Bread of life (1): Not like the others

O God, satisfier of hunger,
you sent your Son
to turn our hearts and minds from evil;
help us to steadfastly look to Christ
in times of plenty or famine,
that we may never hunger or thirst
for any other;
in the name of our Saviour Jesus. Amen.

Readings
Ephesians 4.1–16
John 6.24–35

 

… The next day (6:22) dawns with the promise of the new bread from heaven, even as it refocuses the cosmic presence of the Word in the scandalous particularity of the flesh-and-blood reality of Jesus’ self-giving love. — Anthony Kelly & Francis Moloney, Experiencing God in the Gospel of John, Kindle Ed’n, loc.2388

______________________

Perhaps sometimes you’ve watched Sesame Street with a young child. (Or maybe you’ve watched it on your own…!) If so, you might recall the One of these things is not like the others song.

Did you get which thing was not like the others? I’m sure you had no difficulty. But you know, sometimes it’s harder to guess which thing is not like the others.

Once on a short trip to Norway, I was told that there are four related Scandinavian languages: Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic. But one of these things is not like the others. Do you know which one? It’s Icelandic. People from Norway, Sweden and Denmark can understand each other, no matter which language they’re speaking. But they can’t understand folk from Iceland.

Why not? It’s a similar language—but it’s not like the others. People went to Iceland from Scandinavia a thousand years ago and settled there; the Icelandic language has developed in isolation from the others.

We’re in a ‘one of these things is not like the others’ place today. We all know there are four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But one of these things is not like the others. In the Sesame Street video, there were four items—one was a strange hat, while the other three were quite odd sunglasses. And the languages of far northern Europe are all ‘Scandinavian’; three are very similar, while one is different.

It’s like that with the Gospels. All four are telling the Good News about Jesus. Three are similar: Matthew, Mark and Luke. They tell pretty much the same story; in fact, the evidence is that Matthew and Luke adapted Mark for their own purposes.

We call these three the ‘Synoptic Gospels’. That means they all see the events of Jesus together.

All four are Gospels; they each tell the story of Jesus. But John is not like the others. And for a few weeks, we are delving into John chapter 6. Do you know some of the ways that John is different?

There are quite a few things we could mention. John has Jesus’ ministry happening over three years, the Synoptic Gospels have one year. John has looong speeches by Jesus; there’s no trace of that in the Synoptic Gospels. There, Jesus speaks in parables. There are differences between John and the others in telling the story of Jesus’ last night—in Matthew, Mark and Luke the Last Supper happens on the Day of Passover. It’s a Passover meal. In John, the Supper happens the night before; Jesus dies as the Passover lambs are being killed in preparation for the Passover.

One of these things is not like the others.

And there’s another difference to mention today. In the Synoptic Gospels, we have a description of the Last Supper. Jesus takes bread and wine, and says This is my body…this is my blood. The disciples eat the bread and drink the wine.

In John, we are told they were having supper, but John doesn’t talk about the food. Instead, he tells how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.

There are those who have suggested that John wasn’t interested in the Last Supper, or in Holy Communion. Did he leave it out because it’s not really that important? Didn’t he care about Holy Communion? I believe John cared deeply about it. John wants us to take in its meaning.

John gives us teaching about the Lord’s Supper and its meaning in two places. He does it first in the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, where a small amount feeds so many, as it will here soon, and follows through in chapter 6, where we’ll stay for a few weeks; the second place is in chapters 13–17, where Jesus washes the feet of the others (the sign) and then (after Peter misunderstands him) he gives the longest series of speeches in the Gospel of John.

Now, John is very interested in the meaning of who Jesus is, and of what Jesus does. John takes us deeply into that meaning. If you want to grow in Christian maturity, you can’t leave John’s Gospel to one side.

John uses a particular strategy to take us deeper.
(1) Jesus performs a ‘sign’;
(2) someone fails to get what Jesus is doing, and gets only the surface meaning;
(3) Jesus teaches the deeper meaning.

For example—look at the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John. That was the ‘sign’. The crowd eat their fill, but they only get the surface meaning. They want to make him king so they’ll always have bread—that’s the surface meaning. So, ‘when Jesus realised that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king’, he gets away as fast as he can.

In today’s reading, the crowd still doesn’t get it. And throughout John chapter six, we see that various people don’t get it. Jesus has to put them right. He declares himself to be ‘the Bread of Life’, bread that satisfies for ever. Later in chapter 6, he talks about ‘chewing’ and ‘munching’ the flesh of the Son of Man. People find it all too much and walk away. Some stay, including the disciples, who get the deeper message. Peter speaks for them:

Lord,… You have the words that give eternal life. And now we believe and know that you are the Holy One who has come from God.

In the next few weeks, we’ll explore the meaning of Jesus the Bread of Life in John 6 further. Today, I want to look at one of those things that makes John not like the others: I want to look at what Jesus does in the Upper Room in the Gospel of John.

Remember? Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. That was a terrible job. People trod in all sorts walking down the roads in those days. Their feet were filthy. Washing feet was a slave’s job. Jesus took the form of a slave.

John is showing us that the deeper meaning of the Lord’s Supper involves washing feet. It means doing the ‘shit’ jobs. It means getting on our knees, both to pray—and to serve others.

The Lord’s Supper can be the scene of differences of opinion, even of dispute. Some groups come forward to receive the elements, others stay in their seats. Some have alcoholic wine, others grape juice. Sometimes the differences seem to be more substantial. Is the bread and wine really Christ’s body and blood? Or is it a symbol? (When people use the word ‘symbol’, they often barely understand what it means.) 

Does Christ come to us as we eat and drink, or are we doing it to show that we are his people? Should we have Communion every week or every month or less often?

These are all good questions. But what I want to ask today is, Should our differences divide us at the Altar? It’s good to have opinions. (We can’t help it!) But do we come to Communion in order to have our opinions reinforced? Friends, when our opinions cause us to look down on others; when our opinions urge us to separate from others; when our opinions stop us getting on our knees to serve others; then we need to repent and change our ways.

John shows us that the deeper meaning of Communion is about how we serve one another, so we should stop still for a while and ask ourselves: when I approach the Table to receive Communion, am I seeking to become a better servant of Jesus Christ? Am I wanting to be healed of my selfishness, pride or fear?

There are echoes of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4 here. Paul begs us

to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

That’s how we should come to Communion, it’s how we share Communion with the Lord who washed his friends’ feet.

One of these things is not like the others. We could say this congregation is an ordinary group of people. It looks like an ordinary group. Some are tall, some short, some older, some younger, etc. But a congregation—this group of people gathered here today—is not meant to be like the other groups that we may be part of. We are not a religious bowls club, or a divine dramatic society. We are the Body of Christ! Jesus means that as we receive the bread and wine of Communion week by week, month by month, it should make us more like Jesus. He got on his knees and washed dirty feet. Will we?

Will the Church be ‘not like the others’? It must be, if it is to be the Church of Jesus.

 

Based on a sermon first given at Centenary Uniting Church in 2012; this given at Trinity Wellington Point Uniting Church on 5 August 2018.

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