John 6:24-35 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, August 2, 2015
“Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life . . .” (John 6:35)
Picture an immense cathedral. Add a gathering of sojourners, eagerly listening to the quiet words of preparation for the “living bread” of the Lord’s Supper. Imagine the expectation, the longing. Some awaiting the cup and bread know each other; some, until recently, were strangers. The bread, as usual, was simple. The cup, as usual, held enough for everyone.
But don’t imagine fresh bread. And please, don’t figuratively sample my memory and start tasting sweet grape juice or a spirited sip of wine. Before my first official communion as a United Methodist minister, which occurred mere days following ordination, I had to ask a critical question:
Who has bread? Crackers? Chips? Anything? Anyone?
Shortly after ordination I headed for the congregation where I’d work as a student intern pastor for a year. The church’s youth group immediately corralled me into being the token adult leader on their annual backpack into the Sierra Nevada. Naturalist and writer John Muir called the Sierra the “Range of Light,” a granite cathedral of wind-scoured peaks, alpine meadows, blazing blue skies, and sudden afternoon thunderstorms.
At the start I didn’t know the kids. But, no surprise, I hiked with a gaggle of high school stereotypes: cheerleader, jock, nerd, a quiet dude, and a shy girl. There was also the kid who sleepwalked, the boy who refused to eat unless he caught his own fish, and the young woman who never once used the “toilet paper and trowel” because the dirt she’d have to dig a hole into looked, well, dirty.
In the course of a week, I watched them bicker, support each other, share trail food, complain, and rejoice. During the night I heard them snore. In the dawn, they grumbled about the early morning cold and then complained about the food.
By the last night, several wondered about serving communion. Why not? Weary and carrying an assortment of blisters, sore feet, and aching muscles . . . we had survived. Thrived, even. Most of the archetypes had transfigured, gone the way an afternoon mountain storm roars in and then leaves a clear, bright sky. The jock and the nerd bonded. The shy kid spoke. The cheerleader let others talk. When back home, will they revert to their “old” ways? Probably. But had they not also glimpsed a Christ-like community?
Did I have bread? Nope. Did I have juice or wine? Nope. Had I brought my brand new bequeathed-by-the-bishop Book of Worship that provided ordained pastors with the proper words to say for the celebration of Holy Communion? Nope.
And yet, the question was asked: Who has bread? Crackers? Chips? Anything? Anyone? One of the teens, at the end of the weeklong trek of munching on freeze-dried meals, granola bars, and beef jerky still had snacks that hadn’t become crumbs. The kid brought me a zip-lock bag full of . . . oyster crackers.
Ah, the bread of life! The bread of life?
Plop ‘em in your hot soup; they don’t sink, they swim! Even if you forget ‘em for a year, shuffled to the back of the kitchen cupboard behind last year’s Christmas fruitcake, oyster crackers remain edible. Toss ‘em in your backpack and the hardy little morsels will be crunchy days later. I guarantee it!
And so we had one of the two elements. What about liquid part of communion? We filled a cup with mountain water, pure and direct from last winter’s melting snow. Humans are 70% water, give or take a percentage point. We slog around this good earth—headed for school or work or over a mountain pass—and water’s the most of what we need. It can taste, when scooped from a gurgling, glorious mountain stream, better than the finest wine. I guarantee it!
I don’t remember the words I said. But I recall how the kids looked. They looked together. They looked at, for, with, and into each other. They grasped other hands. They knew they mattered. They knew the person beside them and across from them mattered. They handed out and received those crackers, drank from that cup.
Crunch. Chew. Sip. Gulp. Silence.
In John’s Gospel Jesus declared himself as the bread of life, a Holy and merciful and symbolic nourishment, representing everlasting life. In my way of believing Jesus’ declaration, living forever is also about living today. About living now. About holding hands with the one next to you and both holding Holy hands in the present and for the future.
I have preached thousands of sermons. Please, in one or two of them, have I helped people sense the stunning truth of Jesus’ good news? I hope. I have taught thousands of Bible study classes. Please, on a few occasions, have I led another to an ah-ha moment? I hope.
I’ve forgotten most of the communions I’ve led as celebrant. But there was that first one where I blessed and shared the living bread of oyster crackers accompanied by the cold, sweet water born of yesterday’s snow. Those children gathered shoulder to shoulder, together, and fed on the mystery of God’s abundance. I was barely ordained and already learning Jesus the Christ’s living bread is not only what I give, but also what I receive.