a sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 14B/Lectionary 19]
John 6: 35, 41-51 and 1 Kings 19:4-8
My grandmother, who died from COVID this past autumn at the age of 102, could set a mean table. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood we’d gather at her house after church on most Sundays with the rest of my relatives ready to feast on the different delicious dishes she and my aunt had prepared. This was country cooking and baking at its finest. I couldn’t wait to get in line and pile my plate with food. But my parents had a rule: something on my plate had to be green. That was their way of making sure I got my veggies. Green Jello didn’t count. I tried to pull that off once. Green beans counted, but I detested green beans. Broccoli casserole would have counted, but I gagged at the mere scent of broccoli. Fortunately for me Maw Maw, as we called her, always had a bowl of homemade cole slaw somewhere in the buffet, and cabbage, even when mixed with a good bit of mayonnaise, sugar, and vinegar, still has a light green tint to it. So slaw was my go-to green option, week after week. The lasting effect of my parents’ “one green thing” rule was a belief that only veggies are really good for you. All the other things that actually drew me to the table—the macaroni and cheese, the chicken pan pie with that nice bready crust on top, the succulent barbecued short ribs and the gooey sauce they were in—all those things were tasty, but not as nutritious. It was the green things that gave life.
Jesus is talking nutrition this morning, and he has been talking about it ever since he multiplied the loaves and the fish for thousands of hungry people by the lake one day. The people ate and got their fill. They were hungry and found the meal delicious, like a table set by a country grandmother. They follow after him, drawn by his words and his ability to provide. But at the end of the day Jesus wants people to eat the thing that gives life. He cares not just about our bellies, but about our livelihood, about our soul’s health and well-being, and it is starting to sound, as we listen in on this conversation between the crowd and Jesus, that there is a particular thing that Jesus wants us to partake of. What is the something green?
That’s the problem the people are having. They feel drawn to him. They like the stuff he’s providing, but Jesus is saying that he is what they need to eat. It is his flesh, his body and blood, that will give life to the world. He is the bread that has come down from heaven. The crowd is used to bread coming down from heaven and feeding people. They have several stories, in fact, from their history about this happening. Their ancestors in the wilderness, for example, ate manna to get through each day. It was this flaky substance that fell each night from the sky. They would wake up and, lo and behold, there would be enough to collect for a meal that day. It’s kind of appropriate when we learn that the Hebrew word “manna” is actually a question. Directly translated manna means, “What is it?” They couldn’t really come up with a word for this substance that miraculously appeared. What was it? God’s gift.
And the people in this crowd also would have been familiar with our story from 1 Kings this morning, the one where the prophet Elijah is on the run, fearing for his life. Queen Jezebel is determined to kill him, and so he runs out into the desert for safety. Tired and famished, and unable to conceive of any outcome to the situation other than his death, he lies down and wants God to take his life. And then miraculously, out of nowhere, some bread cakes and water appear. He eats them and is able to continue for far longer than he ever imagined.
These are the stories of a God who always gives his people what they need when they need it, even in times of distress and dismay. These are occasions of God’s unbelievable grace, grace that comes through in a pinch, often when we least expect it and never because we deserve it.
I don’t know about you, but it feels to me that we’ve come through seventeen or so months of wilderness where God has sustained us the way God sustained those wandering ancient Israelites or Elijah. We’ve been existing on manna, little daily or weekly outpourings of help that got us through the darkest times of the pandemic. What was it? It was the donation of the microphone that the Mawyer family knew the church staff would need to broadcast daily prayer with our phones. Or the words of encouragement that people left on our Facebook page.
Or the phone call from one of our friends. Two different families in the congregation had pizza delivered to the church office at different points over the past year or so. We weren’t in danger of starving, of course, but the thought that someone “out there” was wanting to nourish us with pizza and give us a sign of support helped sustain our spirits and energy level. And I kid you not, but just the very day when I was in my office writing this very paragraph, I took a break because I was hungry and needed a snack, but I didn’t know what I was going to scrounge up. I walked out of my office and there lying on the floor by my door was a bag someone had just dropped off. Inside was a bag of Goldfish crackers just for me. It was like my sermon was coming to life.
On a more serious level, of course, some of the financial relief from the government issued over the past year has meant for many people the difference between staying in an apartment for another few months and being on the street. It’s where we probably get the word “godsend” from. Little miraculous godsends that get us through. If the pandemic has been a desert, or if COVID-19 has been Queen Jezebel, hunting us down, then gestures of generosity and community between people have been the hot bread cakes laid by the stone of Elijah’s head.
And yet, as good and necessary as those godsends have been, they are still not ultimately the “green thing,” so to speak, that Jesus comes to put on our plate. As Jesus explains to the hungry crowd that day, even the ancient Israelites would die, no matter how many days God provided them manna. Even though it got them through a hard time, even though it met their bodily needs for a time, even though it bridged their path to the Promised Land, the manna wasn’t and would never be that particular sustenance that fully satisfied them. Jesus is the real godsend. Jesus himself provides for the deepest needs and the most human longings that we experience. His flesh is given not just to get us from one day to the next but so that we may live forever. His body is offered up so that those who are drawn to him will not die and then experience the ultimate separation from God’s promised land of mercy and forgiveness and love forevermore. They will see the Father.
And when we are drawn to him, we find we end up eating. We wind up at a meal, a meal that Jesus himself once provided and a table he himself sets again and again. It’s a table designed to include more and more people. Furthermore, it is a real fellowship with our brothers and sisters in the faith, not just a gathering of like-minded people who like to contemplate ideas together. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Jesus spends a lot of his time in the gospels contemplating and teaching ideas with his disciples and other people. But we can’t deny that the culminating moment of all of that contemplating and wondering about God is a meal around a table with bread and wine and then a real death on a cross, a moment where a real body suffers and bleeds. That’s the green thing, believe it or not, God decides we must have. We can’t live without it. The bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world is not just his words and values, but his flesh.
In fact, the experiences of the earliest Christians show us that our understanding of God’s grace in Christ actually came from first experiencing this meal, not the other way around. That is to say, people can really only contemplate what the Father of Jesus is like and wonder about the grace given in Jesus when they first are fed by his body and blood at the table of Holy Communion. Robert Louis Wilken, a church historian and once on faculty at the University of Virginia, reminds us in his book on early Christianity that in the beginning of our faith there was no such thing as a church without an altar. Before there were articles written about the Trinity, before there were commentaries on the Bible and what it says, before there were essays about how to live a Christian moral life, before the New Testament was even complete, there was “awe and adoration before the Son of God alive and present in the Church’s offering of the Eucharist.” He is the bread that has come down from heaven. Those drawn to him eat and live and that life is eternal because in eating we are joined to what he has become. He is already raised to new life, and so when we become part of his body he will raise us up on the last day.
A green thing on your plate, or in your hand, as the case may be. You receive it today and every time the church gathers here. It is the source of the only kind of life that really matters in the end. Feasting on his sacrifice, we are empowered to sacrifice for others. Drawn into his compassion, we are born to show compassion to those around us. Eating a morsel of his humility and servanthood, we are commanded to put away all bitterness and wrath and malice too. Nourished by his love, we get up from this table and go in the strength of this food forty days or more. We re-commit ourselves to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, and forgiving, as Christ has forgiven us. These are words to contemplate, yes. Ideas and values. But make no mistake, we are to be a real, living body that puts flesh on them, too. Godsends. For the life of the whole world.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Robert Louis Wilken. Yale University Press, 2003. page 36.