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August 13, 2000
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

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LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

1 Kings 19:4-8 and
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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Discipleship
II. The Claims of Christ

Have you ever personally encountered a religious / spiritual claim that caused you to stop and wonder?

Claims to spiritual greatness have been around as long as humankind has been around. Often, tragedy accompanies these claims.  Names like Jim Jones, David Koresh and Marshall Appelwhite of "Heaven's Gate" notoriety come to mind.

Religious claims can be dangerous as well as extraordinary. 

And yet, some of those claims are not dangerous at all.  They bring hope to millions and sometimes healing to many.

Perhaps no name elicits faithful devotion or total skepticism like the name Lourdes. In the village of Lourdes in , a young girl, Bernadette Soubirous claimed to see an apparition of the Virgin Mary.  She said she saw a young girl, dressed in white, with a blue sash around her waist, a yellow rose on each foot, rosary beads on her arm. It was the Virgin Mary. From then until 16th. July 1858, Bernadette had eighteen encounters with Her at this spot.  To-day, about five million pilgrims and visitors come to gather at the place where the visions took place. Stories of miraculous healings abound from pilgrims to Lourdes and the village of Lourdes France and the sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes are a world renowned institution.

More recently, there is the story of Audrey Santo. Audrey is a teenage girl who lies in a coma, after nearly drowning in a swimming pool twelve years ago, on August 9, 1987. She has developed a large following over the years due to reports of the many miracles that have occurred in her presence, including visions of the Virgin Mary, miraculous healings, moving and bleeding statues, bleeding communion hosts, and oil spontaneously dripping down walls. She is also reportedly a "victim soul," in which she takes on the suffering of others.

While not declaring the events in Worcester, Massachusetts to be untrue, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester has stated that more tests are needed to establish whether the events surrounding Audrey Santo are indeed "miraculous."

You would think that religious authorities would love to encounter events that could possibly confirm the existence of the miracles wouldn't you?  Yet, Ellen Barry of the    Worcester Phoenix wrote, "Every bishop dreads having one of these things happen in his diocese," says Reverend Emmanuel McCarthy, a Brockton Eastern Rite priest and a friend of the Santo family.

***

Well -- perhaps religious claims have fallen on difficult times in our generation.  You would think such things would have been more acceptable way back in time.  Like ... say in the time of Christ.

As some of our younger folk might say,  "NOT!"

The Gospel Story

Listen once again to the first two verses of our gospel reading:

Jesus 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 ... Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." [John 6:35 & 41]

The gospel reading for this week takes us back to the last verse of last week's reading.  It sets Jesus' claim about who he is and what he does dead center in the discussion.  It's a kind of a, "You came for bread... well, let me tell you the truth about bread. I am the bread that came down from heaven!"

Now the crisis that will lead to a cross on the outskirts of Jerusalem begins:

"Than the Jews began to complain about him because he said, 'I am the bread that came down from heaven.' "

The use of the term, "the Jews," is not an ethnic slur -- Jesus and his followers were Jews -- It was rather a focus on Judaism's absolute commitment to monotheism. Anything that even hinted of attributing divinity to a human being would be anathema to Jewish people. The complaining of the people had to do initially with a discomfort with Jesus' words about coming down from heaven.

"How can that be?" They ask, "This is a local kid.  We know his parents.  What's he talking about?"

It gets worse.  Jesus tells them to stop complaining.  Interestingly, the word is "grumble" or "murmur."  It is the equivalent of the Hebrew word used in Exodus when the children of Israel got into the wilderness and were complaining against Moses because they were hungry. In other words, the ancestors of the people who were now complaining against Jesus' words were those who complained against Moses because they had no bread.

In the words of Jesus to those who had initially gathered hoping to reap more of the free physical bread, there was the most radical claim. It set their minds spinning.

"I am the bread of life!"

Hearing Jesus' Claim - for the Very First Time

It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for a group of Jewish people in the first century to hear the words, "I am the bread of life."  And even more difficult, "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."

The gathered crowd was only beginning to understand that Jesus was taking them way beyond the issue of physical bread to a claim of being able to impart life.  As the bred in the wilderness sustained their ancestors in a physical way, so now a young man whom many of them had watched grow up was claiming that he could give them bread that would impart everlasting life.

It would be more than most of them could bear.

From the sacred words of the Torah, Israel's faith was expressed in the "Shema Israel." (Hear Israel)  "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one." [Deut.6:4]  

For a devout Jew in the first century, hearing the words of Jesus would come uncomfortably close to blasphemy.  Although Jesus does not utter the words, "I am the Lord," in this dialogue, there is a claim that will divide the crowd.

When the Words have become Familiar

"Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you."

"This is the body of Christ, broken for you."

 Of course, Jesus Christ is the bread of life.   From a child we have heard the words. A week would never go by that a devout Jew would not hear the words many times, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one."  And for we who gather regularly around the Lord's Table, the words, "This is the Body of Christ," are deeply ingrained in our hearts.

In the familiarity of the words we hear a gracious invitation to "come to the table."  The boldness of the claim, "I am the bread of life" however, may not carry the pungency it did for the hearers in our gospel reading. For them the claim became a challenge. Are the claims of this person to be accepted or rejected?  Is he for real or is he an impostor who should be eliminated.

Many of us no longer struggle with these questions.  The basics of Christian faith have been taught to us since we were children.  Others of us may have come more recently to a life of faith and we received the core of Christian faith as truth. Yet, there are surely many among us who struggle with the meaning of faith and quietly wonder about some of the concepts of the faith.

But, the boldness and audacity of the young man from Nazareth who stood before a crowd of his contemporaries no longer strikes in the way it must have hit them. In the midst of supporters, detractors and the just plain curious, Jesus says, "I am the bread of life!"

"Gulp!"

Hearing Jesus' Claim - Again - for the Very First Time

It would be a good thing if each of us would stop and listen to the claims of Christ again - as thought it were for the very first time.  If his claims were simply true or false in the larger scope of things - ramblings or reality that made no actual difference in our lives - we could simply let them sit there on the pages of the bible without giving much thought to them.

But...  these claims are not simply statements about the world "out there," they are claims about our own lives. Jesus' words go to the heart of who we are and who God created us to be.  Listen to the sense of Jesus' words and hear the claim on your life as though Christ himself were standing before you:

* "I am the bread of life. I am the one who will feed your heart and soul.  If you give your life to me and trust me, you will never be without meaning or purpose in your living."  [6:35]

* "I will not only provide the meaning and purpose of your life here on this earth, but I will give you life that will endure for all of eternity." [6:47]

Can you hear how truly radical Jesus' claims are?  What if a friend or neighbor said these things to you?  You would look for the nearest exit.

As it turns out, some of those who heard the claims of Jesus that day did look for an exit.

Those who stayed became disciples for life.  To encounter the person of Jesus Christ and respond to the claims of Christ with faith and trust is the beginning of authentic discipleship.

It is good for us to renew our faith and trust in the One who has claimed us by hearing his words afresh, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

May God give us grace to hear the words of Jesus again -- for the very first time -- and receive in our spirits the bread that will feed us forever.


The town of Lourdes, France and the sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes have a complete web site >>> Here 

For more on the Audrey Santo story see the article at About.Com >>> Here  and check the story by a reporter at her hometown newspaper >>> Here

See comments of a Messianic Jewish Congregation on the Shema and their understanding of Jesus as Messiah >>> Here   There is also a helpful article by N.T. Wright on the meaning of Paul's incarnational theology in light of the Shema >>> Here


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

Bread and water.  I can remember my grandmother (not a child psychologist) telling me that if I was not good, I would be put in jail where I would receive only "bread and water" to live on.  It sounded pretty bad.

Bread and water, on the other hand, represents the absolute essentials for subsistence. Throughout scripture the themes of bread and water, or food and drink are played against hunger and thirst. Bread and water are life.  "O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is..."  [Ps. 63:1] Physical hunger and thirst in scripture points to the spiritual. In the gospel lesson, Jesus points to himself as the source of spiritual water and bread that will satisfy the "thirsty soul" of the person who goes to him.

The Old Testament and gospel lessons both deal with the theme of hunger and thirst. The epistle continues the theme of maturity in faith.  Those who come to Christ for the "essentials -- bread and water" are called to grow into a transformed community.  It is the witness of that transformed community that is to call the world to the source of that which satisfies inner hunger and thirst.

1 Kings 19:4-8

Warned that evil Ahab's pagan wife Jezebel promised to kill him,  Elijah flees south to Beersheba and then into the Judean wilderness.  He bemoans his lot and is feeling quite sorry for himself because he gets nothing but trouble in return for his faithfulness to God. "...O Lord, take away my life," he says.

God has much more in store for Elijah.  Twice he is awakened by an angel and commanded to eat and drink. He will need strength for a 40 day journey to "Horeb, the mount of God," where God will speak to him in that familiar, "Still small voice."

The text goes to the recurring theme of "essentials in the wilderness."  It calls to mind Jesus 40 days in the wilderness without food and drink.  From the prophet to Jesus to the followers of Christ today -- God is the source of what we need to journey in the wilderness.  This text is a great prelude to the invitation of Jesus to come to him and never be thirsty or hungry again.

John 6:35, 41-51

The text for today begins with a repeat of 6:35 and then skips to verse 41.  There will be a similar repetition for the text next week.  The intent seems to call us to pay attention to the progression that takes place in this wonderful chapter in John.

The words, "I am," must certainly have called every devout Jew to attention.  In this short narrative, Jesus used the words, "I am," three times.  The phrases "I am" and "I will" are instructive.  They go to the heart of the conflict that will persist from this turning point in John to the conclusion of the gospel.  Note:

"I will raise that person up on the last day."

"The bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."

These words are more than strong spiritual claims - they are decisive for the relationship of the hearers with God. The consequences of the decision one makes about the speaker and the claims have to do with life, satisfaction and meaning in life and eternal life. The one essential task of this pericope is to have the hearers understand how profoundly radical these words are.

Verse 51 has been the source of much debate as to whether there is an allusion to the eucharist in Jesus' words about giving his flesh for the life of the world. The images deepen in next week's text where Jesus speaks of eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  The key to understanding is to keep in mind the differences between the Gospel of John and the synoptic gospels. We look at this issue a bit more next week, but the sense of the text needs to be understood in light of the progression of meaning in the symbol of bread.  There is movement from physical bread which Jesus supplies for the physical life of his hearers to the spiritual bread which feeds the soul.  The sense of eucharist in John is woven into the whole relationship between the believer and Christ.  Believing / trusting in Christ with the whole of our lives is what nourishes both in life and in life eternal. In verse 51, Jesus  begins to point to the sacrificial giving of himself for others.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

The epistle continues the theme from last week of the maturing of the community of believers.  Thought not related to the themes of bread and feeding on Christ, there is a call to transformation which will lead to a community where the love of Christ rules. The writer appeals to the sacrificial giving of Christ as we are enjoined to mature in the community of love.

The epistle actually relates to the gospel text in a deeper way through the call to a life of mutual love and forgiveness as Christ has loved us and forgiven us. As Christ chose to offer himself as an offering which was pleasing to God - so we are called to become "imitators of God." 

The call to changed lives in the text is an injunction to new attitudes and new behaviors.  The authenticity of our relationship to God is seen in our relationships with each other.  Honest maturation in the Christian life can not happen unless we, "feed on the bread of life."


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship (Based on Ps. 34:1-8)

Leader:   Come, let us bless the Lord always,
People:  The praise of God shall continually be on our lips.

Leader:   O magnify the Lord with me,

People:  Let us rejoice together in the name of the Lord.

Leader:   Look to God and be radiant,
People: 
Because those who trust in the Lord shall never be ashamed!

A Prayer of Confession

Merciful Lord and giver of life, we confess that we are slow to hear your
call to changed lives and quick to wander from the pathways you set
before us.  We have fed our hearts and minds with those things which
are not bread from heaven and have found ourselves restless and empty.
Forgive us our resistance to your Spirit and renew us in this time of
worship that we might become more fully the Body of Christ you desire
that we should be.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Friends, hear the hopeful words of the prophet Isaiah, "...let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon."   Open your hearts to the forgiveness of the God and rejoice.  Amen. 

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Almighty and most gracious God, we come before you today with wonder in our hearts for the amazing love you have toward us.  It would be understandable to us if you had decided that this mortal race was without hope. It is joy to our hearts and yet a wonder to our minds that you have never given up on us.

When we consider the lengths to which you went to secure our redemption, we are left speechless. We see the cross of Jesus Christ where the very best that ever lived gave himself for us. Our hearts crisscross the pages of history and we see his loving spirit working through disciples who have given themselves to him.

O dear God, help us to feed our hearts and minds and souls on the bread which has come down from heaven for us.  Cause us to so grow up in Christ that we will become bearers of hope and love for the world around us.  Keep us from the judgmental sprit which turns its back on those we disapprove of and keeps us from engaging our world with the spirit of Christ.

Help us to praise you at all times, O Lord, that we might keep our spirits tuned to your Spirit and our hearts tuned to you love and so become faithful servants of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

Lord Jesus Christ, you have given us your very self to sustain and nourish us. We bring these gifts as a token of our heart's desire to become more like you.  May the gifts we bring help to build your kingdom of love.  Amen.