I had the honor of preaching on August 16, 2015, for the third time at my home congregation, Ascension Lutheran in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The texts for the sermon were John 6:51-58 and Ephesians 5:15-20.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Daniel Flucke. I’ve been a member here at Ascension my whole life, and I’m a student at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, where I’m studying to be a pastor.
I just finished a year-long internship at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Dubuque, and I’m starting my fourth and final year of seminary in a couple of weeks. It’s an honor for me to be here with you this morning and to be asked to preach. I figure it can’t go too badly. When Jesus tried to preach in his hometown for the first time, the crowd picked up stones to try to stone him!
Do you ever read something Jesus said, and think, that’s really weird? Lots of stuff Jesus says is pretty good sounding, like love your neighbor, help each other, give food to people who are hungry, stuff like that.
Other stuff Jesus said is more challenging, more provocative, like not just love your neighbors, but also love your enemies. Don’t just give something to the poor when it’s convenient, but give everything you have.
And then there’s stuff Jesus says that’s just odd, like today’s gospel. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” sounds ok.
Last week you heard Jesus say he could give living water, so saying he’s the living bread of life makes some sense as a nice metaphor about drawing our nourishment from God, or something like that.
But then he keeps going. “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.”
And a verse later, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”
To put it mildly, that’s a strange thing to say.
Today’s reading comes from near the end of John chapter 6, but if you look back, the whole chapter has been about this connection between Jesus and bread. This whole thing about Jesus as the bread of life starts with Jesus feeding the 5,000 when the crowds and the disciples misunderstood what he was doing. They get excited and follow him because he gave them food, but they misunderstand what kind of food he’s really here to give them.
He keeps trying to explain that he himself is the bread of life sent from God, like the bread God sent through Moses when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, but they don’t understand. Finally, in this reading, Jesus gets explicit.
Part of what I like about John’s Gospel is that it’s all about incarnation. John’s way of telling the story of Jesus is focusing on God becoming human, stepping into creation and coming to live with us. The very beginning of John’s Gospel is that wonderful passage about how in the beginning was the Word, which was God, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It’s all about incarnation, about God with us, in the flesh. Well, today’s reading is about Jesus getting really incarnate, really physical.
In Jesus’ language, there’s a shift in the word used for “eat.” At first, when he starts talking about eating bread, the Greek word is esthio, a normal, common word for eat, but in verse 53, it shifts to trogo, a much more graphic, urgent word, more like gnawing, chewing. It’s how you might describe the sort of urgent eating an animal does. As one commentary I read put it, “it’s eating as though life depends on it, because it does.”
Gnawing on Jesus flesh sounds a bit like, well, cannibalism, and I don’t think that’s accidental. I think Jesus is trying to startle his listeners.
Of course, you and I are used to this idea of eating and drinking Jesus, because we do it every week. We call it “communion.”
We do it so often that I think we forget how strange it really is. One of the criticisms of the early church from their pagan neighbors was that they must be cannibals, because when they gathered, they talked about eating this Jesus person.
But the reason this matters, the reason we get life from eating Jesus’ body and blood, is because Jesus is the one who gives it. Pull out your Bible, or it’s in the bulletin in the Gospel lesson, and read verse 56 with me. Verse 56. Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
When we gather as church, we remember these words of Jesus, and we participate in eating and drinking together. We call it communion. When we participate in communion, we remember in two ways.
First, we remember Jesus. We do it in remembrance of God who loved the world enough to come dwell among us, who didn’t wait for us to get our act together, but came and lived among us to experience all of our messed up, broken lives, to come dwell in our muck.
And we remember that Jesus loved us enough to die for us, to give himself up for our sake so we could have life. We remember that last night of Jesus’ life, the night in which he was betrayed, when he took normal bread and wine and gave for all to eat and drink, and said it was his body and blood.
Second, we are “re-membered” – joined together as the body of Christ. We are “re-membered,” made members again of the church. In a sense, we become what we eat, because through Jesus’ promise, we’re joined together into the body of Christ in the act of receiving his body and blood. As we remember what God has done, we are re-membered together and made into the church. We abide in Jesus, and he abides in us.
Last weekend, my wife Christin and I served on team at a Badger Teens Encounter Christ weekend, and one of my responsibilities was to bring the bread and wine for communion. I had a realization last week: Seminary doesn’t cover what kind of bread and wine to use for communion. I found a communion bread recipe online, and it turned out ok, as long as you thoroughly dipped it in the wine, since it was a bit…dense. But it worked.
For the wine, we went to the grocery store, and you know what? They sell a lot of types of wine. I don’t drink much wine, and it was overwhelming, standing there, staring at the shelf. None of them were labeled Jesus’ blood. After about 15 minutes of standing in the aisle, we ended up getting the Kosher one that had Hebrew letters on it, because that seemed appropriate.
But the point isn’t what kind of bread or wine we use for communion, because it’s something we participate in, not something we need to completely understand. It’s not what we do, it’s what Jesus does.
We believe we can find Jesus in normal, everyday bread (even dense bread) and normal wine, not because the elements are special or magical, but because Jesus promises to meet us through it. When we gather at Jesus’ table, when we eat his body and drink his blood together, we’re drawn closer to God, because we recognize it as a tangible sign of God’s grace. It’s not the only way God meets us, but it is one way Jesus promises we’ll encounter him.
When Jesus talks about us eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he’s calling us to participation, to get involved in what God’s doing, to become members of his body, to be his hands and feet.
The last time I was here at Ascension was the 25th anniversary celebration in May, and if you were there, you heard Pastor Steve talking about being “all in for Jesus.” This following Jesus isn’t something we’re called to do halfway. We’re called to be active, to participate. Worship and communion aren’t something we come here to watch, but rather to come do and to be fed so we can go out and be ministers of the gospel. It’s right there on the front of the bulletin. Ministers: All members of Ascension.
We come back each week to meet Jesus in the bread and the wine so we can remember and so we can be re-membered. And each time Jesus shows up, just as he promised to.
Jesus is all in. He’s even willing to give his very self, his body and blood for us. That’s we’re remembering when we take communion. It’s not that Jesus isn’t with us the rest of the time, it’s that we so easily forget God’s with us.
We forget about what God’s done for us. We get distracted from being all in for Jesus.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells them to not get drunk with wine, but to be filled with the Spirit. So many things try to numb us to God’s gifts. Busyness, health concerns, back to school preparations, family concerns, even good things like vacations, entertainment. So many things try to numb us to what God’s doing, to get us to focus on ourselves and our own wisdom.
But Paul says do not get drunk with wine, don’t get inebriated by focusing on the foolish, temporary things, but be filled with the Spirit. The way we experience life filled with the Spirit, the abundant life Jesus said he came to bring, the way we experience that, is by participating in it. Be filled with the Spirit, Paul writes, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like the church coming together to worship, not to put on a show for people, but to be together, to celebrate and remember what God’s done for us.
It sounds like us, as people called to be ministers of the Gospel, as people called to share the good news, living out our calling together, meeting to be refreshed, renewed, and reminded of our purpose. It sounds like coming together as a community not to get drunk, but to celebrate life in God’s Spirit, and to invite in people who haven’t experienced the kind of meaningful life God provides.
You can tell when someone’s filled with wine by looking at them. Can someone looking at us tell that we’re filled by the presence of God’s Spirit?
As we continue our worship service this morning, I invite you to come and eat, that as we trust Jesus’ promise to meet us in bread and wine, we might remember what God has done for us and participate together, as Jesus’ body.