Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tasting the Bread of Life

John 6:51-58

On Monday nights, Guy Fieri takes us on a road trip to all the “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” across the land that serve great food, at great prices, but without the frills. While Cheryl thinks that he just goes to greasy burger joints, that’s not entirely true. Yes, he does go to places that like to deep-fry things, but he also goes to some rather surprising places – like a drive-in in Boise that serves prime rib, or a place down on Woodward Avenue called the Fly Trap that’s known for its Asian cuisine. The Food Channel, which carries Guy’s show, exists because we like to eat, and as Alton Brown puts it on his show, we like “Good Eats!” Now, I’m not sure what either Guy or Alton would make of this morning’s text. I’m not sure that Alton Brown would declare Jesus’ offer of himself as true food and drink to be Good Eats.

While Jesus told the tempter that there’s more to life than bread, bread is still an important biblical image. In John 6 Jesus tells us that he is true food and true drink, and that if we consume these elements then we’ll experience eternal life. While this is one of those biblical passages that’s difficult to deal with, especially if you take things too literally, when read in context – both biblically and historically – there is much that is spiritually empowering in this chapter. Now, John 6 begins with Jesus feeding a great crowd. When the crowd returns the next day demanding more bread, perhaps remembering Moses and the manna from heaven, Jesus offers them something else, himself, as the true bread of heaven. As you read this passage you will begin to understand why some early critics accused Christians of cannibalism.

1. Finding Life in God’s Presence

At the heart of this passage is the question of the nature of life. According to John, Jesus says to the crowd: If you eat my body, which is the bread of life, you will have eternal life. But what does this mean for us? What does it matter for us to talk about eternal life today?
To put the question in context – what does this passage have to say to the biggest political conversation of our day – health care reform? There are, of course, pros and cons about any reform proposal, but the issue that’s getting the most press has to do with a provision in one of the bills to pay for a conversation with one’s doctor about “end of life” care. This provision has led some opponents to suggest that reform would lead to euthanasia and “death panels” deciding what kinds of medical treatment you will get. Some of them even raise the specter of Nazi Germany’s eugenics program. Now, all of this is misinformation – deliberate or not – but the issue I want to lift from this debate is how we understand life and death. You see, the reason why opponents have had such success with this tactic is that most of us not only fear death, but have an aversion to talking about it.

As a pastor, I’ve witnessed this on more than one occasion – a person is nearing death and wants to talk about it, but their loved ones will have nothing to do with the conversation. They either change the subject or give false assurances that everything is going to be okay. This fear of death is one reason why we often go to such extremes to put death off for as long as possible, even when nothing can be done, except to prolong the agony.

So, as we hear this text, what does it say about life and death? We needn’t court death to recognize that death is both a natural part of life and inevitable. While it’s right for us to grieve our losses and take advantage of appropriate medical treatment that will prolong life, John reminds us that our lives are defined by our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. In speaking of eternal life, John doesn’t just have the next life in mind – he also has this life in mind as well, for eternity begins now, as we live in relationship with God. This is, I believe, what Jesus is offering us by presenting himself as the bread from heaven, the bread that will sustain us forever.

2. Abiding in Jesus and Abiding in God

The word that we hear in this text is this: if we ingest the flesh and blood of Jesus, we will receive true food and true drink. If we will receive this true food and drink, by faith, then Jesus will abide in us, and we will abide in him. Although the phrasing is a bit different, this idea of abiding in God’s presence is also found in 1 John. There the passage reads: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16b). Another way to put this is that if we walk by faith we can experience union with the God of Jesus Christ, who is love in its fulness. If, as it would appear, John 6 has the Lord’s Supper in mind, then it would seem that John wants us to understand that as we share in the elements of bread and cup, we can, if we act in faith, experience oneness with God, which will change our lives forever.

But, how does this happen? Although some Christians take this passage quite literally, and insist that when we take bread and cup, we’re literally ingesting Jesus’ physical body and blood, I believe we would be better served to take this passage more as a metaphor, so that when we share together in the bread and the cup, we can experience God’s life-changing presence anew.

Or to put it another way, as we receive these signs of the body and blood of Christ, we can receive into our lives the life that is God’s, so that even as the Spirit indwells us, God will be present in our lives.

There is imagery here that may be easy to miss, because we tend to forget that our food was once alive. But the ancients understood, that whether it’s animal or vegetable, when we eat something, we ingest life, so that we might have life. Or, as Gail Ramshaw puts it: “All life depends upon the life of another” (Gail Ramshaw, in New Proclamation, Easter Through Pentecost, Year B 2003, Fortress, 2003, p. 148) This is as true of a vegan as it is of a carnivore. So, by sharing in the flesh and blood of Jesus in the symbols of bread and cup, we receive into our own lives the person of Jesus, so that our lives might be sustained both in the “here and now” and in the life to come.

3. Abiding through Word and Sacrament

Because this passage has long been understood to speak of the Lord’s Supper, it is important that we consider what it has to say to us about what happens in worship. Reflecting on John 6, John Calvin said that the true church was marked by two things: The Word rightly preached, and the Sacraments rightly administered. Our passage speaks of the sacrament, and in the verses that precede this one, we hear about the teaching of the Father, which Calvin believed spoke of the centrality of the Word of God in worship. In many ways both Word and Sacrament are sources of the Bread of Life that will sustain our lives for eternity. Although some Christians emphasize one or the other, Calvin believed that you needed to have both, if you were going to truly abide with God and live changed lives.

We Disciples are known for our emphasis on the Table, but we too, like Calvin, have understood that Word and Table go together. Our Founders were committed to a Reasonable faith, one that was informed by the Word. They also believed that it was essential that we come together at the Table to reflect on that Word, and allow the Spirit to seal that Word into our hearts, so that we might live transformed lives.

Calvin believed that if we receive by faith the Bread of Life, which is Christ, then we can experience new life. While he didn’t believe that we actually ingest Christ’s literal body and blood, he did believe that when received by faith, the Spirit of God would deliver to us the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, which is what these emblems represent. That is, as we partake of this means of grace, ministered to us through bread and cup, we receive into our lives, by the power of God’s Spirit, the forgiveness that transforms and empowers the life of the believer. Having received forgiveness, God is able to abide with us, so that we might abide in God – who is, after all, love in its fulness. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV:14).

Let us, therefore, receive by faith these life changing signs of God’s grace that are ministered to us by God’s Spirit as we attend to the Word of God and to the Table of Grace. For it is in this Word and at this Table that we are able to experience abundant life. Therefore, as we receive this gift of God, may we live boldly and without fear – even in the face of death itself.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 16, 2009

No comments: