Monday, November 9, 2009

[sermon] Bread of Life (no snazzy title)

Preached at Abiding Peace Lutheran Church, 2009-08-02

Lectionary texts:
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the thoughts and meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

How do we talk about signs? How do we talk about sacraments? I could get out the whiteboard from the hallway and write, very clearly, "God!" "Jesus!" "Body of Christ!" "Bread of Life!" "Holy Communion!" "Church!" And that would look very pretty, but I wouldn't know what connecting symbols to put between them. An equals sign? Church=Jesus? Well, no. I took logic in college; I could put "logically equivalent," but no, that sounds worse. God is logically equivalent to the bread of life? That's not the kind of concept that describes our living, loving, life-giving God. Another logic class term: maybe, Holy Communion implies the Body of Christ.

I like that better. I like that better because it suggests the inequality between these two parts of the sign. The arrow points in one direction. Holy Communion implies the Body of Christ, but "Body of Christ," doesn't necessarily imply "Holy Communion." It is true to say that Jesus is a sacrament of God, that Jesus revealed God to us, but it would be incomplete to the point of untruthfulness to say "Jesus is God." Jesus is more than a messenger of God, more than a prophet of God, more than a sign-post saying "God is that way," -- but Jesus is also not all that we know of God. He was and is the fullest and truest revelation we have of God, but we also know God in thousands of other small-s sacraments, other words, other objects, other events, other people, that embody God and point beyond themselves to the fullness of God's self.

A sacrament is not a symbol or a metaphor or an analogy or an allegory -- it is a special kind of sign, one that we understand through our experience of it. I'm going to talk about the Bread of Life, but nothing I say will be as true a description of the Bread of Life as the act of sharing it during our communion service.

So a sacrament is a sign, and the Bread of Life is an especially potent sign for us because it is central to our life as a church. It is a sign that points in multiple directions, past and future, Godwards and us-wards, a sign that reminds us of the many meals we've shared before, the countless times that God has shared bread with God's people, the ultimate sharing that is the Body of Christ -- and it points us towards deeper truths about God's generosity and the life-giving and life-sustaining power of God's love.

The bread we share is the bread of life.

This [frosted animal crackers] is the BREAD OF LIFE. This is actually manna, and I know it doesn't look like "a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground," but when Pastor Donna and I taught our Vacation Bible School kids the story of the Exodus, we told them that this was manna, and Pastor Donna wouldn't lie, so I give you this manna, direct from God to Pastor Donna to me to you, the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

We have to start with the bread. We have to start with the physical, tangible, edible bread that God gives us to eat. We have to start with the physical abundance in the world, enough food for everyone to be satisfied. We have to start with the story we read last week, the feeding of the multitude with five loaves and two fish; we have to start with people wandering in the desert, desperately starving for food.

We have to begin in and return to the desert because we need to eat, every day, to survive as the strong and healthy creatures that God wants us to be. We can't collect manna today and expect to be fed for a lifetime; we'll need to eat again tomorrow, and the next day. We will always be dependent on God for our physical survival and we will always need the nourishment of the Bread of Life to go on living.

We need to return to the desert because that's where we began. We need to return to the desert and experience anew, every day, the bounty of God's larder. The food we eat -- the carbs and fats and proteins that we put into our mouths -- is the Bread. Of. Life.

Jesus knew this. He knew this when he told some of the multitude, "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."

You know what, Jesus? It's hard to see signs when you're starving! It's hard to say a grace before meals when you desperately want to dig in, and it's hard to experience bread as a symbol of anything but bread when you don't know where your next loaf will come from.

But most of us in this room do know where our next meal is coming from, and we know something else, besides. We know what food the Son of Man will give us; we know where this story is going and what road Jesus is on. We know that, sooner or later, we'll come to the upper room and share a Passover meal with Jesus, and we know, because we've read ahead in the bulletin, that this matzoh? [raise it up before the congregation] became THE BREAD LIFE for Jesus' disciples. We know that we will share bread that is Christ's own body, that God doesn't stop at giving us a meal -- God gives us God's Own Self to eat.

There is no point at which the Bread of Life stops being bread. There is no point at which communion bread stops being physically nourishing, at which matzoh becomes dust in our mouths, at which we are eating a spiritual meal without a physical component.

I am a theologian by training and temperament and this is the point where I desperately want to explain, where I want to say "transubstantiation" and "consubstantiation" and "sacramental union" and unpack what Martin Luther meant when he said that Christ is "with, in, and under" the elements of communion.

[deep sigh]

But that would be counterproductive.

Sacraments aren't the kind of thing you explain; they are the kind of thing you experience. What I know about the Bread of Life doesn't come from a year and a half of seminary; it comes from twenty years of sharing that bread in communities like this one with families of faith like you.

In a few minutes, we will all remember together what Jesus told his disciples on the night he was betrayed; we will all say together the words of Institution and remember that Christ told us that this bread is His Body. The Passover feast that Jesus shared that night is forever a sign for us -- a powerful sign, a life-changing sign -- that God gave God's Son to save, sustain, and nourish the world for the remainder of time.

Remembering that meal also reminds us that God gives us more than matzoh and bitter herbs, the stuff of survival but not the stuff of thriving. No, God provides us the milk and honey of abundant life, and that provision, too, comes in the Body of Christ. It comes in the reminder that Jesus shared table fellowship with sinners and tax collectors, that Jesus shared a final meal and his very body with deserters and betrayers. Jesus shared fellowship, joy and laughter, jokes and stories, hard work and long, lonnnng walks with dear friends, and as we share His Body, the Bread of Life, we are invited -- no -- welcomed -- no... enticed, seduced, lured into abundant life.

"Eat your fill!" Jesus says. "There is food for all in the Kingdom. But don't be satisfied with fast food and hurried lives, with desperation, with always longing for richer foods or larger houses, for things that you can't have."

God provides the whole world with the bread of life, and all creation lives on this bread. I met a family of mold the other day that is living off bread that my partner and I left too long on the kitchen counter, and the mold seems completely satisfied with its subsistence-level existence on our -- or rather, God's -- bread.

But I think God wants something more for us.

In fact I know that God wants something more for us, because more is given in the feast we are about to share.

As we share Christ's body, we are invited to become a part of It. As we consume Christ's body and blood, we are consumed by the overwhelming love of God +, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the communion and fellowship of the Holy Spirit. We [arms wide] are the BREAD OF LIFE.

As we read in Ephesians, we are the Body of Christ "joined and knit together by every ligament.. building ourselves up in love."

When we bless the elements, we will transform them, and they will be a sacrament for us of Christ's body. And when we share these elements, they will transform us, and we will become a sacrament of Christ's body, called to be the bread of life for the whole world.

We will be reminded that we are part of the communion of saints, living and dead, sure in the knowledge that this is the bread of life, the bread of abundant life, and the bread of eternal life. We will be be joined with God's children in other churches and in other cities and on other continents, and we will be marked with God's own seal, as Jesus was, to be the bread of life for the world.

God has done the difficult part; God has provided a bountiful harvest, food enough and wealth enough to feed the whole world and have twelve baskets -- twelve hundred baskets -- left over. It will be our job to share that food, to distribute it where it's needed most. We'll do this in one way after service, when we share a meal with our homeless friends. We do it in another way when we serve at Shalom House, and when we provide food for Northland Assistance.

But we are not just bread -- we are the bread of abundant life. Once again, God has done the diffi -- the impossible part. Jesus said, "Whoever comes to me will never be hungry." Our call as the church, the body of Christ, the Bread of Life is to make sure that that is true. Our job is to feed the world with our selves, with our bodies, with our lives -- but we have already been transformed by God for this job. We've been prepared and pampered and fed by God, and now? Now we feed our neighbors and welcome our friends and invite the world into the abundance of God's banquet, into the neverending bounty of the bread of life, the body of Christ. Amen

The hymn of the day is #496, "One Bread, One Body"

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