It is absurd to apologize for mystery.
Keep that sentence in your mind now because I will be coming back to it in the sermon today, and may be coming back to again and again in this series of sermons which we begin this morning. It is absurd to apologize for mystery.
Some of you movies buffs will remember an Italian film entitled Le Dolce Vita. As that movie opens, a helicopter is flying rather slowly and not very high above the earth. Slung from the helicopter is a kind of rope halter in which there is a statue dressed in robes with arms outstretched. Now and then it becomes rather amusing as the camera focuses simply on that statue, and it looks as though the statue is flying through the air alone. It passes a field where some men are working in tractors. They look up and see this sight and become very excited. They begin shouting to one another and pointing and then one of the fellas recognize who it is a statute of and says, hey, that’s Jesus. The others become even more excited. They throw their hats into the air; they wave and they scream, but the helicopter moves on. It comes into the edge of the city of Rome and is flying rather low over an apartment building, on the top of which is a swimming pool surrounded by beautiful girls dressed in bikinis. The helicopter does a double take as the men flying it see what’s going on there. It comes back and it hovers over the swimming pool and in an effort to attract the girls’ attention, the men began to shout down at the them, asking them for their telephone numbers, telling them that they’re going to finish their mission – taking the statue to the Vatican – and would be quite happy to come back when they finished that mission.
It’s a rather amusing thing to see and Frederick Buechner describes the kind of reaction the audience had in a college town where he saw that movie. At first it was an immediate reaction of laughter; laughter at the incongruity of it all. On the one hand, the sacred statue dangling from the sky; on the other hand, the profane Italians and the bosomy young bathing beauties. One of them cold, remote, so out of place, hanging there from the sky; the other made of flesh so radiant with life. When the thing comes on and the people begin to laugh, no one doubts as to what they’re laughing at and no one doubts as to whose expense it is. But when the helicopter gets on into the center of Rome, the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral looms up from the earth, and then for the first time, the camera people focus in just on the statue, and very soon this figure of Jesus fills the screen. And then the move on in, zoom on in, until only the bearded face of Jesus fills the entire screen and there’s no more laughter. All is quiet and still; there is complete silence, because it seems as though they are seeing their own face for the first time. A face that they may not have seen before, but a face that they somehow know belonged to them, or that somehow they know they belong to. It’s absurd to apologize for mystery.
And there’s mystery here; mystery in the way that Jesus comes to us; mystery in the way that when we, in his presence, in our heart of hearts, have to be still and quiet and look and listen and ask, what have you to do with me Jesus of Nazareth? Or, what must I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?
This is a season of reflection and assessment. The season when we focus our eyes in a disciplined gaze upon Jesus. The season when we position ourselves in relation to Jesus in order to receive his judgment and his grace. To facilitate this long look at Jesus, I’m going to preaching a series of sermons on the great claims of Jesus. Those passages in the scripture where Jesus says, I am, I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the light. In these sayings of Jesus, these great claims, he writes his autobiography. It is as though in words he is painting a self-portrait, and this is what we want to look at.
And we begin today, with that one word from our scripture lesson – I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst. Let’s put that verse of scripture in the immediate, as well as in the larger context of the scripture. Jesus has performed a number of miracles, miracles of healing. Just the day before, he has performed that miracle of multiplying the loaves and the fishes and feeding the multitude of 5,000 people. At the close of the day, the disciples take a vote and move across the Sea of Galilee, but Jesus goes off alone to be by himself and quiet and to renew his soul in relation to God. On the next day, the crowd, wanting to see Jesus again, decide to go over where they saw the disciples go, thinking that the disciplines may know where Jesus is. When they get there, Jesus is with them. They didn’t know it, but he had walked across the water and joined the disciples in that miracle that amazed the disciples themselves. And when they see Jesus there, they ask, when did you come here, Rabbi? Jesus didn’t answer their question, but rather he pressed the deeper issue of hungering and thirsting after righteousness. And he said to them, you’re really not concerned about who I am as the powerful Son of God, you ate your fill yesterday of the loaves and fishes, and that’s what you’re interested in. Then he laid his claim upon them, do not spend yourself, he said, for bread that perishes, but seek that bread which is God’s offer of eternal life. And then he made the connection between what he had done in feeding the multitude and what had happened in the wilderness when day in and day out Moses and the wandering Jews had received Manna from heaven.
Listen to those verses there, 32 and 33, “then Jesus said unto them, verily verily I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven, but my father giveth you the true bread from heaven, for the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven and giveth life to the world. Then said they unto him, Lord ever more give us this bread. And then Jesus made his claim. I am the bread of life, he who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me will never thirst.” It’s absurd to apologize for mystery.
So we’ll not bother to apologize or to explain or to rationalize, but simply nail these truths down as the core of our learning today.
One – life depends on bread. We can’t live without being physically nourished – life depends on bread.
Two – this physical bread is God-given. The anonymous poet stated it clearly, back of the loaf is the snowy flour and back of the flour the mill and back of the mill are the wheat and the shower and the sun and the father’s will. Physical bread is God’s gift.
Three – for all of God’s children to have this bread, we humans must corporately labor and share. For all God’s children to have this bread, we humans must corporately labor and share. Augustine put it a pithy sentence – without God we cannot, without us God will not. Get that. Without God, we cannot, without us God will not. God will not make a loaf without us, and we cannot make a loaf without God. So in a loaf of bread we have symbolized the fact that we are dependent upon bread, we’re dependent upon God, we’re dependent upon each other. So we need to remember that the way this world is constituted, there are those who will not eat unless we provide them the bread to eat; that is, unless we provide the necessary resources by which they can get bread. So, again, for all God’s children to have this bread, we must humans must corporately labor and share.
Now a fourth learning. While in its most elementary form, life depends upon bread, bread only nourishes life, it doesn’t make life all that God intended it to be. Now I wish I had time to talk about this at length. Parents, it is not enough for you simply to provide food and clothing for your children; it’s not simply enough for you to provide them a good education; it’s not enough for you to simply provide them the physical necessities of life. Husbands, wives, it’s not enough simply for you to share together in the parenting process; it’s not enough for you simply to provide sexual satisfaction for your mate; life demands more than that. Life demands relationship; caring and sharing, tenderness and affection, giving as well as receiving love. There must be shared values and commitments. I don’t believe people fall in love. People grow in love. And people don’t fall out of love, they cease to love because they cease growing in love. There is a quote with one great truth – “if thou hast two loaves of bread, sell one and buy lilies.” Now that’s the truth. Life needs more than bread; it needs lilies. It needs love and light and beauty and blessedness.
Now the fifth learning, the biggest truth. Jesus said it, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. That is Jesus’ answer to the devil when after 40 days in the wilderness, he had been fasting, and was terribly hungry, and the devil said to him, why don’t you turn these stones into bread in order that you might eat. And Jesus’ response was, “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” For us Christians, we know that we not only live by the words of God as we find them in the scripture, we live by the word of God who is Christ himself.
Here it is in a story out of Great Britain. An old scrubwoman was taken ill. Her friends managed to get enough money to get her into the hospital. During her convalescing, she went up and down the corridors of the hospital meeting the other patients and visiting with them. She became very close friends with a 12-year-old boy across the hall from her. Johnny was his name, redheaded, freckle-faced, a kind of stereotypical 12-year-old. They became fast friends. The little boy was very sick. One early morning, a commotion awaken the old scrubwoman and very soon the mother of Johnny came rushing into her room saying, the doctors are here and they say Johnny has only 10 or 15 minutes to live – he loves you so much, won’t you come and say something to him. Well that was a tough task for a simple woman, but with the courage of a great Christian, she walked across the hall, sat down by the bedside of Johnny, took his frail hand between her calloused palms, looked him in the eye and said, “listen Johnny, God made you, God loves you. God sent his son to save you, God wants you to come home and live with him.” Johnny lifted himself feebly up on his elbow, a smile, a faint smile came on his face and he said, “say it again.” And the old woman repeated it. “Johnny, God made you, God loves you. God sent his son to save you.” And a big smile came on Johnny’s face and he said, “tell God thank you.” The old woman knew it, the 12-year-old learned it, man shall not live by bread alone, but by the words of God – more than that – by the word of God, Christ himself.
And that brings us to our focus today. The bread that will be brought to the altar in a moment, is symbolic of it. It is absurd to apologize for mystery.
This is the ultimate truth of the Christian gospel. The bread must be broken in order for us to be nourished by it. And that’s what this sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is all about. The body of Christ continually broken, that the salvation and the continued life of Jesus Christ might come to you and me. That’s a mystery. It’s absurd to apologize for mystery, we simply receive it.
Go back to our scripture lesson – the crowd was thinking, if not saying, “wait a minute. It was Moses who gave our ancestors bread in the wilderness. Do you mean to tell us that you can do the same thing?” Jesus said, it wasn’t Moses. It wasn’t Moses who gave you bread in the wilderness, it was God. And God has sent down his bread from heaven to you. I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst. And the crowd said, Lord, give us this bread always.