SERMON ON JOHN 6:56-69 - REV. CANON TONY MOON, SAINT AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY EPISCOPAL CHURCH, OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 22, 2021
Bread, bread and more bread! We’ve been hearing about bread for several Sundays now! We are overflowing with bread stories, which begs the question, “Why so many repetitive, overflowing bread stories?” What more can we say about bread?
Through these teachings we are reminded that Jesus is the Bread of Life. And, like all these overflowing bread stories, we want Jesus to overflow in our lives. It seems like the wisdom of the early church leaders who structured our Sunday readings, is purposefully causing us to over-focus on the bread of life! This growing repetition is almost like yeast causing the dough to rise and take on larger proportions in our life; taking up such space in our readings and in our life that it cannot be overlooked but must be dealt with!
In these readings, we are speaking about the physical and the spiritual: The physical bread baked in an oven or on a hot stone, feeding our physical bodies. The spiritual bread we call Jesus, nourishing our spiritual beings. During the Eucharist, the priest blesses the bread, makes it holy; elevates this body of bread, and breaks it. This blessed bread of life is broken just as Jesus’ own body, blessed and holy, was raised up on a cross, and broken. This breaking of bread is not solely a representation of Jesus’ sacrifice of being broken, but the bread of life is broken open to us as an invitation to follow, to step up and step in. When the physical body of Jesus is no longer with us on earth, it is our time, our turn to be the Body of Christ on earth. We step in to do the ministry of Jesus on earth.
Recalling that Jesus took time away from the crowds that followed him so that he may be in solitude and prayer with his Father, then seeing Jesus join his spiritual community of apostles to move out to do his ministry, the renowned author, Henri Nouwen[i], identifies three disciplines for ministry based on these actions of Jesus. For us, it is a journey sustained by the Bread of Life, and it is a journey that moves us from solitude to community, and on to ministry.
Nouwen says the first discipline is prayer, developing a discipline of solitude or communion with God in prayer. Recalling that Jesus accomplished this discipline by removing himself from the crowds to find solitude, a time for communion with God, we also can feast on Jesus, the Bread of Life, in our time of being with Him. This communion is a different prayer form than simply asking Jesus to supply or fix things, but is a beginning point of being with God, of developing relationship with Jesus. If we are without an established prayer practice, our ministry will suffer—we will suffer; those we minister with and those we minister to will suffer.
After establishing a routine prayer practice, the second discipline is recognizing and gathering together in community, a place of spiritual belonging. It is good to recognize here that there is a difference between a social community and a spiritual community. Spiritual community could happen at church, but it could also happen in friendships and family. It could happen in 12-step programs or any number of places we find spiritual belonging.
Nouwen acknowledges that, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” So, community is not always sugar and spice, but probably will include the hard work of acceptance—which again, is a significant difference between a social community and a spiritual one. Being in a social community it might be easy to distance ourselves from the folks we don’t want to be around. Being in spiritual community can require the hard work of recognizing that “I am the beloved of God, and you are the beloved of God. Together we can build a place of welcome.” As a Facebook meme recently reminded me, “You will never look into the eyes of another that God does not love.” Whoever you see, whoever you encounter, God loves them and holds them as God’s beloved—just as God holds you as God’s beloved.
Because community requires us to meet the other where they are, community requires us to let go of our self-will and really live for others. Without belonging to a spiritual community, Nouwen writes, “we become individualistic and at times, egocentric.” I’m sure that those of you who have found spiritual community in this home of St. Augustine’s find these aspects of community familiar: This is a place of spiritual belonging; there likely is someone here who, at first glance, you don’t want here; and you have surrendered yourself from individualistic needs and cares, from egocentricity, to care for and accept that person as God’s own.
In addition to these characteristics, forgiveness and celebration are also aspects of spiritual community. Life in this community helps us recognize that God is the only true source of unconditional and boundless love. When we forgive, we recognize that the offending person is not God and therefore does not have absolute unconditional or boundless love to offer, but will love—even at their best—in a flawed, human way. We’ll do well to remember that they very likely are doing the best they can given their life circumstances, personal burdens and limitations. When we can forgive, we can celebrate the other’s short-comings that make them just as human as we are, but we also celebrate the gifts and graces they possess which are truly reflections of God.
So, the first two disciplines of prayer and being in spiritual community are building blocks that bring us to the third discipline, the discipline of ministry or compassion. Likely we all agree that to minister to someone is to attend to them; to care for them; to comfort and support them. These same words could also describe compassion, too. And to be sure, we are making no distinction between the ministry of clergy or the ministry of lay people. We are talking today about ministry, the ministry of all of us.
Nouwen writes that Jesus’ ministry flows from his compassion—a result of prayer and living in spiritual community. As a result, Jesus didn’t pick and choose who he could help and who he couldn’t help. Jesus helped everyone. And, just as Jesus was sent into the world to share his compassion and heal through it, we are also sent as Jesus’ followers into the world to share our compassion and heal through it. As such, ministry cannot simply be an activity we try to do on our own, but ministry is the fruit that blossoms when we find our gifts and offer what we have. This fruit naturally blossoms when we are living in communion with God—being nourished by the true bread of life, bringing Jesus into our lives in all ways, when we know that we are God’s beloved; and when we make ourselves available for service. When we do these things, we cannot do other than minister. Ministry is the overflow of your love for God and others.
Worth repeating: Ministry is the overflow of your love for God and others. I have mentioned that I was a deacon for nearly 21 years prior to being ordained a priest. In about the fifth year of my deaconate, I visited with then Bishop Robert Moody about what I perceived as a call to the priesthood. He sent me to a pastoral counseling center in Dallas for a preliminary assessment. In talking with a psychologist there, I was asked a simple question: “Why do you want to do this?” I was a little surprised, but to a simple question, I had a simple answer, “Out of a sense of duty,” was my honest reply. This was an answer that had been formed in me from religious experiences since early childhood. The psychologist’s reply surprised me even further, and caused me to put on the brakes hard: “Don’t you think this calling should be out of a sense of love?” …a timid “yes” was my response. Sorting out this response took another dozen years of discernment.
Similarly, I was recently asked if I knew the difference between a channel and a reservoir? This wise person said that he hears a lot of people say that they “want to be channels for God’s love.” He said, “You know, what a channel does is, it provides a conduit for something to run through it—whether it’s water or electricity or God’s love. The channel is a means to an end. It may have an effect on the receiver, but there’s little effect on the channel.”
“A reservoir, on the other hand, is a pool—it must be filled up first, such as filled with God’s love, and then overflow. What overflows is ministry. It is God’s love overflowing.” From this little analogy, we can clearly take away that ministry is not some technique that you perform on another—and when that does pass for ministry, it doesn’t work. Ministry is our love of God, overflowing to others. And this describes all of our shared ministry.
The bread of life is an important aspect of that overflowing love. It is this very overflowing love that Jesus had that caused him to minister ceaselessly and eventually to become an offering and sacrifice to God on our behalf. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, when we bring Jesus figuratively, spiritually and concretely into our very beings, into our lives, we bring Jesus’ love into ourselves. When we couple this act with a disciplined life of prayer and a discipline of living in spiritual community, we move ourselves into that boundless love of God; love so unbounded that we must share it with others.
[i] Nouwen, H. (2006) HarperCollins books. Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the long walk of faith.
~Rev. Canon Tony Moon, Saint Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Various Clergy and members of St. Augustine contribute to authoring the blog on a variety of topics.