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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bread is useless unless you eat it

My sermon for this week was based on John 6:35, 41-51.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Ok, so that title should be a pretty obvious point, but it seems that it is a point that still needs to be made.

In order for bread to nourish you, you have to eat it.  If you are hungry and you put bread in your pocket, no good.  If you are thirsty and somebody gives you a picture of a glass of water, no good.  If you want to absorb the lesson of a book, it won't do you any good to balance the book on the top of your head.

In other words, just being in proximity to bread will not suffice.

In the same sense, just living near a gym won't make you fit, just being in proximity to a police station won't make you a law-abiding citizen, and more to the point, just being in proximity to a church will not make you a faithful person.

We have all met people who are regular churchgoers, who punch in and punch out regularly for their weekly hour of power, and yet who seem to miss the very fundamental lessons that Jesus was trying to convey.

Part of this might have to do with the language we use in church.  Most of our language, like in any organization, is highly codified.  Much of it, not surprisingly, is based on Scripture.  Two such phrases come out of the Gospel passage for today: "I am the bread of life" and "Whoever eats of this bread shall live forever".  Jesus makes both of these statements about himself, or at the very least, the Gospel author attributes those words to Jesus.

These words and concepts are echoed in some form or another at every single Eucharist, every time we take the elements of Communion.

But what do they actually mean?  Do we actually know what Jesus meant by "bread of life" and what he meant by "live forever"?

Because the pretty obvious point is that every observant Christian who take Communion still hungers and thirsts, and every observant Christian dies, despite the promises Jesus makes in today's Gospel.

The equally obvious point is that Jesus is not talking about bodily hunger or bodily life and death.  Rather, he is talking about spiritual hunger and spiritual life.

Following hot on the heels of the feeding of the 5000, where Jesus satisfies the physical hunger of the people, he invites them to reflect on spiritual food (see last weeks' sermon).  This spiritual food, as I mentioned last week, is that which feeds others: acts of kindness, generosity, love, compassion, forgiveness and justice.  Spiritual food is every value and virtue of goodness, those which Jesus exemplifies.

But what does all this have to do with eternal life?

In the original Greek, as well as in English, the word "eternal" has two meanings, one quantitative, the other qualitative.  In other words, one refers to an amount of time, the other to the quality of time.

"Eternal" can mean endless, existing forever, without beginning or end.  God is certainly that, but the other definition of "eternal" is valid for all time, essentially unchanging or immutable.

So which definition did Jesus have in mind when he invited his listeners to eternal life?

Traditionally, most Christians have associated "eternal life" with Heaven.  The idea, it would seem, is that we are supposed to do good things, NOT because just because they are the right things to do, but because we are trying to buy our way into Heaven where we can live together with our relatives an friends forever and ever.

Am I the only one who sees a fundamental problem with this?  Foremost, this means that we are trying to buy God's love, which is one of the things Jesus criticized the Pharisees for.  It is fairly evident that Jesus' mission and ministry focused first and foremost on how we should act in this world, how we should treat one another.  He seems to have had relatively little to say about what would happen in the afterlife, or whether there even is one for that matter.

My personal feeling is that we should be more focused on how we live our lives day to day.  What happens afterwards will take care of itself.

We spend so much time worrying about what we put in our bodies, but what are we feeding our souls?  Are we more worried about what happens when we die than we are about how we live?

The answers to those questions should be fairly obvious.  Today, I hope we all choose the focus on the right things.

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