Grace Lutheran Church
Saturday 8/15/15, Sunday 8/16/15
I had to kind of chuckle a little bit when I read through the texts for today. You all lovingly sent me away to seminary so that I could gain some of the wisdom talked about in the lectionary for today. Now I feel like God has called me home to give you a report on how all that wisdom-acquiring is going!
Well, I have been learning a lot. This past summer in particular has been very formative for me. I just finished eleven weeks of CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education. Basically, I interned as a hospital chaplain on the north side of Chicago. I spent a lot of time sitting at the bedsides of cancer patients and palliative care patients and patients entering hospice care. I listened to their stories and their struggles and their fears about dying. I also had several opportunities to provide them with the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Remembering these experiences, it’s very poignant for me to read Jesus’ words about living bread in today’s gospel reading – “This 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.” In the context of the hospital, the “living bread” of the Eucharist was very often juxtaposed with death and dying. In fact, many of the patients to whom I fed the Eucharist have since died. Jesus himself spoke these words about living bread on the eve of his own death. It makes me wonder a lot about this life that Jesus has promised and about this living bread that he tells us to eat.
Jesus gets very graphic in saying that he is the living bread that came down from heaven – he tells us explicitly that we are to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Yikes! With texts like these, it’s no wonder that the early Christian community was often accused of cannibalism! It’s a hard thing to understand. John writes that even the Jews were clueless about what Jesus meant, asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
We know that no one ever literally ate Jesus’ flesh or drank his blood. Even when we come together every week around gifts of bread and wine and recite the same words, “This is my body, broken for you, and my blood, shed for you,” we know we are still eating bread and wine. We believe Christ to be present “in, with, and under” this holy meal, because he promised to be present, but we’re still not totally sure exactly what that means. Jesus promised to give us life in this holy meal, but no one knows quite how. This living bread that we eat is a great mystery of the church.
On the other hand, the scriptures are a little clearer about what the life that Jesus offers us looks like. All of our readings for today paint pictures of our new life in Christ. The New Testament reading from Ephesians invites us to live, “not as unwise people but as wise.” It describes a people singing songs and praises, rejoicing in thanksgiving to God, even in the midst of “evil days.” The author of Psalm 34 urges us to “depart from evil, and do good,” to “seek peace, and pursue it.” And in the reading from Proverbs, we are invited to a feast with Lady Wisdom – a feast that looks a lot like the feast that Jesus invites us to – and we are invited to “lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”
As you probably noticed, these are all pretty Christ-like qualities. In essence, the invitation to feast on living bread is an invitation to live more and more into being like Christ. It’s just like the saying goes: you are what you eat.
But when you really start thinking about the fact that you are what you eat, and then start thinking about eating Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, things get a little bit unnerving. We eat Christ to become more like Christ? That’s kind of a dangerous thing. I mean, do you know what they did to that guy? I don’t want to spoil the ending of the gospel for those of you who haven’t read it yet, but let’s just say that things do not go well for Jesus and the Romans. Becoming more like Jesus, to “abide” in Jesus, as he puts it, is not at all a safe business. Being more like Jesus means that we are often called to do things that we don’t want to do, things that make us feel uncomfortable or unsafe. We are called, as Paul wrote, to die to our old selves in order to live anew in Christ.
As it turns out, there is an awful lot of dying involved in this business of eternal life.
That’s probably why it’s often very tempting to feed ourselves with junk instead of with the bread of life. The author of Ephesians warns us against drunkenness, but there are so many other distractions and addictions besides alcohol that we use to make ourselves go numb. Things like eating junk food or shopping for stuff we don’t need or watching too much TV or even spending hours on facebook. You all know what I’m talking about. It’s much easier to go numb and keep things on an even kilter than to be awake and sensitive to the raw pain and suffering in the world. Because sometimes it is Just. Too. Much. to try to be like Christ in a world that is so very broken. The days are certainly evil when we can look around and see things like families ripped apart by unjust immigration policies, children abused and forced into the sex trade, entire countries devasted by famine and warfare and preventable diseases. It is exhausting to try to “give ourselves away as bread for the hungry” when this world is so full of so many hungry people. I mean, think about what happens to bread when you eat it. It’s broken down and digested until it isn’t bread anymore. So what happens to us when we become living bread for others?
This summer, I had a very powerful experience of being called to be bread for someone else when I really didn’t want to be. I was asked by a hospital staff person to visit a cancer patient who was actively dying. This referral wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. They hoped that I could talk to the patient’s family, who were very resistant to the idea of moving the patient into hospice care, unwilling to accept the fact that she was dying and had very little time left. I gladly agreed to go visit.
However, when I looked over the patient’s chart before visiting her, I began to feel a deep, deep sense of dread. She had been diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, an especially malignant cancer that had metastasized to her liver, which was failing. It was the exact same kind of cancer that killed my mother, over twenty years ago. She was even the same age my mother would have been. I was horrified, nearly paralyzed, by the prospect of visiting with this patient and her family. So I put it off for as long as possible, slowly checking off all the other visits on my list.
When I finally went to visit the patient, she was sitting up in bed, surrounded by her family – her husband, daughter, and son. Her skin was just as yellow and sickly as I remembered my mother’s being. I sat next to her daughter, a young woman probably about my age. She was crying and very upset, already deeply grieving her mother’s imminent death. Her mother, on the other hand, appeared to be completely at peace, and kept urging her daughter to let it all out, and to let her go. I sat with them for a long time.
I really wanted to say something more to the patient’s daughter, to let her know how deeply I empathized with her pain, so I finally told her about the experience of losing my own mother when I was nine. Both the patient and her daughter expressed their sympathy for me, having lost my mother at such a young age. And then, a miraculous thing began to happen. They said to one another, “Well, we’ve gotten to have a lot more than nine years together. We’ve had decades together to make memories, and to enjoy one another!” And they began to reminisce about all the wonderful years that they had had.
The very next day, the patient moved into hospice care, and less than a week later, she was gone. But in those last few days, there was life. Precious and abundant life. It was incredible to be part of it. And it changed me. In the encounter with that family – and in so many others this summer – I offered myself to them as living bread, and I was consumed, and forever changed.
I think that we are often afraid to give ourselves to these experiences – to truly live like Christ and to try to give ourselves away as bread for others – because we are afraid that we will be consumed. We are afraid that we will be burned up and that there will be nothing left. I especially think that we, as the body of the church, have a tendency to live in this fear. We are afraid of not being enough, or of not having enough to go around. I’m sure that any one of you who’s ever sat in on a budget meeting will understand. “We barely have enough to keep ourselves going!” we say. “How can we possibly live any further into our calling to be like Christ? How can we be in ministry with all the needy people in our community? There simply aren’t enough people or resources or money to go around.”
This is why it is so brilliant that John presents our gospel passage for today right after he tells us the story of the feeding of the 5000! Suddenly, we can hear our own words in the words of the disciples: “Jesus, look at all of these hungry people! Where in the world are we going to get enough food to feed all of them? All we’ve got is this dinky little basket with five loaves of bread and two fish. All we’ve got is this really tight church budget. That’s not even enough to feed ourselves!”
And what does Jesus do? He calmly breaks the bread, and he gives it to them to distribute. Not once does he tell them, “Oh, don’t worry, I’m going to perform a miracle and magically multiply the bread and fish until there’s enough.” No. The disciples simply act on faith and hand out the bread. And in that action, the miracle begins to happen. There is enough for everyone to eat, with twelve baskets left over. And it’s worth noting that that bread and fish didn’t multiply itself just sitting there in the basket. It was when the disciples began to give the bread away that they began to receive more than they could ever have imagined.
That’s the point of the feeding of the 5000. And that’s the reason that these two stories are told together. Yes, we are called to eat the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. We are called to eat the living bread from heaven that will make us die to ourselves in order to live anew in Christ. We are called to be that living bread, to be broken and offered to a hungry world. BUT, we are also promised that there will be more than enough of that living bread to go around. In Jesus, we see that our God is a God of abundance and of abundant life. Our God is an almost absurdly generous God, who promises us eternal life, and who feeds us with everything we need in order to share that life with the world.
We don’t have to be afraid. God in Jesus reassures us that there is more than enough for everyone. So we can be bold and act in the faith that it is so. We don’t have to understand how it works. We just have to come to the table, and eat. Amen.