The Long Arm of the Lord

John 6:24-35

Today is a communion Sunday. In just a little while, we will share some bread and some grape juice, and in doing so we are supposed to be drawn into the mystery of God’s work in the world.

Every time we perform this ritual, we all need to ask the same question. Do we get it? Are we penetrating the mystery deeply enough so that it changes our lives? I’m not saying we can grasp what is going on completely—I call this moment a “mystery” for a reason—but if we gather here and go through the motions of this act we call a sacrament, we want it to make some sort of a difference, right?

We don’t want to be like the crowd in our gospel reading today. We don’t want to be pursuing Jesus but completely missing the magnitude of his work.

A little background: Just before our reading in the Gospel of John, Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. Sensing the crowd was about to seize him and declare him king, he withdrew to the nearby mountains. That evening, he walked on stormy water to catch up with his disciples who were crossing the Sea of Galilee by boat, arriving in Capernaum with them.

By the time we reach today’s story, the crowd had actually decided to pursue Jesus in a flotilla of boats, showing up in Capernaum themselves. Why? Well, they were thinking Jesus seemed a whole lot like Moses. Their stories told them Moses provided free food and liberated people from political oppression. Jesus certainly had provided a lot of free food recently. Even if he never got around to the liberation part, all the bread and fish you could eat seemed like a pretty good deal.

But when they again asked for a sign—what they meant was, give us more food—Jesus tried to adjust their perspective. In essence, he told them, your ancestors missed the big picture, and you are missing it now. It was God who sent the manna from heaven; it was God who provided the Israelites quail in the desert and water from a rock. And while those signs, like Jesus’ signs, were to demonstrate power, they were not an end unto themselves. God was doing something much bigger. God’s reach is far greater than we usually want to admit, touching every point in time and space.

In the case of the Israelites in the desert, God was trying to teach a group of people to follow and obey. They were a ragged bunch of recently freed slaves wandering the desert, doubting and arguing the whole way. And yet God could see how through them he could heal a fractured universe.

Jesus was trying to get the crowds to understand the bigger picture, too. Specifically, he wanted them to see that he was the Christ, the apex of the plan that was unfolding in the desert thousands of years before when manna fell from the sky. When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” and later, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” he was saying, here is the great opportunity from God, the life-sustaining gift. Simply believe to receive.

The bread metaphor followed Jesus all the way to the cross. On the night in which he gave himself up to death, he took bread and broke it, using that simple act to show what would happen to his body because of our sins. The wine stood in for his blood.

And when the real body was broken and the precious blood was shed less than 24 hours later, everything changed. Sin was vanquished; the devil lost his hold on us as the holy, perfect God-man died like the worst of sinners. A night followed by another night followed by a glorious morning proved the victory over death in the resurrection.

Do you get it? Do you see how God has been at work from the dim moments of prehistory through Christ up to now to make it possible for all of us, each and every one of us, to be in union with him?

I know it’s hard to understand in full. I work with these ideas every day, and I cannot grasp them in full. To say you can understand God’s work in full is to claim you have the mind of God, that you can see the very fabric of the universe disrupted by sin and then put back together by a holy carpenter nearly 2,000 years ago—a carpenter still at work through the Holy Spirit in us today.

But we can get it in the sense that we can be in awe of what God has done and is doing. We can see past our immediate concerns and wants and live as people who know there is something more.

Members of this congregation (and readers of this blog) may have heard me tell this story before in other settings, but it bears repeating. About ten years ago, I learned the power of communion by taking it to an elderly couple who roomed together at a nursing home, sleeping on floor mats near each other. In an odd twist, both had developed dementia within about a year of each other, and by this visit, they could barely speak.

Having lost everything—possessions, positions, even knowledge of who they were—they responded to communion with the awe I have mentioned. The wife took communion first, leaning on one elbow, and said the only words she could find that day: “Hallelujah.” Her husband said nothing at all, but he too propped himself up and received the bread and juice eagerly. His wife watched from her mat and said the words for him: “Hallelujah. Hallelujah.”

When you come to take communion today, approach the table like people who have nothing. Upon taking communion, know you have everything. The God of the universe lives among us and has died for our sins. When we believe, we have eternity.

Chew on This

John 6:51-58

When we talk about Jesus being the bread of heaven, the metaphor can easily be misinterpreted as soft and nice, a phrase suitable for shiny church banners decorated with loaves and stalks of wheat.

When we delve into today’s text, however, we hear Jesus use the phrase in a gruesome, unrelenting way. His words continue to remind us that the saving grace God offers us so freely was purchased on the cross at a very high price. Jesus’ metaphor is an antidote to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” which is “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

When Jesus called himself the bread of heaven, bread was very much on the minds of the crowds following him. A day earlier, he had used five barley loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people all they wanted. The fragments of leftovers filled 12 baskets at the end of this vast picnic, and the people sought him, wanting more.

“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,” Jesus told them. This triggered a conversation that eventually led Jesus to startle them: To find eternal life, the people must eat his flesh and drink his blood.

Jesus of course was symbolically using “eating” to stand for belief in his work to come on the cross. The idea that the cross can save us would have to be swallowed whole by those who seek salvation. The metaphor was too difficult, however—it smelled of cannibalism.

The conflict became even worse as Jesus switched verbs for what is usually translated as “eat” in English. As the Jewish leaders began to question what Jesus said, he began to use a verb that had connotations of “chewing” or “feeding on” his body, creating imagery akin to a wild animal working on its kill. (This change in verbs happens in verse 54.)

Later, his disappointed disciples told Jesus, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Even today, we can struggle with the connection Jesus was making between bread and body, a connection now best expressed as the link between communion and Christ’s crucifixion. His unrelenting metaphor draws us into the deepest mysteries surrounding how we are saved.

Some preachers will try to tell you that how we are saved by the cross is easy to understand, usually pointing to a model known as “penal substitutionary atonement.” This is the notion that God the Father simply vented his wrath on God the Son, rather than on us. I’m not very comfortable with this easy answer, however, particularly when I consider the varying explanations found in Scripture.

To me, the workings of the cross are mysteries to be embraced and then wrestled with all of our lives, accepting that we will not fully comprehend how God has saved us until we stand before our Savior in the resurrection. We are to chew on the idea, employing discipleship and in particular, the taking of communion, to meditate on this supreme event in history.

Being raised in a different denomination, one where communion was not treated as the gateway to mystery, my understanding took awhile to develop. Let me share some stories of moments that enlightened me.

While serving as an associate pastor in Lexington, Ky., I helped with communion on a regular basis. One Sunday, I carried the juice, trailing another pastor who offered the bread as people lined up at the prayer rail.

A lady I recognized was there with twin 4-year-old granddaughters who apparently were new to church. She had dressed them in identical purple velvet dresses, the kind of dresses grandmothers tend to pick out for their granddaughters when showing them off to friends for the first time.

When the pastor ahead of me offered them the bread, saying, “The body of Christ, broken for you,” they looked startled and a bit perplexed. They could see it was bread, though, and took it.

And then I came along with cups of a red liquid, saying, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” Twin Girl Number 1 took one step back; Twin Girl Number 2 formed a perfect “O” with her mouth as she inhaled to scream.

I quickly dropped to my knees, saying, “No, no, it’s okay, it’s just grape juice. See?” Number 2 didn’t scream, but both girls maintained their looks of horror as they walked away.  (I’ve since learned an alternate liturgy to use where children are involved.)

I was reminded: This is powerful stuff, not to be taken lightly. It was too much for these little girls, but as adults, should our response be at least a little more like theirs? After all, communion should make us very mindful of a broken, bleeding body and our dependence on that suffering.

I also took communion to our shut-ins in Kentucky, and had two thought-provoking experiences in those settings.

One came very early in my ministry. I had been an associate pastor in Kentucky for only a few weeks when it was suggested that I take communion to some of our church members in nursing homes. I dutifully set out on my mission, my portable communion kit loaded with juice, thimble-sized cups, tiny squares of bread and a miniature plate.

All went smoothly until I reached one elderly lady whose mind had been described to me as “pretty far gone.” She was sitting up in her wheelchair, her head slumped to her chest. I spoke to her. No response. I set communion up on a table in front of her. No response.

I went through the words of a simple liturgy, one employing words familiar to anyone raised Methodist. I then touched the bread and juice to her lips, which she slowly tried to taste with her tongue.

I packed up my kit, thinking, “Well, I guess that was a waste of time.”

Just as I turned to leave, her hand shot out, grabbing my forearm with surprising strength. I jumped like I had been bitten.

She looked up at me and slowly said three clear words: “I appreciate this.” She then slumped back into her previous position and remained unresponsive.

My other key communion experience happened late in my ministry in Kentucky. I took communion to Arthur and Edna, a husband and wife, both suffering from dementia. Edna had contracted it first; Arthur developed his disorder about a year later but declined more quickly.

By the time of my last visit, the two shared a nursing home room but didn’t know each other’s names, sleeping on separate mats. I went to Edna’s mat first. She seemed uninterested in my presence until I brought out the same little kit with juice cups and bread plate. She took communion eagerly.

When I went to Arthur’s mat, Edna sat up, her eyes following everything. Arthur also clearly wanted communion. I went through the brief liturgy again, giving him the juice and bread.

As I did so, I heard Edna’s voice saying softly, again and again, “Hallelujah. Hallelujah.” She was still saying it when I left in tears.

God’s grace, particularly as it is expressed in the bread-body and juice-blood of communion, has the power to sustain us in all the phases of our lives. Take what is offered so freely whenever you can, knowing God’s grace will remain with you even when all else of value has fled.