Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Deeper Hunger: A Sermon from Littlefield on John 6:51-58, preached August 16, 2015

In the summertime, between the congregations' comings and goings and the preacher's, we can lose the continuity of the lectionary passages from week to week.  Those of you who have been here every week are getting to hear the perspectives of three different preachers on the sixth chapter of John.
            The sixth chapter of John begins with the story of how Jesus fed a crowd of five thousand people.  Then the next few passages tell what it means for Jesus to feed people.
            John tells us that some people have been following Jesus looking for free food...   and that Jesus explains that the food he gives is the kind that endures for eternal life.
            When Jesus insists that he is offering spiritual food, another misunderstanding surfaces.  The crowd was expecting a messenger bringing spiritual food from God to be special somehow...  or different.  But Jesus was just another person they had watched grow up among them.
            Jesus has been going around telling people not to work for the food that perishes--  but for the food that endures for eternal life.  He's been saying, "I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
            He’s been playing to mixed reviews.  The crowds have responded to his claim to be the bread of life by saying, "Give us this bread always."   There are people in the crowd who know they’re hungry for what Jesus is offering them.
            The Jewish religious leaders are complaining about Jesus because he claims to be the bread that comes down from heaven.  They’re offended by what he has to say.  It goes against everything they believe.  So they don't want what Jesus is offering.

            Sometimes churches lose sight of why we're gathered as part of the church of Jesus Christ.  Or we'd rather forget.   A few verses beyond where we stopped the gospel reading today, we hear the people saying, "What you teach is difficult, Jesus."
            Today's gospel lesson is part of a series on the bread of heaven.  The sixth chapter of John is full of statements that were offensive to those who heard them.  First Jesus suggests that he’s God's own manna come down from heaven to give life to the world.  We’re used to hearing that sort of thing from him by now, but imagine hearing it for the first time, from a human being who looks pretty much like you:  "I am the living bread that came down from heaven.   Whoever eats of this bread will live forever."
            In today’s lesson we hear Jesus taking the offense to an even higher level  by choosing really gory words to describe what he means.  In the other gospels, Jesus calls this bread his body.  In John's gospel he calls it his flesh--  his skin and muscle tissue.  In the other gospels, he offers it to be eaten.  In John's gospel he uses the word for "chomp" or "gnaw", so that a more literal translation of his invitation would go something like this:  "Those who chomp my flesh and guzzle my blood have eternal life; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink."[1]
            This is not a nice image.  As someone suggested, it sounds more like something for a butcher shop than for a church.  Add to that the fact that Hebrew scripture clearly forbids the drinking of blood, and you can understand why Jesus' followers begin to argue at that point...  and later say,  "This teaching is difficult,"  they said.  "Who can accept it?"
            Jesus won't let up on them.  If they’re going to follow him all the way, then they’re going to have to give up their need to understand,  agree, or approve of everything he says or does.  They’re going to have to believe him, even when what he says offends them.  They’re going to have to trust him, even when what he does goes against everything they’ve been taught.  You can almost hear their minds slam shut. 

            I'm reminded of a story Clarence Jordan tells about an integrated Baptist church in the Deep South.  Jordan was surprised to find a relatively large church so thoroughly integrated--  not only Black and White...  but also rich and poor. 
            The church had an old hillbilly preacher.  Jordan asked him,  "How did the church get this way?"
            "What way?"  the old preacher asked.
            Jordan explained how surprised he'd been to find a church so integrated...  and in the South, too. 
            The preacher said,  "Well, when our preacher left our little church, I went to the Deacons and said,  "I'll be the preacher." 
            "The first Sunday I preached, I opened the book and read,  'As many of you as has been baptized into Jesus has put on Jesus...  and there is no longer any Jews or Greeks...   slaves or free...  males or females...  because you is all one in Jesus.'
            "Then I closed the book and said, 'If you one with Jesus, you one with all kind of folks.  And if you ain't,  you ain't."
            "Well,"  the preacher said,  "the Deacons took me into the back room and told me they didn't want to hear that kind of preaching no more."
            Jordan asked what he did.
            "I fired them Deacons,"  the preacher roared.   [Obviously,  this wasn't a Presbyterian church.]
            "Then what happened?"   asked Jordan.
            "Well,"   said the old hillbilly preacher.   "I preached that church down to four.    Not long after that, it started growing.  It grew and grew and grew.  And I found out that REVIVAL sometimes don't mean bringin' people in...  but gettin' people out that don't love Jesus."
            "Does this offend you?"

            Jesus played to mixed reviews.  He had hot and cold responses.     
            Some people left Jesus because they wanted free food--  but not spiritual food.  Others left because they couldn't believe that God would send spiritual food through a person who seemed as ordinary as Jesus.                Still others left because they understood exactly what Jesus was saying...  and they didn't want to let God get that close to them.  They wanted to run their own lives,  rather than let God live and work through them.
            But others stayed,  because they believed Jesus was offering them something they were hungry for. 
            Throughout this sixth chapter, we hear a theme of HUNGER--  the hunger behind and beneath all other hungers...  the hunger for a knowledge of God...  the hunger for a word from the Lord. 
            Jesus understood this.  That's how he was able to resist the wilderness tempter's lure into something less--  when he tempted him to turn stones into bread.       "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."

            From Adam and Eve until now, there's no question that's more fundamentally human than this one:  "Is there any word from God?"   "Does God have a word that will satisfy the hunger that gnaws away, deep inside me?"

            There are hungers--  and there are hungers.  When we compare the two versions of the Beatitudes, we hear the Gospel of Luke speaking of those who are in need of physical food...  while the Gospel of Matthew speaks of those "who hunger and thirst for righteousness."
            In the beginning of the sixth chapter of John, Jesus feeds five thousand people.  They were in need of physical food, so he miraculously provided enough food that all ate and were satisfied.
            The following day the crowd returns to Jesus.  It's apparent that they yearn for something more than food to satisfy physical hunger.  They have a deeper hunger...  a spiritual hunger.
            The hymn we sang as our prayer for illumination is intended to come before not communion--    but the sermon.  The poet knows the longing to hear a word from the Lord.
            My spirit pants for Thee,
            O living Word!

            What about you?     
            Do you know this hunger?    
            Like the people in today's gospel story, we have a decision to make.  We can follow Jesus and let God's presence and power direct our lives...    or we can ignore Jesus and spend our lives on other things.
            We make this decision in big ways at confirmation...  or when we decide to join the church.  But we also make it every day of our lives, in lots of  big or little ways. 
            We make a choice every time we decide to listen to God's voice   or ignore it when it tells us that we're special...  God's beloved children… called as partners in Christ’s service.    We make a choice every time we hear God's voice calling us to love everyone---those who are close to us…and even strangers...  even our enemies.
            Throughout the sixth chapter of John, in all the talk about BREAD,  something has been said over and over which is the real offense behind all the other offenses.  In fact, it's the offense of the GOSPEL:     we have LIFE by GRACE.       The bread God gives from heaven gives life to the world. 
            The conflict of the gospel is in how we choose to respond to God's gift.   The question we have to answer is this:  Do we determine our own lives...  or does God? 
            In every paragraph of this chapter of John, it's clear that the  people around Jesus want to be in charge.  They demand that Jesus do what Moses did.  They demand signs.  They want proofs so that they'll have adequate reasons to decide that Jesus is really from God.  They want Jesus to be king--  the kind of king they wanted. 
            But, over and over again, Jesus keeps saying one thing:  life from heaven is a GIFT.    Trust this, and life is yours.
            That's what he told Nicodemus, when he came asking what he should do--  and how he should do it.   Salvation is "from above."

            The message of the gospel really isn't so hard to understand.  It's hard to accept, because it cuts across all the calculations and achievements that we want to do to earn our salvation. 
            Every day, we need to choose.   Standing before God's amazing GRACE, how do we respond?
            The good news in the gospel story is about GRACE...  about God's GIFT to us.   The bread in the wilderness was a GIFT.  The bread as word from heaven is a GIFT. 
            The Word became flesh and came to live among us...  full of grace and truth.
            To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gives power to become children of God.
            From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.     

            So--  let us taste the bread of life...
            let us taste and see that it is good!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
August 16, 2015

1 [1]Barbara Brown Taylor, in a sermon on this text in Home By Another Way (Cowley, 1999), p. 176.

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