Sermons at Union Congregational Church
Preached by The Reverend Gail L. Miller
August 19, 2018 Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
John 6:35, 41-51
Gifts From Heaven
These are anxious days and weeks for a lot of young people. In particular I’m thinking of kids heading back to school and especially those who are venturing into a new school. There are so many unknowns and things to worry about, along with the joy and enthusiasm of a fresh start in a new place.
I was in a store recently and happened to overhear some older teenagers talking. I realized they were college freshmen, shopping with their parents for stuff for their dorm rooms, preparing to begin their new life away from home.
As I watched them, I imagined the mixture of hope, sadness, dreams, joy, fear and dread that go along with this important time in young people’s lives. And the same goes for their parents who are sending them off with good wishes, as well as enough supplies to get them started.
I remember well those early weeks and months away at college, and how much I looked forward to care-packages from home. Boxes with special treats, gifts, cards, cookies – all reminding me of the love that emanated from home.
Similarly, when the Israelites received their manna in the wilderness, it was a reminder that God was with them, a sort of care package from heaven. They had left home Egypt but were not yet in their new promised homeland. And every day they walked out into the desert to collect the bread from heaven. And every day it sustained them. It was their care package a reminder of the sustenance that comes from God everyday.
Of course, we no longer eat manna. And Jesus now tells us that he is the new manna, the bread sent from heaven to give life. And he says that if we eat this Jesus bread, we will experience eternal life. It sounds almost like a riddle, which I imagine puzzled and confused those who heard him say it back then, as much as it confuses us today.
After all, this was Joseph and Mary’s son, a carpenter who’s become a peasant. Though obviously wise, how could he be better than manna? Better than Moses? Just who did he think he was, claiming to be the bread of heaven? And what does it mean to live eternally with God?
This way of talking, however, was common for Jesus – contrasting the things that are imperishable (eternal life for example) with the things that perish (flesh, bread).
And I’m reminded of the distinctions I try to make in my work and life,
between things that are important … and things that are merely urgent.
For example…the urgent:
clearing my desk at the end of the day.
Things which too often seem to edge out the important:
personal visits and calls,
real conversation with family and friends instead of just quick texts / emails,
praying without feeling rushed.
When I take the time and make the effort to act on what’s important, I find those things are a gift to me. I receive something long lasting and truly meaningful from my interactions with others and with God. They feed my life in the Spirit and point me toward the eternal.
Jesus always desired for people to grow into their belief, and into the meaning of his teachings. He wanted those who hung out with him (including us!) to stop looking for miracles in the form of manna, and to start looking for miracles of Spirit and faith.
And so we are reminded that Jesus was indeed the bread of God, which has come down from heaven. The bread and fish he multiplied for the crowd? Again, reminders of manna in the wilderness that He will provide and sustain his people.
So what about us? We don’t get manna, bread and fish, like the disciples did. We don’t even have Jesus still physically among us. But we do have gifts from heaven.
Sometimes they’re not tangible:
A sense of peace descends for no reason after or during a particularly trying time;
God’s presence feels particularly close for a moment, a day, or a season.
But other times there are truly tangible reminders of the rich eternal life we share with Jesus now; when we can see or touch something that shows us that God has indeed come to be among us.
A Bible passage brings great joy or meaning, even though it’s something familiar you’ve heard over and over through the years.
Just when you need it, a friend calls or drops by.
Or a stranger says a kind word in passing.
Or the just right song comes on the radio / Pandora.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was sitting in a Nazi prison, far from home and family, awaiting his eventual execution, he wrote of a particular gift from home:
It is Whitmonday, and I was just sitting down to a dinner of turnips and potatoes when the parcel you sent me by Ruth as a present for Whitsun arrived. Such things give me greater joy than I can say. Although I am utterly convinced that nothing can break the bonds between us, I seem to need some outward token or sign to reassure me. In this way material things become vehicles of spiritual realities. I suppose it’s rather like the need felt in all religions for sacraments.
Though Bonhoeffer didn’t mention what the parcel contained, he does tell us (more importantly) of what it meant to him. I imagine him sitting in his cell, looking at and touching whatever it was over and over again, thinking of home and this tangible reminder of the love there.
Isn’t that why we hang onto that old faded doily from great aunt Mabel?
Or the chipped teacup we bought in the antique store on vacation 25 years ago?
Concrete reminders of our lives lived in real places with real people at our side.
That is what the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is for the church. It is perhaps the most visible and tangible gift of all. In a small cup of juice or wine and a little bit of bread we can see, touch, smell, even taste the kingdom of God. (We’ll consider more about this – how Jesus is not just the bread from heaven, but the bread we share in communion in two weeks…)
When we share the bread in communion we are reminded of God sending Jesus to walk among us as the bread of heaven.
That’s why so many churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week and why churches (as a whole) are moving toward sharing this meal more frequently rather than less frequently.
Jesus Christ, the bread of life, is indeed a gift, a care package from heaven,
sent to remind us of his continuing and real presence with us.