13 Pentecost B—8/19/18
Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
Pr. Scott Kramer
I was the slowest member of our team on the Pacific Crest Trail. Five of us set out on a hike from Stevens Pass on August 2nd, and finished at Holden Village some 98 miles later on August 9th.
One of the reasons I was the slowest hiker is that I was also the oldest. I’m not 20 anymore! The next youngest on the team was a pastor friend of mine who is seven years younger. The other three are all around 22 or 23 years old.
A second reason I was the slowest is that I stopped all the time—and not usually because I was exhausted. The mountains, the lakes, the forests—I can’t just blow through those when I hike. I want to take time to take in the beauty of God’s creation!
There’s a third reason I was the slowest on our team, and that’s a practical reason: safety. We often followed a narrow trail along very steep mountainsides. Sometimes the trail was overgrown with ferns and other vegetation. That wouldn’t be a problem except that the trail was often uneven and there were rocks that I stumbled over. I remember actually slipping off the trail half a dozen times. No major damage but as I mentioned in camp one evening, “Out here, all it takes is one twisted ankle and you’re looking at a helicopter rescue.”
Our life’s journey, and specifically the life of faith, is a bit like that Pacific Crest Trail. As our prayer at the end of worship puts it, we travel “by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.” It’s easy at times to get tripped up, as our reading from John this morning demonstrates: [Jesus said,] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jewish leaders then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Here were some folks who got tripped up. Faithful. Devout. Church-going. It’s a very old problem for people of faith: Literal interpretations of the Bible that completely miss the point of a powerful story. But the power of faith comes to us not in facts, but in stories.
Our readings today lift up wisdom as the ability to discern the point of the stories we receive. “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense Wisdom says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” That’s from the book of Proverbs, and our reading from Ephesians has this to say: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
Wisdom is not about nailing down the facts. The power of Christian faith—wisdom!–comes to us not through facts but through stories. Jesus said, “Unless you become like children you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” And what child says, “Just give me the facts!” No, children naturally say, as an example for us grown-ups, “Tell me a story.” Jesus was always telling stories. In today’s reading he uses wonderful images of bread to describe who he is, who we are, and why his followers gather.
Well, what do you think? What’s the point of today’s reading from John? I’ve highlighted the passage for you this morning to show where the emphasis of this reading is. It’s about LIFE. It’s about what it means to be fully human, fully ALIVE. What does it mean to live? Change one letter in that word and you’ll find the answer: LOVE. To live is to love! That’s the God-given purpose of human life: to LOVE. That’s why we gather.
Back when I was in college my parents lived in Dubuque, Iowa, and I would drive there to visit them. On the main highway into town was a large banner put up, I suppose, by the local chamber of commerce, which read: “Dubuque: A Place to Live.” We kids rolled our eyes and laughed at that, wondering how much they paid for that marketing campaign. Well, of course we knew what they meant: A place to really live, to fully live.
When Jesus speaks of “eternal life,” this is what he’s getting at: not just lungs that breathe and a heart that beats. Our God desires for us and all people a deep experience of the power of love. Eternal life is not about a timeframe but quality of life here and now. Human life without love is not quite human. The gift of eternal life is the gift of that which is permanent and unshakeable, whether we live or whether we die. As our scriptures teach again and again, the only thing that is permanent is love.
In our life journey there’s lots to trip us up and distract us from the point of our faith, which is: God’s love for us and all people, and our determination to imitate that love—that’s why we’re here. That’s the point of Christian faith.
So how do we keep our focus on that which is the point—on love? Or, as our scriptures might put it, “How do we live wisely?’” Jesus gives us an answer. We gather for worship, and our worship is about gathering around a spoken word and a meal. We gather around a table. Not for a concert, or a performance, or a lecture, or a cocktail party, but for a meal—something both ordinary and extraordinary. It is the table that is central to our worship gathering. It is here that we consume the bread of life together.
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, St. Paul declares to God’s people, “Now you are the body of Christ, and members of it.” To gather as God’s people is to gather as a community, where the body, and not individuals, are the central unit. It is this body that gains life through a meal. Life comes through a loaf. We learn to live through love. Life, loaf. Live, love.
There are indeed obstacles to life and distractions to faith on our life’s journey that can trip us up. But as children of God and disciples of Jesus, our focus is the wonderful story of God’s love. Christ’s invitation is life. Wisdom is a gift of God to help us together discern what is the will of God, to discern what is the way…of love.