Sunday, August 26, 2018

Eat, Drink, and Abide: John 6:56-69 - 14th Sunday after Pentecost

[Jesus said,] 56“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Communion by XPinger (Chris Sutton) on flickr.  CC BY-SA 2.0

Last Sunday while I was away, I took my 89-year-old grandmother to our home church.

This was her first time going to church since she fell and broke her hip five months ago.  That was the longest period she hadn’t been to church in her whole life.  There are no words to describe her joy—and everyone else’s joy—that they were together to worship Jesus Christ.  Even the angels of God were rejoicing.

But it also reminded me of Freda—a fellow church member Grandma drove to church for decades before she died. 

Grandma didn’t stop taking her when she moved into a nursing home; when she developed dementia; and even when she could no longer follow the service. 

Some may wonder, “how can someone worship in that state?”

I don’t know the answer, except that Freda loved being in church—and Grandma loved bringing her.

When it comes to Jesus, there’s more going on than meets the eye.

Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “the flesh is useless.  It is the Spirit that gives life.”

In today’s Gospel, we find ourselves at a “black moment” in the Gospel of John.  Not too long ago, a crowd numbering 5,000 was following Jesus wherever he went.  They saw the signs he’d been performing for the sick; they ate their fill of the five loaves and two fish.  But then, Jesus started feeding them bizarre teachings:

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” he says.  “Whoever eats and drinks me will live forever.”

Simply put, this is NOT what the people wanted.  They wanted more bread loaves and fish.  “Your teaching is hard,” they complain.  “Who can accept it?”  They decide that Jesus isn’t all that he cracked himself up to be.  And they certainly weren’t going to eat his flesh and drink blood, which the Law of Moses strictly forbids.  So many of them who had been disciples began to turn back and no longer went about with him. 

This begs the question: why does a person walk away from Jesus?  How can someone who counted themselves a disciple leave Jesus behind?  Why is it that people call themselves Christian but have nothing to do with the Body of Christ?  At what point do you stop going with Jesus?

I believe Jesus gives us the answer: “the flesh is useless.  The Spirit gives life.”  In other words, you are not in control.  But you want to be.  No wonder I is at the center of the word SIN. 

Prosperity theology is flourishing right now.  You don’t worship a Jesus who gives us flesh and blood away for the world.  You worship a Jesus who tells you what they need to do get to heaven—as well as your own little piece of heaven on earth.  Believe these things.  Do these things.  Have faith.  Be a good person.  Make the decision to accept Jesus.  And he will reward you.  This is a teaching that is NOT hard to accept. 

A lot of people accept a friendship with Jesus.  Jesus is your buddy; your pal.  “He walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me that I am his own.”  But do you keep on a walkin’ when life hits the skids?  Do you keep on a listenin’ when Jesus tells you something that’s hard and you can’t accept it?

Your flesh will tell you there’s nothing special about a morsel of bread; a few drops of wine; or water in a font…. The bible is just a book.  You don’t need to come to some building every week and give up valuable time for housework or sports; if you give away your treasures you’ll have nothing left to enjoy for yourself.  Prayer can’t possibly make a difference; forgiveness can’t possibly heal; new life cannot arise out of death.  The flesh gives life.  The Spirit is useless.

But, amid what appears to be the catastrophic disintegration of Jesus’ ministry, Simon Peter confesses, “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.”  That’s the Spirit: when the flesh is useless, the Spirit gives life.  The Spirit kept them with Jesus.  The Spirit kept them in the truth.  

Even though Peter will deny Jesus three times, Judas will betray him, and all rest will scatter and desert him, the Spirit will not depart.  Jesus will hold fast to them.  Useless flesh cannot keep the Spirit from giving life.

What human flesh counts as crazy talk is Jesus’ absolute determination to get inside of you—and this is what he does through your ears, as you hear his word—and through your mouth, as you eat and drink.  This is how the Spirit gives life—and this is how the Spirit binds you to the one in whom you shall live. 

Your relationship with Jesus consists not just of befriending or admiring Jesus, but of hearing, eating, and drinking.  You abide by obeying Jesus’ word and taking part in Jesus’ work.  You abide by washing each other’s feet.  You abide by loving one another. 

When you abide in Christ—you are not in control of what will happen or where Jesus takes you.  You’ll never fully figure it out.  There’s no guarantee of “what I’ll get out of him.”  Jesus can’t promise that you’ll love where I take you and what happens to you.”  What he can promise is that he’ll be living in you—and you in him.

Faith in Jesus Christ begins with the confession—the flesh is useless.  The Spirit gives life.  SO where will you abide and your soul find life?  In TV shows, sports stadiums, or fancy vacations?  In career success and material wealth?  Or in eating and drinking, listening and doing?  Jesus alone has eternal life.  Abiding is truly living.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Heavenly Hunger: 1 Kings 19:4-8 - 12th Sunday after Pentecost

4[Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. (NRSV)
Communion in the Desert by Transguyjay on flickr.  CC BY-NC 2.0 

It’s 1987.  Super Bowl XXI.  The New York Giants have just defeated the Denver Broncos.  An unseen man approaches quarterback Phil Simms and says, “you’ve just won the Super Bowl.  What are you doing next?”  He says, “I’m going to Disney World!”

Thus began the famous advertising campaign that made us 80s kids want to go to Disney World that much more. 

The Old Testament prophet Elijah just had an even greater triumph.  He had just gone head-to-head in a showdown with 950 false prophets and two of the bible’s greatest villains: King Ahab and his wife, Queen Jezebel.

These two were beyond fanatical in their worship of the false god Ba’al and its wife, the fertility goddess Asherah.  So God raised up the prophet Elijah to call the people to return to God—and he certainly has his work cut out for him.  God sends a drought to punish these rulers and their subjects, and show them that only God can make it rain.  But the king and queen fight back.  Jezebel starts killing off God’s prophets.  Ahab calls Elijah “a troubler of Israel.”

So Elijah throws the gauntlet down: he challenges Ahab to assemble 450 prophets of Ba’al and 400 prophets of Asherah on Mount Carmel and see which God can send rain. 

With all of Israel watching, God wins.  The drought ends.  Elijah is vindicated; Ahab is humiliated.  The people seize the false prophets and call them. 

For Elijah, this is an even bigger victory than when David killed Goliath.  But once Jezebel learns what happened, she resolves to kill Elijah.  Elijah is forced to flee to the desert, and that’s where we find him today.

Underneath the broom tree, he is having a meltdown.  He is completely spent, in body, mind, and spirit.  He’s begging God to let him die. 

It may seem silly that he’s so deathly afraid after such a dramatic victory.  It’s not too hard to imagine what modern people would say about him:

  • “He’s emotionally unstable.  A basket case”
  • “He’s not up to the task.”
  • “God picked the wrong man for the job.”

I think of all the times I’ve heard it said, “God never gives you more than you can handle.”  God clearly gave Elijah more than he could handle.  All Elijah wants now is for God to end it all.

But that’s one prayer God won’t answer.  So he falls asleep.  Then, an angel wakes him up and tells him, “get up and eat.”  He does, and then he falls back to sleep.  The angel awakens him a second time, and says, “get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  He eats again—and this time, he moves forward on the strength of that food.

There you have it: God acknowledged giving Elijah more than he could handle—but God fed him.  Sometimes, it takes a meltdown to realize just how much you also need to be fed by God.  And not just in a meltdown, but in every single day and hour of your life.

God feeds.  The only question is, do you eat? 

That’s where this gets problematic.  We gorge ourselves on so much other stuff, believing it will satisfy our souls.  We strive for success and build monuments to our achievement with our homes, vehicles, and lifestyles; we want to do all the kinds of things that will make our Facebook friends say, “wow.”  We have sports and entertainment; people we need to please; pleasures and quick fixes to dull the stress of it all.  But when God wants to feed you, you’re not hungry. 

I think of how often I choose to eat junk food and fast food—because it’s cheap, convenient, and delicious.  It’s a lot easier to eat a bag of chips than slice up a cantaloupe or pretend that cauliflower tastes good. 

Skipping meals and eating on-the-go is what hard workers do.  It takes time for God to feed you, and yet, you see that as time you can’t afford to lose.

It’s even easier to believe that you know better than God what you’re really hungry for.

Sometimes, it takes a meltdown to realize how much you also need to be fed by God.  Spiritual hunger is real, no matter what your circumstances.  So don’t wait for disaster when Jesus is calling you to his table today.

The plainest and most visible heavenly food is served right here: the body and blood of Jesus; the bread that is God’s Word of Truth.  Anytime we come together as God’s family, we feed each other with our prayers; our encouragements; our testimony of God’s work in our lives.

But God’s feeding activity isn’t limited to church.  God delivers heavenly food to your homes; your schools; your workplaces; God feeds in the stressful times and the boring times too.

A little-known fact about the life of discipleship is that you get fed when you feed others.  A food bank volunteer recently said, “the people we feed actually feed me.”  Because God is most visible when grace is given and received.

And one more thing: God fed Elijah with food, but God also fed him with sleep.  Most people don’t get nearly enough of it.  It’s not a sign of strength, dear Christian, for you to run on no sleep or lie awake instead of giving your cares to God.   And there are other times you can sleep other than Sunday mornings!

“Dieting” is certainly a bad word, but God wants to put you on a diet—to eat less of the foods that ravage your body as well as your soul—and eat your fill of the foods that will really satisfy.  Life’s journeys will be too much for you if you’re not eating what God feeds you.  Remember that God’s always readier to feed you than you are to eat.  So eat the food that endures for eternal life.  Rest in the promises of God.  Taste and see the goodness of God.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Better Bread: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 - Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

4Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.”

9Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’ ” 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’ ”

13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” (NRSV)
BrunoRaymond_20081228_IMG_1748 by Bruno Raymond on flickr.  CC BY-NC 2.0

“I’m never eating Jell-O again in my life.”

These were the words spoken by a good friend of ours who’d just endured a major surgery on her colon.  Her doctor told her that she could only eat Jell-O and broth—for the next six months.  The rest of her diet consisted of a light-brown goop delivered to her body via a feeding tube.

“I’ve never been so hungry for a cheeseburger,” she said.  “Go and eat one for me.”

There is nothing in all human experience that is more miserable than hunger.  I can only imagine this is what the Israelites felt when they found themselves in the desert.  There was no food.  And there was nowhere to get food.  All the elation at their miraculous liberation from slavery in Egypt quickly turned to raging anxiety once the hunger pangs came.

They forgot how God heard them when they cried out under the cruel hand of their taskmasters.

They forgot that God rescued them from the hand of Pharaoh.  They forgot that God raised up Moses and Aaron to lead them across the desert, to the promised land.

From the standpoint of now, Moses and Aaron were imbeciles—and they were imbeciles for trusting them.  God hadn’t rescued them.  God had led them to their own destruction.  They would’ve been better off if God had killed them back in Egypt rather than starving them in the desert.  The way they talk, they feasted like royalty when they were slaves in Egypt—when, in reality, they had barely enough food to stay alive and work.  They didn’t ask God to free them from slavery.  Given the choice, they’d go right back to Egypt.

In their minds, there was no hope, no salvation, no Promised Land.  There was.  They just didn’t want it the way God was giving it to them.

The problem here is that God’s deliverance rarely happens on our terms and timetables.  God does things God’s way, not ours. This drives us mad.

We want to be in control of our salvation.  We want to be in control of God.  We want God to prove worthy of our trust by giving us what we believe is right.  We want God to tell us what we must do—and if we do those things, God ought to deliver the goods.  Given the choice between grace and control, we’re going to choose control, every time.

But this doesn’t leave any room for God to be gracious.  In fact, if God dealt with the people the people dealt with God, God would’ve dumped them a long time ago.

God’s grace cannot be dictated or controlled by us.  That, dear Christian, is a good thing.

Sometimes, the only way to the Promised Land is through the desert.  Since it’s the desert, we wouldn’t dare venture through it.  But there’s no other way.  In the desert, there’s dunes, dangers, and death.  Your only means of survival is God’s grace.  When all you have is God, you experience God’s faithfulness like never before.

God graciously puts Moses in the desert with them to remind them—God is here!  God has heard their cries for food—and God has provided, though not in the way they’d expect.

There’s a fine, flaky substance covering the ground—and they don’t know what it is.  The word manna, in Hebrew, means “what is it?”  And it’s more than just an unexpected source of food.  It’s a sign that God is leading them.  It’s better than the bread and meat they imagined themselves eating in Egypt because it is from God.  It’s the bread by which God will take them to the promised land.

Just the same, Jesus is the true bread of heaven.  The people ask, “what sign are you giving us, so that we may see it and believe in you?”  That sign is the cross.  That sign is body and blood given for you to eat and drink.  God’s power is in them to forgive sins and give eternal life.  Jesus is the better bread.

When you find yourself in the desert, and your body and soul are hungry because of the distress and dangers that surround you, don’t go back to Egypt!  Receive the bread of memory!  Remember the ways God has fed you and led you through all your life’s journeys.  Move forward with confidence that God will lead and feed you.

God will give you the bread that is God’s Word—because sometimes, God’s grace isn’t always plain to see.  It just might be a fine flaky substance covering the ground, and you don’t know what it is.  But it’s God taking care of you.

You don’t just hear the Word.  You must act on it, too.  Take, eat, and drink of the body and blood given for you, knowing it’s the only bread and cup you need for eternity.

Believe in Jesus’ determination to feed hungry bodies and hungry souls.  Don’t let God’s grace end with you.  Give and share with confidence that Jesus can do infinitely more with what you give to him than you could ever do yourself.

And when you find yourself lost and alone in the desert, where death and dangers surround you, your body is hungry, and your soul is weary, remember that Jesus will always give you the better bread.  Maybe not the bread you want, but the bread that will lead you to new life in him.