We live in an entertainment age, where it’s often difficult to tell what is real and what’s an illusion. We can be mesmerized by glitz and glamor, and find ourselves listening intently as celebrities tell us what we should wear, eat, how we should vote and what we should believe. In such an atmosphere, it shouldn’t surprise us that we sometimes mix entertainment with faith. But, this isn’t new. Anglican revivalist George Whitefield supposedly made people weep simply by pronouncing the word “Mesopotamia.” In the 19th century revivalists drew great crowds to hear them preach, while hundreds gathered to hear Alexander Campbell debate his religious rivals on topics that ranged from socialism to baptism. More recently Aimee Semple McPherson rivaled her Hollywood neighbors with her spectacles, while Robert Schuller’s grand productions – at least until the Crystal Cathedral fell into bankruptcy -- drew thousands. But is the gospel simply another spectacle?
Jesus had fed a whole bunch of people with a few loaves and a couple of fish, before sending them off fully satisfied. From there he went to the mountain to pray. The next day, the crowd came looking for him. After all, it’s another day, and it was time to eat. It took a while, but they found him in Capernaum, on the other side of the lake.
They ask Jesus when he got there, perhaps wondering how they missed him. For his part, Jesus knows exactly why they’ve come. Like the people of Israel who went to Moses looking for food, they were hungry and wanted to eat. He knows that he could raise an army with free bread, but that’s not his purpose. So, what will Jesus do?
As we think about what Jesus should do next, we need to remember that God desires that we do justice and love mercy (Mic. 6:8), and this often involves feeding the hungry. And Jesus suggested that the basis of God’s judgment will be how we treat the least among us (Matt. 25). This is our missional calling – to bring wholeness to an often broken world.
Now Jesus had given them bread, but now he wants to draw their attention to a different kind of bread. Knowing that they were driven by their stomachs, he wanted to reach their hearts and minds by offering the “Bread of Heaven” that “endures for eternal life.” So, don’t work for the food that doesn’t last, work for the food that endures for ever. They’re intrigued by this, but they want a sign. They want that manna that Moses gave the Israelites in the wilderness. They were willing to be his army, but an army requires food. So, they wanted to know – what do you have for us in exchange for our loyalty?
Jesus’ answer is simple: “Believe in him whom God sent.” But what does this mean?
Although I think that theology is really important to how we live our faith, I think that belief is more than simply affirming a set of doctrines or reciting a creed. So, could this “belief” that we’re supposed to offer Jesus involve entrusting our lives to God’s lead? Is this belief a pledge of allegiance to God’s kingdom – like what we pray each time we recite the Lord’s Prayer, asking that God’s kingdom would come to earth, even as it is present in heaven?
It’s true that John’s version of the gospel can seem mysterious and otherworldly, and it can leave us wondering – how does this affect me?
Well, let’s start with the bread. What is it? Isn’t it the foundation of life? It can take a variety of forms, depending on culture. It may take the form of a bowl of rice or a tortilla, San Francisco sourdough or marble rye, Naan or pita bread. But whatever form it takes, we can’t live without food.
If bread is the foundation of life, what does it mean for Jesus to be the bread from heaven?
Could it be that when Jesus invites them to receive him as the bread of life, or the bread of heaven, he’s talking about the way in which we orient our lives? What’s important to your life? How do you set your priorities? How do you decide what your going to do in life? And related to all of these questions is another one – where does Jesus fit into your life?
As you may know, I recently went to California for training in the principles and practices of faith-based community organizing. That’s why Alex preached last Sunday. What I learned is related to what we’ve been doing in our “listening campaign.” It’s also related to what we’ll be doing this afternoon at Serenity Christian Church. One of the principles that we learned is that community organizing must be centered in values not just issues. This means that our faith offers a moral compass that governs the way we interact with the economic and political realms and the way we make decisions in daily life. This includes pretty much everything we do in life – including the way vote.
Speaking of voting, have you thought about the election on Tuesday? I’m just going to assume that everyone here who is eligible to vote will be exercising their franchise! And when you get to the polls how are you going to decide how to vote on candidates and issues that range from congressional candidates to funding the DIA. As disciples of Jesus, how should we vote? What is the moral compass that Jesus sets before us as we go to the polls? But it’s not just how we vote.
When you go to the mountain you start to think about things, and I began to think about homelessness. I thought about our work with SOS, which we take great pride in – don’t we? But, as important as this outreach effort is, have you thought about how there could be homeless people and also thousands of vacant properties in our community? Why is this? I don’t have an answer or a solution, but I think that as important as SOS is, it’s sort of a band aid that we place on a really big wound.
Maybe you have some thoughts. One of the issues we’ll lift up this afternoon is the constant threat of foreclosure. Maybe we could encourage banks and government leaders to find new ways to help people stay in their homes. And maybe we could help these same entities create opportunities that would allow the homeless to take on these vacant properties, and with a bit of help, turn them into livable properties – a sort of homestead act for the 21st century. Now, this is just an idea that’s been floating around my head, but could it be a solution to important problems facing the community/
So, how does receiving Jesus as the bread of life sent from heaven make a difference in your life?
If, receiving Jesus as the bread of life means being sustained in life by our relationship with God through Jesus, then doesn’t this mean that we must give our complete allegiance to God? And isn’t this what we’re doing each Sunday when we recite the Lord’s Prayer?
Of course, giving our allegiance to Jesus isn’t easy. Like the folks who went looking for Jesus, sometimes we like to dictate the terms of our relationship with God. Like them, we demand signs. But as Fred Craddock reminds us:
It is not likely that this, or any audience, can insist upon being in control of their receiving and of their believing and still be open to a message of the bread that is God's gift from heaven. [Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B, (Valley Forge, PA: TPI, 1993), 367.]
Of course, we can try. Sociologist Clark Roof wrote about the appeal of faith groups that focus on personal needs, such as "psychological categories like `self', `fulfillment', `individuality', `journey', `walk', and `growth.'” [Wade Clark Roof, The Spiritual Marketplace, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 129.]
There is value in such ideas, but if our focus is on self-fulfilment, how do we hear the call to mission? And isn’t that what Jesus is speaking of here? Isn’t he calling on us to orient our lives on him so that we can live into God’s kingdom that God is establishing here on earth?
And as we gather at the Lord’s Table, we’ll share in the bread and the cup, symbols of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, as well as signs of his presence with us as the Bread of Life that will sustain us for eternity. Although we can’t say specifically how Jesus is present in this meal, can we not affirm that Jesus is present with us and not only with us here at this table, but present throughout creation, bringing into existence God’s reign? They asked, and we ask, for a sign. Jesus offered them and us, his own life as a sign of God’s presence in the world. How do we know what is good and what is right? Jesus says to us – look to me and you will know. In doing this, he invites us to make him the defining center of our lives. So, are you ready to receive this bread from heaven?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
August 5, 2012
11th Sunday after Pentecost