Thursday, August 06, 2015

Eternal and endless life

Pentecost 11B, August 9, 2015
John 6:35, 41-5135Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.  41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves.44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I 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.”

I have a little book where I keep my prayer list. Each week, I pray for anyone who is in that little book, and recently, I’ve noticed something. We have a lot of empty places, empty chairs at the dinner table or easy chairs in our living rooms, and yes, empty places in the pew. We have had some significant funerals this year, and many of our hearts are heavy with grief.

So it is only natural that when I read today’s gospel, the words, “Eternal life” resounded in my heart. It is so painful to say goodbye when someone dies, to know that tomorrow I will not be able to call them up to say hi or to drop by for a visit. It is hard to know that the places that are made alive by a person’s presence will be empty- the kitchen where Avis  baked so many cookies, Alfa's living room where so many friends dropped by, Chuck's woodshop, the pianos where Onella will never play again. Earthly life comes to an end, ready or not. For so many of us, we wish that we wouldn’t have to say goodbye ever, that our dear ones could live forever.

We hunger for the bread of eternal life- for us and for our loved ones.

"The Divine Spark" from Michelangelo's painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Those words “eternal life”, though- what exactly do they mean? In the Greek, there are three words that get translated into our word life: bios, psyche, and zoe. Bios is the physical life, the life of the body. Psyche is the soul-life, the life of the soul. But zoe is the spiritual life, the divine life, the God-given and incorruptible life. It’s what the Gnostics might have called the divine spark in each person, which they sought above all things. Jesus is talking about that kind of life here- the divine, spiritual life, and instead of setting a bunch of hoops before the people that they must jump through, he promises that those who simply believe in him will have unending zoe.

And not only will this zoe be unending, in John 10:10, Jesus also declares that he came for abundant zoe. In John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have life abundantly.”

Jesus comes with life abundant and endless, and unlike the Gnostics, to whom John was writing, Jesus gives that endless and abundant life as a gift. It is not earned through secret knowledge or good deeds or following all the rules. It’s given through “belief” in Jesus- and that word for belief is less about mental knowledge but more like leaning on, trusting in, being in relationship with Jesus.

Perhaps because our physical bodies die, the bios, and because it seems that the soul or mind dies with it, the psyche, many of us believe that eternal life happens after this one. But zoe life does not pick up where bios or psyche leave off. It is not a chronological concept. It is endless. It is a circle that begins and ends with Jesus. Because it is given through Jesus, who conquered death, it cannot be snatched away by death. Our bodies may wear out and give up breath and beating heart. Our minds may wander or grow weary or forgetful. Nevertheless, our zoe does not ever change. It is given as a glorious and wondrous gift through Jesus, for all time, now and forever.

Irises by Vincent Van Gogh
Does that change our grief, as we think of the empty places in our homes and our hearts? Maybe. For we know one another through physical bodies, through our minds. What makes you you is a combination of your body, your mind- and when those die, it is sad. For there will never be another person just like you.

But in this gospel text, Jesus reminds us that we are greater than the sum of our parts, and there is something greater that we are part of that does not end, does not change, does not die. Through our endless life in Jesus, our loved ones are still with us. Through Jesus, life does not end. That gives me comfort, even in my grief. Thank you, Jesus, for being our living bread of eternal life. Amen.

Iris Fields in La Conner, by Brad Mitchell

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

What is the bread?

Pentecost 10B, August 2, 2015
John 6:24-35 24So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

There once was a man who begged on the sidewalk outside of a fancy building downtown. Every morning, he watched well-dressed professionals disappear inside the revolving doors and reappear in the evening. One afternoon, as he took a break to walk around the building, he noticed workers unloading tray after tray of delicious hors d’oeuvres and platters of canap├ęs from a catering van at the loading dock. That night, the man hatched a plan. 

The next day, wearing a newly acquired suit from Goodwill, he strolled into the building and took the elevator right to the top. He took a cushy seat at a gleaming table and listened attentively to presentation after presentation, asking questions and adding ideas, just like everyone else in the room. At noon, just as he planned, waiters arrived, bearing tray after tray of delicious food. His plate full, he sat down, and the woman next to him turned and said, “Whoever you’re working for is not paying you enough. I’d like to hire you.” Stunned by his good fortune, he thought, “I’m only here for the food.”

Like the man in the story, the crowds who gathered around Jesus came initially for the free bread. They were hungry, their bellies empty. But Jesus heard not just their growling stomachs but also their cries for justice and their wails of grief. The crowds came for the food, but they received something better: the bread of life in the very presence of Jesus.

The bread of heaven is surprising. It’s life-giving and more satisfying than we can imagine, and it sometimes doesn’t even look like bread.

Picture by Andy Morrison of the Toledo Blade
Before the official start of the National Youth Gathering, John Townsend and I took the youth to Salem Lutheran Church, my internship congregation, which is in the heart of Toledo’s inner city. People live difficult lives there- poverty and addiction are common, and hunger- physical, emotional, and spiritual- are a normal part of life. For more than 20 years, the church has been hosting a weekly food pantry and a weekly evening meal, all for free. A lot of neighbors show up. We met one guy who has been helping in the kitchen.

Salem Lutheran, a beacon of hope
He first started coming to the church for the food on Tuesday nights. But when his wife got sick, the pastor visited them at the hospital, prayed with them, and then did his wife’s funeral. When his grief was heavy and he wanted to numb the pain with drugs, the pastor helped him find a new way in life. When he felt alone, the church gathered around him and supported him. When he felt lonely and unloved, he heard of the love of God for him and everyone. He came for the food, but he stayed for so much more. Mr. Tony found the bread of heaven hidden amongst the loaves of bread handed out at the free evening meal.

We find the bread of life in surprising places- wherever there is grace, wherever there is surprising forgiveness or reconciliation. It might come when your spouse says, “I forgive you” or it might come when your kid invites you to play video games. The bread of life might come in a bag of produce left on your doorstep or it might arrive as an email from a long-lost friend.
Image result for bread basket hands 

The bread of heaven is surprising, it’s unexpected, it’s sometimes hard to recognize at first.  Like the Israelites who received the manna, we might first wonder, “what is it?” But God knows what we are hungry for, and as Psalm 145 says, “God, you open your hand in due season and satisfy the needs of every living being.”  So, even if we came first for the food, may we see and recognize the bread of heaven that comes to us, and may God satisfy our every hunger. Amen.