St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Saskatoon
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (I Cor. 13:1)

August 2, 2009

Posted on August 2, 2009 in category: Sermons
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2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a
Psalm 51:1-12
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Back in February, I helped to lead an ecumenical retreat for women in ministry here in Saskatoon. The Eucharistic theme of our time together was taken from Henri Nouwen’s book, “Life of the Beloved”. We explored how our lives (as women in ministry) are taken, blessed, broken, and shared for the life of the world, as we participate in Christ’s own ministry today. As part of our time together, we decided that it would be both fun and meaningful to make bread. I had never made bread except using a bread machine, but some of the other women were at least occasional bread bakers, so we gave it a try.

We gathered in groups of 6 or 7 around tables in the dining room at Queen’s House, and took turns adding ingredients, mixing, kneading, sharing stories, and laughing a lot. And much to my surprise, our bread turned out both beautiful and delicious. We ate it together the next morning during our closing worship. It was an ecumenical “holy meal” with plenty of bread and wine to share as we celebrated our brief time together and began to think about returning to our particular ministries.

And I have not stopped making bread since. The grocery store still has my business, but I’m usually buying flour, yeast, and milk, and rarely any pre-made bread. There’s something about the smell of the yeast, the feel of the dough in my hands, and the wonder of its rising each time and baking up into such wonderful food! Making bread is great, even when it’s just for Nick and I, and even when I just wrap up the loaves and stick most of them in the freezer. But it’s even better when I get to share it, like I can this morning.

Have any of you ever made bread? Do any of you make bread regularly?

Many of you may not know that one of our church members, Wilma Hallam, has been making the bread for communion here at St. Andrew’s for many years. She has quietly shared her bread-making gift with us for a long time, and she has recently reached a stage in her health that is making that offering difficult to make. So… if you would like to share the joy of baking bread for communion, just let Gwen or I know if you would like to take a turn.

But communion is not just about the bread, is it? That’s what I told the children this morning: It’s not just about the bread.

I recently read about a church in Florida that periodically hosts an event for people in their community that are homeless. The church simply provides the place and partners with specialized ministry to the homeless that can help them organize an expo of resources for them. They have everything from clean underwear and dry socks to the state documents they will need to get a job. They are connected to the immediate resources they need for health. They receive gifts like free hair-cuts, and necessities like back-packs and tents, along with group home options, employment information, and more.

A good meal and new clothing are part of the program as well. But the best part, the pastor says, is that every homeless person is paired up with someone from the congregation. There are literally hundreds of church people who walk with those who may be a bit intimidated or embarrassed or confused. That walk is the most important part of the distribution process. Resources without relationship are just stuff. Receiving without being respected, listened to, and laughed with just results in more to lug around.

It’s more than just bread.

I also heard a story about a small village in Chile. There was a mine near the village that provided the only source of income for the people that lived in that village. Apparently, the mine had been bandied about between nationalization and privatization, and it was due to be closed in the very near future by the new capitalist government.

Many communities have faced this sort of thing. The one industry that sustained them is being closed. Everyone’s going to lose their jobs. They’ll have to find other ways to survive. But in this little village, there was no Plan B. No way to leave the village, no government plan for relocation, no natural resource nearby that they could easily tap into for a new source of income, no way of connecting with other communities to generate enterprise. No capacity for a new start at all.

At the centre of the community was a building that told the story, literally in concrete terms, of the way things were and where they were heading. It was a communal oven where the women would gather once a week to bake all the bread for the village. It stood cold and unused. There was no longer anything to burn in order to bake the bread — the inhabitants had picked the landscape bare of natural wood and had burned everything else they could put their hands on and could spare from their homes. No one could afford to buy firewood from somewhere else. There was no longer any bread.

An outsider visiting the community saw the loss of that communal bread-making, and wondered what else is lost when a community oven goes cold. What about the everyday connections between and among the women? In what way did the oven serve as a furnace to the souls of these women, as well as to the bread that would feed their bodies and those of their families? The visitor imagined the loss of flour-dusted conversations and well-kneaded friendships. And she tried to imagine the depth and variety of the hungers that were already gnawing away at this fragile community.

It’s more than just bread.

As Reformed Christians, we do not read the bible literally. We read it seriously, but not literally. We realize that the scriptures are full of many types of literature, including parables, poems, letters, wisdom sayings, and more. And the stories that we may once have read as if they were history, we now understand contain more theological truth that is wrapped up in symbols and metaphors, rather than historical reality.

The Gospel of John is chalk full of stories that need not be read as historical fact, but that point us to the truth of God come to us in Jesus Christ. Having been written much later than the other Gospels, probably in the early 2nd century, the details in the stories in the 4th Gospel are fairly unlikely to contain much historical accuracy, but every detail is carefully crafted to convey a theological point about the identity and power of Jesus the Christ.

For example, the other Gospel writers talk about Jesus blessing the bread, and then inviting his disciples to distribute the food among the crowd of four or five thousand. But in John’s Gospel, Jesus does the distribution all by himself… as if one man could feed such a gathering all by himself! Literally, I’m sure he couldn’t. But you can see the theological point… It is Jesus himself who feeds and nourishes each one of us with all that we need for life.

The community of Christians from which John’s Gospel emerged was one that had experienced both isolation and persecution because of their devotion to God in Jesus Christ. They believed that God had been made flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and their mission was to share that life-changing good news with anyone that they could.

The whole Gospel is set up as a series of signs performed by Jesus that reveal his identity and his connection to God. People experience these signs, and come to believe and to trust in Jesus for life and hope. I don’t think that Jesus’ historical life was likely as neatly organized or as obvious as John’s Gospel makes it out to be. But remember, the Gospel is not an historical account. It’s a theological demonstration, meant to reveal, to convince, and to change the lives of those who read it.

Jesus’ disciples first see him turning water into wine at a wedding — and they see his glory and they believe in him. Later, Jesus heals the son of a royal official. The official sees it as a sign of Jesus’ ability to give life, and he and all his household believe in Jesus. But now there is a crowd. People are getting interested in this miracle-worker and the things that he is doing and teaching. Jesus performs another miracle — another sign of his power and his identity as the one sent from God. But this time, the people who witness the miracle (and who benefit from it) don’t seem to understand it.

It was more than just bread.

It’s like King David (in our Old Testament reading this morning) who didn’t understand that the prophet’s story was about him. David took the story literally, assuming that the people in the story were real people — not noticing that the sin of the rich man in the story compared to his own sin, and that the story was really about him and the horrible thing that he had done.

Well, the crowd liked Jesus because he gave them some bread. They liked bread, and they probably really liked free bread. But they missed the point that it was more than just bread. It was more than just an uncanny ability to provide lots of free food for lots of people.

The theological point that the Gospel writer is trying to make is that Jesus himself is bread for the world. His life gives us life. His love empowers us to love. He doesn’t just fill our physical hunger, but he satisfies our hunger for meaning, purpose, joy, love, laughter, relationship, community… and so much more. And with Jesus in our lives, we don’t get hungry again, because he is more than just bread.

Jesus said to them and to us, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” As we come to the table today, may we truly experience Jesus’ presence with us, and may we truly know that this is more than just bread. Amen.