August 22, 2021
With our second reading we are still in the letter to the Ephesians as we have been for a few Sundays now. Today we hear familiar words about the whole armor of God. Listen for God continuing to speak to you.
READ Ephesians 6:10-20
I want to start this morning back with our reading from John because what always grabs my attention with this passage is how the disciples complain… complain because this teaching is difficult. That passage begins in the middle of a conversation… which isn’t too much of a surprise since John’s gospel is full of these long conversations. This particular conversation began back at the beginning of the chapter when five thousand had gathered together on the shore of the Sea of Galilee… and seeing Philip beginning to worry about the size of the crowd, Jesus says to him “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” We read this story a few Sundays ago if you remember. The question itself is a test. Philip answers Jesus, “Not only that, but where are we to get the money with which to buy the bread for these people to eat?” Money and bread… two things we continually hunger for. In the crowd there is one young boy with five barley loaves and two fish… and one miracle later… the people are fed with twelve baskets of food leftover. But the story doesn’t end there. Not in John. This is just the beginning.
Jesus leaves the crowd because he knows they are about to declare him king… authority and power something we continually hunger for. Eventually Jesus and his disciples make it to the other side of the lake. The next day the crowd follows after him and this conversation begins. Jesus starts with hard words for the people gathered, “I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” He quickly begins to move them from following the god of their belly that must always be fed with bread and money and authority and power… and he tries to awaken in them a hunger for the bread of heaven that gives life to the world. He wants them to see the larger theological framing. But the crowd begins to turn away from him as he pushes them toward a different vision than they are used to… and they complain about him in their discomfort. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” Jesus not only doesn’t pull back from the crowds complaints… but he pushes them further… and he starts to talk to them about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. And that is where we came into the conversation today.
All this talk around bread in this chapter of John. Clearly these people are hungry for something. And Jesus is quick to challenge what it is for which they hunger. The idea of manna… the bread from heaven given during the time of Moses and the Exodus… the idea of manna enters into the mix of ideas in this conversation. And Jesus reduces that miracle down to the bread that fills the belly one day and the hunger that returns the next day. Even manna doesn’t satiate this hunger. He has got to get the crowd thinking about more than their small wants and perceived needs. He needs them to think bigger if they are going to finally be able to name that for which they hunger. “I am not here”, says Jesus, “to give you that bread. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
We hear those words from John’s gospel and it makes sense to us… at least I hope it makes sense to us, we who regularly gather around this table to eat that flesh… to drink that blood. But in the story the crowd doesn’t understand asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So many in the crowd do not understand and in their not understanding they take offense. You and I know that taking offense is a great mechanism for shutting down any further seeking… any further exploration of an idea. Miracle feeding or not… this man is crazy or something. And the crowd begins to dissipate. The bread that fed the 5000 did not buy Jesus the loyalty and amazement of the crowd for very long. It’s very much like the story of manna, how the people were provided with their daily bread… but over time in the wilderness that quickly moves from praise and thanksgiving to grumbling and complaining. The people get tired of the everyday miracle manna being provided for them by God.
Appeasement of the god of the belly… it doesn’t last long. The idol we set up… or the idol we overlay on top of the God who is revealed to us… the idol of our own creation meant to feed our wants and our appetites… that idol will lose its luster quickly and we will grumble at it… and we will question its validity… and we will turn away and create a new idol and do the same thing thinking that somehow… someway this new idol we’ve created will be different and the outcome will be different. And we will finally be satisfied and our hunger satiated.
But this will never happen if we don’t understand what it is we are truly hungering for.
It has become very common today to understand the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 as the miracle that happens when people practice the type of discipleship that we’ve been hearing about in Ephesians. Some kindness practiced. Upbuilding the common good. Imitating God by living in love. Surely that one little boy wasn’t the only one who had food on his person that day, right? Understanding the feeding miracle as a miracle of sharing and unselfishness… it’s still amazing how quickly then that miracle is undone with those in the crowd. The people still fall away quickly even after witnessing what a simple act of love for their neighbor can create. It doesn’t take long for the whole scene to become… “I don’t understand. Eat his flesh and drink his blood? I don’t understand. And so I will take offense and I will walk away… I will not let this challenge me… I will not allow myself to change… or to grow in Christ. Because this teaching is hard.”
Saints, do you think any of that may still happen today? Do you think there are people who still don’t understand Jesus today… who take offense when things get hard rather than seek a better understanding…rather than seek that wider theological framing? I don’t understand… this isn’t rational… I am leaving. And Jesus lets them go. He doesn’t stop the crowd from turning away… he doesn’t chase after them as they no longer go about with him. He doesn’t get anxious and try to appease them so they will stay. Instead Jesus turns and he challenges his closest disciples by teaching further… pushing them further on this difficult and offensive teaching… and then some of them turn and leave instead of embracing the discipline of the discipleship that Jesus is presenting to them.
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Those who are left after this difficult and offensive teaching… it’s not that they now have some understanding… that won’t come until after the experience of the cross… but they trust more in what they have come to believe rather than in their own limited understanding. Jesus is more than just what he may give to them… what he will provide for his disciples. Jesus has become more to them than the latest giving idol that satisfies their wants and perceived needs.
It’s interesting to find all this talk about eating the flesh and drinking the blood in John’s gospel because John’s gospel is the one gospel in which there is no story about the institution of communion. When Jesus gathers with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion in John’s gospel… it is on the day before the Passover, unlike the other three gospels. Our tradition of communion comes straight from the Passover celebration… but in John’s gospel, Jesus is crucified on the Passover… he is the Paschal lamb whose blood covers the people from death. So in John’s gospel, Jesus does not sit at the table and bless the bread and break it… he does not say to his disciples, “This is my body broken for you.” Nor does he take the cup and bless it… giving it to them, saying, “This is my blood shed for you.” Instead… in John’s gospel and only in John’s gospel… does Jesus take a towel… wrap it around his waist in the manner of a servant… and he washes his disciples’ feet. Keep that image in your mind for a minute. That image is Jesus teaching the words of eternal life. That is the difficult teaching that is hard to embrace. Eating the flesh of Christ is the becoming of Christ’s flesh. Drinking the blood of Christ brings the awareness of Christ’s blood flowing through your veins. To use the words of Ephesians… this is becoming the body of Christ… the different pieces… different gifts… knit together… the many becoming one in Christ… to serve.
The key word to John’s gospel is “abiding”. Christ abiding in you… and Christ abides in you in the same way in which God abides in Christ. Or to use more words of Jesus from John’s gospel… “Abide in me as I abide in you. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” The difficult teaching of this chapter is that Jesus is not going to be the great divine provider for our wants and our perceived needs to our satisfaction. That hunger will not be satiated through Jesus. The difficult teaching is that this Christ who washes feet… who serves in this way… is the one whom we are to become through our belief. This is the one we are to imitate.
The Christ abides and creates a community where all are empowered to love one another… equally. The Christ will challenge us all to become servants… one of another. The question isn’t “Where are we to buy bread…” because Philip is right… we will never have enough money to buy enough bread to satisfy that hunger. The real question is “How are we going to be the bread that feeds the crowd’s true hunger?” What are the disciplines of discipleship that are necessary? While Ephesians gives us this image of the armor of God… and Christians have loved the image… perhaps a little too much… it is the disciplines behind the image that really matters. Truth. Righteousness. Readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace. Faith. The word of God. The bold declaration of the gospel gives and satisfies the spiritual hunger that exists. It gives life even as death seems to surround and confine us. It creates miracles of compassion and truly shows why the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is like the commandment to love God with all your heart, mind, body and soul. The hunger that is caused by this bread is not an emptiness… an emptiness that looks to fill itself… to satiate itself… the hunger that is caused by this bread is the desire to rise from the dead and to have Christ shine and live through you. The true hunger is to be the body of Christ to the world and to love as boldly as we have been loved. Amen.