A Sermon on “The Bread of Life”

“So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ Jesus 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. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” – John 6:24-35

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

An author by the name of David Foster Wallace wrote an essay a few years ago that mused on the presidential election in 2000. In this essay, he wondered why so many voters, especially in the younger generations, seemed so disinterested in politics. He concluded that, more than anything else, the younger generation found politics disheartening and frankly, were quite bored by it. They were put off by talking heads that seemed to say nothing of great significance. They were cynical about people who talked about “serving a higher cause”, but who appeared to only be in it for themselves. Above all, they were disappointed, because where they were looking for genuine leaders; all they found were power-hungry opportunists.

Wallace then describes what he sees as authentic leadership:

A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do, but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. … Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please…. In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own. [Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Pg. 224-225]

This is the kind of leader that we hear about in the letter to the Ephesians today. It’s the kind of leader the early church needed – someone who can motivate the earliest followers of Jesus “to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” By ourselves, we simply cannot do the things that God calls us to do. By ourselves we’re selfish, stubborn, and blind. But when we follow God’s call, incredible things can happen.

That’s where our writer of Ephesians meets today’s gospel text from John. We pick up where we left off last week in John. Jesus and his disciples have just fed the 5,000. Jesus has just walked on water and gotten their boat to the other side. The crowds were confused about where Jesus had gone so they started off to hunt him down and they find him. Jesus starts in on them right away. I can imagine the crowds were pretty confused. They ask him, “When did you get here?” He answers them by ripping into them. He says you didn’t come here because you saw the meaning behind what just happened back there. You’re here because you got enough to eat back there and you’ve come back wanting more. He essentially accuses the crowds of using Jesus as a means of getting food, while completely missing the deeper meaning behind the things he does.

We do this too, don’t we? We come to Jesus when we need something from him. We feel the need to escape our present pain or suffering – whether that’s a broken relationship, a lost job, a sick loved one – so we come to church. If we’re not careful, the church can become like a painkiller. When we gather together as a community, we sing songs, we hear readings, we experience communion, and that can leave us feeling pretty good. It can give us that escape. It makes us feel good for a while, but then we are forced to again face that downward spiral of broken relationships, lost jobs, and sick loved ones. We have to come back to church and get that relief again.

That’s what these people who come to Jesus are looking for. Jesus gave them relief from their hunger, and so they’re back for more. Jesus is well aware of this and says,

“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures, which the Son of Man will give you…. Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Now if we would’ve been reading John’s gospel straight through, we would start to see some patterns, particularly with the Samaritan woman at the well a mere two chapters previous to this. Tell me if this sounds familiar. Jesus says to the woman,

‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

Then what comes next? … The woman says to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

Flash forward back to John 6, our Gospel for today. These men come looking for bread that spoils. They look to fill a hunger that will keep coming back. Jesus tells them of a bread which comes from heaven and gives life to the world. And what is their response? “Sir, give us this bread always.”

“Sir, give me this water.”
“Sir, give us this bread always.”

When we were in New Orleans a couple weeks back, one of our dome speakers spoke to us about bread and water. His name is Shane Claiborne and he talked to us about his work in Philadelphia with his activism and work with the homeless population. The city had passed an ordinance outlawing the feeding of homeless people in public spaces.

So one night, Shane and his friends went down to the park with bread and wine. Surely the officers wouldn’t arrest them for communing people in a public park. The cops stayed back. Soon enough people got the idea and started to add on to the communion line. The people who were living in the park could come through the line and get bread and wine, the some pizza, a sandwich, some fruit, a bottle of water and other food. Bread and wine have a way of turning into more food than we could ever imagine.

It’s in this bread and wine: Two of the most ordinary substances in the world, yet when they come from Jesus, they are sustaining and give us life. Why? Because Jesus says in the following verse, “I AM the bread of life.”

Wow. What happens here is that Jesus says that he, in himself, his very own body is the only bread that will last forever and does not spoil. It’s in these incredibly ordinary things – bread, water, and wine – that Jesus pulls back the curtain a little bit to reveal who God is for us.

Jesus is the bread of life whose life ends, ultimately, so that ours may begin.

But what do we do with that life? I think that’s where the writer of Ephesians comes back around. We are nourished and sustained by the bread of life, the very body of Jesus, so that we may go out into the world emboldened to speak out of our own brokenness, suffering, and need for daily bread so that others may experience the living water and the bread of life.

And this is a journey. There are some days we’re better at this than others. I think of the John Mayer song “In Repair”. The refrain of this song proclaims, “I’m in repair, I’m not together but I’m getting there.” Those words describe us all. None of us has it completely together all of the time. None of us go through our life unflawed and whole. But by the grace of God we are given the bread of life to enable us to put one foot in front of the other as we go out into the world to spread God’s mercy and hope. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

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No One Man Should Have All That Power: A Sermon on Mark 6

 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some weresaying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’

 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.  – Mark 6:14-29

Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Some days are just jaw-dropping, earth-shaking shockers. Pure disasters. There are some days that, no matter how you shake it, it’s just a bombshell. The morning of September 11th is one of those days. Anyone who watched the news that morning, and in the days to follow, was simply stunned.  September 11th, 2001 is one of those days.

November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. A presidential motorcade was making its way through Dallas, shots were fired, and an American president was dead. A nation was completely numbed. That day was, without a doubt, a disaster.

Somewhere around 29 C.E. in Galilee was another one of these days. John the Baptist was one of the only authentic prophet of God in Israel for around 400 years. Crowds came in from all around to the Jordan River to hear John preach. People revered him. It was an honor to hear his words. But one day, John got caught up in a power struggle between Herod Antipas, who was the ruler of Palestine at the time. And his brother Herod Philip. This can get pretty confusing. You see, Herod was a family name. So when we say Herod, we’re actually talking about a whole group of people. So Antipas was the ruler of Palestine at this time in Mark. On his way to Rome, in 29 C.E., he visited his brother Philip and almost immediately falls in love with Philip’s wife, Herodias – who also happened to be Antipas’ niece. Because they are related by blood, Antipas knows that if he marries Herodias, he’ll have a firmer grip on the throne – he’ll have the upper hand in the power struggle between him and his brothers for power in the Roman Empire – anything for a little more power, right?

So Antipas marries Herodias – after he divorces his first wife, Phasaelis mind you. Here’s where John the Baptist comes in. He proclaims that the marriage that had just taken place between Antipas and Herodias was incestuous and wrong. John’s criticism, since he was so well-liked and revered in this area, was a political liability. These words and charges were dangerous to both Antipas and Herodias. Antipas feared John because he was a threat to the power structures, but also, as it turns out, Antipas thinks of him as holy and righteous. It turns out, he actually might like listening to John as well.

Herodias, however, is having none of it. She doesn’t like John. She doesn’t fear John. John pisses her off. Any chance for Herodias to express her displeasure and act on it arises when Antipas throws a banquet for many of the local leaders. Herodias’ daughter (also named Herodias – like I said, it gets confusing) dances for the men in the room and completely entrances her stepfather. Antipas, caught up in a moment of drunken excitement promises to give her anything she wants, up to half of his kingdom. When Herodias’ daughter comes to her and asks for her advice in this situation, Herodias strikes. “Ask for John’s head on a platter.”

Now you have to remember the scene here. Herod is in the company of prominent locals and VIPs of the community, and certainly can’t go back on something he promised his stepdaughter after she had just wowed all of them with her dancing. He can’t be made to look weak or timid. He can’t look anything other than completely in control of the situation. So he consents. And we know what happens after that.

It can be tempting to look for the “moral of the story” in our Bible passages, but it rarely satisfies what we’re looking for. The Bible wasn’t written as a behavior manual for little children, or as a way to help you make everyday a Friday. It’s a book that, if nothing else, tells us the truth about ourselves and about the world we live in. It tells us about our humanity in all of its bruises and flaws. It tells us the truth of our brokenness, shame, and sin. But it also tells us the greater truth that God’s love breaks through our sin to redeem us and save us, even if it’s from ourselves.

If you really want to find a moral in this story, it’s probably something like this:

The people who are in power are used to getting exactly what they want. They are willing to do anything to hold tight to what they have or to get more. And those who speak out or stand up against them proclaiming that life doesn’t have to be that way or that things can be different are usually trampled.

That’s what happens to John. And as we continue through Mark’s gospel, we’ll see that when Jesus clashes with authority, authority wins – for a short time.

This isn’t much of a moral. It’s pretty depressing. It doesn’t offer us a lot of hope. But what gives us hope is that this is only the 6th chapter of Mark. This is the middle of the story, not the end. But what this story does is points us to the end of Mark’s story, where another truth-teller is silenced by the authority of the day.

When Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, you can almost hear echoes of Herod’s experience with John the Baptist – “I don’t want any part of this.” He knows what’s involved with attempting to silence truth tellers. Authority wins for the time being, but it falls short in the end.

Martin Luther King once said,

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

He’s another story of what happens when power silences truth-tellers. This story of Herod and John sits in the middle of Mark’s arc. But it’s not the end. It bends back toward the story of Jesus on the cross and the ultimate shock and awe of the empty tomb.

Like this story, we’re currently living in the middle – the time in between. In a lot of our lives, power still trumps justice. In two days, Pastor Megan and I are taking 8 of our youth down to New Orleans for the ELCA Youth Gathering. We could probably ask some of the people we meet down there about what happens when power trumps justice.

Martin Luther writes that a theologian of glory calls good evil, and evil good. But a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. The beheading of John the Baptist invites us into our call to be honest – to call a thing what it is. It invites us into our call to speak the truth. Even when that truth can be hazardous to our health. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

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