Sunday, August 26, 2012

Difficult and Life-Giving

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
August 26, 2012

Year B: Proper 16 – The 13th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43
Psalm 84
(Ephesians 6:10-20)
John 6:56-69
Difficult and Life-Giving
            By now many of you have heard at least a little about our recent mission trip to West Virginia.
            As usual with this kind of trip, I went into it a little nervous. Maybe the other participants were nervous, too. I wondered if we’d all get along. I worried that our accommodations would be too uncomfortable. And I hoped that our work would match our skills and energy – not too easy but also not overwhelmingly technical or difficult.
            Well, everything turned out OK, though I admit that my stomach sank a little when I learned we’d spend our week working on a roof. None of us had any skills in this area. And, obviously working on a roof presents some particular safety issues.
            I joked that I was only allowed to lose one person – but that was only masking my real concern that someone would take a tumble down to the ground.
            It turned out that we all got pretty comfortable on the roof – and, though we had a close call or two, nobody fell off.
            The first days of removing the two layers of old roof was some of the most difficult physical work I’ve ever done. Waking up those first couple of mornings I was so sore I worried I wouldn’t be able to walk, let alone climb the ladder to the roof.
            It was difficult work – but I think for all of us it was also life-giving work.
            And that’s the way life works, isn’t it? Very often the most difficult work is also the most life-giving work.
            Many of us have been faced with difficult work in school and in our professional lives.
            Many of us have taken on the difficult work of being a husband or wife, of being a parent, of being a grandparent.
            Many of us have had the difficult work of caring for a sick family member of friend.
            And over and over most, if not all, of us have learned that often what’s most difficult is also the most life-giving.
            Difficult and yet life-giving.
            In today’s gospel lesson we heard a story about many of Jesus’ first disciples not understanding that often what’s most difficult is also the most life-giving.
            In today’s gospel lesson we come to the end of Jesus’ long teaching about bread and many of Jesus’ disciples  – not outsiders but disciples - respond that his teaching is difficult. They ask Jesus, “Who can accept it?”
            It’s a surprising response. What’s going on here?
            As Kit mentioned his sermon last Sunday, when the Evangelist John tells the story of the Last Supper he does not include anything about Jesus taking the bread and saying, “This is my body” and there’s nothing about Jesus taking the cup and saying, “This is my blood.”
            Instead, John tells us the powerful story of Jesus at the Last Supper washing the feet of his friends.
            But, John more than makes up for that omission by including Jesus’ long teaching on bread that we’ve been hearing over the past few weeks in church.
            According to John, after the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, Jesus boldly proclaims, “I am the bread of life.” Then later, just as boldly, according to John, Jesus says, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
            Now, remember that the Gospel of John was the last to be written – probably completed in its final form around the end of the First Century.
            So, on one level, John tells the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
            But, on another level, John also offers us a window into what was going on in a particular Christian community, seventy or so years after the Resurrection.
            Although John doesn’t include the bread and the wine in his story of the Last Supper, it’s clear that the Eucharist has already become important to John’s community of Christians.
            We hear that importance when Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
            Just like us, Christians at the end of the First Century knew perfectly well that when they gathered for the Eucharist they were not eating human flesh and drinking human blood.           
            But, people outside the community weren’t so sure about that. These outsiders would have heard just enough about Christians eating Jesus’ body and drinking Jesus’ blood to think something really weird was going on with these people. And Jews would have been especially horrified since the dietary laws strictly forbid eating the blood of animals. Imagine how much worse it would be to consume human blood!
            So, no surprise, one of the earliest slanders against Christians was that they were cannibals.
            But, here’s the thing: notice that in today’s gospel lesson we’re told that it’s not outsiders – it’s many of Jesus’ own disciples who say to Jesus, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
            And here “difficult” doesn’t mean hard exactly but more like “offensive.”
            So we’re told that many of the disciples – the men and women who had seen Jesus perform many signs – the men and women who had seen Jesus heal – the men and women who had heard Jesus teach like they had never heard anyone teach before – the men and women who were there when Jesus somehow transformed five loaves and two fish into enough abundance to feed 5000 people with leftovers – many of these disciples give into what must have been pretty powerful peer pressure, declaring Jesus’ teaching too difficult – too offensive to the world – too offensive maybe for themselves - and so they choose to leave the Christian community and live like everybody else.
            It’s a discouraging story that must have been true during Jesus’ earthly lifetime. It’s a story that must have been true for John’s community seventy years later. And, for us today the deal-breaker probably isn’t communion, but let’s be honest, we have our own potential deal-breakers – parts of Jesus’ teaching that tempt us to throw up our hands and say this is too difficult – and go off to live like everyone else.
            The truth is there’s nothing more difficult - and nothing more life-giving - than following Jesus.
            But, following Jesus is still offensive to the world – and sometimes maybe even offensive to us.
            It’s difficult teaching that every human life in infinitely valuable – even, especially, the people the world sees as insignificant and even disposable – the poor, the uneducated, the undocumented, the disabled, the criminal.
            It’s difficult teaching, yet, it’s also life-giving to recognize the infinite value of every human being.
            It’s difficult teaching that we must offer unlimited forgiveness – that we must not seek revenge – that greed is bad – that we should give not just some fixed percentage of our wealth or just some of our talents - but we should give and give until it hurts.
            It’s difficult teaching, yet it’s also life-giving, to give ourselves away in loving generosity and service.
            It’s difficult teaching that we must care for and love one other – the people closest to us, the people we’ve never met and never will, the people we can’t stand and even the people who hate us and hurt us.
            This is all difficult teaching. Following Jesus is much, much more difficult work than even a week of roofing in West Virginia.
            We’re not so different from those disciples back in the First Century. Even though we’ve also seen Christ at work in our lives, we can be tempted to throw up our hands, and say, “This teaching is difficult. This teaching is offensive. This teaching is too hard. Who can accept it?”
            We can give up, walk away from Jesus and live like everybody else.
            But, fortunately, we’re not on our own.
            Working together, supporting each other, was a big part of what made the difficult work of the mission trip life-giving.
            We come here each week in part to support each other – because the Christian life is difficult and we need each other.
            Finally, most important of all, we have Jesus. Each week we gather at the Lord’s Table, where in some mysterious way, we take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies, into our hearts, and into our souls.
            We abide in Jesus and Jesus abides in us, giving us the strength to hear the difficult teaching of Jesus – and giving us the strength to do the most difficult, yet most life-giving, work of following Jesus.