Tough bread

a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16B/Lectionary 21]

John 6:56-69 and Ephesians 6:10-20


Chalice Of Wine With Bread On The Burlap

It was my first Sunday here at Epiphany, about ten years ago. I was still in the interview process to be the associate pastor and was here to preach and help lead worship, kind of like an audition. Everything went fairly well, but the thing that really stuck out to me that day was the communion bread. For whatever reason, the pita loaves had gotten left out of its bag the night before and by the time we went to serve it the next morning, it was all dry and hard and stale. When Pastor Chris Price and I worked our way down the rail for communion, each piece we broke off made this loud cracking noise. I kind of had to get my wrist into it just to tear them off. The pieces were very chewy and rough, like we were handing out crackers. People were crunching on them.

But I didn’t know any different, you see. It was my first Sunday here, and I just thought that was the way Epiphany Lutheran liked communion. They like their bread tough and hard to chew. No judgment here. It wasn’t until after the service was over when Pastor Chris Price, the senior pastor at that time, assured me that typically the bread they used was typically soft.

Be that as it may, I think Jesus is content to give us hard, chewy bread most of the time. I don’t think Jesus is bothered by how difficult it might be to break off, tear apart, swallow, digest. And I’m not talking about the communion bread, necessarily. I’m talking about his teachings, the things he says to us, the lessons he gives. Jesus works his way down the rail, down the paths of our life encountering us in his Word and in the communal life of his people gathered, and he doesn’t seem to be concerned if things are hard to choke down.

Is this your typical impression of Jesus? I’m not sure it’s always mine. I’m not sure I think often about this difficult Jesus, this content-to-be-offensive Jesus, this “take-me-or-leave-me” Jesus. I know I am usually most familiar with the easy Jesus, the chasing-after-lost-sheep Jesus, the boil-things-down-to-make-it-simple Jesus.

But today we see him standing there with a crowd of followers around him. He has just fed thousands with a few loaves and two fish—loaves that were probably fresh and soft—and he hears his disciples complaining about his teaching. They’re complaining because what he’s said is too hard to accept. It’s too hard to receive his lesson about his body, broken and shared for the life of the world, and how partaking of that flesh and that blood connects them to the eternal life that he has.

drinking the cup

We know this similar reaction occurs with any number of Jesus’ teachings, not just this one about his presence in the bread and the wine. We’re told many of them turn back at that point and no longer go about with him. And he doesn’t chase after them. Jesus doesn’t say, “Yikes! The numbers of religiously unaffiliated is on the rise in our culture today! People are leaving the church! Let’s do whatever we can to get them to come back with us!” Instead, he lets them turn back if they want to.

I’m not sure this impression of Jesus is always mine, but I bet it needs to be. It needs to be because I am so tempted to think God always agrees with me and what I think about any given issue or cause. I don’t know about you, but I am also often tempted to think the easy way, the easy answer, is the right one. I am so easily convinced that matters of faith and belief should never be difficult to digest, that they should instead be something I can figure out on my own, or fit in nicely with what I already know, and they’re especially useful if I can pick and choose what I want to believe. But perhaps most dangerously, I’m easily wooed into thinking faith is a kind of secret charm, that if I have it, that if I believe in God and do what I’m supposed to, I’ll escape or avoid all trouble in life.

The Jesus we encounter today, who gives us tough, chewy bread, flies in the face of all of that: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” That is, when it comes to a relationship with the eternal God, what we do on our own—muscle and will-power—aren’t helpful. Those things ultimately get us nowhere. What Jesus speaks to us and gives to us is what is life-giving, lasting.

“No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” In other words, faith is a gift. It is a trust that God cultivates in us that gets us to follow and listen more closely through whatever comes our way. That’s the whole point of Paul’s conclusion to his letter to the Ephesians. God doesn’t outfit us with a parachute a magic wand or a secret tunnel to safety. God gives us armor because he expects us to withstand the trials we face, to stand firm and endure.

And tough, chewy words from Jesus are the kinds of things that sustain that kind of faith. They tend to last. They tend to stick with you, especially in the difficult times ahead.

Epiphany confirmation classes

Our ninth and tenth graders are preparing in a few weeks to begin another year of confirmation classes. We’ll meet about every other Wednesday evening for ninety minutes, and I know that many of them will question, just like I did when I was there age, what is the point of all of this. Why does the church invite its young people to profess their faith publicly, and why do we have them come to classes and learn things like the Ten Commandments, the Sacraments, and the Creed? There are so many other things they could be doing with their time, and so many other ways, perhaps, to come at the faith. I can think of several reasons we do this, but one might be is to make sure we introduce them to this Jesus who hands out tough bread, to chew together on some of the life-giving things he says.

Interestingly enough, one of the stories that is being told about Senator John McCain in the wake of his death is of the “informal worship services he had with his fellow prisoners of war [in Vietnam], toward the end of the war when they were out of isolation. McCain [said he] was named room chaplain, ‘not because the senior ranking officer thought I was imbued with any particular extra brand of religion, but because I knew all of the words of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.’”[1]

john mccain
John McCain (1936-2018) as a prisoner of war


We live in day and age when people are geared toward this idea of self-fulfillment. I know I see myself in this culture’s values. Linda Mercadante, professor at the Methodist Seminary in Ohio author and expert on people who claim to be spiritual but not religious, says that our system of morality is geared towards making the most of it, of stacking our lives with experiences we won’t regret, of choosing adventure and accumulating our identity from the world of options around us. Our quests these days are for personal meaning. The questions revolve not around “Where do I belong?” for example, but “Who am I?”

In this kind of moral landscape, religions—and really any communal faith practices or wisdom—often appear to demand too much giving up of personal liberty and the center of authority has shifted from “out there” to “in here.” We view ourselves as the most authentic and most true judge of what we need. We even do this with Christian faith, adding what we like here, taking out what we don’t like over there, seeing time in church on Sunday primarily as something that fills us up, recharges our batteries, rather than worship of a higher power, something that joins us to a crowd that heeds an outside authority. And I suppose there is some good to this, some enjoyment to be had, ideas to be explored. God gives us a brain to be discerning and call out error when we see it. Besides, to some degree, there’s little we can really do about this individualistic mentality. It’s the era we’ve inherited.


Into all of this, into all of this navel-gazing and skepticism, this confident Jesus strides just like he does after that miraculous meal of loaves and fishes and asks us, “Do you also wish to go away? Do you also wish to turn back, leave me here?” And with the faith of Peter may we say,  “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Because, truth be told, all other ways we might tread run dry and turn up empty. I don’t know how Peter knows that already, but he seems to. Usually after great heartache we see how those other paths end in emptiness, loss, isolation, failure. Jesus knows this. He knows that that all ways of humankind eventually lead to the cross.

And, as it turns out, there aren’t two different Jesuses—a hard-edged one and a gentle one. There is one Jesus—one who is always giving life, always reaching out, always extending that call to follow and take up the armor of faith. And that one confident, loving Jesus will be at the cross, too, at the dead end of all the other paths we might choose. For he…

suffered under Pontius Pilate
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
But on the third day he rose again.

This Jesus will be at the cross waiting, but he will be there with eternal life for each of us, defeating the harsh with the humble. There he will be with mercy and forgiveness and welcome. And there we will hear his Words and they will heal us, once and for all. And he will raise us up on the Last Day.

We come to the rail today, weary and worn, some of us perhaps a little testy, belligerent, doubtful, begrudging, selfish, wanting something easy. I can guarantee we’ll receive something good. And with bread between our teeth, we come and receive another invitation not to turn back and to keep on walking with Jesus now, the Lord of life, the one who conquers the grave. Might as well keep walking with him. Might as well.


Thanks be to God!

Lella giving communion


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Not a pizza party


a sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15B/Lectionary 20B]

John 6:51-58 and Ephesians 5:15-20

Emanuel’s Lutheran Church (Bellevue, PA). The congregation closed those red doors in 2015.

The congregation I served back in Pittsburgh had a Wednesday evening Holy Communion service that had been started by the pastor just prior to me. It was an abbreviated worship service, designed only to last about 30 minutes or so. We often only read one Scripture lesson. It was also a spoken liturgy, meaning we typically didn’t have any music with it. It wasn’t a fancy worship service, by any means, but it was very intimate, kind of like the Sunday evening services we held here last year. When it came time to share the bread and the wine, there were typically so few of us that we could all gather shoulder to shoulder right in front of the altar. In fact, by the time I arrived our average attendance was around eight and it rarely climbed higher than that.

A more experienced and courageous pastor might have cancelled it right off the bat, but I was determined to give it a go and see if we could grow it. We tried adding music here and there. We tried worshiping outside in warmer months. We tried all sorts of various little alterations and innovations in order to appeal to more people but nothing seemed to work.

It happened that one Wednesday evening our women’s retreat committee was having a meeting at the same time as that Holy Communion service in another room elsewhere in the building. They had made it a dinner meeting and had ordered pizza to be delivered, but they mentioned to me right before worship that the delivery man might not know which door to come to. I told them not to worry—I would point him in the right direction if I saw him. We went forward with worship and they went forward with their meeting.

Then, right as I was standing in front of the altar about to bless the bread and the wine for Holy Communion, the large, heavy, red front doors of the church cracked open and the evening sunlight streamed through. My arms were spread open in prayer, but all of the worshippers were turning their heads, focusing on the person who propped open the door with his foot and started down the aisle straight for me with a stack of steaming hot pepperoni pizza. The timing could not have been better…or worse? Since there was no one else to receive him, he walked all the way down the aisle with those pizzas and met me at the altar. I eventually paused the service so I could show him out the side door, But for a minute or two there that guy probably thought this pastor will try anything to boost the worship attendance! Pizza for Holy Communion! Let’s party, everybody!


Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven, and whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” He means to tell us that the heavy door of heaven has cracked open and he comes down the aisle to give himself for the life of the world.

It’s so easy sometimes to miss this fundamental aspect of Christian faith among the rest of this conversation about bread and wine. The God to whom we pray, the God we worship, the God we call to for life and salvation is a God who comes down to us from heaven. The God who sends Jesus is not a God who asks us to be a certain way or do certain things in order to reach him, as if our task is to climb to his holiness. The living bread comes down from heaven to give life for the world. Let’s party, everybody!

Although those of us in the sanctuary that night didn’t get to eat it, the pizza made us think again how the whole story of Jesus is one about delivery. It’s not take-out. It’s not pick-up. It’s God delivering all of God’s fragile but might self into our midst, repeatedly—delivered into the manger, into the humble fishing life Galilee, into the suffering of ordinary human beings, delivered into our very hands to die on the cross. As the late, great Aretha Franklin once sang in one of her earliest gospel songs:

“Yes, I hear a voice pleading with me,
Quietly, quietly commune with me.
Just steal away in secret and pray
Quietly, quietly, come break bread with me.”[1]

In all honesty, sometimes we might wish Jesus had just thrown something like a pizza party with his disciples. It might make our faith a little more accessible to seekers and newcomers and get us out of this awkward situation where we eat a bit of bread and drink a sip of wine each week. Plus, given the way Jesus himself talks about that meal, it’s easy to see why early Christians were accused of being cannibals. As they wait for his return, as God’s Holy Spirit ignites faith in more and more people, his followers are not just going to gather to remember Jesus and his teachings, they’re not just going to “to sing hymns and psalms and make melody to the Lord in their hearts,” as the writer to the Ephesians says, but to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood.


In fact, if that’s not graphic enough, the word for “eat” that Jesus uses is the English word “gnaw,” which indicates he is not speaking metaphorically here. He is not saying we just consume him and his words with our brain. He is talking about teeth and jaws. He intends for people to eat when they meet for worship. Holy Communion is Jesus’ way to prevent his followers from turning their faith into a head-trip, from making church into some form of a TED Talk or self-help seminar. It’s like God says, “Here. Here’s bread and here’s wine. Can’t avoid it. Real things. God loves created matter. And you are created matter, not just ideas. And you are sent to take care of created things.”

Jesus says these things right after he has multiplied the loaves and fishes and has gotten into an argument with the Jewish leaders about what is the living bread from heaven. They have already failed to grasp how Jesus will be the living bread from heaven, how his life will be even better than the manna that sustained their ancestors in the wilderness as it dropped each night from the sky. Now he takes it another step further by saying that his body will be that bread and that by eating it they will gain eternal life. The living Father delivered him to them, and so now they can take him and eat him and have the same life as the Father.

We think of bread nowadays as somewhat of an optional food, as something that can make some people ill, but in Jesus’ day, and still in many parts of the world, it is the main food. I remember growing up and going to Sunday dinner after church at my grandmother’s house out in the country. They always had fresh rolls on the table. I got the impression that you couldn’t really eat a full meal unless there was bread involved. Fried chicken or barbecue or short ribs might be the main course, but bread is what enabled you to eat it all because, you see, they taught me you eat everything by holding the roll in your left hand so you can sop up everything on your plate and leave it clean.


When we eat of Jesus, we get everything God offers. We realize it sounds strange, and maybe even a little off-putting, but Jesus wants us to know that he comes to deliver God’s life all the way inside of us. When we partake of Jesus, it’s like we’ve got that roll in our left hand: we can sop up everything God offers. This meal embodies the self-giving and self-sacrifice that Jesus is sent to deliver. All of God’s forgiveness and mercy, all of God’s love and compassion, all of God’s justice and concern for those who don’t have enough, all of God’s grace is given to us in this meal. It is a visible, tangible reminder of what Jesus comes to do: give himself. Eating is necessary for life, and so if we’ve got a new life in Christ, it will require food.

Furthermore, if you think about it, and every act of eating anywhere involves a sacrifice somewhere, whether it’s the chicken that was slaughtered at the Tyson plant up off Staples Mill Road or the wheat that was cut out in Nebraska, or the labor of the grandmother that woke up early to get it cooked and arranged just right on the checkered tablecloth. It think most of the time we eat without thinking about that. I know I do. Food implies sacrifice, and this meal that Jesus gathers us around is no different.  The fact that Jesus spent his life coming down from heaven to be with you, to feed you, to heal you, to walk with you, is the reason why he gathers you around this table and break bread with you.


A voice is pleading with you, says Aretha. Not just you, of course, but all of us—his body, blessed and broken, shoulder to shoulder we gather, and yes, at a dinner meeting (let’s call this what it is) where we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs making melody to the Lord in our hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

On that note…I’ve heard many visiting pastors and other visitor friends of mine make comments about how well our congregation sings. I’m so thankful for that. It’s another strange, counter-cultural thing the Spirit has us do. In a day and age when singing is typically something we watch other people do for us (or at us), Christians continue to regularly sing together, make melody—and sometimes even harmony—in our hearts as we make a joyful noise to the Lord.

Let’s be real: we don’t need pizza.


Thanks be to God!

Bread and wine


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “You Grow Closer” Songs of Faith – the Gospel of Aretha Franklin