Sermon for August 5th, 2012

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Psalm 78:23-29

23 Yet he commanded the skies above,
   and opened the doors of heaven;
24 he rained down on them manna to eat,
   and gave them the grain of heaven.
25 Mortals ate of the bread of angels;
   he sent them food in abundance.
26 He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens,
   and by his power he led out the south wind;
27 he rained flesh upon them like dust,
   winged birds like the sand of the seas;
28 he let them fall within their camp,
   all around their dwellings.
29 And they ate and were well filled,
   for he gave them what they craved.

John 6:35,41-51

35Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." 41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." 42They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I have come down from heaven'?" 43Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I 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."

Pizza From Mars

As you can probably tell, I've been having fun with sermon titles lately. Today's sermon title is "Pizza From Mars." I settled on this one because my earlier working title was perhaps too confusing -- I was going to title today's sermon "Predestination, Transubstantiation, Supersessionism, Eschatology, and Hypostatic Union. Oh my." Like I said, "Pizza From Mars" seemed less confusing.

But today's Gospel passage is confusing enough on its own, especially if you haven't grown up in church, and aren't that familiar with the story of Jesus or Christian doctrines. For the past three weeks, we've been following Jesus, the disciples, and his crowds of followers around through the first century desert, first in the Gospel of Mark, and now today picking up the story in the Gospel of John. After today, this is where we will leave them all for the time being, since next week we begin a sermon series on "The Heart of Worship." But we won't be alone in leaving Jesus at this point in the story--after what he says today, the vast majority of his disciples and the crowds who follow him in the gospels also leave him, going away perplexed and confused. I hope you don't leave here today in the same fashion, but if you do, please know you are, historically, not alone.

This is a complicated little passage. As I mentioned before, the classic doctrines of Predestination, Transubstantiation, Supersessionism, Eschatology, and Hypostatic Union all show up in these few verses, and have been debated at great length by theologians through the centuries. But you don't need to be a great theologian, or even recognize any of those terms, to understand the challenges this passage presents--we'll walk through them in a moment. First, however, there may be an even bigger challenge, and that is our tendency to gloss over this passage without recognizing anything unusual at all. Particularly for those of us who have grown up hearing the scriptures and celebrating the Lord's supper. For Jesus to say, "I am the bread that came down from heaven" sounds like a completely acceptable statement to us, and that in itself is a little bit crazy. At the very least, it makes us hard to hear Jesus the same way that the crowd would have heard him over 2000 years ago.

Imagine if I were to stand up in front of you today, and boldly proclaim to you, "I am the pizza from Mars!" You would probably sit there politely, kind of like you're doing now, with one or two eyebrows raised, waiting for me to explain myself and somehow make sense of an utterly ridiculous statement. So then I might say, "Look, you can't possibly understand what I'm saying unless I already meant for you to understand." More silence from you. Is he serious? Is he a little off his game today? So then I say, "Your parents ate pizza from Little Caesar's. And look what happened to them? They died! Sure, it may have been 28 years later, but you see the connection, right? They ate pizza from Little Caesar's and...eventually...they died. A coincidence? I think not. But if you eat Martian Pizza, it will make you young again, and your hair will never fall out, and your breath will never smell bad, and you'll live to see your 300th birthday. Oh, and by the way. I am the Martian Pizza. Eat me."

If you skip ahead to verse 66, you'll read that "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." Pizza from Mars...yeah right.

And this brings us to the first historic debate embedded into this passage: Literal vs. figurative language in the bible. It's easy, you might say. Jesus is clearly speaking metaphorically here. By saying he is the "bread from heaven" he's saying that he's giving us spiritual nourishment. Simple. But was it really that easy for those who first heard Jesus? He did often use metaphors and parables. But he also said things to paralyzed people, like "Get up and walk." Oh, right, Jesus, you mean I should spiritually get up, inside my heart and walk in a metaphorical sense, right? Jesus: "Um, no. I meant get up...and walk."

Surely it became easier to sort out the figurative language from the literal in the centuries that followed the events of the gospels. And yet this very passage, where Jesus refers to himself as bread and asks his followers to eat his flesh, has been the center of a debate whose pages could (and do) fill entire libraries. Roman Catholic tradition takes the words of Jesus literally, and asserts that the bread of communion literally becomes the body of Christ in the act of eating it. This is the doctrine known as transubstantiation. Our Baptist brothers and sisters (who interpret the Bible quite literally on a number of other issues) take these words entirely as metaphor, viewing the bread as a mere reminder of Jesus' sacrifice. As Presbyterians, we're somewhere in the middle of those extremes -- we believe that bread is bread and flesh is flesh, but that somehow, miraculously, mysteriously, God's spirit is actually, literally present with us when we eat the bread and celebrate the Eucharist.

"I am the bread from heaven." Let's assume just for a moment that at least some in the crowd understood Jesus' words metaphorically. Jesus is saying he's nourishment from heaven, or that his teachings nourish the soul in the same way that bread nourishes the body. But what about those words, "from heaven?" Jesus is clearly not from heaven, he's from 527 Carpenter Lane in Nazareth, the son of Mary and Joseph. We know where he's from. We know Jesus. Now we are knee-deep in the second theological challenge of this passage: Christology, or the nature of Christ. Was he a man? Was he God? God dressed up in man's skin? First Man, then God (after his baptism or resurrection?) First God, then man (when he died on the cross) then God again? If you grew up in church, you would likely answer that Jesus is at the same time fully God and fully human, from the beginning of time until its end. This doctrine is known as the hypostatic-union, and is reflected in the Nicene Creed which we will recite later on in today's service. But as simple as this answer may sound, it took early Christians over 400 years, several international councils, and no small amount of bloodshed to finally agree on this "simple understanding" of who Jesus really is. And there are still quite a few who still argue about it today.

As Presbyterians, there is a special challenge in this passage that is historically associated with us. Jesus says in verse 44 that "no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me." Let's think about that for a minute. You can't "decide" to follow Jesus unless God has already "decided" to draw you to him. That puts the ball in God's court. We, especially we Americans, think that the ball belongs in our court. This understanding is the basis for a doctrine called "Predestination" and it tends to be viewed in opposition to the notion of "free-will." Predestination is a doctrine that Presbyterians have historically defended, and one that is often greatly misunderstood. Someday, we'll have a long talk about Predestination. I believe, as John Calvin did, that it is intended to be a comfort rather than a source of conflict. But explaining that would require a sermon all to itself. For today, let's just acknowledge it as a rather sticky mess raised by Jesus' words in this passage, and how we choose to interpret them.

In our first reading today, from the Psalms, we read about Manna, the "grain of heaven" and the "bread of angels" that God sent to the ancient Israelites to sustain them as they journeyed through the wilderness to the promised land. In our Gospel reading, Jesus also speaks of Manna, but he says that those who ate it still died, while those who eat his bread, his flesh, will live forever and not die. This is our final dilemma: Old Testament vs. New Testament. Is Jesus saying that what he offers is somehow better or superior to what God gave the Israelites? Does this "new covenant" run parallel with the old one? Does it supplement it, or just flat out supersede and replace it? That last view is the highly controversial doctrine known as supersessionism. It is, understandably, quite unpopular with faithful Jewish people, who still understand themselves to be God's chosen people. I'm afraid to say that this particular passage, and others like it, have been the source of much violence and injustice toward our Jewish brothers and sisters. We must never forget that how we interpret scripture--even those that seem "simple" and "straightforward" to us, may have far reaching consequences for others.

So. There we are. If you're still with me, haven't checked out, spaced out, or haven't seriously considered jumping out of your seat and running away screaming at any point in the past fifteen minutes, please see me after the service for your honorary Master's of Divinity Degree. Far from being the "simple" passage it may seem, in reading these verses we are left with a pile of sticky, messy doctrines, theological conundrums, and large barely pronounceable words. This is the point where, in writing my sermons, I always have to come to a complete stop and ask myself the most important theological question I know: "So What?" Or, why should we care? Where is the Good News buried in all this mess?

Well, I'm working on that. I won't presume to have solved problems that better minds have spent entire lifetimes working on. But here are a few things that, when I reflect on Jesus' words, inspire me.

  1. Literal vs. Figurative Language in the Bible. Sometimes we need to take Jesus literally; Sometimes we need to take him metaphorically, and often it's hard to tell which is which. But always, always, we need to take Jesus seriously. And that means wrestling and struggling with difficult passages of scripture, especially the familiar ones that we've heard a million times. Remember how many times the very best thing Jesus' disciples could come up with was, "Lord, I just don't get it." And then remember how that handful of confused, bumbling, short-sighted fishermen changed the world. Long after his death and resurrection, some of the disciples may have still wondered whether Jesus was talking literally or metaphorically when he said he was the bread from heaven. But they took his words seriously enough to write them down for us. And they cared enough about his words to break bread whenever they gathered together.
  2. Jesus Identity: Human vs. Divine. From Nazareth or from Heaven. The problem with those who complained about Jesus was that they were convinced they knew exactly who he was. He was Joseph and Mary's son. That's a fact. But we do the same thing. We assume we know exactly who Jesus is, what he was about, and what he would do in any given situation. The lesson here (and the good news) is that Jesus still has the capacity to surprise us. He refuses to fit into our messiah shaped boxes. So don't throw away your WWJD bracelets just yet, but when you're asking yourself "What would Jesus do?" It's okay to be humble and say, "maybe not quite what I would expect."
  3. Predestination vs. Free Will. Like I said, this is a sermon for another day, but I think I can safely say this much: In a culture and society where it's "all about me" and where our rugged individualism tells us we need to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, it's sometimes good to hear Jesus' words: "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father." It's not about you. It's not about me. It's about God. And considering the mess I generally make of my life, I'm glad some things are in God's hands, and not mine.
  4. Old Testament vs. New Testament. In the Old Testament, Manna from Heaven was God's provision for his people. In the New Testament, Jesus, the Bread from Heaven, is God's salvation for his people. I think we need both. We need to know that God loves us and provides for us in this life, and has made a place for us in the Kingdom that is yet to come.

Jesus says "I am the bread of life." Bread is simple. Deceptively simple. It has three ingredients--flour, water, and yeast. If you make unleavened bread, it's just two ingredients--flour and water. And yet, as anyone who has ever purchased a bread maker knows, we can turn bread into a pretty complicated thing. Jesus says "I am the bread of life." Life is simple. Deceptively simple. All life on earth consists of essentially the same six elements: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. And yet, as anyone with children...or parents...or a job...or without a job...or just anyone at all for that matter, can tell you, life is a pretty complicated thing. Into all of this simple complexity comes Jesus, parables, metaphors, flesh, blood and all, saying "I am the bread of life." I am simple. I am complicated. I am the answer. I am the question. Jesus didn't say "I am the pizza from Mars," but even if he had, the two words that transcend all our questions and answers, the two words that confound the theologians and comfort the simple, the two words we need most need to hear, whether we understand them or not, these two words remain: Jesus said...I AM.