Saturday, August 22, 2015

Becoming What We Eat

Installation of Pr. Kayla Billings
Glyndon Lutheran Church, Glyndon, MN
Pentecost 13/August 23, 2015
John 6:56-69

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Well, there’s no doubt about it:  the silly season has come upon us.   Dozens of candidates for president have emerged, descending on places like the Iowa State Fair last weekend, to make their case with the voters as they attempt to break out of the pack.

The silly season (which now in America begins at least two years before each presidential election)…the silly season  is a great thing for pollsters--forecasters who make their living counting noses….helping candidates stay on top of their “numbers”….assisting them in fine-tuning their messages to appeal to the segments of the electorate each one of them has targeted.

Pollsters help political candidates know which way the political winds are blowing, so they can craft their message in such a way that voters hear what they want to hear from their candidate of choice.

If there had been pollsters following Jesus here in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, I envision them steeling themselves to deliver nothing but bad news to Jesus:   “We regret to inform you, sir, that your approval rating has dropped from 5,000 to 12….and truth be told we aren’t sure how solid even those 12 followers are!”

How far Jesus has fallen here in these 69 verses of John 6!

When Jesus started out here in John 6, tending the gnawing hunger pangs of the crowd, he came off as the Bread King people had been hankering for, providing ample food for “about 5,000” persons—with twelve big baskets of leftovers to boot.

But here at the end of John 6, the massive crowd has been whittled down to just a dozen who’re still aligned with Jesus.  Jesus’ followers have been peeling off left and right, until only a handful remain….causing Jesus in this morning’s gospel lesson to ask the pleading, plaintive question of the Twelve:  “‘Do you also wish to go away?’” (v. 67)

Something has gone wrong, dreadfully wrong here!   Couldn’t Jesus have stopped the hemorrhaging of his supporters?  Couldn’t he have adjusted his message, massaged his appeal to keep more of the crowd in his camp, ready to cast their votes for him?

A pollster or two might have helped Jesus.  They could have packaged him as a viable candidate who appeals to the masses rather than a loser who can’t even keep Twelve of his closest followers in line.

But the kicker here is that Jesus doesn’t seem to WANT to succeed with the masses.   When folks started voicing doubts about him, instead of calming them down, Jesus keeps riling them up, saying stuff that’s calculated to drive them away.

When the satisfied 5000 start traipsing around looking for Jesus he turns on them and says:   “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free.   Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides.”  (vv. 26-27 The Message).

When the crowd responds, requesting this “food that sticks with you,” asking for this bread, Jesus tells them:  “Here it is:  it’s me!  I AM the bread of heaven…”

But this isn’t what the crowd expected, so more of them walk away, shocked that Jesus would make such a claim about a mere mortal like himself:   “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” they mutter under their breath.  “Don’t we know his father? Don’t we know his mother? How can he now say, ‘I came down out of heaven’ and expect anyone to believe him?”  (vv. 41-42)

Here, Jesus could have re-cast his message, toned it down, backed off a bit.  But no, Jesus stubbornly insists on declaring that God the Father has sent him to be the Bread that lasts forever, upping the ante even higher by contending that the people who filled their stomachs with wheat bread and fresh fish now must feed on him, eat his body, drink his blood, consume his flesh:  “The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self.” (v. 51 The Message)  

Such talk takes Jesus “beyond the pale,” and even more of his audience starts defecting from him. They just can’t stomach Jesus’ segue from baked-in-an-oven bread to the Bread of life he claims to embody.   In fact, they seem grossed out by the very thought of eating him, “ingesting” him, taking him into themselves….

…..but then the last straw comes when Jesus declares that it’s not even up to them whether they “get” him or not.  That is God’s business!   Faith is something they can’t concoct:  “No one is capable of coming to me on his own. You get to me only as a gift from the Father.”  (v. 65)

By this point, it seems that Jesus has truly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory!  Even those who had been among his disciples, his followers turn away (v. 60)….and all he’s left with are the last Twelve of them.   Will they leave him, too?
What in the world is going on here?   Didn’t Jesus want to succeed?  Didn’t he care about  his “numbers?”

No, it appears he did not! 

Jesus was so consumed by being faithful—faithful to the one true God—that he was willing to see his “numbers” plummet from 5000 at the beginning of this chapter down to just Twelve at the end!
Here’s why:  it’s because people, people like us, are always more interested in getting what we want on our terms rather than being open to receiving God on God’s terms.

The crowd was fine with Jesus as long as he gave them stuff they wanted—enough bread and fish to feed a multitude.
But when Jesus “got behind” that miraculous feeding, pointing toward the One who is the Giver of all good and perfect gifts….when Jesus shifted their gaze from the bread in their hands to the Bread-Giver whose passion is to live among them, indeed to get down inside them, inside of us—then the crowd started to vanish.

They wanted stuff—but Jesus insisted on giving them God, the God whom we see and know, embodied in Jesus himself, his flesh for the life of the world, his body and blood poured out for us, so that Jesus might be the means whereby God gets down inside of us!

The fickle crowd here in John chapter 6 is you and me.   Our problem isn’t that we expect too much of God—but that we settle for too little.

Jesus wants us to have it all—to have God, the God whose passion for us is so high and wide and deep, that God insists on getting down inside of us, to fashion us into his Body in the world, to be our life, for now and for all eternity.

But only on God’s terms.  That is:  God always comes to us (not the other way around)….and God comes to us in the human being God has chosen:  Jesus, the offspring of Mary and Joseph, wrapped in human flesh and blood, for us and our salvation.

This is the Word, Pastor Kayla, that you are now called to tend here at Glyndon Lutheran Church.  It’s at the heart of everything this congregation (and every Christian community) is about:  living out the reality that God doesn’t just give us stuff—but that God gives us, in Jesus Christ, God’s very self, again and again and again.

When the bread and wine are placed in our hands and taken into our bodies, God gets down deep inside of us, to become one with us, to fashion us into God’s living Body, for the sake of the world, for the love of our neighbors--in the word on our lips, the service of our hands, the presence that we practice as we live out our faith every day.

There’s a reason, you see, why our weekly liturgy cues us to sing these words at least once every seven days:  “Alleluia!  Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life!”

This is our weekly “vote” (if you will)….a direct quote from St Peter here at the end of our gospel lesson.  It’s our way of saying we don’t intend to be short-changed.  Give us Jesus!   Help us take Jesus at his Word, as we open our lips and crack wide our hearts to receive Jesus, and as we thereby become what we eat.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

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