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Sermon for St. George’s Chapel

8/15/21 - Tenants Harbor, ME

Last week, two friends staying in Cushing had come over here for lunch on the porch. They were friends from St. Columba’s, our church back in DC, and we talked mostly about our backgrounds, where we’d grown up, how we met our spouses, our children and grandchildren.

But at one point, the conversation turned towards religion. One of us, not me, asked the rest of us, “Do you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus?” Without even a pause, we all answered “No.” At the table were my husband Bill and me, both Episcopal priests, and Woody and Jennifer, highly active parishioners, she a former Sr. Warden. Nor did any of us believe in a bodily resurrection after death for anyone else. Woody wondered whether some people reject cremation because they do believe in a bodily resurrection. We then got into a long discussion of cremation and burial and the environmental impact of our different processes of dealing with bodily remains. But that’s a whole other sermon, for sure!

In this sermon, I’d like to address this morning’s gospel about Jesus as living bread which makes the claim that we must eat this bread and drink the communion wine as his blood if we are to have eternal life. For those of you who were here last Sunday, this gospel reading and the hymn we will sing at the offertory will seem like a rerun – the passages are both about Jesus as bread of life, and we did indeed sing this hymn last week, and, I found out a few days ago, we sang it a third time earlier in the summer! So apologies to any who have been here for all three – after some discussion, our planning team decided to go ahead with the hymn – all 5 verses. One reason is that lots of people love this hymn, particularly the chorus about “I will raise them up,” but a second reason is so that we can examine more closely what it says and try to figure out how to understand it. This is because the hymn goes even further than John’s gospel in its claims! The hymn claims in vs. 3 that unless you eat of the bread and drink the wine, you shall not have life within you, and in vs. 4, we sing that those and only those who believe in Jesus will live forever.

Literal belief in the text of the hymn or in the gospel passage itself isn’t possible for me. It clashes with anything reason tells us about bread and wine actually becoming flesh and blood and about what happens after we die. And its demand that you must eat that bread and drink that wine or you’ll have no life in you is an obnoxious thing to say or even think, about people who don’t happen to be Christian. It is an exclusive claim that salvation comes only through Jesus, and I certainly don’t think Jesus himself would ever make it!

We’re dealing here with John’s words, written down several generations after Jesus lived, and so offering a highly developed theology reflecting the early church’s split from Judaism. It would have been a time when partaking of communion as Jesus’ flesh and blood, would have been a badge, along with baptism, of one’s belonging to the growing group of those who followed Jesus. It was important then to differentiate themselves, sometimes even in the face of persecution, from other religions – this was the context of John’s gospel.

But what do we do with this passage today if we can’t take it literally? Do we read it because the lectionary says so? Do we sing the hymn because it echoes the passage? I like to follow the lectionary – I like it that millions of Christians read this same passage today around the world; I like it that the hymn clearly references it. And like it or not, I, and we, are challenged by it, confronted with how to in any way apply it to our faith.

Back at the lunch on our porch, Woody suggested that we might consider the bodily resurrection as metaphor. I almost said “duh,” but then just agreed – he’s quite right, and religious scholars have posited this ever since enlightenment thinking challenged so much of what the Bible offers. People don’t have problems with understanding a lot of poetry metaphorically, from the simplest doggerel – “My love is like a red, red rose” to the most profound “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul…” But for some, interpreting a passage like this metaphorically somehow degrades it. Maybe that’s because we’ve been so inured since childhood to accept the Bible as the Word of God, an accurate recounting of history and an absolute source of rules for living. But that’s not what it is. As Mimsy pointed out last week, the Bible is a library – 39 books of Hebrew scriptures and 27 books of Christian testament, wildly varied, spanning hundreds of years in its creation and including a wealth of genres. And understood metaphorically, it contains a rich repository of nourishing spiritual food – the bread of life, it you will.

So let’s examine the passage in metaphorical terms. In it, Jesus offers himself as nourishment, bread and wine, body and blood. He offers himself as what we need to live fully. Well, probably our most pressing need of all is to love and be loved, and this is what Jesus offers, over and over and to everyone he meets. When he washes his disciples’ feet the night before he dies, he gives his new commandment, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” Loving and being loved. When people met Jesus, they perceived in him the presence of a living love. Jesus offers himself, his way of living, as food for the journey. For Jesus to call himself the bread of life, is really Jesus saying that he embodies God’s love, bread for the life of the world. And isn’t that what love is? Bread for the life of the world? Isn’t love the nourishment we all need?

I’ve just finished the gripping book by Laura Hillenbrand – the story of the famed runner Louie Zamperini’s excruciating experiences during World War II – first adrift on a raft in the Pacific, surrounded by sharks, but then even worse, as prisoner of war in a series of Japanese camps where he suffered unspeakable torture and abuse – I found it really hard to read, but I had to see how it turned out.

Well how it turned out was about spiritual nourishment and our need for love. After the war, Louie descended into an abyss of alcoholism and bitter resentment and hatred of his camp tormentors – one in particular. You could say he literally had no life in him; it had been beaten and starved out of him. Even the love of his wife couldn’t save him. To my surprise, it was an encounter with the evangelist Billy Graham that turned Louie’s life around – this was in the 50’s when Graham toured the country, teaching and preaching everywhere. One day Louie grudgingly heeded his wife’s pleas to attend a rally and hear Graham. And there under a tent, he was converted; he was found by love and found he could love again. He could at last remember times of blessing and grace in his life; he felt cleansed and supremely alive – as the author describes it “he was a new creation.”

I confess I’m not much attracted to spectacular religious conversions or evangelical drama, but Zamperini’s story was compelling because what happened to him at the revival lasted – lasted his whole long life. He was finally able to feel God’s love again and gradually to reach out in love to others – most spectacularly to the very Japanese captors he had so despised. He actually forgave what happened to him – something I don’t think I could ever do, but surely this was a gift of grace that Louie received, and he became a hero to many, a moving testament to the power of love to turn us around, the power of love to nourish us, to be living food and drink, the power of love to be bread for the life of the world.

At St. Columba’s our mission statement is very short – “Live God’s Love.” That’s it, three words. And Jesus offered this kind of love. Jesus lived God’s love – he gave God’s love human form. He offered God’s love simply and generously and always, to everyone. God’s love was his bread, and God’s love is ours as well. We are called to live this love, and in our sacrament of communion, we act this out metaphorically with bread and wine – tangible reminders of what we need and what we need to do.

I believe that God’s love undergirds creation and is at work always in our world, sometimes despite the seeming evidence to the contrary. And I believe that God’s love is for everyone – it is indeed the bread of life, no matter what symbols or metaphors we use. Jesus was an actual person, but Jesus as the one Christians call Lord is also our central metaphor, and I believe it is brilliant and holy in what it conveys. But God’s love can never be fully expressed by any symbol system, and our Christian heritage is not the only way. When we read our scriptures and sing our songs, may we indeed find spiritual nourishment, but most importantly, may we also live God’s love as Jesus calls us all to do. Amen

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