Friday, January 4, 2013
Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
January 5, 2013
As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, "Take this and eat it, for this is my body." And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, "Each of you drink from it, for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many. Mark my words—I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new with you in my Father's Kingdom." Matthew 26:26-29 (New Living Translation)
Summary: The life of God flows into us through the ordinary channel of bread. Eating is sacramental, serving as a vehicle of the presence and favor of God. Beyond mere “gift from God,” it actually carries the life of God into us.
Some years ago I attended a major conference on faith and science sponsored by the Adventist Church in North America. The conference was held at Glacier View Youth Camp in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. I knew that sitting in meetings for a week was going to be difficult, given the temptation of mountains just miles away begging to be climbed. To make sure I stayed focused on the meetings I took no hiking or climbing gear. I did not even rent my own car. I rode with someone else from the airport. All week I stayed focused on my responsibility. Then, late on Friday, a leading conservative theologian found me and presented a dazzling enticement: “Tomorrow, my wife and I, and our kids and their spouses are climbing Longs Peak. Would you like to come along?”
It was a serious hike, about 15 miles round trip with 5000 feet of elevation gain. It would take all day. I was at the conference as a reporter. The responsible thing to do would have been to stay on campus for the presentations at Sabbath School and the worship service. A complete report on the conference would need to take those into account. But the temptation was too great.
I said yes. Then went to work figuring out how I was going to pull it off. I had no boots, but my running shoes would work unless there was a lot of snow. I jury-rigged a day pack out of a stuff sack that had compression straps. I found a vending machine in the basement and bought a couple of bottles of juice and some packs of cookies and went to bed in preparation for our 4 a.m. departure.
Obviously, the cafeteria was not open at 4 in the morning so I ate one of packages of cookies for breakfast. At the trail head some of the kids were eating cereal. The theologian's wife offered me some of their cereal. When I refused, she insisted. I ate a bowl of cereal and milk, a little embarrassed at having to depend on her hospitality. (This woman is a theologian in her own right. In hindsight, her insistence that I eat must be acknowledged as strong evidence of the soundness of her theology!)
Then we were on the trail. As the group spread out on the trail, I stayed back with the stragglers, feeling quite paternal. The theologian, who was our leader, expressed his gratitude for my care for his kids. As the young adults struggled up the mountain I grew increasingly smug. The vitality of youth is wonderful, but it's no match for training and discipline.
After hours of hiking and scrambling, we made it to the summit. I sat by myself, eating cookies and sketching.
The glory of the peak was worth every bit of effort. The view was sublime, grand.
Then it was time to head down. The first three or four miles went fine, then I began to feel a familiar feeling, hunger. I needed calories. But I was sick of eating cookies. I figured I would just wait until we got back to the camp and eat a good supper. Another mile or two and my hunger began speaking louder. I finished the last of the juice, then picked up my pace. I left the rear of the line, hoping I could cover the last three or four miles before I completely ran out of gas. I did not want to eat any more of those vending machine cookies. The hunger and faintness intensified. My whole body was screaming for food. I pushed on. I was determined not to stop.
About a mile from the trail head I woke up. I was lying in the grass beside the trail. I was very comfortable, but I was annoyed. I did not remember deciding to take a rest. In fact, I distinctly remembered I that I was not going to take a break until I reached the trail head. I certainly wasn't planning to take a nap. I crawled into a sitting position and waited for my head to clear.
Reluctantly I reluctantly dug out a couple of cookies.
The stragglers were walking past.
A few minutes later I dragged myself back to my feet and shuffled the last mile or so back to the cars.
One thing hiking can teach, is the absolutely essential role of calories. When Richard invited me to join his family in their hike to the top of a 14,000 foot peak, the glorious attraction of the peak eclipsed any reasonable concern for how I was going to fuel my hike. The wonder of the summit pretty much erased my judgment. I was also seduced by my experience and conditioning. I'm used to doing long hikes. They are routine. This was just another long hike. I figured my conditioning, my experience, would carry me up to the glorious summit and bring me back.
The reality is: no matter how strong you are, no matter how much you've trained, if you hike far enough, sooner or later food will become all important. If you want to keep going, you have to eat.
As residents in contemporary American society, most of us can get pretty lackadaisical about food. It's everywhere. It's always available. Frequently we talk as though calories are enemies. We have too many of them. Calories are so common, we take them so much for granted, that we imagine what really matters is vitamins and minerals, or flavor, or visual presentation.
Obviously, these things are important. But when you're out on the trail burning up the miles, all of that fades into irrelevance and you are reminded that food is the fuel of life.
If I had eaten a hearty sandwich for lunch, or maybe two sandwiches, I wouldn't have ended up lying in the grass beside the trail. I could have avoided this incident even if I had forced myself to eat all of my vending machine cookies.
The bottom line—life and strength, the power to move, to live—comes from the gift of food.
Jesus turns this fundamental fact of everyday life into profound wisdom in the words he spoke at the Last Supper:
He took the bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “This is my body.”
The Christian Church believes these words are not merely the statement of an ancient and fascinating rabbi, it is the Word of God. The Lord's Supper is the most universal Christian practice. The St. Thomas Christians of India, the ancient Christian Church of Ethiopia, the Orthodox churches scattered in the East, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals, Baptists, Adventists—all of us believe that God is specially present to us in the eating of this bread.
In the communion service, we take a tiny piece of bread and practice recognizing God's presence with us.
Then, if we know the Gospel and let our minds run, we recall that bread shows up repeatedly in Matthew's Gospel. In chapter six and again in chapter 14, bread is central to the story. Then again in chapter fifteen.
Jesus returned to the Sea of Galilee and climbed a hill and sat down. A vast crowd brought to him people who were lame, blind, crippled, those who couldn't speak, and many others. They laid them before Jesus, and he healed them all. The crowd was amazed! Those who hadn't been able to speak were talking, the crippled were made well, the lame were walking, and the blind could see again! And they praised the God of Israel. Then Jesus called his disciples and told them, "I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat. I don't want to send them away hungry, or they will faint along the way." The disciples replied, "Where would we get enough food here in the wilderness for such a huge crowd?" Jesus asked, "How much bread do you have?" They replied, "Seven loaves, and a few small fish." So Jesus told all the people to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, thanked God for them, and broke them into pieces. He gave them to the disciples, who distributed the food to the crowd. They all ate as much as they wanted. Afterward, the disciples picked up seven large baskets of leftover food. There were 4,000 men who were fed that day, in addition to all the women and children. Matthew 15:29-38.
A huge crowd of people spends three days in the wilderness with Jesus. Matthew reports nothing of what Jesus teaches. Rather he describes a dazzling demonstration of healing power. Toward the end of the third day, Jesus announces to his disciples they must feed these people. I love the reason Jesus gives for this supper: “I don't want to send them away hungry, or they will faint along the way.”
These were peasants. They were skinny. If they tried to walk for miles on empty bellies they would end up lying in the grass. Jesus didn't want that to happen, so he gave the people sandwiches.
The people eating supper that evening tasted bread and fish. But since Jesus was feeding a crowd of 4000 plus, and the knapsack he was pulling sandwiches from had only seven loaves in it to start with, Matthew intends us to understand that what the people were eating was the manna from heaven, the life of God distilled as food.
So in the Lord's Supper. We are eating bread. We are eating Jesus. We are eating God.
For 2000 years, the Christian Church has celebrated the Lord's Supper. Theologians have waxed eloquent and occasionally angry as they have struggled to explicate the meaning of what we are doing here today, eating bits of bread that are also the body of Jesus who is also God.
Let me add this gentle challenge to our kaleidoscope of understandings: Our participation in the Lord's Supper shows its true power when our practice of recognizing God in these pieces of special bread trains us to discern the presence and favor of God in all of our eating. Every slice of bread, every sandwich, and yes, even every cookie, can be a sacrament, a vehicle of the presence and favor of God.
The bread that fuels our hiking—and our studying and our practicing, our basketball playing and our work on the computer—this ordinary bread is the gift of heaven, filled with God himself. When we have learned fully the wisdom this sacrament teaches, all of life will be suffused with the affection and dignity of God.