Sermon for 10th Pentecost -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
There is an old cliché that you have heard me repeat previously – “Want to make God laugh? Tell God your plans!”
That is certainly true for my life, especially my life as a pastor. A number of the pastoral positions I have been privileged to hold were not part of my life plan. And neither were some of the major disappointments.
God seems to like surprises!
Scholar David Lose, whose work I am using in this sermon, states that Jesus, too, seems to like surprises, at least he certainly does in today’s Gospel lesson from St. John’s Gospel.
In today’s Gospel, the crowd goes looking for Jesus and finds him in his hometown, Capernaum. Clearly, they are ready to be dazzled by another miracle. But, Jesus surprises them with what he says. And they do not much like what they hear.
It started last week, of course, with the miraculous feeding, which, when you think of it, isn’t too bad of a way to be surprised: to get a free and unexpected dinner when you’re hungry. But, as we noticed last week, right after the miracle Jesus vanishes, leaving them behind feeling rather confused and disappointed. And so the crowd follows Jesus, finding him, finally, on the other side of the lake in his hometown, Capernaum.
And from here on out, things only get worse. First, Jesus accuses them of opportunism: “Ah, you’re only here because you want another free meal,” he scolds. And, truth be told, he was probably right. But Jesus isn’t content with being merely right, and so to rub it in a bit he goes on with his lecture: “Do not work for the food that spoils,” he persists, “instead, work for the food that lasts for eternal life.”
Well, that gets their attention. Sounds pretty good – a little suspicious, maybe, but tempting. “Okay,” the crowd says, “we’ll go with you on this one, what kind of work do we have to do to get this food?”
“Just believe,” Jesus says, “just believe that I am the one God sent.”
At this point the crowd balks, wondering just who in the world this guy thinks he is. After all, let us be clear about what Jesus is offering. I mean, he’s holding out the shiny apple, the first prize: he’s offering the bread of life – the stuff which grants life eternal. And to get it, all the crowd needs to do is believe!
And so the crowd is skeptical, and who wouldn’t be. Scholar Lose suggest that is as if, after you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that you have a terminal illness, the doctor tells you the latest tests suggest it might be something else altogether, something more treatable. I mean, you want to believe it, this surprise for the better, more than anything in the world. But, what if they’re wrong, these well-intentioned people who have surprised you with good news? What if they’re just plain wrong?
This, in a nutshell, is what is so hard about the gospel and the sacraments. For they come into our lives, disrupting the neat order we’ve arranged, and surprise us, even shock us, by making these audacious promises of life and wholeness. And that’s hard.
You see, on a day-to-day basis, most of us have gotten pretty good at defending ourselves from the pain and frustration and hurt and despair of life in this world.
And then these promises of God are announced to us and they only betray the foolishness of our self-reliance and at the same time promise us more than we could have ever hoped for.
Think about it: at baptism we pour water over an infant’s head and announce to her God’s promise to be with her forever, to go with her wherever she may go, to hold on to her through all that life has to offer – including even death – and to grant her life eternal. Think about it - that’s some promise.
And exactly the same thing happens in the Lord’s Supper. For each time you come to this table you are promised nothing less than forgiveness, acceptance, wholeness: in a word, life, both now and forever.
And the thing about all this – about forgiveness and acceptance and the like – is that such things, as we know, just cannot be gained or earned, coerced or accomplished. Like love, they can only be given as a gift by one person to another.
Communion and baptism are God’s external and objective words of love and forgiveness, given in a form which we can receive, for, the sacraments are God’s physical, visible words for God’s physical, visible people.
And the thing is, just as with Jesus’ words to the crowd, such a promise is as frightening as it is comforting, for such a promise raises hopes and expectations to dizzying heights.
So it is no surprise, as St. John reports, that the people naturally ask, “what miracle will you perform so that we may see it and believe you?” In other words, “Prove yourself, Jesus.”
And doesn’t that sound familiar, for how much easier faith would be if God would just do what God’s supposed to do and give us a miracle!
But God, you see, our God rarely does what God is supposed to do. For our God is a God of surprises, of upheavals, of reversals.
And so rather than do what God is supposed to do, God does the unexpected: instead of pronouncing judgment in the face of our sin and selfishness, God offers mercy; instead of justice, love; instead of condemnation, forgiveness; instead of coming in power, God came in weakness; and instead of giving us a miracle, God gives us God’s own self. For as Martin Luther would remind us, the whole of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are summed up both succinctly and eloquently in the two words we hear when coming to the Table: “for you.” This is Christ’s body, given for you. This is Christ’s blood, shed for you.
This is the heart of the faith my friends: that, using St. John’s words from the beginning of his gospel, the Eternal Word who was with God and is God from the beginning and participated in the creation of the heavens and the earth – that God is the same Lord who cares so desperately for us that he gave his life for ours on the cross and gives himself still in the bread and wine.
Perhaps this, in the end, is the hardest thing of all for us to accept about the sacraments: that they contain God’s unexpected, surprising, unforeseen gift of God’s own self. For, as I have already noted, we can and do defend ourselves against much of the pain, and disappointment, and grief of this life.
But, against this gift, against this surprising and disarming love, we are helpless, as at this table God’s promise comes to us again just as it did when as helpless babes we were brought to the font.
That’s it, that is all there is, but it is everything: God’s surprising, audacious, somewhat startling, and ultimately life-giving promise.
And, we are invited not just to come and not only hear God’s unexpected word of forgiveness and mercy, but also to take and eat it.
So, come to this table and receive the surprise of your lives. For those who come to Christ will never be hungry, and those who believe in Christ will not thirst.
Come to the table and just believe. Christ’s body, given for you; Christ’s blood, shed for you. Nothing less than forgiveness, acceptance, and wholeness. In a word, life, both now and forever! Forgiveness for you. Mercy for you. Eternal life with God, for you.
Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Sermon for 10th Pentecost
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
August 1 / 2, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California