Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sermon for 8/5/12

Sermon “Jesus, the True Bread

Lord of all, grant that we may be one in you, as you are one God in three persons, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In our readings today Jesus is presented as the true bread of heaven, the one who gives his people unity in the faith, the one who nourishes his people in all they need. We confess this to be true. We confess that Jesus gave himself to deliver all believers from sin and all evil. We confess that Jesus has given himself in his real body and real blood to nourish our faith and to deliver, over and over again, forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.

I’d like to take you on a little journey today, a journey back in time, to another group of Christians, early in the fourth century, believers who were celebrating on a Sunday, people who, like us, confessed that Jesus was present for them.

(Below is an excerpt from a homily given on May 29, 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI regarding this martyrdom:)
In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus.
Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor's severe orders. He replied: "Sine dominico non possumus": that is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb.
After atrocious tortures, these 49 martyrs of Abitene were killed. Thus, they confirmed their faith with bloodshed. They died, but they were victorious: today we remember them in the glory of the Risen Christ.
The experience of the martyrs of Abitene is also one on which we 21st-century Christians should reflect. It is not easy for us either to live as Christians, even if we are spared such prohibitions from the emperor. From a spiritual point of view, the world in which we find ourselves, often marked by unbridled consumerism, religious indifference and a secularism closed to transcendence, can appear a desert {just as} "vast and terrible" (Dt 8:15) as the one {we heard about in the first reading} from the Book of Deuteronomy. God came to the aid of the Jewish people in difficulty in this desert with his gift of manna, to make them understand that "not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord" (Dt 8:3).
(end of quotation)

Those believers in northern Africa aren’t that different from Christians in the 21st century. They knew that it was only through Jesus that they could stand. It was, literally, in the words of Emeritus, only through the celebration of the Lord’s supper that they could exist. They did not have strength in themselves. And we find ourselves in a similar position. We are challenged on all sides in this life. We don’t face official persecution in this country, at least not yet. That seems to be going on in other parts of the world, and some of us have our eyes on it, keeping aware so as to guard against it invading our territory. But we do face criticism. We are surrounded by people who have been taught over the past two generations or so of life in public education that God is irrelevant. We are surrounded by people who may even think Christians are wacky and dangerous people. We have voices all around us, voices of “enlightened liberalism” telling us that everyone should have a right to free expression so we need to be quiet and embrace their cultural values rather than ours. It’s all around us. People who want to have a clear Christian message, a message based on Scripture, people who value sound doctrine and find it unifies and strengthens us, those people are under a lot of pressure. It’s a hostile world.

Where are we going to find strength in that wilderness? Where are we going to turn? Like the people of Israel on their way to the promised land, we need food. We need sustenance. If we are not nourished by heavenly bread we will not survive our journey. That’s one of many reasons I’ve been encouraging people this year on their forced march through the Bible. And if you’ve kept up, you’re more than half way through reading the Bible this year. You’ve been taking in the Word of God which will accomplish God’s purposes in you, changing you from inside to out.

But here in John chapter 6 Jesus presents himself as the true bread of heaven. What is it that he does? Let’s get three quick points that you can take home with you, that you can meditate on, that you can teach to your children, maybe that you can tell someone else about in the upcoming week.

First, Jesus nourishes our faith so we can do what he commands. We saw that in John 6:29. And what does he command? In John 6:35 he commands us to believe on him. Now I know we might believe very well without ever having a physical encounter with Jesus. We may believe in Jesus very well even with the idea that he is only symbolically present in communion. But as one friend of mine reminded me, we’re Lutherans. We get more for our money. He claims to be there, really, that the bread and wine are his body and his blood. We don’t just get the picture. We don’t just get the symbol. We get the real bread of heaven. We get Jesus, the fulfiller of the manna. We are nourished to eternity as we receive communion by faith. We really get to receive the crucified and risen Lord. He nourishes our faith so we can believe on him.

Second, Jesus delivers his grace. He gives us forgiveness, making us participants in him. We read about this in 1 Corinthians chapter 10. We can turn there and read verses 14-21.

(NIV 1984) “14 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
18 Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19 Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.”

This was one of the most compelling passages to me years ago when I was considering the idea of the real bodily presence of Christ. The word used for “participation” means actually being part of a whole item. When we receive communion, Paul says, we receive Jesus’ body and blood. We are all bound together into one body, being partakers of his own nature. Jesus delivers his grace to us as we are participants in him.

Finally, Jesus builds us up as one body in Him. We read about that in Ephesians 4:11-13. This happens as Christ’s servants deliver the Word and Sacrament, the means of grace, building us up until we reach the fullness of his stature. He makes us one body in Him. We are not a bunch of individuals going our own way, making our own blunders. We are drawn together as Jesus nourishes us.

Jesus then gives himself in his true body and blood, given and shed for you, so you can take up your cross and follow him, just like those fourth century disciples in Africa. They went into their world fearlessly as Christians because their faith was nurtured. They faced their very hostile world without fear because they knew they were participants in the body and blood of the Lord, and that he has triumphed over death on their behalf. They faced their end knowing that it was not the end, because Jesus told us he is the resurrection and the life. They faced death and were conformed into the image of Jesus. It is just the same for us. As we face our world trusting in our Lord, being nourished by Word and Sacrament, we are conformed into his image. We become participants in his death for us. And we also become participants in his resurrection.

The Lord is here! He is very, very, really and truly here. And he is here to deliver forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to you and to me. All he demands is that we believe. Do we believe that the Lord has given himself for us? Do we believe that he has borne the penalty for all our faithlessness? Then his body and blood are here, passing out forgiveness, putting it into your hand, into your mouth, drawing you together with your fellow Christians so we can be one body, participants in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus is here for you. Be sure. Be a participant in his body and his blood. Receive forgiveness, life, and salvation. Believe on the Lord.

Now may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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