This sermon was preached on February 16 at Winnetka Presbyterian Church. My text was John 6:30-59.
As I was reading through this passage this past week, a passage that another pastor in this Presbytery referred to as the “Cannibal Jesus Chapter in John,” it was hard not to remember an incident from a few years back. At the United Methodist Church I worked at after seminary, there was a kind, elderly woman who would sit in the office after worship and go through the Friendship Pads, writing down names of new visitors or checking to see who may not have been in worship that particular Sunday.
One Sunday, I walked through the office and noticed that she seemed a little troubled, something was just a little off. I asked her how she was doing, and if anything was wrong.
She said, “Oh, I just get so irritated sometimes at how people take Communion.”
I didn’t really know what to expect at this point, but prepared myself. She continued: “I don’t know how some people think it’s okay to go up for Communion and walk back to their seat, chewin’ on Jesus.”
That I wasn’t expecting.
“Chewin’ on Jesus?” I asked. Yes, she replied. “Chewin’ on Jesus, I saw some people put the bread in their mouths, and just plain chomped on him as they walked back to their seats.”
“Well, we don’t really think they’re actually eating Jesus’ body when they put the bread in their mouth. So, it’s not quite like they are chewing on Jesus.”
“I suppose – but still. It’s a bit rude and disrespectful to chew on Jesus like that.”
Now I was getting intrigued, so I asked: “Well, what do you do if you don’t chew the bread?”
“I just let it slowly dissolve in my mouth, and then swallow it so I don’t have to chew on Jesus.”
So…something to keep in mind next time we celebrate communion here…
The thing that probably stands out to us most in this passage is the language of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood…sure, it’s a little bit shocking, but it would have been even more shocking for those who heard Jesus first say this. In Leviticus, God commanded God’s people not to drink the blood of animals. It was okay to eat the flesh, but never, never drink the blood of an animal…let alone the blood of a human, as Jesus seems to imply we should do here.
And just one verse after our reading for today ended, we see that in fact many of Jesus’ disciples couldn’t handle these shocking words. We are told that they believed the message was too harsh, and they turned away and no longer accompanied Jesus.
Yes, these are shocking words. And sometimes, with scripture, it’s easy to let the shocking words distract us from what is most important about a passage. So, yes, we probably could have a conversation about Communion, and what Presbyterians believe, and what Methodists believe, and what our Catholic brothers and sisters believe (maybe Geoff could fill us in)…and it may in fact be a rich conversation, but I think it may distract us from what we really need to hear this morning…it may distract us from getting a chance to focus on that which gives us life…the bread of life.
And that living bread is something I could use now, because I don’t know about you – but I’m tired. Whether it’s the length and intensity of my very first Chicago winter…the endless tasks and projects added to my todo lists…or the joys and challenges of living with a 2-year old…I don’t know. But I’m just tired.
That was a sentiment felt by our staff as we gathered for our staff meeting this past Tuesday morning. And again, at the Deacon’s meeting this past Wednesday, there was a general feeling among those present that they were really tired too. Folks are just tired.
After the tragic and way-too-soon loss of Sarah McCausland a few weeks ago, and as we have tried our best to lead this community, and the entire New Trier & Winnetka communities, through the beginning of this grief journey…many in this community may be feeling emotionally and spiritually drained. Tired. Or exhausted. Or empty.
And we can’t even begin to imagine the journey that the McCauslands have before them, as they re-imagine and re-craft their lives without Sarah.
We are all, always, on a journey. The question many of us ask, is, “How will we carry on with this journey? What will give us the strength we need?”
As we ponder that question, we look to the first passage of scripture read this morning, and we find that the Israelites were also on a journey. We remember the amazing story of the Israelites crossing through the Red Sea, and the sea crashing down upon Pharaoh’s army. And yet, no more than 2 verses later from where that story ends, we hear that the Israelites are not happy: “The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and in the desert.”
And this wasn’t just the “Are we there yet…?”-kind of complaining. This was the “Man we should have just stayed in Egypt and been worked to death because at least we would have had something to eat”-kind of complaining.
The Israelites were on a journey…they were wandering in the desert, wondering when God was going to lead them into the Promised Land… if God was going to lead them into the Promised Land, and they are tired. They are exhausted. They are empty.
And just as they may have been asking themselves the questions, “How will we carry on with this journey? What will give us the strength we need?”…God sends them bread. Bread that the Israelites would call “manna.”
Bread that was a sign that God was with them. And the Israelites ate that manna for 40 years – until they came to a livable land. God went with them on their journey, and God sustained them.
Jesus’ disciples were also on a journey. They had been traveling with him, as he went throughout Judea, Samaria, and Galilee…they were with him as he began to perform miraculous signs and wonders…the most recent of which was the feeding of the 5000, which occurred at the beginning of John chapter 6.
It’s a familiar story: crowds had followed Jesus, and through a young boy’s lunch of 5 barley loaves and 2 fish, Jesus was able to provide enough food to feed the 5000, and still have 12 baskets of leftovers.
Jesus provided bread, sustenance, and strength for his disciples on their journeys. But as he points out when the crowds come back for more food, it was just temporary nourishment. Just as the manna in the wilderness given to their ancestors was also temporary…it might have sustained them for the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, but they would still die eventually.
Rather than continue to rely on these temporary fixes, Jesus says that he has something better to offer. Something even better than manna. And it is the bread of life. Unlike the manna, if you eat the bread of life, you’ll never go hungry again, and you will never be thirsty. It’s the bread that will bring the gift of eternal life.
In John’s gospel, when the phrase “eternal life” is used, I don’t think it should be understood as life after death, or something that will happen to us eventually. Eternal life is a full life, an abundant life, a life that begins right now, this very day, and continues on throughout eternity.
Through this offer of the bread of life, Jesus not only promises that we won’t be hungry or thirsty anymore…Jesus offers a changed life. You can’t eat the bread of life and NOT be changed. The NRSV translates verses 55 & 56 like this: My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them…
When we partake of the bread of life – we are promised the ever-constant presence of the Divine with us…we will ABIDE with God, and God will ABIDE with us. Not a bad promise for us on our journeys through life.
One of the ways that we partake of the bread of life is through the sacrament of communion. Here at WPC, like many Presbyterian churches, we only celebrate communion once a month, but it is during that sacrament, that we are reminded of God’s presence with us as we go throughout all of our journeys. As we eat the bread…the flesh…as we drink the juice…the blood…we are reminded that these everyday symbols point to the way in which Jesus the Christ feeds us…and sustains us…and is with us always.
This is a physical, material, ritual that we participate in as a community to remind us of the spiritual reality that God goes with us, that God is with us each day we walk out of this sanctuary and into the messy-ness and busy-ness of our daily lives. And knowing that the bread of life is with us, this is something that can give us the strength to journey on, even when we’re tired…or exhausted…or empty.
A classic book in the field of spirituality and spiritual direction is called, “Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life,” begins with a story about children during World War II. During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The lucky ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much, couldn’t sleep at night. They feared waking up and finding themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them that they were safe.
Finally, someone thought to give each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate, and I will eat again tomorrow.”
For these children, they were holding on to what gave them life…the bread.
As we go throughout our lives, what are we holding on to? Are we holding on to money? Power? Political clout? Toys and gadgets? Relationships? Are we hoping that these are the things that are going to give us life? Do we cling to these temporary things, hoping that they will be permanent fixes to our hunger and thirst in the world?
Or are we holding on to bread? Are we grasping for the bread of life? Do we cling to the one who has proven time and time again, throughout the ancient Hebrew Scriptures and beyond, to be the one who is always for us, who sustains us and guides us through life’s journeys? For that is the bread that will satisfy our hunger, that will quench our thirst, that will lead us into eternal life, beginning right now.