Proper 15B, August 16, 2015

August 17, 2015

Serving Up Jesus
John 6:51-58

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 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 forever.”

Before I was a preacher I was a cook. I first studied the art of cooking under the instruction of my mother, who was a good cook. We ate well at my house when I was growing up, and I didn’t want to be as helpless in the kitchen as my father was. He could fix a fine fried-egg sandwich, but that was about the only thing I ever knew him to cook. I was really interested in learning about food preparation, and I actually took a cooking class one semester at the Univ. of Arkansas. It was in the Home Economics Department and it was called Foods For Non-Majors. I remember well that I was one of two male students in the class. It wasn’t hard for me to stand out in that class, but it wasn’t always for the right reasons.

And then I got a job working in the kitchen at Hugo’s. If you’ve spent any time in Fayetteville since the mid-seventies it’s likely you’ve eaten there. I bet I could go in that kitchen right now and make a plate of Macho Nachos. It was nice to have some extra money, but mainly I liked the food there, and I wanted the experience of working in a commercial kitchen. I actually enjoyed the work, but I never advanced beyond the status of a prep-cook and dish-washer. I wasn’t trained to work at the grill – I never really aspired to have that level of responsibility there.

I had a hard time honing in on what I wanted to focus upon when I was an undergraduate, and at the prompting of some friends who were going to step out of college for a spring semester and go work in Vail, CO, I decided to join them. I got out there and began looking for work, and I found a job at the Hong Kong Café. It was a great little Chinese Restaurant right at the base of Vail Mountain, and I loved working there. It was owned by a man who had spent time deployed in Viet Nam, and he had grown to love the food while he was over there. When he got back to the United States he lived in San Francisco and he learned how to run a Chinese style of restaurant there.

There wasn’t an Asian person in this kitchen in Vail, but we cooked traditional Chinese food on these large woks, and it was a very popular restaurant. We were only open in the evenings, but the days were filled with prep-work. Some days I worked during the day chopping vegetables and meat and preparing egg rolls and wontons, and other days I worked in the evenings washing dishes, frying egg rolls and wontons, and learning how to prepare the various dishes we made. They wanted everyone in the kitchen to know how to do everything, and I honestly loved working there. By the time the snow melted in the spring and my internal compass said it was time for me to return to Arkansas I had learned everything about that kitchen. The owner actually invited me to help him establish a new restaurant in San Diego, but I had had my western adventure and I was ready to come back to Arkansas.

I returned to Wynne that summer where I worked for a landscape company during one of the hottest and driest summers on record, and that was an experience that motivated me to return to college. As I closed in on my senior year with a very general degree that basically qualified me to go to graduate school or learn a trade, I was honestly torn between the option of going to some kind of cooking school or going to seminary.

You’ll hear more about my young adult angst and vocational confusion than you want to know in sermons to come. I won’t try to fill you in on all of those odd details this morning, but what I want you to understand is how close I came to being a guy who sought to serve fine food on Saturday night instead of tasty morsels of truth on Sunday morning. And while it may appear that I was in close kinship with Jethro Bodine, the idiotic nephew of Jed Clampitt on The Beverly Hillbillies, who couldn’t decide if he wanted to be a fry cook or a brain surgeon – I think there was a significant connection between the two vocational directions I seriously considered.

And this morning’s scripture lesson is making this connection for me. I’ve never really thought about this job of preaching as being so close to the work of a chef until I began to consider what Jesus was saying in this morning’s passage. What I’m thinking is that as a follower of Jesus Christ, and as an advocate for Christian discipleship I am to feed on Jesus and I am to serve him to others.

Now in some ways this passage is a bit more graphic than suits our sensibilities. It doesn’t exactly sound like a fine dining experience to hear Jesus say we need to eat his flesh and drink his blood, but Jesus wasn’t appealing to people’s standard appetites when he spoke these words. Jesus was dealing with people who were needing to see things differently. Jesus was being intentionally shocking when he spoke these words. The leaders of Israel were feeding people the wrong ideas, and many of the people had an appetite for the wrong things. Jesus had come to offer the true bread of heaven, and it was not what they were used to consuming.

It’s sort of amazing what people can eat and think is good. I remember one evening at the Hong Kong Café one member of the kitchen crew had a friend come to dinner, and he decided to send out some complimentary egg rolls. But these were going to be special egg rolls. Instead of the usual filling my friend shredded a paper napkin, mixed it with some cabbage, rolled it up, fried it and sent it out. He was expecting his friend to send them back with an appropriate message, but instead they ate them and thanked him for the nice egg rolls.

This was the day I realized that when you deep fry something and provide some good sauce with it – it will pretty much taste ok. It’s sort of remarkable what we are capable of consuming, and what we think is good to eat.

You might say the people of Israel had become spiritually malnourished. What they were feeding upon was not what they needed. The people were being fed the idea that in order to be reconciled with God you had to attend a certain number of religious feasts where you brought religiously certified animals to the religiously certified priests that you purchased at the religiously certified market with religiously certified coins. The religion of Israel was very intertwined with what you ate, and Jesus considered that to be a terrible distortion of the truth. He came to reveal the truth, and he told the people that if they wanted to know the truth they didn’t need to do what the religiously certified people were telling them to do. He said they should eat his flesh and drink his blood.

Jesus was shocking to the people of his day, but he wasn’t just trying to shock them. Jesus wanted people to experience a new dimension of life, and in order to do that they needed to let go of life as they knew it. Jesus wanted people to let go of their false understanding of God and to experience the true nature of God – to stop feeding on the wrong thing and to consume the truth. What Jesus was saying when he told the people they should eat his flesh and drink his blood was not the physical truth, but it was the spiritual truth. Jesus was telling them that they needed to internalize him if they wanted to experience true life.

And he is telling us the same thing that he told them – that we are to step out of life as usual and in to a new dimension of living. We are not to consume the standard fare of our day – we are to be people who feed on the truth.

We don’t live in a world that’s so guided by religiously based dietary rules and rituals and requirements. There are people within our country who have very strong religious convictions about what they do and don’t eat, but most people who embrace dietary restrictions and protocols do so out of health or ethical concerns. What we eat is often connected to what we believe, but Jesus challenges us to consider the way in which what we believe feeds the way we live.

As Christians, you might say we are people who profess Jesus Christ to be the one who guides our lives, but Jesus was very challenging to the people of his day who claimed the faith of Abraham and Moses without really feeding upon the truth of the tradition. I don’t believe that any particular denomination contains the whole truth about Jesus, nor do I think any of us ever have a perfect and complete understanding of who Jesus was and what he taught, but I do believe we can continue to get closer to the truth if we will continue to strive for a more complete understanding.

We aren’t able to consume the whole truth at any one setting, and it’s important for us to remember that. Feeding on the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ is a lifetime quest, and it’s important for us not to reduce him to the kind of food we like to eat. Our challenge is not to do the same thing to Jesus that the officially religious people of his day had done to the faith of Israel.

Jesus is the freshest and the richest food available, and if we will let his truth nourish us we will experience the freshest and richest life that we can possibly have. What Jesus offers to us is the opportunity to rise above the surface of life and to live a life that isn’t defined by the standard fears, expectations, and rewards of this world.

But don’t expect it to be easy to allow Jesus to be your primary source of nourishment. Our world isn’t exactly like it was when John wrote his account of Jesus, but in some ways it’s not that different. As it was in the days when John wrote these words, our world expects us to live with fear of not doing what’s expected of us and it doesn’t reward challenging behavior. People continue to have an appetite for the wrong things, and it’s not easy to find the fresh food that Jesus Christ offers.

I know I’m not being particularly clear about what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus Christ, but I don’t guess anyone ever knew exactly what Jesus was saying when he spoke these unusual words. These aren’t easy words to hear, but they are important words, and they are challenging words. Jesus isn’t easy to follow, but he is the source of the best food and drink that our souls can ever experience.

Let’s not be content with the standard fare of life. Let’s have an appetite for a more abundant way of living. I think it’s the only way to truly satisfy the hunger of our hearts.

Thanks be to God for coming in to the world in the life of Jesus Christ – who invites us all to feast at the table of truth and of life. May we have the wisdom and the desire to show up at his table.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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