Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
The Lords Supper
Created for Communion, a three-week sermon series on one sacrament, week 1 of 3
Preached May 23, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
Today is Pentecost, that special day in the life of the church when we celebrate the gift of the unique presence of Holy Spirit that birth of the Church. We are also beginning a new sermon Series Caitlan and I are calling “Created for Communion”. For three weeks, we are going to talk about the Sacrament Jesus left us that we celebrate as a church at the Table. We are going to hear three different scripture passages and unpack symbols and words like bread, cup, poured, broken, and remember. And for three weeks in a row, we will come to the table together.
This week, we partake of the Lord’s Supper. Why is this sacrament a meal? What are we fed here? What does this meal do in us, and empower us to do?
Next week, we will enjoy the Eucharist. What does this sacrament remember about God? What are we saying and doing when we come to this table together?
Then the third week, we will celebrate Communion. What is our common union? How did it get broken? Why did he tell us to remember?
To invite us to Table today, we are reading from John 6. Today’s scripture comes not long after Jesus broke just a few loaves of bread and fed thousands, then walked on the water and went across to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Let’s pray and hear the word of the Lord from…
Scripture John 6:22-40
22 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away (without him). 23 Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.[f] 24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went (across) to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the bread. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This IS the work of God, (so) that you (might) believe in him whom God has sent.”
30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘(Moses) gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which[g] comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to (toward, near) me will never be hungry, and whoever believes (trusts) in me will never be thirsty. 36 But, I (already) said to you that you have seen me, and yet (you) do not believe. 37 Everyone that the Father sends to (toward) me will arrive to me, and anyone who comes to(ward) me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the One who sent me. 39 And this is the will of the One who sent me, that I should not destroy (abandon, abolish, ruin) anything of all that God has given me, but raise it up (birth it) on the last day. 40 This is truly the will of my Father, (so) that all who see (look upon, catch a glimpse of) the Son and believe in (trust near, are persuaded toward) him may have eternal (ageless, boundless, abundant, never-ending) life; and I will raise them up (birth them, pull them up, get them ready) on the last day.”.
Sermon The Lords Supper
I remember the first time I wasn’t invited to the Lord’s Supper. My high school girlfriend invited me to Catholic Mass with her and her family. They were from the Philippines and devout Catholics. When time came, and we were invited forward, Tiffany told me what to do, just cross my arms across my chest, and the priest would give me a blessing instead.
I remember that awkward feeling, of not wanting to participate in this odd meal where they talk about eating the body and drinking the blood of someone who died but still lives. I also remember that awkward feeling of being excluded, not being offered something the same as everyone else from the table, and even if I had wanted it, not being given it.
I remember the first time I was invited to the Lord’s Supper. In college, Jill and I would sometimes go to a Presbyterian Church in Macon, Georgia, not far from campus. When the pastor invited all those who were baptized to come to the table, I thought, “here we go again.” I wasn’t baptized yet. But Jill encouraged me, and told me its okay. That’s not really what we believe, its just something a lot of pastors say.
I remember that awkward feeling, like “If it’s not what we believes, then why do we do it anyway, and why does he say it?” I also remember that awkward feeling of taking the bread, dipping it into the cup, and tasting my first communion, with a pang of guilt, as if I was stealing something, taking something that didn’t belong to me, maybe taking it from someone else.
We sometimes call this Sacrament “The Lord’s Supper or The Lord’s Table.” We do so to remind ourselves, this meal and this table, they are not ours. This isn’t the table of a congregation, or a denomination, or even a religion. This is not a Christian table. It’s the Lord’s table, and Jesus wasn’t a Christian. Someone like me or Caitlan might “preside” at the table, stand behind it and say some words, but don’t let that confuse you. This table isn’t mine or Caitlan’s, or the Catholic priest’s in Orange Park, Florida, or the Presbyterian pastor’s in Macon, Georgia. This is the Lord’s table, the Lord’s supper. The one making the invitation and offering the hospitality and preparing and serving the meal is the Lord.
Just before today’s scripture reading, Jesus and his disciples are being followed by a large crowd of people, and it was almost Passover. So Jesus turned to his disciples and asked, “Where could we buy some unleavened bread to feed all these people?” One of the disciples was aghast at his question. “Not even half a year’s salary would give everyone a tiny nibble!” Another disciple said something like, “a boy offered us five loaves and two fish, but I don’t know what good that will do.” Jesus ignored the first response, then asked God’s blessing on the loaves and fishes, and broke them and passed them out. Everyone was fed, thousands, and when they were full, satisfied, there were still twelve baskets of leftovers, a basket for every disciple who had just a minute ago thought this idea of a meal for everyone was ridiculous or impossible.
Something happened to that crowd of people. They didn’t necessarily believe Jesus was anything more than a prophet, a miracle worker, a magician. But they did know somehow they were fed, and hunger is one of those things. If you’ve ever been hungry, I mean really hungry, it hurts and brings upon you a kind of despair and hopelessness. Tiny nibbles barely touch it. But if you’re there, stuck in persistent hunger, and someone comes along with the will and generosity to really feed you, fill you, not only does the hunger subside but the weight of hopelessness and despair also lift. You feel better in your body, and the world looks and feels better.
That crowd followed Jesus across the sea. See, even if your hunger is satisfied for a moment, if you’ve ever really been hungry, you know hunger is coming again. So they followed Jesus, in hope he might feed them again. And on that hope, they ask Jesus some questions.
First, “When did you come over here?” Maybe they were wondering about he got across the sea when he hadn’t gotten into the boat. But I think what they are really asking is “Why did you leave us?” Jesus responds something like, “You’re only missing me because I fed you bread. What if I could feed you life?”
So their second question is something like, “Oooo, yes, what must we do to perform the works of God?” See their assumption. Jesus offers a full, abundant life. They assume an abundant, amazing life is one where we can do amazing or important works.
Why is we often equate a full, abundant life with people who do amazing things, famous or popular people? Why is the happiness of life assumed for those who date the most popular kid in school, or get into the best colleges on scholarship? Why is it people measure how good life is going by the number of likes and responses they get on social media? Why do we assume the inventor of the next great technology, or the doctor that cures cancer, or the politician that tries to do the right thing, those people have good full lives. Everyone hungers for a full amazing life. Why is it we ask God to just “show us how we can we do amazing things” to get that life?
The NRSV translates Jesus’ response as, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent.” That translation read that way makes it sound like believing in Jesus IS the work required to have an amazing, abundant life. But there are two oddities in the Greek this simple translation misses. In that phrase, “This is the work of God, that you believe…” the “that” is really a “so that.” And the “you believe” is really a “you might believe.” Its sounds very different if translated and read that way. “This IS the work of God, so that you all might believe in him whom God has sent.”
Jesus isn’t describing the work needed from people. “This is the work, that you believe.” Jesus is describing why God is at work. “This IS the work of God, so that yall might believe…” Hear the difference? In the first one, we must do the work of belief. Belief is the work. In the second one, God is already at work in Jesus, and God is doing that so that we might believe how much God loves us all.
Then they ask, “What sign or work are you going to do then, so that we might believe in you? Something like what Moses did for in the wilderness, like manna from heaven?” Jesus’ reply, “it wasn’t Moses who gave you flakes of manna to feed your body. It was and is God who gives you the true bread from heaven, that gives life to the world.”
They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” I hear this one said from some class clown in the back, and everyone laughing. “If you’re got life bread that last for life, we’ll take it!” Ha ha ha ha.
And Jesus says to them, “I Am the bread of life.” What he says after that, we need to study and wonder a bit. The translation I read suggests he said, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Some of the words in there can be more nuanced. I could also translate this “Whoever comes near me” or “Whoever comes toward me” or “Whoever moves in my direction” will never hunger for life. We could translate the second part “Whoever believes in me,” or we could say “Whoever trusts me” or “Whoever puts their trust in me,” which then means lots of things, like do we believe what he says about God. Do we trust him when he says love your enemies and turn the other cheek? Or do we consider those bits of wisdom to be too naïve for our modern society. Here’s how I think I would translate this line of Jesus. “Whoever begins to live life the way I live life more than their own way or any other way, and whoever trusts what I’ve said is true and right and holy more than they trust themselves or any other source around them, they will have a very full, abundant life.”
That’s why we do church at all. That’s why we come to this table. At church and at this table, our primary reason for being here is to know Jesus, the life he lived, and the wisdom he taught. If someone has never heard about him, knows nothing about him, come, have a seat, let’s break bread and tell stories of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Then there are others who have come to church for a very long time, and have taken little nibble from this table for a lifetime. But we don't come here for bread. We come here to really taste and see the life of one whose life was truly full and abundant, and to get something from that life we can adopt into our own life, so our life is changed and looks more like him.
You don't have to believe to come to this table. But be careful, those who come to this table just might start believing.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown