turning it into something extraordinary. It’s his entire ministry writ large: taking something so mundane and ordinary as everyday life and endowing it with extraordinary meaning.
Such is His status as the bread of life. Much like today, then, bread was one of the most fundamental ingredients of a typical diet—long before the arrival of gluten-free this and wheat-free that, one could not go without bread any more easily than one could have gone without water. Bread was absolutely crucial to physical survival, but because of the Passover, when the Israelites ate bread in their final meal before escaping slavery in Egypt. Bread’s physical health importance was compounded by significant spiritual health importance.
Think of all the things we do as church—we talk together and share stories, we eat meals and perform service, we teach one another and love one another…all of those things are, I would argue, physical necessities. We have to eat, we have to talk and socialize, we have to love and learn. But only by doing all of those things as church can those physical and psychological necessities be completely fulfilled in their potential for nourishing us by providing a spiritual dimension.
Because I love driving and love road trips, the way I usually describe the spiritual necessity of Christianity is this: you can buy a new sports car and enjoy driving it, but if you never drive it faster than, say, 45 mph, what’s the point of getting a sports car? You could have simply gotten a regular sedan.
Similarly, God could have created you as anything—a tree, a flower, a puppy, a mosquito…anything. But God created you as you—a person capable of such rich spirituality that to not tap into that potential is like getting that brand new sports car—you could go through life and reasonably enjoy it, maybe get something out of it, but you would not be anywhere close to being the person God wants and hopes for you to be!
It is difficult to understate the gift of creation. God, in His infinite grace and wisdom, made you, not as you want to be, but as you are. It is so incredibly frustrating, that you were made with flaws and frailties, mortality and mystery, rather than with perfection and inerrancy.
And it would be clichéd to say that with perfection would come absolutely no meaning out of life—that part of the point of the destination is the journey, that without bad there can be nothing to define good, but the big thing here, in Jesus’ words, is that without our own finiteness, there is nothing to define God’s infiniteness to. I’ll repeat that—without our own finiteness, everything about us that is limited and broken, there is nothing with which we can in turn compare God’s infinite nature to.
It is what makes creation so completely, wholly, unbelievably necessary. Without creation, nothing can be compared to one another, and things like good and evil, weak and strong, are nothing without the other to define it. And in turn, we, encased in our finite selves, are nothing without God’s infiniteness to define us and our finitude.
And that is what Jesus is saying, in calling himself the Bread of Life. But bread isn’t just a one-shot thing—you don’t eat a piece of it and are nourished for the rest of your life. Likewise, taking in the Bread of Life cannot be a one-stop experience for us, either—which is where the church comes in, to ensure that to experience God is never a finite proposition.
At its sacred best, the church is a deliverer of the Bread of Life—of Jesus Christ Himself. We take ordinary people and show them their extraordinary meaning before God. We take people in, feed them with coffee and food (has all this talk about food made you anxious for fellowship time yet?!), and nourish them with God’s own grace. Jesus Himself does both—earlier in this very chapter is John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand—so of course we as the church should strive to do both as well, and the churches that do so beautifully are ones that are thriving in God’s presence—the churches like St. Lydia’s, or Jay Bakker’s Revolution church that regularly meets in pubs and bar and grills.
It sounds so simple, combining food and faith. And it is. What we do here isn’t rocket science. It isn’t brain surgery. We combine food and faith all the time here at FCC, and the early church also combined the two all the time with its house churches—in fact, fellowship time in the Biblical church wasn’t actually called fellowship time, or any of the other names we have for it—coffee hour, or social hour, what have you. It was called a love feast. As an interesting side note, the Roman Empire thought that “love feast” meant something, well, much more licentious, and they became notorious for raiding these love feasts—they would come in expecting to break up sexual orgies, and they’d encounter people praying and eating instead!
But the Roman Empire that misunderstood worship is an apt example for today—even though what we do here isn’t rocket science, it still is easily misunderstood, by Christians and non-Christians alike. Even though our moral codes are spelled out in unambiguous language—to love our neighbors, to treat others as ourselves—we still misunderstand what that actually looks like. Jesus has just fed the five thousand. He has just walked on water. And still He has to offer commentary on what those miracles actually mean.
We may know, deep down, what the feeding of the five thousand meant—that Christ’s infiniteness is such that He will never turn a person away. But our own finiteness sometimes requires Jesus to spell that out for us in giant, block letters. And so He does, by saying that He is the bread of life, that whoever comes to Him will never hunger, and that nobody who comes to Him will ever, ever be driven away.
Indeed, what we do here is not rocket science. It is divine mandate.
And may us following it, acting it out, and living it bring eternal life for all of God’s children.
May it be so. Amen.
May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Eric Atcheson
August 5, 2012