A Matter of Death and Life

Sermon Preached Sunday, August 23, 2015                        
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church                                                              
Proper 16 (John 6)

Today’s gospel brings to an end a 5-week series taken from the sixth chapter of John’s gospel.  Among clergy there is a collective groan every three years when we hit this time of year – 5 weeks to talk about Jesus as the bread of life! Oy!  What on earth can I possibly say for five weeks?  I know what I’ll do? I’ll go on vacation!  And so I did – and, if Facebook posts are any indication, so too did many of my colleagues.  But in all seriousness, I think it is critical for us to think about why those who plan out the readings for our churches would make a decision to emphasize this message for 5 weeks.  That’s longer than the time we spend preparing for our Christmas celebrations and as many Sundays as we have in our Lenten preparations for Holy Week and for Easter.  In other words, some people in the church think this is really important.  Jesus is the bread of life.  Pay attention!
Like me, you may not have been here for all five weeks’ of the readings, so I’m going to give a really brief recap:  The first week we heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand with five barley loaves and two fish.[1]  This miraculous story is then followed by a lengthy dialogue between Jesus and those around him.  The dialogue begins when the five thousand seek out Jesus the next day and Jesus calls them up short saying, “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. . . . I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[2]  What follows is a lengthy conversation about what Jesus means by these words.  Today’s section of the conversation is the conclusion and offers this summary:
 “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. . . . the one who eats this bread will live forever.”[3]
At this time, John’s gospel reports that many of Jesus’ disciples “turned back and no longer went about with him.”[4] They found the teaching too difficult.  Jesus even asks his closest companions, the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”  Simon Peter, purportedly answering for the twelve says, “No! Of course not” – after all “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”[5]
I wish the gospel writer had given Peter’s response more flesh because as it appears here, it sounds too easy.  But, my brothers and sisters, the question asked of the disciples – “Do you also wish to go away?” – is a question of life and death.  Following Jesus is a risky affair and though it comes with the promise of eternal life it also comes with a guarantee of death.  Jesus will die on a cross and the disciples and earlier followers of the Way of Christ will also be persecuted.
In a 3-day break from vacation, I attended the North American Association for the Catechumenate’s Annual Gathering just outside of Baltimore.  The keynote speaker, The Rev. Paul Hoffman talked to us about the way we order our lives, or more aptly the way the world orders life versus the way in which God orders life.[6]  In the world, we are used to thinking about beginnings, middles, and endings.  We are born, we live our lives, and, eventually we die.  But in God’s order, the end is the beginning.  Christ has died – ending.  Christ is risen – beginning.  Christ will come again – middle.  These words – or something similar – are spoken in every celebration of the Eucharist in our churches - a reminder that our lives are no longer to be lived from birth to death but to be lived instead according to God’s Way - the Way of Christ.  It is why we pray each week that when we eat the bread and drink the wine – the flesh and blood of Jesus - that God might
“Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”[7]
Let the flesh and blood of Jesus abide in us as we abide in Jesus.  And so we as church arrive in the midst of death – what Paul Hoffman refers to as the chronic illnesses of our age (mediocrity, hypocrisy, racism, sexism, classicism, greed, self-aggrandizement, moralistic deism, you name it).  The church shows up in the midst of this death and destruction and proclaims a new beginning in Christ.  The church shows up in the face of death and proclaims, “Christ is Risen. Alleluia!”  Beginning.  And as our liturgy each week comes to a close and we are sent back out into the world; we are invited to be a reminder to the world – by the way in which we live our lives – that Christ will come again. Middle. 
Why do we repeat this every week?  Because day after day you and I have a habit of practicing our faith as if we don’t really have to die.  As if we do not need God to transform our lives in order to follow the Way of Jesus.  As if our prayers on Sunday morning have nothing or little to do with the rest of our lives.  As if the promises we made at our baptism can be lived out half way.  And so, week after week, we return to our worship – to the sacrament - to be fed again by the body and blood of Jesus to be reminded that we must live in the middle; to be reminded that we have a place where we can bring our inadequacies, our insecurities, our heresies and our sins; to be reminded that we have a place to fall apart, to die again to whatever must die in us; to be reminded of the power of the bread and the wine, transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, to transform our lives – to strengthen and renew us – to be sent out once again into the world where we are invited daily to abide in Jesus as Jesus abides in us.[8] 
“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ . . . [and] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” 
But there were 12 others who remained because they had come “to believe and know that” Jesus is the Holy One of God.
Where are you on this journey?  Where are we as St. Mark’s on this journey?  What must die in you – and in us -  so that we might live more fully into the Way of Jesus?  And, are you ready to ask God again and again, day in and day out, week after week, to help with this transformation?
So, do we really need 5 weeks about Jesus as the Bread of Life?  Yes, we really do. Because it really matters.  In fact, it is a matter of death and of life.

[1] John 6:1-15
[2] John 6:26, 35.
[3] John 6:56-58.
[4] John 6:66.
[5] John 6:67-69.
[6] Paul Hoffman, “A Baptismal Center for Parish Life,” Lecture at Transforming Congregations through Spiritual Practice: Creating a Discipleship Community: North American Association for the Catechumenate Annual Gathering, Bon Secours Conference Center, Baltimore, MD, July 30, 2015.
[7] Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 372.
[8] This is a paraphrase of Molly Baskette’s devotional, “Blessing Everything,” July 25, 2015.  United Church of Christ website accessed online at http://www.ucc.org on August 21, 2015.