11 Pentecost, Proper 14 – August 9, 2015
John 6:35, 41-51
Once again I wonder about that crowd who follows Jesus speaking for us, today. St. John narrates that these people who have followed Jesus, regarded him as a teacher, and witnessed his miracles, also know him as one of their own. They knew his parents and his brothers and sisters, they watched him play and learn his trade, grow up and eventually leave home. In other words, they know him, just like they know all the kids from their old neighborhood. And for this reason, you see – because he is just like them, because he is common –he can’t be all that special, and he certainly can’t be the one God sent for redemption.
And so, once again, I wonder if that the crowd speaks for us. For when I am in need or distress, when I am hurt or afraid, I want to see a God who shows in strength and through miracle, I want to call upon a God who answers clearly and quickly, and I want to rely on a God who is there, really there, when you need God.
Little wonder, then, that the people in the crowd – and perhaps we – are put off, offended, angered even, by Jesus’ suggestion that he, a man just as they are, is the answer to their deepest longings and greatest needs.
And why not? Think of the audacious claim that Jesus is making. Who ever heard of a God having anything to do with the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane, the dirty? Gods are made for greatness, not grime; they supposed to reside up in the clouds, not down here with the commoners. I mean, who ever heard of a God who is willing to suffer the pains and problems, the indecencies and embarrassments of human life? It’s down right laughable. No wonder the crowd grumbles against Jesus’ words, for such words seem to make fun of their understanding of God’s majesty and, even worse, to mock their own deep need for a God who transcends the very life which is causing them so much difficulty.
No wonder they’re upset. They know, first-hand, of their own flaws and shortcomings, of their own faithlessness and failures. They know of their doubts and fears, too, of their betrayals and broken promises, their petty grudges and foolish prejudices. They know all the shame and disappointment and regret which each person carries around on his or her back like a snail carries its shell. And so if Jesus is really like they are, then they are doomed. For how can someone who is like them save. How, even, can one like them be saved? And so they grumble because they are angry, yes, but even more because they are afraid, afraid that, in the end, they’re really not worth saving.
Are we all that different? I don’t think I am. For rarely does a day go by that I don’t think of just how fragile is the foundation upon which we base our faith. Think about the bread and wine of communion – these aren’t special. They’re ordinary, common, mundane; hardly worthy of God’s attention, let alone God’s use. And yet…. And yet we are bold enough, audacious enough, perhaps even foolish enough, to confess that God does use such ordinary things, such common elements, to achieve God’s will and to bring to the world God’s salvation.
How? Why? We might well ask. Because of this very one, Jesus, who was common, ordinary, mortal like you and me, and yet who was also uncommon, divine, the very Son of God. This is the claim Jesus makes in today’s gospel reading, the claim which offended the crowd who followed him then, the claim which still offends any who take it seriously today. For where we expect God to come in might, God comes in weakness; where we look for God to come in power, God comes in vulnerability; and when we seek God in justice and righteousness – which is, after all, what we all expect from a God – we find God (or rather are found by God!) in forgiveness and mercy.
This is the claim and promise Jesus makes today: that God became incarnate; that is, became carnal, took on flesh, became just like us, so that God might save us and all people who come to faith by God’s word!
The carnal God; the God who does not despise the ordinary and common but who seeks such out by which to achieve God’s will: this is the promise that rests behind the sacraments. For as God does not despise water or bread, such ordinary, common things, so we also know that God does not despise or abandon us, who are similarly such ordinary and common people. And so in the sacraments we find God’s promise to take hold of us and make us God’s own, to remain with us and to never let us go.
But we also find in the sacraments another promise which God makes to us. It is the promise not only to redeem us, but also to use us – to make use of our skills and talents, inadequate or insufficient though they may seem, to continue God’s work of creating, redeeming, and sustaining all that is. And that, also, is an incredible promise.
Over the years, I’ve wondered whether, after praying with someone in the hospital, if they were disappointed when I gave God thanks for the machines and instruments to which they or their loved one is attached, for the pharmaceutical companies which make the drugs and for the trucks which deliver them, for the people who keep the hospital clean as well as for the nurses and doctors who attend to them. I wonder, at times, if they would rather have me pray simply for healing, or for a miracle, or for something more dramatic.
And yet I do find it so very dramatic, surprising, and encouraging that God would work through technology and instruments, through bottom-line corporations and imperfect labor unions, through ordinary, human, doctors and nurses with short tempers or poor bed-side manners. Just as I find it amazing and miraculous that God works through flawed pastors, jaded teachers, worn-out secretaries, over-worked government officials, exhausted parents, and the like – that God would choose these and so many other unlikely candidates through whom to work, even when they don’t suspect it.
And yet this promise, too, we find in the sacraments. For just as surely as God uses ordinary bread and wine to bring to us God’s saving word, so does God also use each of us to accomplish God’s will and work in God’s world.
At the Communion Table God speaks to us clearly, as God’s promise of forgiveness and acceptance, of wholeness and of life, is given to each of us in a form we not only can hear, but also see, taste, touch, and feel. And so the sacraments bid us to raise our eyes from the confusion and ambiguity of life for a moment, so that we may receive God’s audacious and faith-provoking promises and thereby return to our lives in this confusing world with courage and hope.
Receive God’s sacraments and be touched by God’s presence. Come with your hearts and minds, with hands and mouths and bodies, to receive the incarnate God, the God who took – and still takes – physical form for us. Come and bring all your ordinary skills and extraordinary hopes and fears. Come to receive God’s promise to use all that you have and are for God’s glory. Come and then go. Go from worship to lives which are full of God’s love and directed to God’s purpose in the world. Come to this service of worship and then leave for service in God’s world. That is our call. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” Amen.