You can read the scripture for August 12, 2018 here.
Sermon August 12, 2018
2 Sam 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
John 6:35, 41-51
Today is the 2nd week of a month long lectionary series on the Bread of Life from the gospel of John. There’s a famous trope in seminary that one dreads the Year B summer lectionary precisely because of this four week long bread discussion. I’m still new enough in my priesthood that I’m not yet ready to ditch John and focus exclusively on the Hebrew Bible passage instead. But the existence of that trope made me think about the larger context of the whole Bread of Life series, and that’s what I want to focus on today.
Part of the reason I am particularly drawn to the Bread of Life passages is that they were, for me as a child, what theologian Phyllis Trible refers to as texts of terror. Given the dominant (and by dominant, I mean loudest and most attention getting) understanding of “what it means to be a Christian” in our country right now, that terrorizing interpretation is still disseminated far too often. Perhaps some others here remember hearing these bread of life verses preached about in other worship spaces and wondering with trepidation if you were among the chosen few who would be allowed a place at the table. Those who would somehow “make the cut” with God and be saved. Growing up in the deep south in the 70s, I know I heard that kind of exclusionary preaching way too often.
One of my favorite Union seminary classes was taught by my beloved advisor, the great champion of inclusion and interfaith dialogue, Paul Knitter. Paul had his priestly and theological formation in Rome during Vatican II. That experience was so formative for him that he never lost the spirit of curiosity, openness, and welcome he gained from it. He went on to build a theological career around engaging with other faith traditions, and wrote many books including his most famous one: Without Buddha, I could not be a Christian. Largely because of his open mindedness, Paul holds the peculiar distinction of having been personally declared a heretic by then cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. It was certainly amusing to sit in class and hear Paul reminisce about arguments he had engaged in with the then sitting Pope. Paul — who is, by the way, one of the gentlest, kindest people you could ever meet, would say the name Ratzinger with a zestful relish, perhaps with a little edge. I guess that goes to show that even the kindest and most open folks sometimes run into someone who gets under their skin.
This particular course was titled: Dealing with Diversity. The class studied how different itera-tions of Christianity reckoned with the existence of other religious traditions. Over the semester, we looked at the specific theological models of how various types of Christians understand salvation -particularly, how they understood/explained who will (or will not) be allowed a place at the heavenly banquet. It goes without saying that we don’t have time to get into those various theological models this morning, but it was a fascinating exercise.
The key takeaway that I personally gleaned from the class was that our default attitude towards the other — whatever other that may be — religious, racial, abled, gendered, national, classed — actually reveals our deepest convictions of how we think (or fear) God sees us. So how we treat “the other” is how we secretly think (or fear) we will be treated by God.
And that should be good news for us. Because as followers of Jesus, as people who read and study the Bible, despite whatever proof texts others might pull out to say the contrary, the over-whelming majority of scripture says that we should welcome the stranger – for when we do so, we welcome God. God desires us to be hospitable to the other, because the stranger is beloved of God. And here’s even better news: given that we are the other to someone else, that means that we too are beloved of God. God doesn’t cut out anyone out. We are all included.
So what then should we make of a passage like the following from today’s gospel?
“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me. Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.”
This is exactly the kind of text that I have too often heard interpreted as “you see, Scripture says you have to accept Jesus personally as your Lord and Savior and be born again, or else you will go to Hell.”
To me, that interpretation makes absolutely no sense in the context of all four of the different gospel accounts of the life, death and saving works of Jesus. Because all four of them tell us that God loves ALL of God’s creation. Every single bit. Why else would God have chosen to become incarnate, to share our human nature, except to show us that all that we are, and all that we experience is sacred. All four gospels speak overwhelmingly of welcoming the stranger because the stranger, just like us, is sacred. All four gospels say that God desires to liberate us from the human systems which create “in crowds” vs. “out crowds.” And all four of them are especially clear about liberating those whom the world’s powerful label as “on the margins.” For God, there are no “others.” We are all equal before God.
How else do we know that everyone is included? Listen to verse 39, from later in John 6:
This is the will of him who went me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise if up on the last day.
That I should lose nothing of all that he has given me.
Not one planet.
Not one mountain.
Not one rock.
Not one tree.
Not one animal.
Not one person.
God is concerned about all of creation.
We don’t have to say a particular formula in order to be included.
It is all sacred. It is all beloved. We are all sacred. We are all beloved.
What’s more, there’s a real time example of this right there in the introduction to John 6. Mother Liz preached about it back in July. I’s the story of the feeding of the 5000. Its’ placement right before the Bread of Life passages is not a coincidence.
One of the things we notice when we look at all four gospel accounts of the feeding of the 5000 is that in every one of them, Jesus asks the people to sit down before they eat.
Asking them to sit down is his way of creating an in the moment, embodied experience of the equality of all in the eyes of God. When we sit, we are all on the same level. This kind of equality doesn’t include any gatekeeping, bouncers, or credential checking. Jesus then tells them in the earliest part of the Bread of Life passage, “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” So he is pointedly reminding them that they just had this experience of welcome and belonging. Pay attention, he is saying, to what happened to your body in that situation. You were satisfied. This is what it feels like to experience freedom. That feeling, that experience, is what you are craving when you seek me.
It’s no surprise that Jesus would show us physically what he means before explaining it. We all know him to be a “show” as well as a “tell” type of person. Just consider the words in the eucharistic prayer — “DO this in remembrance of me.”
Not say this, not think this, not believe this, but DO this.
The feeding of the 5000, with all of them sitting down, and all of them being fed, is a lived experience of the kin-dom of God.
An experience in which EVERYONE is included. An experience in which all are welcome. An experience in which we are all accepted – because we are all beloved.
So how do we continue to experience this miracle? By tuning in to the blessing of that experi-ence and allowing ourselves to be guided by its wisdom. By allowing that embodied experience, which we repeat at every eucharist, to teach us how to orient our life every day.
Messianic Jewish writer David Stern offers this commentary on today’s passage:
“(…) Jewish understanding allows for symbolic interpretation of “food and drink.” To eat the flesh of the Son of Man is to absorb his entire way of being and living. The Greek word “SARX” is also used to refer to human nature in general, to the physical, emotional, mental, and volitional aspects of human existence. Yeshua wants us to feel, think, and and act like him; by the power of the Ruach HaKodesh (the Spirit) he enables us to do so.”
Going back to the eucharistic prayer, we say: take, bless, break, give. Those are the four key words we pray over this bread of life when it is consecrated.
Take: God’s desire is that not one of us shall be lost. Thus God has taken, or chosen us.
Bless: God’s blessing on us is that we are seen — truly seen by God — in all of our messy, complicated glory.
Break: God’s grace is that we are all beloved in spite of and because of our brokenness — still and all, like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings, God assures us that we are gathered up, transformed, and renewed.
Give: God’s request of us is that we be a gift to this world, just as God is always a gift to us.
“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.”
And like those who were listening to him in the gospel of John, we say:
Sir, give us this bread always.
Amen. Amen. Amen.