Sunday, August 26, 2012

Whee Else Would We Go? A Sermon

John 6:58-69
Has a preacher ever said something that offended you so much that you never went back to that church?  I hope that none of you will take offense at what I say today, or if you do, I hope you’ll come back next week!  

And what about Jesus, is there anything that he said that offends you?  

I’d be surprised if you said no.  After all, Jesus did have a tendency to say things that got him into trouble.  Remember how his sermon back at his hometown synagogue went?  He was just coming off being baptized by John and had begun to gain a following.  But as they say – you can’t always go home. 

On that evening, after Jesus read the text from Isaiah, he began to preach and before too long, the people were getting restless and just a bit angry with what he had to say.  So, instead of celebrating a triumphant homecoming, the hometown crowd tried to throw him a cliff.  Fortunately, Jesus escaped this fate and headed off to a friendlier venue (Luke 4:16-30). Of course, in the end, the religious and the political leaders got together and had him crucified.  It seems that Jesus just had a way with people, doesn’t it? 

Now, we’re okay with Jesus. He’s our guy.  He looks like us – sort of – except perhaps that long hair.  Besides, he agrees with us on the important issues of the day.  We would never treat Jesus that way, after all, we’re Disciples of Christ.  But, are we really ready to hear and follow Jesus?   

When Joshua gathered the tribes of Israel together after they took possession of the “promised land,” he asked them:  So, who are you going to serve?  Or, as Bob Dylan put it in a song from long ago:

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Yes, who are you gonna serve?

Joshua gives his answer: “As for me and my house, we’ll serve the LORD.”  And the people answer back: well, we’ll also serve the LORD.  And then the question goes to you and to me – Who will you serve?

When someone walks the aisle and joins the church, we ask them to make the Good Confession – just like Peter did in Matthew 16 -- “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?”  And the expected answer is “I Do.”  Now, since Disciples don’t have creeds, we don’t ask new members to define their terms.  There are some in our midst who believe that Jesus is the divine Son of God, the second member of the Trinity.  There are others who aren’t so sure about this confession and who’re more comfortable seeing Jesus as a prophet of God. But wherever you stand on this continuum, the church asks us to give our allegiance to Jesus -- even if we still have questions!   

In this morning’s reading from John 6, we hear Jesus say: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them.”  These words are the culmination of a conversation Jesus had been having with would-be followers about whether he would provide them bread – like Moses provided the people of Israel with bread as they wandered in the Sinai.  They were hoping he would provide them with “bread from heaven,” but instead, Jesus offers himself as the “bread from heaven,” and if you eat this bread – unlike the manna – you’ll live forever.

You can see why people might be offended by this.  It sure sounds like Jesus is talking about cannibalism, and most of us, like those who heard these words, aren’t into such things.   

Now Jesus makes it clear that he’s talking about spiritual things not physical things, so you can breathe a little easier.  It’s just a metaphor, but these are still rather strong words that invite us to decide who we’re going to serve.   

Many believe that John 6 offers us John’s theology of the Eucharist.  These words, especially the opening words of today’s passage, serve as John’s version of the Words of Institution:  “This is my body broken for you.”  “This is my blood shed for you.”  In these accounts of the Last Supper, Jesus calls on the disciples to break bread and share the cup in remembrance of him, but John seems to go further than this.  Even if we take this words metaphorically, John wants us to think about how we’re connected to Jesus. By eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we participate in his life.  We become one with him. 

Now, Jesus’ words appear to be too much for the majority of his followers and they walk away.  When the Twelve stay behind, Jesus asks them: Are you going to leave as well?  

Peter steps forward, and as he often does, answers for the others:    
Lord where would we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We believe and know that you are God’s Holy One.  (Jn. 6:68-69 CEB).  
Peter says to Jesus, since you have the words of life, where else can we go?  So, we’re going to trust our lives to you because you’re God’s holy one. 

As you think about Peter’s response, remember how John begins his gospel? Remember how he declares that  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God?”  And remember, how in verse 14, John writes: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth?” (John 1:14 NRSV).  In John’s mind, not only does Jesus give us words of life, he is the Word who is life.  So, Peter’s right, isn’t he, where else can we go if we want to find the Word that brings us life? 

Jesus’ words are often difficult to hear, and yet they speak life to us. We may not like hearing Jesus tell a young man to sell everything and follow him if that young man wants to have eternal life.  St. Francis read these words, and took them quite literally, but obviously, very few others have done this.  And what about the time he told a would-be follower not to wait until his father died to join the group, but instead to let the “dead bury the dead.” Jesus said a lot of things that can make us feel uncomfortable – at the very least.  And yet we stay – why? 

Perhaps we’ve found a way of making his words more palatable.  Although Jesus, like most prophets,  comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable, we’ve become quite adept at making ourselves feel rather comfortable.  After all, Robert Schuller taught us that sin is nothing more than poor self-esteem.

But Peter seems to understand what St. Augustine seems to have understood:  “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”  Augustine had a restless heart, but he found peace in Jesus.  So, is your heart restless?  

As you contemplate that question consider these words from the Eucharistic liturgy of my Episcopal youth.  With John 6 as the foundation, the priest would say to us: “Feed on him in your hearts with thanksgiving.”  Isn’t this what Jesus is inviting us to do here?  Feed on me and I will enter your life.  I will penetrate your very being.  And then, as Jesus does this, we can answer the question: Who are you going to serve? 

Or as Bob Dylan put it:

  You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed You’re gonna have to serve somebody Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
13th Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2012

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Show Me a Sign

John 6:24-35

We live in an entertainment age, where it’s often  difficult to tell what is real and what’s an illusion.  We can be mesmerized by glitz and glamor, and find ourselves listening intently as celebrities tell us what we should wear, eat, how we should vote and what we should believe.  In such an atmosphere, it shouldn’t surprise us that we sometimes mix entertainment with faith.  But, this isn’t new.  Anglican revivalist George Whitefield supposedly made  people weep simply by pronouncing the word “Mesopotamia.”   In the 19th century revivalists drew great crowds to hear them preach, while hundreds  gathered to hear Alexander Campbell debate his religious rivals on topics that ranged from socialism to baptism.  More recently Aimee Semple McPherson rivaled her Hollywood neighbors with her spectacles, while Robert Schuller’s grand productions – at least until the Crystal Cathedral fell into bankruptcy -- drew thousands.   But is the gospel simply another spectacle?  

Jesus had fed a whole bunch of people with a few loaves and a couple of fish, before sending them off fully satisfied.  From there he went to the mountain to pray.   The next day, the crowd came looking for him.  After all, it’s another day, and it was time to eat.  It took a while, but they found him in Capernaum, on the other side of the lake. 

They ask Jesus when he got there, perhaps wondering how they missed him.  For his part, Jesus knows exactly why they’ve come.   Like the people of Israel who went to Moses looking for food, they were hungry and wanted to eat.  He knows that he could raise an army with free bread, but that’s not his purpose.    So, what will Jesus do?  

As we think about what Jesus should do next, we need to remember that God desires that we do justice and love mercy (Mic. 6:8), and this often involves feeding the hungry.  And Jesus suggested that the basis of God’s judgment will be how we treat the least among us (Matt. 25).  This is our missional calling – to bring wholeness to an often broken world.

Now Jesus had given them bread, but now he wants to draw their attention to a different kind of bread.  Knowing that they were driven by their stomachs, he wanted to reach their hearts and minds by offering the “Bread of Heaven” that “endures for eternal life.”   So,  don’t work for the food that doesn’t last, work for the food that endures for ever.   They’re intrigued by this, but they want a sign.  They want that manna that Moses gave the Israelites in the wilderness.  They were willing to be his army, but an army requires food.  So, they wanted to know – what do you have for us in exchange for our loyalty?  

Jesus’ answer is simple:  “Believe in him whom God sent.”   But what does this  mean?

Although I think that theology is really important to how we live our faith, I think that belief is more than simply affirming a set of doctrines or reciting a creed.  So, could  this “belief” that we’re supposed to offer Jesus involve entrusting our lives to God’s lead?  Is this belief a pledge of allegiance to God’s kingdom – like what we pray each time we  recite the Lord’s Prayer, asking that God’s kingdom would come to earth, even as it is present in heaven?

It’s true that John’s version of the gospel can seem mysterious and otherworldly, and it can leave us wondering – how does this affect me?

Well, let’s start with the bread.  What is it?  Isn’t it the foundation of life?  It can take a variety of forms, depending on culture.  It may take the form of a bowl of rice or a tortilla, San Francisco sourdough or marble rye, Naan or pita bread.  But whatever form it takes, we can’t live without food.

If bread is the foundation of life, what does it mean for Jesus to be the bread from heaven?

Could it be that when Jesus invites them to receive him as the bread of life, or the bread of heaven, he’s talking about the way in which we orient our lives?  What’s important to your life?  How do you set your priorities? How do you decide what your going to do in life?  And related to all of these questions is another one – where does Jesus fit into your life?

As you may  know, I recently went to California for training in the  principles and practices of faith-based community organizing.  That’s why Alex preached last Sunday.  What I learned is related to what we’ve been doing in our “listening campaign.”  It’s also  related to what we’ll be doing this afternoon at Serenity Christian Church.  One of the principles that we learned is that community organizing must be centered in values not just issues.  This means that our faith offers a moral compass that governs the way we interact with the economic and political realms and the way we make decisions in daily life.  This includes pretty much everything we do in life – including the way vote.

Speaking of voting, have you thought about the election on Tuesday?  I’m just going to assume that everyone here who is eligible to vote will be exercising their franchise!   And when you get to the polls how are you going to decide how to vote on candidates and issues that range from congressional candidates to funding the DIA.  As disciples of Jesus, how should we vote?   What is the moral compass that Jesus sets before us as we go to the polls?    But it’s not just how we vote.

When you go to the mountain you start to think about things, and I began to think about homelessness.  I thought about our work with SOS, which we take great pride in – don’t we?  But, as important as this outreach effort is, have you thought about how there could be homeless people and also thousands of vacant properties in our community?  Why is this?  I don’t have an answer or a solution, but I think that as important as SOS is, it’s sort of a band aid that we place on a really big wound.  

Maybe you have some thoughts.  One of the issues we’ll lift up this afternoon is the constant threat of foreclosure.  Maybe we could encourage banks and government leaders to find new ways to help people stay in their homes.  And maybe we could help these same entities create opportunities that would allow the homeless to take on these vacant properties, and with a bit of help, turn them into livable properties – a sort of homestead act for the 21st century.   Now, this is just an idea that’s been floating around my head, but could it be a solution to important problems facing the community/

So, how does receiving Jesus as the bread of life sent from heaven make a difference in your life?
If, receiving Jesus as the bread of life means being sustained in life by our relationship with God through Jesus, then doesn’t this mean that we must give our complete allegiance to God?  And isn’t this what we’re doing each Sunday when we recite the Lord’s Prayer?

Of course, giving our allegiance to Jesus isn’t easy.  Like the folks who went looking for Jesus, sometimes we like to dictate the terms of our relationship with God.  Like them, we demand signs.  But as Fred Craddock reminds us:
It is not likely that this, or any audience, can insist upon being in control of their receiving and of their believing and still be open to a message of the bread that is God's gift from heaven.  [Fred Craddock,  Preaching Through the Christian Year B, (Valley Forge, PA:  TPI, 1993), 367.]
Of course, we can try. Sociologist Clark Roof wrote about the appeal of faith groups that focus on personal needs, such as "psychological categories like `self', `fulfillment', `individuality', `journey', `walk', and `growth.'”  [Wade Clark Roof, The Spiritual Marketplace, (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1999), 129.]

   There is value in such ideas, but if our focus is on self-fulfilment, how do we hear the call to mission?  And isn’t that what Jesus is speaking of here?  Isn’t he calling on us to orient our lives on him so that we can live into God’s kingdom that God is establishing here on earth?

And as we gather at the Lord’s Table, we’ll share in the bread and the cup,  symbols of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, as well as signs of his presence with us as the Bread of Life that will sustain us for eternity.   Although we can’t say specifically how Jesus is present in this meal, can we not affirm that Jesus is present with us and not only with us here at this table, but present throughout creation, bringing into existence God’s reign?   They asked, and we ask, for a sign.   Jesus offered them and us, his own life as a sign of God’s presence in the world.  How do we know what is good and what is right?  Jesus says to us – look to me and you will know.  In doing this, he invites us to make him the defining center of our lives.  So, are you ready to receive this bread from heaven?    

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall  
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 5, 2012
11th Sunday after Pentecost