“Bread from Heaven”

This is a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD on Sunday, May 7, 2017. 

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 16

 

According to the earliest Church thinkers, the Reformed theologians, and Scripture itself, Israel’s exodus journey out of Egypt into Canaan is an analogy for our journey away from the tyranny of sin and the devil, toward growth and spiritual transformation. And just as God Himself led Israel in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, God in Christ is leading us away from our old selves, which were bound to sin, and He is bringing us to Himself. And just as Israel had to wander through the rugged, inhospitable wilderness to reach their promised land, God leads us in the midst of a world that is harsh and hostile to us as we live our new lives in Christ.

In Christ, the God of heaven is our loving Father, and He desires our ultimate good.

After the initial excitement of the journey wears off, this process of renewal can be overshadowed by weariness and grumbling. Without a clear vision of the destination, the goal toward which we are striving, it can be tempting to do as the Israelites did, and long for what’s behind. After a month of walking through the desert, the Israelites had fully exhausted what little provisions they had managed to bring in their fly-by-night exodus from Egypt. And instead of looking ahead to the glorious presence of God in their midst, in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, they look back, romanticizing their slavery. They remember longingly how they filled themselves with meat and bread, but they’ve completely forgotten the back-breaking slavery under which they languished and lamented, longing to be delivered. Instead, they see that deliverance is too hard, too costly, and now wish instead that God had simply killed them in Egypt.

But God sees the bigger picture, and knows what His people really need most. If Israel had stayed in Egypt, suffering under what they remember as a comfortable misery, then the whole world would have been left in darkness and death forever. God was working through Israel to bring about not only their salvation, but the salvation of the whole world. Israel had to become the nation it did, so that out of its descendants, Jesus of Nazareth could be born, and the entire world could be delivered from its slavery to sin.

God Himself is our ultimate good, and He is working to draw us to Himself.

In the death of Jesus, God’s own Son, our sin and death were defeated. In the resurrection of Jesus, His life was made ours. In the events of Easter, Jesus fulfilled what He said He came to do:

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

John 10:10

That abundant life is ours in Christ, the Risen and Living Lord. Of course, we have a particular vision of “abundance,” just as Israel did. Freedom from slavery, to them, meant comfort and ease; instead, they find themselves camping as refugees in the desert, starving. They cry out, and God listens, and feeds them manna, bread from heaven. The entire desert becomes God’s bakery, producing flakes of sweet grain for His people to eat.

God saw the hunger of His people, and provided an impossible solution. In the same way, God saw the great spiritual need of the world, and provided an impossible solution, “the bread of life” (John 6:35), Jesus Christ, God’s own Son made flesh. Christ himself told his disciples:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

John 6:32-33

God sent the manna to the Israelites to sustain them in their desert journey from slavery to their new life. But to sustain us on our spiritual journey from our old lives of captivity to our new lives in Christ, God gave us so much more than manna. God gave us Himself: the one thing we truly need to live, what we most desire in our heart of hearts, the relationship for which we were created. And in Christ that hunger is filled. The risen Christ comes to us anew this morning, and reveals himself to us through the gifts of Word and sacrament, to fill us and strengthen us for our journey together into God.

Easter people, do not long for your old lives of sin and death. Look ahead to the new life that is growing in you through Christ’s death and resurrection. And find here at the Lord’s Table the abundant life of God, offered fully to you this morning. Just as manna was not meant to sustain God’s people forever, but only on their journey to the promised land, in the same way, the sacrament of communion is not what we will eat forever, but only this side of eternity. This holy meal is a sign of the feast of love that Christ is preparing for us even now, the wedding feast of the Lamb for which we wait with anxious hope. As we wait, Christ himself is the host of this meal, and He invites you to receive Him in faith and in hope as everything you need for life – true life, abundant life.

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“Abide”

GOSPEL | JOHN 6:52-59

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;  55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.  58 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 for ever.”  59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (v.56)

Every Friday at the Seminary, we share communion together during morning prayers. This has been a rich blessing for me during the last two years, and today’s reading from John echoed throughout all of morning prayers.

We come to have communion with this same Christ,

who has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world.

In the breaking of the bread he makes himself known to us

as the true heavenly bread that strengthens us unto life eternal.

In the cup of blessing he comes to us as the vine,

in whom we must abide if we are to bear fruit.

~ from the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, a part of the RCA’s communion liturgy

As I reflected on this communion, this mutual abiding, that Jesus describes, I found myself praying along with the epiclesis (the invocation of the Holy Spirit) in earnest during our communion liturgy:

Send your Holy Spirit upon us, we pray,

that the sharing of the bread that we break

and the cup that we bless

may be for us the communion of the body and blood of Christ.

Grant that, being joined together in him,

we may attain to the unity of the faith

and grow up in all things into Christ, our Lord.

~ Epiclesis, from the RCA Great Prayer of the Thanksgiving

“Drawn”

GOSPEL | JOHN 6:41-51

41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”  43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves.  44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.  45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.  46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.  47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.  48 I am the bread of life.  49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father” (v .44)

This passage is a continuation of yesterday’s text. I could say all the same things that I did yesterday, but today I was struck — as I have been frequently struck in the last few months — by the activity of the Holy Spirit in this passage. The Father sent the Spirit to actively indwell all who believe, and it is the Spirit who draws us to Christ, and so to the Father.

I can not read this passage without thinking of the Lord’s Supper: I’ll let John Calvin explain:

It is not, therefore, the chief function of the Sacrament simply and without higher consideration to extend to us the body of Christ. Rather, it is to seal and confirm that promise by which he testifies that his flesh is food indeed and his blood is drink [John 6:56], which feed us unto eternal life [John 6:55]. By this he declares himself to be the bread of life, of which he who eats will live forever [John 6:48, 50]. And to do this, the Sacrament sends us to the cross of Christ, where that promise was indeed performed  and in all respects fulfilled. For we do not eat Christ duly and unto salvation unless he is crucified, when in living experience we grasp the efficacy of his death.

~ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.xvii.4 (emphases added)

Communion, then, is not ONLY “a visible sign of an invisible grace” (sorry, Augustine), because it ALSO is a seal, an effective event that actually elicits from me real spiritual vitality and growth, like a good meal naturally elicits a feeling of delighted satisfaction and my real health and nourishment. The question for me is not that it does this, but how:

Now, that sacred partaking of his flesh and blood, by which Christ pours his life into us, as if penetrated into our bones and marrow, he also testifies and seals in the Supper — not by presenting a vain and empty sign, but by manifesting there the effectiveness of his Spirit to fulfill what he promises.

~ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.xvii.10 (emphases added)

It is the power of the Spirit — active and activating, alive and regenerating, light and illuminating — at work that draws us to Christ, that reveals to us Christ, that brings us to believe in Christ, and that imparts to us the dual benefits of justification and sanctification. Thanks be to God for sending his Spirit, the Paraclete, to be my companion and guide.

“Near”

GOSPEL | JOHN 6:4-15

Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.  When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”  He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.  Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,  “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”  10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.  11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.  12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”  13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.  14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”  15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

This miracle is recorded in all four Gospels, the only one that they all share. This screams, “Pay Attention!” John, to be different, starts his with this strange detail: “Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.” (v.4) What does the Passover have to do with this miraculous meal?”

I think John is asking me to see this meal connected to a greater one, one with deep symbolic significance. At the center of this passage, we see Jesus officiating this symbolic meal: “Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated” (v.11). Took, Thanked, Gave. This meal-time pattern recurs with Jesus: there’s also the post-resurrection meal with the couple on the Emmaus road, and his Last Passover with his disciples.

There’s something about this pattern that makes a meal more than a meal, but a real gesture of the kingdom: take, bless, break, give. John is asking me to see that here, at this miraculous hill-side picnic, “the Passover…[is] near” (v.4). This is a kingdom feast; pay attention.