Dear Working Preacher,
One of the most pervasive and influential aspects of our common church life today is, I believe, the relative unfamiliarity of our people with the biblical stories. Having not grown up in a culture that referenced the biblical stories with any regularity in literature, television, and the classroom (as did the culture of our grandparents), most of our people are not nearly as familiar with the plotline, important scenes, and characters of the Bible as they are with those of How I Met Your Mother, the Twilight or Harry Potter series, Mad Men, or America’s Got Talent. For this reason, we don’t reference biblical stories to help us make sense of our lives and, increasingly, what goes on in church itself — which is all about the biblical story — makes less and less sense.
To remedy that, many of us have been looking to extended sermon series to teach and share these fabulous stories. One approach to that is the narrative lectionary featured on this website, which invites, in a sense, a year-long sermon series that takes people on an extended tour of the Bible. Another approach is a more limited sermon series of four to five weeks. If you’re inclined toward this latter option, the Revised Common Lectionary itself offers two possibilities this summer. In the semi-continuous Old Testament readings over the next several weeks, we are invited into the stories of David and Solomon. You may have already started on this road and have the next three weeks or more to follow the tragedy of David’s fall and the start of Solomon’s reign. If you are inclined to explore this option, I’d highly recommend the excellent commentaries that Robert Hoch and Cameron Howard offer. They help make the familiar and favorite biblical characters far more three-dimensional and interesting and, as we enter into a highly charged political season, bring to the fore issues of political power and faith.
The other possibility for a sermon series is on the sixth chapter of John that we will read together over the next five weeks. I will in this week’s letter offer a brief overview of the five lections, closing each with a particular question that provides a possibility for moving from the text to the sermon. (If you want to send the text, commentary, and questions to your folks ahead of time to prime their reflection, you’re more than welcome to.)
Two quick notes: 1) This single letter will be the only one I for of August (I’ll be traveling much of the month and have limited access to the internet), so I’ll leave it up all month. 2) I’ll give the Lord’s Supper particular attention the week of Pentecost 12, but if you want to approach all five weeks as a chance for an extended meditation on the Lord’s Supper, I’d invite you to read Rolf Svanoe’s fine essay on the subject.
Pentecost 9 — July 29 — John 6:1-21
The Fourth Gospel, as we know, has a complicated relationship to its Synoptic “cousins” — often sharing common stories but doing uncommon things with them. Here, at the beginning the sixth chapter, we get something of a “Synoptic mash-up” as two stories that may sounds familiar to us and our people — the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water — appear in different contexts. I’ll give particular attention to the feeding, as it sets up much of what is to come in the chapter.
The presentation of this scene is remarkably similar to that found in the Synoptics except that John deliberately calls what Jesus does a “sign.” That is, the real import of Jesus’ activity isn’t simply to feed those who are hungry but to reveal something vital about Jesus and, in turn, about God. In this case, Jesus is the One who can satisfy every human need.
But signs are tricky and can easily be misinterpreted. In this case, and as we’ll see more clearly going forward, the food Jesus offers not only satisfies material, physical needs but also spiritual ones. And so today, for instance, the witnesses to Jesus fail to perceive its spiritual significance. What they want from Jesus is more of the things he has offered. More food in this sixth chapter, but it could just as easily have been more wine (John 2) or more healings (John 5). And so they want to come and make him their king. And who can blame them? At this point, Jesus has supplied all their material needs and, make no mistake, material needs are important. But this is not what Jesus came to do, and the glory he will reveal is not the glory of another political regime, not even the most effective and benevolent political regime the world has ever seen. Rather, Jesus has come to reveal that God’s essential character is loving (John 3) and God’s essential desire is to be accessible and available to the people of God (John 1 and 2). It may not be what we want — so convinced are we that material possessions will make us happy — but it is what we need.
Q: If you were to pay attention to your prayers, for which kind of blessings do you most often pray, material or spiritual? (As you answer this, try not to assign a value judgment to your answer, just be honest and reflect on why this might be the case.)
Pentecost 10 — August 5 — John 6:24-35
Confusion seems to abound in this passage. Except that in John confusion is as much a literary device as is symbolism. Each point of confusion, that is, offers Jesus a chance to redirect his audience to what is more important. First, the crowds want to know how he and the disciples got around the shore. Jesus accuses them of just wanting to eat again when they should be working for imperishable food. Implication: the spiritual reality of what happened is more important than the earthly one.
Then they want to know what kind of work they should be doing that would be pleasing to God and, presumably, grant imperishable food. Jesus answers that the only work that matters is believing in the one God sent. Implication: according to John’s Jesus, it all comes down to this — do you believe Jesus is the One who reveals God uniquely and fully?
The people then ask for a sign like Moses did by providing the ancient Israelites with manna (which is kind of interesting, since Jesus has just fed 5000 of them!). Jesus responds that it wasn’t Moses who provided manna but God. Implication: you do not need and should not look for an intermediary, as God will provide bread from heaven for God’s people directly.
Finally, the people ask for, even demand, this bread, and Jesus responds that he is the bread. Implication: Jesus reveals God’s character and provides direct access to relationship with God, something formerly mediated by covenant, law, or leader but now is directly accessible through him.
Throughout, this scene provides something of a halting but progressive disclosure that in Jesus God is revealing God’s own self most clearly and fully so that all people will have access to God or, to hearken back to John 1, so that all people can become “children of God” (1:12).
Q: What are the kinds of things do we look to, hoping they will mediate God’s presence? Church, prayer, sacraments, relationships? When are these most effective? When do they disappoint?
Pentecost 11 — August 12 — John 6:35, 41-51
At this point in the story, the conversation is now revealed to be (or has turned) more combative. It is no longer “the crowds” but “the Jews” who are conversing with Jesus and they are unhappy with what he is saying. In another Synoptic “mash-up,” lines usually associated with Jesus rejection at Nazareth come into play as Jesus’ opponents cannot accept what he said based on the fact that they know his parents. Jesus is too ordinary, in other words, to be the bearer of God’s living bread, let alone to be it himself. His interlocutors, in other words, do not believe him, which is significant given that Jesus has just defined the only work that matters as, in fact, believing in him.
Jesus explains this disbelief with the pronouncement that no one can come to him apart from the will and activity of the Father. God is the one who pulls us close to Jesus or, apparently, pushes us away. This outcome has cosmic significance, as Jesus offers bread that does not feed for a day or even a season but satisfies unto eternal life. More than that, Jesus doesn’t just give heavenly bread; he is the heavenly bread — that is, his very flesh and blood mediates the living presence of God. He is, as John’s larger theological narrative makes clear, the new Passover lamb. (And it is significant to recall that this whole exchange takes place during Passover.)
It is not what his listeners expect and will threaten all the conceptual categories with which they will operate. Indeed, it is not what anyone expects and if we are not similarly surprised we are probably not paying attention. No wonder we confess that it is only by God’s grace that we can believe it.
Q: Do we find it a little disturbing, or even threatening, that our faith — being drawn to Jesus — is ultimately up to God? Or we do find that a promise and comfort? Why?
Pentecost 12 — John 6:51-58 — August 19
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the flesh I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” This is where, shall we say, things get interesting. Truth be told, if our people are listening closely, they will very likely have a reaction not that different from “the Jews.” Slight bewilderment about how this can be, at best, or out and out skepticism, even revulsion, at worst. We are to eat your flesh, Jesus? Yuck.
Again, a Synoptic-Johannine mash-up is in front of us, as the connection between this passage and the Synoptic version of the Last Supper feels palpable. So why not consider what Jesus means — in either Synoptic or Johannine tradition — that we eat his flesh and drink his blood? While one could enter into this conversation by explaining one’s theological heritage — Memorial Feast or Real Presence or Transubstantiation, depending upon your tradition — I don’t think you necessarily have to get quite that technical. Why not, instead, meditate briefly on our relationship to food. When we eat food it courses through our body as it is digested, bringing nourishment. It in this way becomes, quite literally, a part of us, even as we also say, “you are what you eat.” Jesus invites us in this passage, I think, into as intimate a relation and communion with him as we can imagine, perhaps a communion and relationship that is even closer than we want!
Q: Could Jesus really mean this — that the life and presence he bears should stick in our bellies, course through our bodies, and shape who and what we are? How does this influence how we think of Holy Communion?
Pentecost 13 — John 6:60-69 — August 26
By the time Jesus is done his lengthy sermon, it’s not just “the crowds” in general or “the Jews” in particular who are grumbling, but even his own followers. “Is this not a hard saying?” they ask. Yes, indeed it is; more than that, at this point in the story Jesus’ pronouncements and promises call for a decision: Whether you fully understand it or not, can you accept that Jesus is the one through whom God’s character, will, and disposition is most fully revealed. Except that it’s often not simply not understanding but rather understanding all too well that Jesus will mediate through his own body and blood the grace upon grace that has been promised since the outset of the Gospel. This seems, when taken literally, ridiculous, yet it is precisely what Jesus says and that reality and offense will only grow, as the ascension Jesus speaks of will occur when he is place onto a cross.
Are we able to accept this? Can we confess it? Peter responds, almost in desperation, as the Evangelist would have us respond: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” If that at times feels difficult to say, or if at times it is easy to say but later proves hard to live, take heart — these words are said by Peter who denies him in the presence of other disciples who remained with Jesus in this scene yet deserted him at the cross. Indeed, we can come to Jesus only through the power of God. Or, to paraphrase Martin Luther’s explanation of the third article of the creed: “I believe I cannot believe — thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Q: If Jesus surprised his followers by revealing the grace and mercy of God in his own body, suffering, and death, should we be looking for God to show up today where we least expect God to be? Where might those places be?
Let’s face it, Working Preacher, the passages we have read and preached over the last five weeks have not been easy ones. But they are important, as through them God promises to come to real flesh and blood people in the real flesh and blood of God’s Son present in the real bread and wine of communion. Moreover, we are trained in these passages to expect God where we least expect God to be — in the cross revealed in glory; in our lives, hurts, and disappointments revealed in love. Thanks be to God, Working Preacher, not only for this promise but for your commitment to proclaim it.
Yours in Christ,