The Bread of Life 4: Covenant
Today is the final sermon in our 4-part series on the Holy Eucharist. We’ve been looking this month at how our Old Testament readings help us understand Jesus’ teaching on the Bread of Life, and we’ve looked at how he gives himself to us as provision, strengthening, and wisdom. Today, our Old Testament passage is from Joshua 24, and we’re focusing on how the Eucharist is a covenant.
Every week, as I speak on your behalf the prayer over the bread and wine, I quote Jesus’ words that he spoke at his last meal with his followers, where he himself gave the Eucharist that name; he called it the “new covenant.” A covenant is sort of like a treaty: it’s public, and it sets into being a state of affairs that you’re situated inside. In the Bible, God initiates covenants with his people, situating them in his story of the universe, and publicly constituting them as his own.
We don’t really do covenants in Western society. We’re way more used to contracts, which are nothing more than deals people agree to. They don’t define us or constitute our life story, they just set up temporary arrangements like “If you give me $70 a month I’ll give you unlimited texts and 2gig of mobile data… but that offer expires in 30 days.” That is not what a sacred arrangement that situates you in the universe sounds like. That’s just a contract.
The Bread of Life 3: Wisdom
We’re continuing today our series of sermons on Jesus as the Bread of Life. We examined the Eucharist as provision our first week, and as strengthening our second week, next week we’ll look at the Eucharist as covenant, and today we’re considering the Eucharist as Wisdom. Wisdom is a fascinating concept in Scripture for many reasons, but one of them is that Wisdom gets consistently personified. If you look at the little passage we have today from Proverbs, on the front of your insert, you can see that personification at work. Lady Wisdom is calling out, trying to invite as many people as possible to her banquet. Hebrew literature comes very close at times to identifying this woman Wisdom with God, and then in turn, once or twice in the New Testament Jesus comes close to identifying himself with this figure of Wisdom.
When Wisdom is invoked, then, we’re not merely thinking about human intelligence. We’re thinking about something pretty lofty, some kind of expression of God’s being. Proverbs says that Wisdom was present before the world began, for example, that she was alongside God, acting as a “master worker” during creation. In many of these passages Wisdom is up on the divine level, participating in the kinds of things people naturally associate with God: creating, purposing, setting the universe in order.
But take a look at what Lady Wisdom is doing in this reading: She’s throwing a dinner party. The preparations were extensive, it says, and she has been directly involved in all of them: “She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table.” And now Lady Wisdom is issuing invitations: she sends out servant girls, as a dignitary would, but then she decides to make it more personal. She herself goes out into the town and calls, “Turn in here! Eat of my bread and drink of my wine! Lay aside immaturity and live!”
As Mother Beth mentioned last week, for these four Sundays in August we are preaching about aspects of the Eucharist that have a connection with the Old Testament reading for the day. Last week was on provision, that God provides for us with manna from heaven, and for the next two weeks after today, the topics will be wisdom and covenant. This week’s theme is strengthening. In the Eucharist, we are fed with sacred bread and strengthened for our spiritual journey.
So let’s begin. I encourage you to take the lectionary leaflet either now or when you go home and look at the lesson from 1 Kings. Using one of Dwight Zscheile”s terms, the protagonist in this lesson is one of the core characters in the Bible. So, you probably have heard of him and know something about him. But I won’t assume that you do.
A little background of what happened before this particular passage is helpful. The reading is a story about the prophet, Elijah. Even if you have not studied the Old Testament, I would guess that this name is one you know. If you have ever attended a Seder, a Passover meal, you will remember Elijah’s place setting at the table and opening the door to look outside to see if this prophet has returned during the celebration. Scripture says that Elijah did not die in the same way as other human beings but rather was taken up in a cloud into heaven. Jewish believers expect that Elijah will return some day in much the same way. Yes, Elijah was a powerful prophet, a holy man who delivered God’s message to his errant people.
In 1st Kings, before today’s reading Elijah had done many grand acts at God’s bidding. When Elijah was first called to be a prophet, there was an extensive drought in the land. God led him to food and water to survive. Another time, Elijah brought a widow’s only son back from death. This was the same woman who fed Elijah from her last oil and meal that miraculously did not run out over many days.
But, as the drought continued, a large number of people abandoned Yahweh, the Lord God, and instead started worshipping Baal. In the chapter just before today’s reading Elijah had gone head-to-head with the prophets of Baal challenging them to see whether the Lord, our God, or Baal would cause fire to make a sacrifice of a bull. God of course won that battle and Baal and his prophets were no more.
It is at this point in the story that Jezebel is told what Elijah has done. Jezebel had convinced her husband, King Ahab to abandon the worship of Yahweh and instead to worship her God, Baal. So Jezebel sends for Elijah with the intent to kill him. Elijah understands her aim and is afraid, very afraid. For the moment his fear overshadows his connection with God. So, he escapes into the wilderness. This great prophet who has done mighty deeds at God’s bidding basically runs away.
Poor Elijah, he is exhausted. He has accomplished much for God and yet his energy and his courage are gone. He is worn out.
At this point, Elijah is a man with whom I think many of us can identify. He has given his work his all. Listening to God, he has put himself in front of a large crowd of people, many of them crafty speakers with large followings and he has managed to stand up to them. And the outcome, from his perspective was just as God said it would be. In a dramatic act God overcame Baal. One would think Elijah would be overjoyed, or at least justified? Perhaps he thought my work is over, I will get some rest now.
But instead he finds himself in fear for his own life and he is tired, bone weary we would say in the south. Elijah is overwhelmed and at a true low point in his life. When he has gotten away by himself, he feels ready for it all to end. He asks God to take away his life. It is all too much and he cannot keep going. He is drained and spent, used up. He has nothing left to give and he wants the struggle to be over. In modern day terms we might say that Elijah was depressed to the point of being suicidal.
Today’s reading brings a different side of the great and mighty prophet. He is a despondent human being filled with fear and unable to see any hope in that particular moment of crisis.
Aren’t these Old Testament stories rich and wonderful? They highlight the real-life ups and downs of God’s people. The name, Elijah, signifies great power and triumph, even today.
Elijah was famous; he had many accomplishments and yet even for him life was not always easy. He did not have a perfect life. Today we have a glimpse of him in the midst of his trouble.
And yet this is only the beginning of the passage. What happens next is the point, of course, and that is that God is always in the picture even when we cannot see or sense him. God sends help to Elijah. That help is in the form of ordinary bread and ordinary water. The angel says to Elijah, “Get up; eat.” The nourishment is a gift to Elijah. He was too worn down to even ask God for help. The bread just appeared. And with it Elijah is strengthened to go on in his life and his work for God’s purpose. Elijah is healed by rest, food and the reassurance of God’s love. We are told that he is able to go on in the strength of that simple food for 40 days. In his lowest point, God sends help. God is clearly present to Elijah in this incident.
So, where are we invited into this story? Can we identify with Elijah in this troubled place of life? I imagine that answer is yes, for each of us we can remember such a time of being worn out and unable to go on.
Perhaps then, the more important question is, how has God been present to us in our difficult times? Where have we found our strength to continue? This story of Elijah asks us to view our problems through a different lens and look for how God is present to help us today.
Just as God was present to Elijah we must have the confidence that God is present and will be present in our lives. What we can learn from this morning’s story about Elijah is that when hard times occur it is ok to be afraid, worried, frustrated, or even at the point of giving up. Human beings have limits. It is always God who gives us the strength.
So, how is God present to help us today?
Sometimes it is easier to see the holy presence by looking backwards, rather than at the moment difficult things are happening. But sometimes it is just a matter of changing our perspective to see it. When we look for God’s presence we can and do see it.
Maybe it has happened for you, like it did for Elijah, that some unknown persons have fed you or given you respite in your time of need. Without even asking a surprise meal shows up or someone offers to take your children for an afternoon.
Or, perhaps you have been the one doing the nourishing. The idea just comes in your head that a person needs a boost and you take them the food, not stopping for a conversation that might drain them more, but providing a simple gift. We too may be angels at some point in our lives, which we probably don’t recognize at the moment. God may put it into our minds to do something and we may not even consciously know that it is God who has done it!
Or, perhaps you recognize a coincidence that in looking backwards is just too wonderful to really be a random occurrence. Maybe you saw a beautiful bird that wouldn’t leave you alone, or you notice a pretty flower, in a difficult, trying time and in that moment you remembered the bigger, beautiful picture of God’s creation. You were calmed and just knew that everything would turn out all right.
For those who are deeply despondent God can work through loving friends and trained therapists to bring healing. Today’s Old Testament reading offers the assurance that just like for Elijah, God is with us at all times and in all things, even when we are unable to recognize Him. There is great hope in this lesson.
So, again, I ask you to consider, how has our compassionate God been present to you in your most difficult times? How has God been there to help and strengthen you in your life?
God comes to us in different ways at different times. And there are many answers to these questions depending on who is answering. However, I expect that one of our common answers is through the Eucharist, the holy bread and wine we consume at God’s altar.
In today’s gospel we hear Jesus patiently trying to explain that he is building on what the people already know about God. God has been working from creation to bring humankind into His life. So when Jesus says “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” And that “those who eat of this bread will never be hungry”, it should be easy to recognize Him as the source of true life. And yet, many of them did not or could not see it. And even now, some 2000 years later, often we do not recognize the love God wants to share with us. Look for it, my friends, the love is there. God’s presence is with us. And one of the consistent ways it is there is in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist. God gives us his strength each time we partake in the consecrated elements.
We are reunited with Jesus’ living bread at the altar. His body and blood are available to us right here. From that food we are spiritually strengthened for whatever difficulties we face. We are human beings, weak at many times in our lives, but God is strong and readily offers to share himself with us.
There is no better news, no better joy, no better reassurance. God desires us, He loves us and through his meal he nourishes and strengthens us.
Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” May we hear and receive these strengthening words.
The Bread of Life 1: Provision
One of my favorite things about the Gospel of John is how it highlights the depth and symbolism in everything Jesus does and says. John records several instances in which Jesus will do or say something, and then lead a whole reflection on it. He just keeps on unpacking and unpacking and unpacking. Chapter 6 of John, which we read from today, is an example of this. Right after performing the miracle of feeding 5000 people, Jesus gives a long teaching unpacking it, all about how he feeds us spiritually. He tries to convince us that, in contrast to all the things we turn to to try and satisfy the various hungers that are part of being human, he himself is actually our true food, what he calls the “Bread of Life.”
If you’ve been around a liturgical church for a while, when you hear a phrase like “Bread of Life,” you immediately think of the Eucharist. Jesus had not instituted that sacrament when he spoke the words we heard today, but the Eucharist is for us the ultimate place where that direct encounter with the being of Jesus Christ as our food happens. Just as he tells us to in John 6, we eat his flesh and we drink his blood, right here at this altar. The things he says in John 6 are not limited to the Eucharist, but all of them point to the Eucharist.
This is such an important teaching that our lectionary asks us to spend 4 weeks with it. What’s more, each week the John passage is paired with a reading from the Old Testament that (when we read it as Christians) foreshadows some aspect of how Jesus feeds us in the Eucharist. So Deacon Chris and I have decided that we’ll take this as the occasion for a series of sermons, looking at the four aspects of the Eucharist that are highlighted in these Old Testament readings.