A Sermon about the Incarnation, Our Bodies, and Being Enough

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St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Midlothian
26 August 2018 + Lectionary 21B (Pentecost 14)
John 6.56-69, [70-71]


Jesus has said a lot of unusual, stunning, even downright shocking things these past five weeks we’ve spent reading our way through John 6:

“I am the bread of life.”

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”

“The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

And these sayings have solicited just as many scattered reactions:

Misunderstanding: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Complaining and offense: “Does this offend you?”

Disbelief: “Among you there are some who do not believe.”

Abandonment: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

Betrayal: “…Judas son of Simon Iscariot…though one of the twelve, was going to betray [Jesus].”

Jesus has said a lot of things, and he’s gotten some strong reactions. This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? It’s not as though Jesus’s followers were along for the ride, keeping up with the bizarre things he’s been saying, and then suddenly one teaching gives them pause. This momentum has been building. We’re only six chapters into John, and yet there is precedent for this hesitance to Jesus’s teachings. Jesus’s earlier conversation with Nicodemus by night leaves Nicodemus asking, “How can these things be?” Misunderstanding, disbelief, even complaining and offense to the point of betrayal and abandonment, are all hallmarks of the reaction of the crowds to Jesus’s teachings in John.

And yet, what is it exactly that elicits such strong reactions? Granted, the Bread of Life discourse, as this chapter from John we’ve been reading for five weeks is called, is notoriously difficult to understand. Jesus is repetitive. He speaks with metaphor and language we might not otherwise encounter in normal conversation. Yet, it’s the crowd’s initial reaction that holds the key.

This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? …might better be translated more literally as: This word is hard; who is able to listen to it?

This word is hard to listen to. The Word is the starting point of John’s gospel. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… begins John 1. Then a few verses later: The Word became flesh and lived among us.

This Word is hard to listen to! This is the message of John’s gospel: The eternal Word of God has become flesh to live among us, entering into all of our reality and the grit of human existence. This is the great I AM who is beyond all time and space who has become one of us, the Creator becoming the creation, crossing thresholds and subverting boundaries, drawing all people to himself and calling them friends.

Oftentimes, John’s gospel gets a reputation for being the hyper-spiritualized gospel with a head-in-the-clouds Jesus whose divinity outweighs his humanity. That couldn’t be further from the truth. John’s Jesus is literally a down-to-earth Jesus, 100% human even as he is fully divine.

And that, I think, is why this teaching, this word, is so difficult to listen to and accept. It is inconceivable that God should become like one of us, fully human and experiencing everything that entails. It is inconceivable that the extraordinary God should enter into the ordinary stuff of human existence: bread and wine and even human flesh, our very bodies.

This is the perfect and the holy entering into the imperfect and the flawed. God becoming flesh has implications that are offensive to us, just as much as to Jesus’s first followers:

God became flesh in the body of a 1st-century, dark-skinned, Palestinian, Jewish carpenter living under the occupation and oppression of the powerful Roman Empire.

God became flesh in the body of one of society’s nobodies.

God became flesh in the body of someone we would rather ignore for who they are or what they look like or what they believe or where they live or where they come from.

For the past two weeks, I have served as the event coordinator for the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) Orientation, a program of our denomination that sends young people from across our church to ministry partners around the world to live and work alongside bodies that are different from their own for a year. At closing worship during orientation, hours before these YAGM would board their flights for their countries of service, my colleague and friend preached a sermon that reminded us: Wherever God calls us into this work of ministry, in whatever form that work takes, we are enough, just as we are.

Before we leave these precious few weeks of abiding in John’s gospel, let this be our reminder today, too: The God who has become human flesh and entered into the ordinary stuff of human existence in the body of Jesus Christ calls us enough, just as we are.

The bodies of society’s nobodies are enough. Our bodies are enough, not in spite of but precisely because of what they look like and what they believe or don’t believe and where they live and where they come from.

Our bodies are enough because they are enough for God herself.

Indeed, that is the message of John’s gospel and the whole point of this thing we call the incarnation, the “taking on of human flesh” — that God loves God’s world so much that God became one of us, giving us God’s very self as the bread of life, sustenance for the sake of our life, life abundant, life eternal, life and liberation and flourishing in relationship with each other here and now.

This word is hard to listen to and understand. But that’s exactly the point. If ever this mystery of God becoming flesh and everything it implies starts to make sense to us, something has gone wrong. It is nothing that can be or even should be understood. It is an act of love. It is an act of grace. It is enough. It just is.

There’s one last reaction to this word, this teaching, today: Peter’s confession of faith and trust. When asked by Jesus, “Do you also wish to go away?”, Peter’s response is stunningly simple yet profound: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Where else can we go? When the world degrades our bodies and calls into question our existence and self-worth, when our bodies hurl insults and violence at one another, when our bodies are told they are not good enough. Where else can we go but to the one who took on an imperfect, flawed human body and in so doing implicitly called it enough?

The Word became flesh and lived among us. The Word became flesh and called it very good. The Word became flesh and said it is enough.

Thanks be to God.

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A Sermon about Being Bread for Each Other

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Wicker Park Lutheran Church, Chicago
19 August 2018 + Lectionary 20B (Pentecost 13)
John 6.51-58


When I started seminary four years ago, I learned a lot of new words: Eschatological. Pneumatology. Exegesis. Hermeneutics. (Not to mention all the Greek and Hebrew vocabulary I memorized.) It doesn’t really matter if you know what any of those words mean. There are days I’m not sure I even know what they mean.

There’s one word I learned, though, before classes even started: YAGM. Now, some of you might actually know this one. Four years ago, I definitely did not. YAGM. I couldn’t even begin to guess. But as it turns out, YAGM is not even a word at all. It’s an acronym, short for “Young Adults in Global Mission.” Y-A-G-M. YAGM.

Before seminary, a few of my new classmates had just come from a year living and working abroad through this program of our denomination, the ELCA, that places young people from across the country into new and unfamiliar contexts to live and work alongside our partners in the gospel in the ELCA’s companion churches and organizations.

This past week, I’ve had the delight to serve as the event coordinator for YAGM Orientation. It has been inspiring and encouraging to see nearly 80 young adults from across our church descend on Chicago for a week-long orientation ahead of their year of service in various countries around the globe. And the premise of their work, as any YAGM will tell you, is accompaniment — the idea of walking together, to work alongside, to accompany, to bear the good news of Jesus Christ, the message of liberation for the oppressed, in our bodies.

Oftentimes, the church is called the body of Christ. It’s an idea that medieval Christian mystic and saint Teresa of Ávila captured in her short poem:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world…

We, the church, are the body of Christ for each other and for the sake of the world.

Teresa understood that we carry in our bodies the same work and compassion and blessing that Jesus embodied. Indeed, we the church are, quite literally, the very body of Christ for each other and for the sake of the world.

In Jesus’s words: The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

What began as the feeding of the five thousand, a miracle of abundance, has become something more.

Jesus’s society was a society living under the occupation and oppression of the Roman Empire, a society that privileged the few at the expense of the many, a society plagued by food shortages and insecurity, malnutrition, and disease. Scarcity, not abundance, was the order of the day. In the midst of this scarcity and oppression, Jesus recognizes a deep hunger for bread and more than bread. Jesus offers loaves of bread in abundance, and then he makes the stunning declaration: I am the bread of life.

The bread that Jesus offers is more than bread. It is indeed life itself, abundant life in the midst of scarcity. The bread that he offers is indeed his very self — the eternal Word of God who became flesh and entered into our reality, the grit of human existence, the great I AM who crosses thresholds and subverts boundaries and draws all people to himself and calls them friends.

The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

Here, in this place, we hear this Word of Life and are fed by the Bread of Life. If there’s any truth the phrase “you are what you eat,” it’s here: Around this table, we become what we receive — the body of Christ, raised up for the world. We are the body of Christ for the sake of each other, bread for a world so desperate for the promise of life abundant.

Gunilla Norris writes these words in her poem “Plenty”:

Having shared our bread,
we know that we are
no longer hungry. It is enough

that you see me for myself.
That I see you for yourself.
That we bless what we see

and do not borrow, do not use
one another. This is how we know
we are no longer hungry… that

the world is full of terror, full of beauty
and yet we are not afraid to find solace here.
To be bread for each other. To love.

To be bread for each other… To be the body of Christ for each other…

The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

We are that bread, friends. In this thing called church, we are continually feeding and being fed by each other, having been fed first by the one who calls us and draws us to himself.

Just prior to YAGM Orientation this past week, I spent several days at a retreat of my own, a gathering of about 70 openly LGBTQIA+ Lutheran deacons, pastors, and seminarians who are all a part of Proclaim, an organization of nearly 300 of us in all. In worship, over meals, in discussions and fellowship with friends and colleagues, this is one of the highlights of my year. The Proclaim Gathering is always a time of rest and sabbath and being fed by our community, but this year especially: We gathered together from many places. Daily we heard the Word of Life and tasted the Bread of Life. In our time together, we were fed, by Christ, by each other, refreshed and revitalized, in order to feed others, sent forth to bear witness to the promise of abundant life in a world so desperately in need of that good news.

There is joy and community at this table. At YAGM Orientation opening worship, we literally danced as the altar furnishings and communion bread and wine were brought forward. At this table, whether at YAGM or Proclaim or Wicker Park Lutheran Church, God forms us into a beloved community, sent to accompany God’s people in this broken, beautiful world.

Jesus says: The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

We are that bread, and we are that flesh. We are the body of Christ raised up for the life of the world. Indeed, we are bread for each other.