A Fruitful Risk

What does it mean when Jesus says, “I am the vine?” Or that we are the branches?  Some thoughts on the occasion of Maundy Thursday 2014.  The text was John 15.

JesusTeachingFor the past few weeks, we’ve been listening to Jesus preach. And in his preaching, he’s made a number of statements that begin with the words, “I am…” And always, the formula for Jesus’ sermons has been, “I am the …” and then he would name the thing. I am the bread of life, the gate, the light of the world, etc.

Did you notice what he said this evening? The formula has changed a little bit. “I am the vine…and you are…”

For the first time, Jesus explicitly states what we are. He uses a metaphor to describe, not just himself, but us as well. And it seems to me that this description is really the culmination of all of the other “I am” statements that we’ve heard. Because Jesus is the savior, the bread of life, the light of the world, the Door, the Good Shepherd – because he is all of those things in our lives, we are then free to relate with him the way that a branch relates to a vine. Because of all that Jesus is and does, we are free to participate with him in an intimate, organic, relationship.

Think about it. In the last few weeks, we’ve heard Jesus call himself a lot of things. Usually, we understand those things, at least in part, by what they are not. I am the light (not the darkness). I am the bread of life (not something that will not last). I am the way (not a maze in which you get lost). I am the good shepherd (not the hired hand).

And sometimes, when he uses a metaphor to describe himself, we learn something about ourselves, too. If he is the good shepherd, then obviously that implies that we are sheep. Unless you are profoundly vision, hearing, and smelling-impaired, there’s not much challenge in telling the two apart.   Shepherd – sheep. You know which one is which, right?

grapes71But the Vine and the Branches? That’s a bit tougher, isn’t it? Next time you’re at my house, stop into the back yard and look at my kiwi plants. If you go right to the ground, you can see clearly – that large brown thing – vine. No problem. And if you go to the other end, wispy leafy thing – branch. No problem. But in the middle, it’s pretty tough to tell one from the other. Where does the vine stop and the branch begin?

Oooooh, I get it, Pastor Dave! Our relationship with Jesus is designed to be so close that we are totally immersed in Him. We grow into him… or does he grow into us? I don’t really know…Some days it’s kind of hard to tell.

Have you ever heard people talk about their relationship with God like this? They describe a closeness, a warmth, a sense of togetherness that is really appealing, don’t they? You hear some people talk about the ways that they and God spend time together, the kinds of feelings that they have about God, and you think, “Wow, that’s someone who must be really close to God. There’s someone who must be a branch that’s well-connected to the vine.”

And if we’re honest about it, that’s what we want. We want to have that intimacy – that sense of knowing and being known. I might say that it’s a sort of spiritual security blanket – the sense that Jesus is right here with me and nothing’s going to happen.

That is a good thing to desire, and a great thing when it happens. But it’s not the point. Jesus never talks about intimacy with God as something to be desired in and of itself. This connection between the vine and the branch is not the end – it’s a means. A means to what? To the fruit that is supposed to be growing at the end of the branches.

It’s very possible that you have come into worship in the previous weeks and gotten the impression that you were created to be in a life-changing, joy-filled relationship with Jesus. It’s possible that you’ve gotten that impression because that’s what I’ve said. However, we need to be clear about the fact that the joy-filled relationship where you feel fed and nurtured and forgiven and shepherded is not an end in itself, but rather the means by which God intends to use you to shape the world according to his purposes for it.

Or, to put it another way, that intimate, organic relationship with God for which you were created is incomplete until it bears fruit. There is an expectation clearly set forth in John 15 that if we allow ourselves to relate to Jesus in the way that he intends for us, then things will happen.

Jesus is the vine. He promises that he will give us everything necessary to produce fruit. And he promises that he will come looking for fruit in our lives.

Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. We exist to bear fruit. In fact, look with me at the progression that exists in this conversation. In verse 2, he commends the branch that bears “fruit.” That quickly is modified to read “more fruit”. Then in verses 5 and 8, he talks about “much fruit”, and by the time we reach verse 16, we understand that he is looking for “fruit that will last.”

How does the plant go from being fruitless to bearing not only fruit, but much fruit that will last?

It is tended and cared for. It is pruned.

PruningMost fruit-bearing trees and vines have two prunings. In the dormant season, the gardener removes all of the branches that are obviously dead. John 15:2 says that the vinegrower takes away every branch that does not bear fruit.

Literally and metaphorically, this is a pain in the neck, but it’s not so hard to wrap your head around. I walk out to my garden, and I see some dead raspberry canes or a rotten limb on the apple tree, and it’s fairly painless to whack it off. I know it has to be done.

In my life, where I see rot developing, where I sense hatred growing, where I am made aware of an evil that threatens my life, my joy, my purpose – then I can ask God to take that away. Oh, sometimes I experience it as a loss, but it’s not too bad. I generally come away thinking, “well, that just had to happen.” It makes sense, somehow, even if it doesn’t always feel good.

pruningliveBut there’s a second pruning that takes place during the growing season. If I’m on my mark as a gardener, once those branches have set some fruit, I have to go out and thin the plant, and remove shoots that are clearly living, but have no fruit on them. I do this because I didn’t plant my cherry tree to grow wood – I planted that cherry tree because I would like to see cherries in my pantry and freezer. If I remove those branches, the tree can put its energy into growing bigger cherries – and less wood.

And in my garden and in my life, I don’t like that pruning. I don’t like to cut into the pretty greenery. It’s hard to rearrange the shape of the tree. And even though a particular branch may be fruitless, I may get some measure of satisfaction, or shade, or beauty from that greenery. But if my goal is fruit, it’s got to go.

This Maundy Thursday evening ask God, and ask yourself: is there some secret attraction, some trivial pursuit, some fruitless distraction that ought to be removed from your life?

Maybe it’s obvious. Maybe there is an addiction that you know is killing you; an unhealthy relationship that consumes you. Sometimes the dead wood is easy to spot.

But my hunch is that for many of us in the room this evening, the second pruning is what needs to occur. There is something that looks healthy and alive, but is simply not fruitful for us. It may be a behavior that is rewarded in some circles: a devotion to work that seems commendable to many, but then you realize that you haven’t known Sabbath rest in far too long. An awareness of your diet and need for fitness that makes you critical of other people to the point of cruelty. A practice of saving that is rooted, not in a biblical understanding of stewardship, but a deep fear that you do not now, and will never have “enough”.

Ask for the grace to make you want the fruit more than you want this other growth. Ask God to show you how the fruit that he desires is better than the things that have held your interest or distracted you.

Jacopo Bassano, The Last Supper (1542)

Jacopo Bassano, The Last Supper (1542)

And let’s talk for just a moment about that fruit. In John’s description of the Last Supper, it’s pretty clear what kind of fruit Jesus is talking about. Love. Love is the fruit that grows from a life rooted in the Father’s intentions and sustained by the Spirit’s care.

Let me remind you that love is not warm and mushy feelings. Love is not being nice to the people who are nice to you.

In fact, in John, there are two measurable criteria for the kind of love that Jesus says God is looking for. First, love means obeying God. And second, love means being willing to lay down your life for your friends.

I’m pretty sure that could mean that if you love me, you’d be willing to take a bullet for me, or throw yourself on a grenade if one got flung into the room right now. But more probably, I suspect that kind of love means that you are willing to act for my good, even when it is inconvenient for you. That kind of love means that you are willing to help me grow into what is best for me, even if it costs you somehow.

It is, in short, a kind of love that is not altogether attractive or valued in our world. And frankly, it’s not the kind of love that we usually look for at church. Listen:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.[1]

Here is something that occurred to me this week. What is it that is between the vine and branches and the fruit? The blossom, right? The flower. Every branch, every vine, every plant in my yard that produces fruit does so by extending a blossom. And that blossom – every blossom – is a risk. I’ve got a little cherry tree in my back yard. I get nervous when it starts to blossom. I’m excited, because I can think about homemade jam and cherry pie. But I’m scared, because what will happen if we have a freeze? Even a really gusty day can blow the blossoms off the tree. And if they freeze or fall off, then no matter how green the leaves, how deep the roots, how nicely the tree’s been pruned – there’s no fruit. The blossoms are a fragile risk that my cherry tree makes each spring. And if for some reason you need proof of the great gamble that spring blossoms are, then take a look at that very sad-looking, brown magnolia tree in our front yard – thousands of blossoms that were simply frozen on Tuesday evening.

Tonight, we commemorate the ultimate risk. The sinless Son of God who loved his friends enough to lay down his life for them.

doubting-thomasIncluding Thomas, who would later doubt that Jesus was who he said he was.

 

 

Including Peter, who would later deny even having ever met Jesus.

Gerrit van Honthorst, The Denial of St. Peter, (c. 1620)

Gerrit van Honthorst, The Denial of St. Peter, (c. 1620)

 

 

Judas Accepts the Bribe_Arena Chapel_Padua_1300-05Including Judas, who had already sold Jesus out to the authorities and was arranging his arrest.

 

 

 

Tonight, as we remember this risk, know that this Jesus knows you, calls to you, and loves you with this kind of love. He desires a deep and intimate relationship with you, as the vine has with the branch. And if you are not in that kind of relationship, then let me encourage you to walk towards that tonight – to ask Jesus to enter more fully in to your life and heart and purposes.

Jesus-on-CrossAnd if you are in that kind of relationship with Jesus, then let me challenge you to grow in your ability to love with the kind of love that he seems to expect from us. I know that I am advising you toward a dangerous prayer – that I am asking you to pray for pruning and tending and shaping that could be inconvenient or painful. After all, look at what that kind of love got Jesus.

But know, too, that you are not alone in this love, you are not alone on this vine, and you are not alone in this risk. It is why you exist. You came into being for love, and you are to dwell in and act in love. May God be gracious to us as we learn it…again and again and again. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] $3 Worth of God, Wilbur Rees (Judson Press, 1971)

The Way

On Palm Sunday, the members of the Crafton Heights church continued to think about the times that Jesus said, “I Am…” in the Gospel of John.  This week, we considered Psalm 118:19-29 and John 14:1-11.  My thoughts in this message are deeply influence by Eugene Peterson’s work, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way.

Survey time…I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but let me ask – what’s the best way to get to Disney World in Florida? Driving? Flying? Take the train?

maps-icon-location-iphoneWhat’s the best way to get to PNC Park for a Sunday afternoon game? Noblestown Road to the West End bridge? Or take the bus to the subway? Which way would you go? Or would you tell me to get out my spiffy new smart phone and say, “There’s an app for that, Dave”?

When I ask you about “the way”, in our culture that usually means that I am enquiring about the route. I want directions to be followed or steps to be taken so that I can arrive at the end goal quickly and reliably. “The way” is simply the means to the end.

Which makes one of the oldest and corniest jokes we know funny: “What’s the best way to get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.”

Contemporary comedian Demetri Martin has put a new spin on this one when he ways, “I want to have an apartment that’s near Carnegie Hall so that when somebody asks how to get to my place, I can just say, ‘Practice, practice, practice then make a left.’”

path-less-traveledThat humor points us to the reality that when we talk about “the way” we mean not only the fastest or most efficient route from A to B, but we mean the journey itself. When we stop to think about it, we realize that “the way” means the method, the path, the mode that we take as we move along from point to point.

And our culture is full of examples of that realization. In 1920, Robert Frost talked about “The Road Not Taken”, and how the paths we choose matter as much as the destinations for which we hope. Maybe you grew up watching “The Wizard of Oz”, and came to see that the Yellow Brick Road was not the most efficient or effective way to Kansas, but being there was important to Dorothy ending up where she did, back at Auntie Em & Uncle Henry’s farm. Nat King Cole got his kicks on Route 66, and Paul McCartney told us of the bane and blessing that was “The Long and Winding Road.”

Eugene Peterson gets to the truth of this when he writes,

Way: a simple noun designating a road that leads to a destination, but then opening up as a metaphor that ramifies into many and various ‘ways’ – not only the way we go, as in the route we take, but the way we go on the way whether by foot or bike or automobile. The way we talk, the way we use our influence, the way we treat another, the way we raise our children, the way we read, the way we worship, the way we vote, the way we garden, the way we ski, the way we feel, the way we eat…And on and on, endlessly, the various and accumulated ‘ways and means’ that characterize our way of life.[2]

Soooo…when I ask you what’s the best way to get to PNC Park, you have permission to look at me blankly, and then ask what I’m really asking…because I clearly think too deeply about a lot of things…

FaceofChristExcept today. It’s Palm Sunday. And we just read from the Gospel of John, where Jesus looks at his friends and says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life – no one comes to the Father except through me.”

Because if we accept that “way” means only the quickest and most efficient route somewhere, then we might come to think of “truth” as meaning only a set of ideas I can accept and “life” as the opposite of death. None of that is wrong, of course, but it is very incomplete.

In reality, Christians in North America appear to be better at accepting Jesus as the truth than we are at accepting that he is the way.

It’s fairly easy to go to someone and say, “This is my set of ideas that I believe about Jesus. It is the truth. I used to believe this other stuff, but now I believe this. If you cannot believe what I believe, you do not have the truth.

You see, it’s far simpler to decide on a goal or an outcome than it is to acquire the skill or means necessary to get to that place.[3] If I ask, “What do you want for dinner?” or “What would you like to be when you grow up?”, it’s easy to say “I’d love to have steak and potatoes and please, can I be the chief justice of the Supreme Court?”

But how do we get the dinner or that dream job? What’s the way to that? Isn’t that the harder question? Jesus is the truth and the life, but first he is the way. He’s not merely an answer.

triumphant-entryOn the first Palm Sunday, if you were to poll the denizens of Jerusalem, asking “What do you want?”, you’d get an earful. “What do we want? We want to get rid of the Romans! We want to go back to the good old days of Kings David or Solomon!” The Gospels are pretty clear about the fact that much of the time, we are far more interested in a rearrangement of the external furniture than we are a realignment of our internal priorities and practices. Which might be at least one reason why Luke points out that after everyone went home on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus wept for the city of Jerusalem. He knew that then, and now, we just don’t get it.

Take a look at what so many churches are selling these days. We ask ourselves, “What do you want?” And the answers are many and varied: “I want a job…a healing…a baby…inner peace…a new car…” Then we say, “well, let’s ask Jesus. He is the way to get that.”

No. No he is not.

jesus-the-magician-1Because if that is true – if the way that Jesus is “the way” is that Jesus is the means to our ends, then he’s nothing more than the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain; he’s only a magic man doling out blessings and bonuses to those he likes best.

But Pastor Dave, you’ve prayed for all of those things with us! And you said that Jesus is the way.

I have. And he is.

WashingOfFeetJesus is the way. An since he is the way, we do with him what we do with the other ways in our lives – we follow that way. We live like him. Which means, I think, that if he was tested, misunderstood, taken advantage of, or ill-treated, then we should not be surprised when we find ourselves being tested, misunderstood, taken advantage of, or ill-treated. That appears to be the way.

Did Jesus serve, tell the truth, forgive, and challenge others with the intensity of his love? Then we ought not to be shocked when he declares that servanthood, truthfulness, forgiveness, and extravagant love are cornerstones of the way of life to which we are called.

If Jesus is the way, then we live like him. And we live with him.

Following Jesus is not a skill that we acquire so that God will like us better. It’s not a reward that we get so that people can see how blessed we are.

Following Jesus means taking a path through life that is characterized by love for God and others and worship of God.

For about 1900 years, people who follow Jesus have been called “Christians”. Do you know what we were called in the decades immediately following his death and resurrection? Before we were called “church” or “Christians”, we were known as “the way”.

Think about that. If you wanted to align yourself with the movement that Jesus started, you were not invited to “join a church” – to add your name or identity to an institution. You entered into the way. Your whole life took on a subtle, yet fundamental shift. You still had the same job, the same family, the same responsibilities…but the manner in which you performed those roles – your way – was different.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus of Nazareth was a rock star. He was the one with whom everyone wanted to whip out their smartphones and take their “selfies”; the one on whom everyone was placing the burden of their expectations. On Thursday of that same week, he was branded a criminal. On Friday, he became a corpse.

And in the years since, he has become the most written about, admired, celebrated, killed-for, sought-after man in history. You can’t go very far without finding someone who is saying something about Jesus.

It’s just that he’s not very often followed.

jesusfeet3This week, I’m not asking you to go to Jesus. I’m saying that it’s important for us to go into the world with Jesus – to follow in and enter more deeply the Jesus way.

This week, ask for grace and strength and resolve to follow where he leads each day, each circumstance, and in each relationship. I’m pretty sure that it looks more like a dirt road than a wide superhighway. But I’m pretty sure that it’s the right way. May we have the grace to follow in that way, because he is the Way. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

 

[1] The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is The Way (Eerdman’s, 2007) p. 22

[2] See Peterson, p. 27.

A Good Shepherd, I Am Not…

On April 6, the folks at Crafton Heights continued to think about what it means to hear Jesus say “I Am…”  This morning, we considered his claim to be the Good Shepherd, as found in John 10.  The Old Testament reading came from Ezekiel 34

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” You know, a lot of times, Jesus says stuff that makes total sense to us. But sometimes, he says things that seem to be totally removed from our experience. How much do you know about shepherding?

Look at those legs...and don't forget the white K-Swiss, standard shepherding gear, from what I've heard...

Look at those legs…and don’t forget the white K-Swiss, standard shepherding gear, from what I’ve heard…

As it turns out, I have some history in the field of livestock management. While I have never listed “shepherd” on my resume, it turns out that for a week about fifteen years ago, I was “the Goat Guy” at a Bible school that our youth group facilitated in Western New York.

The reason I do not list this on my resume, though, is that I am not a very good shepherd. I was given some rope, one sheep and two very willful goats and I spent the better part of five days chasing these loud and smelly creatures through the little village they’d set up. It was not my finest moment. I didn’t know what I was doing.

And that’s what sort of gets me about our scripture this morning. We’re walking through the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John, and we’re looking at the times and places where he says, “I am…” And mostly, when he says that, we have an image that we can deal with , don’t we? I am the bread of life… OK, I know bread, I’ve seen bread. I am the light, I am the door – we know about light and doors. But I am the good shepherd? What’s that about? How do we know if that’s a good thing?

CattleDriveLet’s talk for a few moments about shepherds. Actually, since I’m pretty sure we don’t know that much about shepherds, I’ll start someplace where we’re on a little firmer ground. Jesus did not say, “I am the good cowboy”, did he? Think back to your Zane Grey novels or your John Wayne movies. What do cowboys do? Well, they get out there on their horses, and they drive the herd, right? They are hired to ride along beside and behind the herd of cows – someone else’s cows – pushing that herd where they want it to go. If the herd moves to slowly, then out comes the whip, right? One of the cows starts to stray, and what happens? The rugged cowboy chases off after it, ropes it, ties it up, and brings it back to the herd. The goal of the cowboy is to chase someone else’s cows from one place to another, and at the end of the journey, the herd is slaughtered and the cowboy starts all over again. The cows are a means to an end, a job, a necessary evil, if you will.

ShepherdShepherds, on the other hand, are different. In the Middle East, when the shepherd wants to move his flock of sheep, he gets out in front of them and calls to them. They follow him. Since they belong to him, they know him, and he knows them. He protects them from predators, and if one goes astray, he leaves the flock where it is, collects the one that’s missing, and then they move on together. Whereas the herd of cows is a job for the cowboy, the flock of sheep is a way of life for the shepherd. The sheep provide wool to clothe his family and milk and meat to nourish his children. If a sheep wanders off, then that means that there are fewer lambs next year, less milk and meat and wool. It’s not an inconvenience, it’s a tragedy for a family to lose a sheep.

Do you remember in the movies what happens when two groups of cowboys get to the watering hole at the same time? The herds of cattle both rush to the water. They mix together, there’s a lot of confusion, and days, or maybe weeks are lost trying to separate one herd from the other. Two groups of sheep can approach the same waterhole, and this is what happens – it’s a true story. Each shepherd brings his flock down close to the water, and then has them wait. The shepherds go and drink themselves, and maybe wash up. Then each shepherd calls his flock over and waters them. When they are finished, the shepherd simply calls his flock and they follow him, knowing that he will lead them to good pasture.

Although we in the USA have glorified the image of the cowboy in many ways, and celebrate the independence and the ruggedness that cowboys typify, the scriptures refer to the Lord as being a shepherd. Ezekiel 34 describes in detail God’s promise to be the shepherd for his people. He talks about the fact that those he has sent to take care of the flocks have failed – that they’ve looked after their own needs, and sought their own gain at the expense of the flock. Because the leadership failed, the flocks scattered, and many of the sheep became lost, ill, or disoriented. But there is a time coming, says the Lord, when he himself will lead, care for, and protect the flock that has become weak and lost.

Christ as Good Shepherd, c. 225

Christ as Good Shepherd, c. 225

And that’s what Jesus was talking about in John, when he said, “That’s me. I am the good shepherd. I am not another religious leader who’s come to take you all for a ride and enrich myself at your expense. I have come to know you, to call you together, to care for you, to protect you, and to offer you security. That’s my mission. That’s why I’m here.”

In the last few weeks, friends, we’ve heard challenges from the Word. If Jesus is the bread of life, then we are called to receive the nourishment from that bread and go out and tell our story – to invite our friends to know that there is a place where they can receive that which has sustained us. If Jesus is the light, then we are to walk into that light and let it expose us so that we can correct what is wrong and move further into what is right. If Jesus is the door, then we are to walk through that door into lives of mission and service. The “I am” statements of Jesus can be significant challenges to us, as we not only listen to their truth, but act on that truth in our world. This week, as I studied Jesus’ claim to be the good shepherd, it occurred to me that this is the “I am” statement that may release us to live into the other statements more fully.

Because here’s the deal, beloved: if Jesus is truly the good shepherd, then there are at least three things that are true in your life and in mine.

First, there is a shepherd who knows your name. And remember, in this culture, knowing your name means knowing you. The fact that Jesus is my shepherd means more than the fact that he will never, ever, call me Dave Carter. Or Don Caver. Or … well, you get the idea. Jesus knows my name. He knows who I am. In so many ways, he knows me better than I know myself. Jesus knows your name. He knows what you’re capable of. He knows what you can do. When Jesus calls your name, he’s not some cowboy cracking the whip, wondering why in the world you aren’t moving any faster and angry that you’re somehow slowing up the rest of the group. No, when the Good Shepherd calls your name, he is speaking to the full reality and totality of your existence. Someone knows your name.

The shepherd not only knows your name, but knows your needs. As you move from one day after another, one task to the next, the one who has called you knows what you need to move forward. A good shepherd knows where to find nourishment for his flock. He knows where the clean water is. He knows when the flock needs to rest, and when they must move further to escape harm’s way. There is not a hole in your life that Jesus doesn’t know about. There is not a need that you have of which the Good Shepherd is ignorant. He knows what you need.

And this Shepherd who knows your name and who knows your needs is where? Ahead of you. The good shepherd is leading his flock. Which means that there is no place that you will ever be – no place that you can ever be – where Jesus hasn’t been there ahead of you. Think about the gift that that is for us – there is nowhere we can be that is apart from his care and presence.

So far, so good, right? Who wouldn’t want to be known, cared for, and accompanied by the Good Shepherd? But then comes the part that had me confused for the better part of the week. Jesus says that the Good Shepherd lays down his life on behalf of his sheep. Now, I don’t know everything there is to know about shepherding, but it seems to me that there’s a flaw in this logic. If the shepherd is protecting the sheep, that’s great. But if the shepherd puts himself in a position to get killed by whoever or whatever is attacking the sheep, then what’s to keep the sheep safe after the shepherd dies? I mean, wouldn’t it be better for the flock to lose a few sheep to whatever marauder is out there than for the shepherd to die and leave the whole flock exposed?

Think about it: in what circumstance would it be a good idea for the shepherd to sacrifice himself on behalf of the sheep? If a shepherd were to get himself killed AND lose the flock besides, there’s no good in it, is there?

It seems to me that the only way that it would make sense for the shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep is if the threat to the sheep becomes neutralized by the shepherd’s death. If somehow in the act of dying, he is able to secure the flock and get them to safety, then the shepherd’s sacrifice makes sense.

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I will protect you from ultimate harm at the cost of my own life. I will ensure that you will never be devoured by evil. I will protect you.”

That is the promise of today’s scripture, my friends. That is the good news of the gospel.

Image: Picture dated October 1935 of the GoldenWhat do you think of when you think of San Francisco? I know you’ve seen pictures on TV or in the movies of the Golden Gate Bridge. Isn’t that the symbol of that city? It is huge, isn’t it? It’s –1.7 miles long, and 746 feet high. It was begun in 1933 and completed in 1937- but did you know that it was done in two stages? The first stage got off to a good start, but then the work moved slower and slower. Eventually, the project came to a standstill. Do you know why? Because when they first started working on the bridge, the rule of thumb was that there would be one worker fatality for every million dollars of construction – and it was a $35 million project.

SafetyNetAs those men were high above the earth, working on cables or iron or whatever, they would look down and see the Bay, and they would think about the expectation – that many of them would die during construction. Some men became paralyzed with fear. Nothing was getting accomplished. It looked as though it might never get finished. Then someone got a bright idea: maybe there should be a net. So they put together, for the cost of $130,000, the largest net ever made. And when that net was hung below the bridge, work started again. And when the second stage of construction began, men fell off the bridge. 19 men were saved because of that net. Was it scary when they fell? I imagine that it was. Did they lose their tools when they fell? Sure they did. Did they lose their glasses, or their watches, or their lunches? Of course. But they did not lose their lives. And the work on stage two went 25% faster than it had on stage one – because workmen were not in fear for their lives, and so were free to work on the bridge. In fact, a couple of men were so enthralled with the netting that they had to be disciplined for jumping into it voluntarily![1]

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.” That’s saying something about him, to be sure. But it is also saying something about us. Because we have a shepherd, we can be sure that God knows our names, knows our needs, and walks ahead of us. But more than that, we can be sure that our ultimate safety is assured. Because Jesus laid down his life for us, we who follow his call can be sure that our hope is eternal – that there is no power on earth that can separate us from God’s purposes for us in Jesus Christ.

Because we have a shepherd, we are free to do what God calls us to do. Just as the workmen on the Golden Gate bridge were free to do their jobs after the net was installed, so are we free to hear and follow through on the challenges of the gospel – we can tell our friends about the bread of life that will sustain them in times of spiritual famine; we can move into the light and examine our lives; and we can invite the world to know that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.   Because this is true, we can act on all of the imperatives that Jesus puts before us – because he’s guaranteeing that we will be able to do what he asks us to do. Jim Eliot, missionary to South America in the middle of the 1900’s, put it this way in his journal: “I am convinced that I am immortal until God’s has accomplished his purpose in me.”

Our world is full of cowboys – loners who don’t take any guff from anyone else, who do a job and bring the herd into town on time, and are willing to live a rough and solitary existence cracking the whip over those around them. And our world is full of posers – folks who, like the “goat guy” that I was twenty years ago, willing to dress up and wander around pretending to know more than they really do, but not getting anything of substance done.

But today, I’m glad to say that I’ve found the shepherd – or, to be more accurate – I’m glad the shepherd found me. And I’m not leaving, because he has what I need – and in the strength of his presence and protection, I can do anything he wants me to do. Amen.

[1]  See http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2006/february/5060213.html, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/goldengate/, or http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/goldengate-safety/ for more information.

The Light of the World

This Lent, the folks at Crafton Heights are continuing to look at the “I Am” statements of Jesus.  In Isaiah 42, God says that he is calling his servant to be a light to the world, and in John 8, Jesus says, “I Am the Light of the world.”  Some thoughts about what that means to disciples today…

Kruger1998

Ariel and I wait for the “Night Drive” to begin at Kruger Park in August 1998.

Let me tell you about one of the most memorable nights of my life – it must be memorable, because it took place more than 15 years ago when Ariel was only 9, but it seems like it was only last week. Sharon, Ariel and I were staying in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  This is one of the most famous animal refuges in the world – home to every kind of creature imaginable in the African savannah.  It’s a huge park – imagine the State of Massachusetts with a fence around it, filled with all manner of amazing beasts. We had the opportunity to get seats on a “night safari” – a four hour ride in an open jeep through the scrubland. On that ride, I learned at least four things about light.

We got into the truck and took our places near the edge.  Since it was winter, and since we were close to the equator, it was really dark really early.  By 6:15 p.m. it was pitch dark.  The ranger approached the group and told us the ground rules for the trip.  We’d be driving slowly, and the cab and each side of the truck would have a light like thisHandheldSpot. The idea is to sweep the light across the landscape, and when we see something, yell out.  The truck would stop, all lights could focus on what was seen, and we’d be told about whatever it was that we were looking at. She went on to say that if we saw a large animal, we were to be sure to avoid shining the light directly into the animal’s eyes so as not to cause any alarm.  Any questions?  Great! And off we went.

Well, we were about ten minutes into the trip when I learned the first thing about light. I want to be in control. I’d see a shadow move over there, I’d hear a noise over there, and that knucklehead four seats over had the light. “Hey buddy,” I’d whisper. “Over there.”  Did he ever shine the light where I wanted him to? No way.  I wanted to have the light – I wanted to be the one who was directing the beam, seeing what I wanted to see, when I wanted to see it.

African Cape Buffalo at night...a surprising and dangerous sight!

African Cape Buffalo at night…a surprising and dangerous sight!

Not long after that, I discovered the second truth about light that would become important to me that night. We heard a commotion in the distance, and got closer to it.  The lights were sweeping back and forth (of course, I wasn’t holding one) – but all we could see was dust.  Then, in the midst of the cloud, a pair of eyes and a set of horns – it was a herd of African Cape Buffalo. It was cool, because these are some of the biggest, strongest, most majestic beasts alive.  But it was disconcerting, because this herd of the biggest, strongest, most majestic beasts alive was down at the bottom of a gully. If we’d not have had the lights, we’d have driven down into it and not gotten back out.  I learned that light is helpful because it can reveal dangers in our paths.

AFR1 766A couple of hours into our journey, we came upon a couple of beautiful lionesses – right by the side of the road. They were no further away from me than the front row is right now.  There they were, just sitting by the side of the road.  The first light shown on the one who was awake and looked interested. And then the second. And finally the third light came. Right in her eyes. She blinked, and moved. So did the lights. She shook her head. The people holding the lights (all of whom, I might add, were sitting behind me in this open truck), said things like, “wow!” and “isn’t this amazing?”.  She continued to show irritation with the light, and roared.  The people behind me said, “Oh, my!  Wonderful!”  I grabbed my nine-year-old daughter a little closer and said, “Do you remember what she said about not shining it in their eyes?  Let’s not get these lions angry, now.”  At which point the people next to the people holding the lights said something like, “For crying out loud, Bill, don’t you remember? Turn that light away!” And thus, we are still here. But I learned that light can often bring agitation or fear.

GirSunriseAnd most importantly, that night I learned that light can reveal great beauty.  I’d been over those roads in the daytime – but here at night it was like I was in another place.  The animals were different.  The shadows had character.  And time after time, the light revealed some hidden landscape, majestic animal, or curious sight to me.  The lights showed what was there in the midst of the darkness.

So let me tell you why I’m bringing this to you now.  Because in some ways, that trip is for me a parable about light, and a means to understand this passage in John wherein Jesus claims to be the Light of the World. Listen:

When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he insists on being the one to define reality.  He calls the shots.  He decides, if you will, where the spotlight will shine.  And the people who hear him in John’s gospel don’t like this any more than you do – because we all want to be in control. We want to call the shots. But we don’t.  And we can’t.

When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he reveals danger.  If the people continue to act and believe as they have, they are headed for certain death, he says.  A huge part of what it means to follow Jesus is to be attentive to the things that he says about right living, and truth, and appropriate behavior. I know from personal experience that time after time after time, I could have avoided great pain and suffering simply by doing that to which Christ calls me.

When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he brings fear.  His listeners in John were sure that he was possessed by a demon. There’s a fire in his eyes that is alarming –a quality of his speech that can be simply frightening to those who want to keep things the way that they always have been.  In fact, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day insist that if people were to believe Jesus, then they’d be in danger of eternal damnation because, after all, he’s a blasphemer.  That’s why they tried to kill him – because they knew that Jesus was a dangerous man of whom they were deeply afraid.

And lastly, when Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he shows the world for what it is. He reveals those who are genuinely seeking truth and those who are seeking glory from others; he shows the difference between honest questioning and tricky reasoning.

Yes, in the ways that Jesus defines reality, reveals danger, frightens the powerful, and illuminates the hearts of men and women, he truly is the Light of the world. And this is disconcerting to nearly everyone who hears Jesus preach that day, because he is not what they are looking for.

In his study on John, Gerard Sloyan points out that  people were disappointed in Jesus for two closely related reasons.  Either they believed too much or too little about him – in either case, they did not take him at his word.  It was as if everyone that day had a cartoon Jesus to whom they’d rather relate, rather than a living, breathing carpenter from Nazareth.  Some were anxious to make him God in a man-suit; that is, a being that looked to be human, but clearly was not, and could not be. How could God become flesh? Impossible.  But God could seem like a human – and so for some, Jesus was simply God in disguise – God pretending to be human.

For others, though, they believed too little.  They believed that Jesus was the quintessential “nice guy”, a prophet like Moses who would bring them what they needed in a miraculous fashion – but no more than that. Surely not divine.

space-sunriseAnd to these people, and to you and me, Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  I am the timeless revealer and Son of God. I am the means by which you can see and experience the fullness of God.  I am the light that illumines your world.

So what does that mean to us?  How relevant is that today? What difference might that make in your life?

For some, it means that we must recognize the fact that there are flaws and blemishes in our own lives. I think that I’m speaking now to those of you who have been Christians for a while.  People sometimes come to see me and they speak of some sin, some error, some evil in their lives as though they are surprised to find it there. New believers don’t have this problem as much – we see sin in our lives and say, “all right, God, there’s another clump of it – get it away from me, please!”  But those who have believed for a while will come to me and say, “I can’t believe I’m struggling with selfishness right now.  It never bothered me before.  Why am I dealing with this now?  Shouldn’t I have moved past this?

Friends, think of the light.  Before you walked in the Light, you were in darkness.  You couldn’t see very far in front of your face, could you?  If there were blemishes or blotches or stains, you sure didn’t notice them, because you were in the dark, and you couldn’t even distinguish them. But as you get closer to the light, the imperfections stand out, don’t they.  What didn’t look so bad from way back there looks pretty rough when Jesus shines the light on it, doesn’t it?  Living with an awareness that Jesus is the light of the world means remembering that each step of your spiritual journey is a step that must be accompanied by forgiveness and reconciliation – because each step we draw closer to the light we discover new scars and blemishes – new places in our lives that don’t quite measure up to God’s best for our lives.

For some of you, living as though Jesus is the Light of the world means that you recognize that you’re not the one holding the spotlight.  You’re not in control, are you?  It would be nice if you could get to where you wanted to get right away; it would be nice if you could choose the path that you were taking.  But the fact of the matter is that there are some seasons in our lives when we’re going to be led someplace that we aren’t all that excited about going.

When you say that Jesus is the light of the world, it means that when you enter into the scary places of your life – the medical diagnoses that frighten you, the relationships that fail, the jobs that let you down – you can be sure that you are not alone in those places.  Is it all right for you to wish that you weren’t there?  Sure, I suppose so.  But the reality is that the only way out of those places is to follow the light one step at a time, trusting that you’ll come to the place where God wants you to be.

And for some of you, living as though Jesus is the light of the world means that you remember that it is he, not you, not me, who truly illumines the landscape around us. It means that we look through the lens of his life and see the beauty and the majesty of our own lives – the ways that God has blessed us time and time again – even when we have been unaware of his walking with us.  Some of us are so worried about moving ahead that we forget to stop and look up every now and then, remembering that he is the one who is in control, not us. Living as though Jesus is the light of the world means that the natural posture for a believer is gratitude and thanksgiving for all of God’s blessings.

Earlier this week, the participants in the Confirmation Class sat with these verses from John and we noticed something else about what Jesus said.  There is a lot of legal language here – Jesus is reminding his hearers that he can be trusted because he will back it up; he’s not just talking to hear himself talk; he is saying the truth that he will demonstrate.

But how do we prove what he said?  How do we know that he is the one who can illuminate the path and direct our steps and define reality appropriately?  The same way that I learned on the jeep in South Africa: we get on and go for a ride. We trust in him. We look where he tells us to look and follow his instructions.  He said that he was the light of the world. Nobody made me get on that jeep fifteen years ago – but it was one of the most magnificent rides of my life. This week, friends, let me invite you to hop onto this ride – the ride of Christian discipleship – and learn to see the world in the light of Jesus.  You won’t regret it.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Bread and Life

Eight times in the Gospel of John, Jesus looked at folk around him and said, “I am.”  Bread of life.  Light of the world.  The Gate.  And so on.  As we journey towards the garden, the cross, and the grave, we want to stick close to the Lord to learn more of who he is in order that we might discover that which we are called to be.  This is the message from March 16 as heard at the Crafton Heights Church.  Our scriptures included selected verses from Exodus 3 and John 6 (quoted below).

What really frosts you?  I mean, what gets on your last nerve, and just makes you see red?  Don’t feel like you have to shout out answers during the message…

Someone might say, “When I’m cruising down the parkway and traffic just stops…because no one seems to know how to drive through a stinking tunnel!”  And that’s true.  That really chaps my hide…but I was thinking a little more ecclesiastically.  What bothers you spiritually?

Several times in recent weeks I’ve thought about one of the first times I ever went to share communion in a nursing home. I was the associate pastor, and the senior pastor had said to me, “I’m glad you’ll be going out there.  Try to visit with Esther.  I think she might connect better with you than she does with me.”  This is, of course, pastor’s code for “She really doesn’t like anyone, but why don’t you give it a shot?”

So I went out to the home, and was told that Esther was indeed there, and that she was the blind lady in the wheelchair over in the corner.  I approached, and our conversation went something like this:

“Esther?  Hi!  My name is Dave Carver, and I’m…”

“I know who you are.  You’re the new preacher, aren’t you?  I don’t know if we’re going to get along.”

“Esther, why would you say that?”

“Well, they tell me you’ve got a beard.  Do you have a beard?”

“I do.”

“Well, let me feel it then.”  And she reached her hand up and touched my face.  “Yeah, that’s what I thought.  I don’t think I can get used to the idea of a preacher with a beard.  It’s just not right.”

“Uh, Esther?  Can you see me?”

“Of course not!  I’m blind!”

“Well then, if you can’t see my beard, how can it bother you?”

“I can think it, can’t I?”

Esther was offended by the idea of a preacher with facial fondeur.  What about you?  What offends you in church?  If we allow it, that could be a long list – and a subjective one, too: what offends you now might not offend you in ten years; what offends me might not offend you.

But looking past the things that you encounter when you show up here – where do you find Jesus to be offensive?

“Oh, Pastor!  Jesus? Offensive?  No, no, no…Jesus and me?  We are good!  I love my Jesus, my savior…”

Really? Nothing about what Jesus said or did rocks your boat, even a little bit?  Because it seems to me that the people who took him seriously, who really let him in, who were there to pay attention – well, they found him to be at least intrusive, if not offensive.

In fact, our Gospel reading for this morning is about a time when Jesus managed to offend a whole lot of people, including some who thought of themselves as his friends.

jesus-teachingJohn chapter six opens with the story about how Jesus and the disciples were looking for a break after a pretty rough stretch of ministry.  They went out into the boondocks in search of a little peace and quiet, only to be followed by great crowds – crowds that had needs that the boondocks were not equipped to handle.  So what started out to be a little retreat wound up to be an all-day teaching session that led to the feeding of the 5,000.  John tells us that after that happened, they tried to make Jesus into a king, and he didn’t want any of that…so he and the Twelve set off again – to someplace even boondockier –  in search of some R & R.

Yet the crowds found them again, and Jesus called them out, saying, “Look, we all know you’re not here for the Bible Study – you just remember the bread and the fishes from yesterday.” Then he threw out a little teaser, saying that they ought to really want the food that would allow them to live forever.  Well, they fell right into that one, and said, “You bet! Give us that!  That’s the stuff we want!”  Listen:

So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” (John 6:30 – 34, NIV)

Sharing Bread (Sieger Köder, German, 20th c.)

Sharing Bread (Sieger Köder, German, 20th c.)

If you’ve read much of John before, you could see this coming.  Time and time again, John presents us with a Jesus who talks about things on an intensely spiritual plane, while mere mortals are thinking that he’s talking about the mundane stuff of human existence.  So when they beg him for some of this bread, Jesus gives them the theological knock-out:

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:35-40, NIV)

There are two things going on here.  First, Jesus uses two little words that sound so inoffensive in English, or even in Greek.  He says, “I am”.  “Ego eimi”.  We say that all the time, don’t we?  “Who’s in charge here?  Who is going for ice cream? Who’s ready for Spring?”  I am!  That’s me!

But for Jesus and the rest of the faithful in his time and place, saying “I am” – particularly in a theological context – was a loaded proposition because, as you have already heard in the reading from Exodus, “I am” is more than a simple declarative statement.  “I am” is the Divine Name.  “I am” is who God revealed himself to be.  And Jesus here, for the first of eight times in John’s Gospel, uses that phrase to refer to himself.

images-of-jesusFor a carpenter’s son to use the Divine Name was wildly offensive to his hearers.  “Who do you think you are?  Do you know what you’re saying?” When Jesus said, “I Am” so often in that context, it was an unmistakable sign that he was equating himself with God’s presence and God’s purposes.  Listen:

At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?” (John 6:41-42, NIV)

And while this is going on, you can just about feel the disciples cringing.  “Oh, come on, Jesus!  You have just cracked the top ten!  People are really paying attention to you now!  Don’t offend them with this stuff!  Give the crowds what they want, and don’t rile the authorities.”

But he doesn’t stop.  In fact, he goes deeper:

“Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:47-51 NIV)

Jesus says that God, through Moses, directed the faithful to manna – the bread that would help them get through another day in the desert.  And now the same God, through Jesus, offers the true bread from heaven.  And what is that bread? Jesus says, “That’s me.  I am.  I am the bread of life.”

And then Jesus takes it a bit further.  He says that he’s better than the manna that the ancestors ate, and, in fact, the bread that he is is bread for the life of the world.  “If you want eternal life, then you’ve got to eat my flesh.  If you want eternal life, you’ve got to drink my blood.”

And when he said this, some of the people who had been following him looked around at each other and said, basically, “Eeeew, that’s nasty.  I don’t know if I can get into that…”

Jesus presses the point:

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?” (John 6:60-61, NIV)

Jesus is saying, “You need me.  I am the basic stuff of life.  If you don’t have me, you can’t experience life.  I am what sustains you.”

And then we get to one of the most curious parts of this story:

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:66, NIV)

Sometimes in scripture, we see things in black and white; as good and evil.  When someone opposes Jesus, we want to think right away that it’s the bad guys.  “If I was there…” we think, “I wouldn’t question anything that Jesus said.”  But friends, you see the truth.  Here, in this passage, it is the good guys – the followers – disciples of Jesus – who turn away and can no longer follow him.  Why is that?  Because Jesus, talking about the body and the blood, claims to be the sustaining, equipping presence that we need each and every day.

Bread has taken a bit of a bad rap in our culture lately.  You may have seen articles like, “Why Bread Is Bad for You: the Shocking Truth!” or “Cutting Bread From Your Diet”.  Many of us are being told that we shouldn’t eat bread, or that we eat too much bread, or something like that.  And, thanks be to God, most of us are in a position where we have a lot of options when it comes to food.

breadYet the reality is that for most of the world, there is a dish that sustains us.  Come with me to Malawi, and watch women standing for hours around the big pot of nsima, the staple food on which most Malawians rely for two meals a day.  I remember walking the streets of Cairo and seeing men with giant platters of bread, selling the small loaves for two pennies each.  Most of the people on this planet rely on a simple combination of grains to keep them going day after day – it is bread, or nsima, or pap, or funche, or polenta… it is what we need to live.

And here in today’s Gospel, Jesus looks at those who would follow him, and say, “Yes.  That’s me.  I am what you need.  I am that for which you were created.  I am.”  And that notion of exclusivity offends people – and they want to leave.  Because they are not in the business of depending on Jesus.  Of needing him.  Of thinking of him as the way to live.  He’s a nice guy.  A great man, even.  We ought to pay attention to him.

But is he God?

I wonder if we really appreciate what a leap it is to go from thinking that Jesus is a good man – even a great man, like Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, Jr. – to believing that Jesus is truly the bread of life.  To tell you the truth, I’m not surprised that people are offended.  It’s pretty tough to comprehend, isn’t it?

But not everyone turns away:

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69, NIV)

The twelve stick around.  They’re invited to leave, but Peter matter-of-factly says, “Seriously, Lord, where can we go?  Because we KNOW you.  We were so hungry yesterday – and you fed us.  We were so scared in the boat last night – and you were there.  We have seen you.  We know you.  And we cannot leave.”  And the twelve, save Judas, all end up spending the rest of their lives pointing other people towards the things that Jesus said and did – because they believed that he WAS the essence of life.  The difference between the people who were offended and those who were not was not that somehow the apostles “got” what Jesus was saying any better.  They were lost, too.  But they had seen him and known him and experienced his power – and they knew they needed to stay with him, even if they didn’t understand everything at the time.

The Lord's Table in Crafton Heights, complete with our itty-bitty, really hard bread and empty cup.  Shallow? Perhaps, but symbolic nonetheless.

The Lord’s Table in Crafton Heights, complete with our itty-bitty, really hard bread and empty cup. Shallow? Perhaps, but symbolic nonetheless.

Look at that table before you. It’s a rich, sturdy, oak table.  They don’t make ‘em like that any more.  It’s quality furniture.  And look at what’s on it.  An empty cup and a small loaf.  It’s just a reminder… It seems so, normal.  It’s almost … harmless the way that we remember that Jesus is the bread. Like we have “tamed” him, somehow.  Made him less offensive.

We have to remember that Jesus is the bread.  We don’t remember that Jesus and something else is what we need.  We don’t claim that our lives are pretty good, pretty whole, and then we sprinkle a little bit of Jesus on top just to round things out, as though Jesus was a special additive that makes our lives sparkle a little bit more.  This little loaf and empty cup, as shallow as they may be, remind us that Jesus is all of what we need.  They are here to serve as symbols, pointing us to what we really need.

It is a statement of belief:  in coming to the table, you say, “I believe that I need Christ and his power in my life, and I believe that he is there and is sufficient to reign.”  And it is a statement of intent: in sharing the cup and the loaf, you say, “I will follow where he leads me.”  And it is a statement of testimony: in our worship, you say, “Yes, I could have gone.  I might have gone.  But there have been times in my life when he has fed me.  I don’ t know how he’s done it – but I was fed.  There have been times in my life when he has calmed me, and been present to me when I was scared, or frightened, or in need, and he walked out to me and comforted me.”

Do you see, you lovely people of God?  Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.”  And now he’s asking you to believe that that is the case.  He is not an additive; he is not an enrichment.  He is life.  And he invites us to follow him.  And to tell the story that has changed our world.  For some, that is offensive.  For us, it is life.  Let us live it as though we counted on him to nourish us today and always.  Amen.