All is grace (sermon)

This week, I’ve been working my way through the extended editions of Peter Jackson’s the Hobbit Trilogy. And yes, for those of you wondering, these are the infamous movies, clocking in at 4 hours each, all sourced from one book by J.R.R. Tolkien. I love them, and the book they’re based on.

At the conclusion of the trilogy, I was reminded of one particular scene—when our hero, a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins who wants nothing more than to be away from battles and home with his books, has a final conversation with Thorin, a dwarvish main character who is dying after a battle, after finally coming to the realization that his selfish greed over a hoard of dragon gold was, in fact, wrong. Thorin, in his final breaths, tells Bilbo that “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.

We are in the midst of a several-week cycle in our gospel lessons, in the Gospel of John. Until the end of August, we’ll be spending our time in the 6th chapter of John, beginning with last week’s miracle of the feeding of the 5000, and continuing on with the theme of bread. Seriously… SO much bread. And while last week’s bread connection is relatively straightforward—people are hungry, let’s feed them, we move into different territory this week. And what we discover today is that Jesus gives mysterious answers to simple questions

Listen to this: “When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?”

They just ask “when”, but Jesus responds by telling them why they’re there in the first place. It’s a non-answer to their original question, but gets to the core of the issue: who is Jesus and how do they know he is who he says he is?

And he keeps moving the goalpost. Instead of bread, you should be looking for the bread of eternal life… instead of a sign, you should be searching for true bread from heaven. And finally, instead of bread the object, it is bread the person, as Jesus says his famous I am statement: “I am the bread of life”.

It’s a bit of a deescalation, quite a different thing from what they were hoping for. Instead of physical food, miraculous proof, or manna in the wilderness 2.0, it’s just… Jesus. The Galilean from Nazareth, the wandering teacher, the maybe-prophet.

In fact, when Jesus says “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”, I wonder if a disciple or two rolled their eyes—yeah, right. Following Jesus around the dry desert and foothills must have been full of both hunger and thirst, and weariness. It must have tested their patience, and sometimes made them wonder—why the heck am I doing this?

Perhaps it’s just me, but I sense in this text a great weariness. The people asking Jesus about this bread must have come a long way—we know that they came via boat across the sea, after spending the whole day before listening to Jesus teach. And as Jesus keeps moving that goalpost, rewriting the questions, and completely reframing what they mean by “bread”, I can only imagine that some of them felt tired. “This is going to take a lot more time, more work, than we thought”. “This isn’t going to happen immediately, after all.”

Perhaps you too, feel a sense of weariness this week. I know I do. Watching all the news reports, as COVID cases once again climb, and we move back into a pattern of life that we thought we’d left behind… I just feel tired… and maybe you do too. I really empathize with the people who find Jesus in our lesson today: “oh right, this is going to take a lot more time, more work, than we thought”. “This isn’t going to happen quickly after all”

There’s nothing easy or quick about the road that we must tread, even after all this time.

So the question I have is this: how do we live, when we know that Jesus is the bread of life, but we are still hungry and thirsty and really tired of walking? How do we persevere?

To answer this question, we must turn our gaze to Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians. There’s so much to dig into here that we could spend hours on just this reading, but for now, let’s consider his opening line.

“I… the prisoner in the Lord, beg you 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.” It’s a long sentence, but what sticks out to me is that first line: lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. And what matters to Paul about this life, our witness, is not how loudly we can talk about ourselves, or how many people come to our church, or how many banners we fly for this cause or that cause. What matters about this life is our… humility, gentleness, and patience.

Humility, gentleness, and patience. In older translations, we find it phrased differently: “lowliness, meekness and patience”. St. John Chrysostom, a 4th century father of the church, from Constantinople, wonders “how is it possible to “walk worthily” with “all lowliness”?” He considers this, and then continues—“meekness is the foundation of all virtue. If you are humble and are aware of your limits and remember how you were saved, you will take this recollection as the motive for every moral behavior”. In essence, Chrysostom is saying that meekness—humility, gentleness, should be the guiding force behind every choice that we make, every thing that we do. What does such a life look like? He describes this: “You will not be excessively impressed with either chains or privileges. You will remember that all is of grace, and so walk humbly”

The result, then, of leading a life worthy of the calling to which we are called, is that we are not excessively impressed with chains or privileges, restrictions or freedoms. We refuse to idolize them as ultimate goods or evils, we refuse the claim that such things have over us, prioritizing our true identity as members of one body in Christ, the bread of life.

How do we persevere, when we are tired, and hungry and thirsty, and just want to go back to normal? How do we face fire and flood and never ending plague, again and again, when our advocacy and action doesn’t seem to do much either quickly or easily?

The answer from Paul and John Chrysostom is this: to remember that all is grace, and so walk humbly. To remember that every breath of air and walk outdoors and hug from a friend is grace, and so walk humbly. To remember that every meal shared, every gift given, every relationship built is grace, and so walk humbly. To remember that even amidst fire and flood, death and plague, that all is grace, because we are loved and sustained and saved by a God who says “I am the bread of life”.

And so we walk humbly, leading a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, being reminded by grace that life is more than just chains or privileges, restrictions or freedom, things or gold. May we, in our humility, value Christ the true bread above hoarded gold and idols of our own making, remembering that all is grace, making this a merrier world.

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