Texts: John 6:35, 41-51; Numbers 11:1,4-6, 10-23, 31
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Aug. 12, 2018
I begin this morning’s sermon with a confession. Every three years when we come to the end of July and all through August our Gospel is taken from the 6th chapter of John for five consecutive weeks. I groan. If you ever try to come up with five sermons in a row focused on the theme: “I am the Bread of Life” that are fresh, interesting and relevant you will know why. It’s not easy.
We started on this chapter two weeks ago. The Gospel you may remember was about Jesus feeding the 5,000. With a lapse of three years—like any other Gospel passage—I am usually able to approach it from a different angle and discover some fresh insight. It is coming back to the same theme five weeks in a row that I find difficult. Last week, for example, I was really struggling. I had reread the Gospel several times, read commentaries, looked, scoured my files, looked at my old sermons on the passage. Nothing seemed to strike a chord. By Thursday I was getting desperate. I prayed: “Lord if you want me to look like an idiot on Sunday, I’m willing, but I think your people deserve more than I have to give them. But I need your help.”
Just then my cell phone rang. It was a priest friend of mine from Kentucky who I hadn’t talked to for several months. It was a pleasant diversion. Before we hung up, I asked if his upcoming sermon’s focus was on the Gospel. “Yes,” he said: “I’ve entitled it the “Jesus diet.” He then explained how he was approaching the passage. For better or worse, his approached clicked with me and I was able to sit at my computer and the sermon just flowed. I was grateful
Until this week, that is when I was faced with John 6 again. Not only did the Gospel sound similar to last week, it started with the same verse that ended last week’s reading. “Jesus said, ‘I am the Bread of Life and whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” I was back to my “same o, same o” of the week before. Reading, reflecting and coming up with nothing. I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated and wishing I could track down the people that developed our current lectionary and tell them how I felt about it.
This time instead of being interrupted by a telephone call, I felt the voice of the Holy Spirit whisper in my ear. “Read the Gospel again, slowly and aloud.” I did. I got to the second verse. “Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.” “Isn’t that exactly what you are doing?” the still small voice inside me asked. “Yes,” I admitted shamed faced. “Then stop bitching and start eating,” came the reply. I prayed our prayer of confession, asking God to forgive me. If you like my message this morning, thank God. If you don’t, blame me, it probably means I still don’t listen all that well.
After all my own complaining and as a result of the encounter I just related to you I have come to see the Jews described into today’s Gospel from a very different perspective. I had always seen them as our Lord’s antagonists, demanding, literalists and not spiritually oriented. But that was before I was told by the still small voice that I was one of them. Now I see them as confused, a little frustrated and deeply concerned. I got on the boat with them in last week’s Gospel, crossed the lake.
With them I got off the boat in Capernaum and found Jesus. Our first question to him: “Rabbi when did you come here?” really hid our real question. “Why? Why did you leave us? When you fed us with the loaves and fishes yesterday in the wilderness, it reminded us of Moses feeding our ancestors with manna. That was when we recognized you as ‘the Prophet.’ Not just any prophet, but the one prophesied by Moses when he said: ‘the Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among our own brothers. You must listen to him.’ We know that the Prophet of which Moses was speaking was our Promised Messiah. That is why we wanted to make you king, like your forefather David, because we know from our scriptures that the Messiah will be from David’s line and His kingdom shall be forever. But instead of accepting us and our offer, you slipped away and disappeared. Why? That is what we want to know.”
As the conversation developed in last week’s Gospel, Jesus didn’t respond to those kinds of questions. And instead of acknowledging that he was “the Prophet,” he referred to himself as “the Son of Man.” The Jews knew what that term meant as well. It was first mentioned in their scriptures by Daniel and then often appeared in their literature during four hundred years after the last book in the Old Testament was written until the time of Jesus. In their understanding, the Son of Man was a heavenly figure, probably, an Archangel like Gabriel, who would come with a host of angles when the Messiah would emerge and assist a Jewish army in overthrowing their oppressor and reestablishing the kingdom of Israel. They of course remembered a similar incident when Gideon and a few men were able to put a far superior army to flight because a large army of angels joined them in the battle.
It is at this point of the conversation that our Gospel begins today. The Jews are now more confused than ever. Jesus didn’t look like an angel. They knew his earthly father Joseph and his mother, Mary. How could he say: “I have come down from Heaven?” He sure didn’t look like an angel to them. And so, they asked for a sign. The sign he had given the day before suggested to them he was “the Prophet,” the Messiah who they were expecting. If instead he was the heavenly “Son of Man,” surely, they were not asking too much. Perhaps, they suggest, this time he could rain down manna from heaven.
The problem, of course, is that they were looking backwards, not forward. They were right in recognizing that Jesus was their expected Messiah. What they didn’t realize is that in Jesus, God was about to deal with them under a new covenant. They understood how God had dealt with them in the past. But now Jesus was calling them to think outside that box. Everything was about to change.
As we all know things are also about to change at St. Paul’s. Undoubtedly in the next two or three weeks, the vestry will announce who is your new rector. I understand they interviewed all the candidates this past week. This is a time of anticipation and excitement. Some of you may feel some sadness at the thought of my leaving. Others of you may be giving a sign of relief. But all of us know that change is coming, and things will be different.
The first several months upon the arrival of a new rector is often called the honeymoon period. I think it is misnamed. In our system of governance, I think it is better understood as the time of courtship. You will be getting to know each other. You will be sharing your hopes and vision for the future of St. Paul’s. You will be establishing and testing boundaries. It will be a time of great joy and expectation.
It is not this period of transition which I want to focus your attention this morning, however. Rather I point to that period, when we often say, the honeymoon is over and the real business of getting on with life begins.
This is the point we are at in our Lord’s ministry in today’s Gospel. The crowds have been following him now for about two years. They loved him, they embraced him. They saw in him their Messiah, their Savior. They wanted to make him king. But this was the moment when it became clear that their vision and set of expectations were not exactly that same as His. They were disappointed, confused. They may even have felt betrayed. That was when they remembered how things used to be and how they expected things to continue.
Today’s Old Testament reading captures well the occasion that they remembered. Their forefathers had been marvelously delivered from slavery in Egypt. God had given them manna from heaven to feed them in the wilderness. But it was hot. They were weary. The land of promise seemed a long way off. They became discouraged and began to lose heart. “If only we had meat to eat, they said. In Egypt we had fish to eat at no cost. we had cucumbers melons, leeks onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite. All we have to eat is this manna.”
That’s the time of testing. It came to them. It will come to you. In that moment it will be tempting to remember the good old days under Fr Bill. It will be easy to complain. I trust you will not do that. Rather, remember what Jesus said to the crowd then and what the Holy Spirit said to me this week: Stop complaining and start eating.
For month now, you have prayed each week: “Almighty God, giver of every good gift, look graciously on your Church and so guide the minds of those who shall choose a rector for this parish that we may receive a faithful pastor who will care for your people and equip us for our ministries.”
Now that a rector has been called, continue to believe that God has heard your prayer. Now the time has come to pray for your new rector. Stand with him and support him when times get tough. If you do that, you will have passed the test and the future of St. Paul’s will be bright indeed.