Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sneak Preview

This is the sermon I will be giving tomorrow afternoon in Norwich. You get a sneak preview!

August 26, 2012 [Green] Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Outreach Service at Chenango Valley Home & Apts., Norwich NY

Scripture Lesson: 1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43

This takes place after King Solomon has built a temple to the Lord. Prior to that, they used a tabernacle to house the ark of the covenant. The difference between the two is that a tabernacle is portable and can be taken down and reconstructed wherever the Israelites traveled. Now the temple, which is a permanent structure, has been completed to “house” God permanently amongst the Israelites.

Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of the city of David, which is Zion. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD. Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, "O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart, the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand. Therefore, O LORD, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, 'There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.' Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.  "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Regard your servant's prayer and his plea, O LORD my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, 'My name shall be there,' that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive. "Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name --for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm--when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.

Epistle Lesson: Ephesians 6:10-20

In this reading, Paul is assuring the Ephesians, and us as well, that God will never leave us, nor will he leave us defenseless; if only we clothe ourselves with the armor he so graciously provides.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

Gospel Lesson: John 6:56-69

This is one of the hardest lessons for Jesus’ followers to understand or believe, and not all of them could handle it.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 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." He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father." Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "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."

“Flesh and Blood”

Just what is Jesus talking about in today’s gospel lesson? Does he really expect his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood, or is he speaking in metaphors?

Back in Jesus’ day, people could not go to the local grocery store and pick up their food. No, they were quite familiar with where food actually comes from and how to prepare it for eating. They knew how to gut fish, butcher goats, uproot vegetables, crush fruit and smash seeds in order to eat them. 

So when Jesus tells those who came to hear him speak that unless they “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” the pictures of slaughter and food preparation may very well have been the first thing that came to their minds. No wonder “many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’”

Maybe their familiarity with carcasses, blood and pain made Jesus’ words all that more graphic and difficult to hear. Perhaps picturing their Savior as crushed, battered, and dying was too much for them to take. Or maybe they believed that Jesus was actually asking them to become cannibals.

The thought of drinking any blood, much less human blood, was repugnant to the religious leaders, and was, in fact, forbidden by law. Leviticus 7:26-27 says, “And wherever you live, you must not eat the blood of any bird or animal. Anyone who eats blood must be cut off from their people.’” and again in Leviticus 17:10-12 we learn: “‘I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood.”

Jesus was not talking about literal flesh and blood, of course, but how can Jesus give us his flesh to eat and blood to drink? To eat living bread means to accept Jesus into our lives and to become united with him. We are united with Christ in two ways: 1) by believing in his death (which is the sacrifice of his flesh) and in the resurrection, and 2) by devoting ourselves to living as he requires, depending on his teaching for guidance and trusting in the Holy Spirit for power. As we heard in Leviticus, the life is in the blood. So, accepting the sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ is the basis for eternal life.

Verse 63 of our gospel lesson tells us “The Spirit gives life.” The Holy Spirit gives us spiritual life. All spiritual renewal begins and ends with God. He reveals truth to us, lives within us, and then enables us to respond to that truth.

Jesus tells his followers that he is “the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” Jesus was referring to the manna that God sent to the Israelites when they were wandering in the desert after having escaped from slavery in Egypt. Throughout their Exodus, God miraculously sustained his people by sending manna from heaven each morning. The bread-like manna was a “small round substance as fine as frost” (Exodus 16:14). It looked “like white coriander seed” and tasted like “wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31) or “pastry prepared with oil.” (Numbers 11:8).

It was this manna that Christ was recalling when he called himself “the true bread from heaven” in John 6:32, “the bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:41) and the “bread of life” (John 6:48-51, 58). Symbolically, Jesus is the heavenly manna, the spiritual or supernatural food given by the Father to those who ask, seek, and knock. (John 6:45, Matthew 7:7-8). But unlike the manna sent by God to the Israelites, Jesus gives eternal life; whereas those who ate the manna in the desert eventually died.

It’s also interesting that Jesus’ “bread of life discourse,” as John 6:26-58 is called, was given during Passover, also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Passover celebrates the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. On the night before leaving Egypt, the Israelites made unleavened bread, which is bread made without yeast, because they had no time to let their bread rise before taking flight.

In the context of our gospel lesson, Jesus had just fed at least 5,000 people, an event that led directly to the bread of life discourse. Clearly, he was indicating that he was God’s provision for the people’s deepest spiritual needs. Just as God had provided for his people as they came out of Egypt, so Jesus had provided physical food for 5,000 people and was ready to provide spiritual nourishment and life to all of them as well.

Many of the disciples were confused by Christ’s teachings. It was difficult for the Jewish learners to accept the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood. Jews were forbidden to even taste blood.

Jesus was trying to get the religious leaders to see beyond the physical aspects of his teaching to the real issue – namely, that if they believed in Him they would have everlasting life. Tragically, many people were so uncomfortable with his words that they began to turn away and leave his ministry. Their hearts were hardened in unbelief. But those who did believe, like Peter, who when asked if the twelve also wanted to leave, replied: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” 

There is no middle ground with Jesus. When he asked the twelve disciples if they would also leave, he was showing them that they could either accept him or reject him. Jesus was not trying to repel the people with his teachings, he was simply telling the truth. The more the people heard Jesus’ real message, the more they divided into two camps – the honest seekers who wanted to understand more, and those who rejected Jesus because they didn’t like what they heard.

Jesus, perhaps, taught such “hard teachings” in order to weed out those who were not there to really learn what his message was truly about. He was reassured by Peter that the apostles were truly there to learn. In his straightforward way, Peter answered for us all – there is no other way but Jesus. Though there are many philosophies and self-styled authorities, Jesus alone has the words of eternal life. 

What do we do when we are confronted with a difficult situation? What if we had been there to hear Jesus’ message about eating his flesh and drinking his blood? Would we have understood? Would we have believed? Would we have stayed around to hear the rest of the story, or would we have turned away out of fear and disgust? 

Of course, when we think of eating the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, we think of communion. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines communion as a Christian sacrament in which consecrated bread and wine are consumed as memorials of Christ's death or as symbols for the realization of a spiritual union between Christ and communicant or as the body and blood of Christ. 

But doesn’t it feel like so much more than that? I know when I take communion, I am overwhelmed by the thought of eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood. I can scarcely believe that he gave his life for me while I was yet a sinner. No greater love can be shown than giving your life for someone else. It is truly a gift from God, one that I thank him for each day. 

God has given us so many gifts besides grace. God has given us not only the Holy Spirit to help guide us in his word, but he has also given us the Full Armor of God as we read in today’s epistle lesson. We can make use of the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes that will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 

When life gets hard, when we have things to accomplish that seem too difficult for us, or we encounter lessons that seem too hard to understand, remember Peter’s strong words. Jesus has the words of life, and he will see us through. As we continue to study his word, greater understanding will come to us.

We are what we eat, after all. So, eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ and you will have spirit and life. 

Let us pray: 
Gracious God, although we once were strangers, you receive us as friends and draw us home to you. Set your living bread before us so that, feasting around your table, we may be strengthened to continue the work to which your Son has called us. We look forward to eternal life with you. Amen.

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