This sermon concludes our August, 2018 series on Holy Communion. As always, audio is here.
Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost – August 26, 2018
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Dolores Hicks was born in October of 1938 in Chicago, Illinois. She was an only child whose parents, who had married when they were teenagers, separated when she was three and ultimately divorced. As she grew, she found refuge from her parents’ marital problems in time she spent with her grandfather, who worked as a projectionist in a movie theater. He loved films, and his enthusiasm was contagious. Dolores would watch movies with him in the projectionist’s booth, albeit often with the sound turned off so as to not disturb her grandfather’s naps, awakening him when it was time to switch the reels.
In 1956, Dolores Hicks, who was now using the stage name Dolores Hart, was signed to play the role of Susie Jessup alongside Elvis Presley in the 1957 film Loving You a role that led to several more roles. Sometimes compared to Grace Kelley, Dolores Hart would eventually work on Broadway winning a 1959 Theater World award and a Tony Award nomination for her work on Broadway. In film, she would star alongside actors such as Stephen Boyd, Montgomery Clift, George Hamilton, and Robert Wagner.
Her final film would be 1963’s Come Fly With Me. It proved to be a transformational year for her life and career. She broke of her engagement to Los Angeles architect Don Robinson, and while in New York for a promotional stop for Come Fly With Me, the twenty-four-year-old acclaimed and in-demand actress took a one-way car ride to the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. She disciplined herself under the rule of Saint Benedict and took her final vows in 1970. It is in this monastic community that she still lives and serves today.(1)
In this morning’s text, Jesus concludes his long “discourse on bread” found in chapter six of the Gospel of John, the discourse we have been examining throughout the month of August as we have explored the meaning of the sacrament of Holy Communion and how it shapes our congregational life and witness. In today’s reading, Jesus continues drawing contrasts between the bread that the Israelites received from God when they were wandering in the wilderness after their escape from Egyptian bondage and the bread of life that is his body. The distinction that he has pointed out again and again in this discourse on bread, is that those who ate the bread in the wilderness eventually died, while those who partake of the “bread” that is his body will live forever.
While considering today’s text, I was drawn to the verse where Jesus teaches “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” The way in which this verse is written is quite characteristic of John’s gospel, as John regularly speaks in dichotomies: from above and from below, light and darkness, faith and doubt, the bread from heaven and the bread that is his body, and as is the case here today, the contrast between the spirit and the flesh. Here, Jesus lays before his hearers, people who John tells us are heretofore people who have chosen to follow him and be his disciples, a choice: choose between an old way of living, a way that is earthly and temporal, and his new way, a way that is transcendent and eternal. Not the old bread that sustains for but awhile, but joining in his body, that which gives life and life everlasting.
John tells us that, faced with this choice, “many” of Jesus’ erstwhile disciples decide that this teaching is too hard. John writes, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” It is one thing to follow the popular rabbi and miracle-worker when you can bring the old life with all of its certainties with you. Yet when Jesus starts laying choices before us, choices that involve holding on with both hands and therefore letting go of the old things, it should not surprise us that some of his hearers drew a line, that they turned around and went home to the familiar and the routine.
I believe that, if we are honest, each of us can see ourselves in these disciples who honestly struggle with what Jesus lays before them in this morning’s reading. Choose the flesh or choose the spirit. It often comes down, in many ways, to going with what you know, what you can touch and taste and see, or embrace what Jesus is offering which is so often new and unseen and uncertain, with the only certainty being Jesus’ persistent promise to be with us, come what may, and his passionate entreaty to not be afraid.
I read this text, and I imagine those disciples, struggling to believe, to envision a life devoid of the familiar and certain. I read this text, and I recall the times I have counseled people who were in life-stealing, if not dangerous relationships, and how they could name so many reasons, reasons that hung in the air, reasons struggling to sound noble enough to justify staying at home, with the familiar and routine, even when the familiar and routine were destructive and life-stealing.
I think about my own childhood, how my father’s inherent love of human interactions, his natural salesmanship, and his creative gifts all conspired to continually promote him into a corporate job he came to hate. I remember how many times I was in the Oldsmobile station wagon with him, and how again and again he would describe for me what he really wanted to do, which was to open and manage his own sporting goods store, which would afford him the opportunity to do what we fell in love with back in the mid-sixties when he was young and working at the Best Products store near Willow Lawn: interact with people, be creative, and sell.
As a young person, his plan seemed to make perfect sense to me. He could find his joy. He could do what he loved, that which he was gifted in doing. No more commuting to Ashland at dawn every day. No more corporate desk job.
Yet as an adult, I can see and appreciate all of the reasons he had, hanging in the air, that post-Depression generation value of cultivating the American dream, of giving your children what you did not have. The potential risks, the possibility of living in a smaller home, of my brother and me having to change schools, my mother possibly having to go back to work. Again and again, my father peered into a foggy future and chose the devil he knew.
Bishop William H. Willimon tells the story of his decision to enter pastoral ministry, of the time when he was young and attending a ministry exploration event for teenagers. While there, he heard clergy in the deep South recount stories of their experiences preaching and working for racial justice, and how one pastor had a cinderblock thrown through the back window of his car and how another pastor had a cross burned in his yard. Young Will Willimon heard these stories, discovered that ministry could be a daring adventure beyond anything he had ever imagined, and that was all it took for him to give his life to that vocation. (2)
Yet decades later, with a comfortable, prestigious job at Duke University, he found himself wondering if he still had it in him, that courage, that sense of adventure, that aversion to risk, that willingness to let go of it all and follow Christ in that way.
John writes, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.'” Sometimes embracing the new life is indeed difficult. It is rarely easy to let go of certainty, even when it is not the certainty that we were made to have.
I think about all of our young people who are arrived at college last week, and how, perhaps for the first time in their lives, they have been afforded a bona-fide opportunity to let go, to leave everything behind and completely reinvent themselves. And I think about how the best part of this stage of life is not the reinvention, it is the slow, emerging discovery of who they truly are, who they were truly meant to be as humans, as people, as children of God.
It would be quite easy to regard the life of Dolores Hart, the twenty-four old Hollywood starlet of stage and screen, raised in the dim, flickering light of a projectionist’s booth, now with eleven movies completed with no end in sight, and her decision to break off her engagement with a dear man, one who would remain a close friend for the rest of his life, and how one New York day, she purchased a one-way car ride to an abbey in Connecticut. It would be quite easy to regard this life and think the worst.
To think of what could have been, to think of what she lost, what she gave up, the sacrifices she made, the potential that she failed to live up to, the possibility that she must have had some kind of personal crisis, even a mental breakdown.
Or, she finally was able to see in stark relief the difference between a life of the flesh and a life of the spirit, such that the old reasons could not hang in the air any longer. Finally, she experienced that sweet release of finding what being human truly means, as she emptied her hands of the things of this world, those things that things she could control, so that she could, in the words of the apostle Paul, “take hold of the life that really is life.” Perhaps she, like Peter in this morning’s text, watched all of those people turn and walk away, heard Jesus invitation to do the same and responded, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Choosing to follow Christ does not necessarily mean changing careers, breaking off engagements, or joining a monastic order. Yet at the same time, it often does require a certain amount of letting go; letting go of old assumptions, letting go of old prejudices, letting go of old beliefs, even beliefs about ourselves and what is truly possible in our own lives. Doing this can be a lifelong journey, and the temptation will always be there to make peace with the status quo, to let all of those reasons hang in the air. Like the disciples in today’s scripture, the fear borne of placing all of our eggs in Christ’s basket in order to follow him will sometimes seem to great for each of us to bear.
In a time and culture that reminds us again and again that fame and consumption and avarice in all of its forms is the true measure of success and the prime directive of happiness, opting out of this culture can seem like a terrifyingly lonely place to be. Most of us spend so much time trying to merely keep our boats upright as we dash down the river of acceptance and success, the very thought of trying to row against the current can seem impossible.
And yet, we never make the journey alone. Christ is with us, and Christ will put the people and circumstances we need in our paths when we need them, as together we sojourn towards what Jesus calls this life of the spirit.
And as we make this journey, God has given us this gift of bread, this foretaste heaven, this foretaste of home, this meal that reminds us that we are made, claimed, forgiven, redeemed, and sent by the God who loves us, who guides us, and who abides with us in all of our trials and failures of faithfulness.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.