Sunday, August 12, 2012

Pentecost 11 (Proper 14), Series B

Sermon on John 6:35-51
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 12, 2012 (The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

If you met someone who grew up here in Racine, who had left for a while and then come back, and that person claimed to have been sent on a mission from God, would you believe him?  What if that person claimed he was God?  Of course, most of us would probably be pretty skeptical of such a claim.  After all, the individual had been a pretty normal kid, and there was nothing really special about him, so his claims of having some sort of special relationship with the Creator of heaven and earth are pretty far-fetched.  As someone once said, when someone claims that God talked to him in a dream, all that this proves is that he dreamed that God talked to him.  It doesn’t prove anything, necessarily, about whether or not God was actually behind what happened.  And of course, most of you have probably heard of Sun Myung Moon, the leader of what is known as the Unification Church.  Moon has claimed that he is the second incarnation of the Son of God.  Do you believe his claim?  Of course not!  The people Jesus is talking to have the same trouble believing Jesus’ claim to have been sent down from heaven by the Father Himself.  How could He be a being sent from heaven if He was born from a family they had met and knew, and grew up pretty much like most other kids?  Of course, in Jesus’ case He had been without sin, and His life and ministry fulfilled many, many Old Testament prophecies, but it is still not easy to believe what Jesus is telling them.

In fact, it’s impossible for the people to believe what Jesus tells them here using their own reason.  “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him,” as the catechism says.  This is, of course, similar to what Jesus Himself says about the Father in our text, namely that nobody is able to come to the Father except through the Son, Jesus Christ.  These people, who thought that because they were Abraham’s children they had special privileges with the Father, were in fact far away from the Father because they were rejecting the Son.  And they could not even come to the Son because they did not have the Holy Spirit.  That’s the way it is with the Holy Trinity: either you are in fellowship with all three Persons, or you are strangers to all three Persons.  There’s no middle ground.  And in fact it is not we ourselves who are able to come into this relationship with the Trinity, but He initiates the relationship when the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us.  When that happens we are in fellowship with Christ Jesus and as He says in our text, when we are in fellowship with Christ we are also in fellowship with the Father.

However, the fact that they were not able to believe in Christ or come to Him did not excuse their behavior.  Where Christ’s Word is, there the Holy Spirit is working.  Christ had been preaching to these people at some length already, as well as having miraculously provided food for over five thousand of them.  The Holy Spirit had been at work, but they stubbornly held on to their foolish idea that they didn’t need Christ, because they were Israelites, descendants of Abraham, whose ancestors had eaten manna in the wilderness.  What is going on here is not simply a healthy suspicion of strange and unusual religious ideas.  These people were rejecting the Holy Spirit not as a way of being careful about their faith, but because they were putting their trust in themselves and in their nation and in their bloodline.  In other words, it wasn’t just that Jesus was making an outlandish claim about Himself, it was that the claims that Jesus was making ran counter to the false religion they already had.  Ironically, their claims that they didn’t need Jesus to be with the Father really meant that these people were doing the same thing Jesus was, namely saying that they were God, because they were putting their trust in themselves.  If you want to see who is closer to Sun Myung Moon in our text, look not at Jesus but at the Jews who were arguing with Him.

We might also look at ourselves in this connection.  Of course, we’re not Israelites, so we don’t have the obvious temptation to think that God is favorable to us simply because of our race or nationality.  But even there I suspect sometimes that we who are citizens of the world’s leading free nation, the most powerful nation in the world are tempted to think that God is and will always be with us simply because He has chosen our land to bless it.  A simple glance at the sinful and idolatrous policies of our government in recent decades, whether abortion or increasing approval of both homosexual and heterosexual forms of perversity or promotion of evolutionistic ways of thinking about creation and about mankind in our educational system or a whole host of other ills to numerous to mention, it becomes clear that we Americans are no better before God than anyone else.

Also in the Church, though, sometimes we find ourselves tempted to think as if we are better than everyone else.  This is especially true of those who have been church-members all their life or who are more active in the life of the parish than other members are.  The temptation is to look down upon those we think of as not as good church members as ourselves.  The further temptation is to trust in the fact that one is highly active in the Church or that one is a member of a family that has always been part of the congregation, rather than trusting in Christ.  What happens is that we see going to Church every Sunday as a way of earning merit before God rather than as an opportunity to receive Christ and His gifts.  If a change happens in the life of the congregation, and changes will happen, then the temptation is to see the change as a bad thing, because it threatens the relationship we think we have with God on the basis of our own activity, which is often dependent on the status quo.  Or, in the words of the Jews in our text, “if the manna was good enough for my grandfather, its good enough for me.  I don’t need to eat the flesh and drink the blood of this Christ.”

But of course, the point of coming to Church is not to earn merit before God or to have bragging rights over against those who are maybe not quite as active.  The point is to receive Christ.  Christ comes to us in His Word and His body and blood Sunday after Sunday because we need Him Sunday after Sunday.  We sin much every day, and so we need the antidote to sin every day, and that antidote is the body and blood of our Lord, the body and blood which carried those sins of ours to the cross and which died for us and rose so that we may have new life.  Jesus says that He is the bread of heaven which, if a man eats of it, that man will live forever.  The body and blood of Christ which were raised up on the first Easter are the first part of the new creation, the new heavens and new earth which will appear on the last day, and in which we will live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  Our own resurrected bodies will also be part of that new creation, and in fact we are part of it right now.  We who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into His death and thus also have become partakers of His resurrection.  Because we have within us the New Man who will live before God in righteousness and purity forever, we are already part of the new creation.  The eternal life we will share on the last day is ours already now.

The Jews in today’s Gospel lesson relied on themselves, on their own religious connections, and thus they thought that they didn’t need Christ.  But they were dead wrong.  They needed Christ most of all.  The same thing is true of us.  It is precisely when we think that we can get along fine on our own righteousness and holiness and that therefore we don’t need Christ’s body and blood that we really need it most of all.  Such self-confidence and complacency in the Christian faith is really a form of idolatry, violating the First and most important Commandment.  But Christ is present for us to be the nourishment that heals us and sustains us for eternal life.  He is the one that gives us the ultimate new and different thing in connection with our relationship with God, namely life forever with Him in His kingdom, which has no end.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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