August 26, 2018: The Rev. Tom Momberg

A Sermon on John 6:56-69

Broken for me, broken for you / The body of Jesus, broken for you.

 I like to sing the Lord’s Prayer on Sunday.  When we do, I  remember the Fisherfolk.  “Fisherfolk” was a stage name for musical artists who are also part of a religious order in the Episcopal Church: the Community of Celebration.  Their roots go back to the mid-60’s in inner-city Houston, at the Church of the Redeemer.  These days, the Community makes its home in Aliquippa, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Graham Pulkingham, a priest, founded that Episcopal religious community.  His wife Betty  composed the Lord’s Prayer setting we sing here at the Ascension.

I came to know the Community of Celebration whole serving at a Pittsburgh church back in the late 80’s.  They were a unique mixture of monastics: men and women, married and single, adults and children.  Sometimes I’d just hang out and sing with them.  Years later I invited some of their musicians to share their music with other congregations I served.

In one of those congregations, an old, historic, downtown church in a large university city, there was a history professor who loved to give me what I’ll call “feedback.”  Back in that day, my preaching and presiding in worship was not the best I would learn to offer.  Regardless of the quality of my sermon or of our worship, the professor – I’ll call him George – would make his way to me, so he could share his candid, theological viewpoint.

One Sunday, at my request, the choir sang a simple spiritual song I’d heard at a Eucharist led by the Community of Celebration.  The refrain is the one I sang at the start of this sermon.  Broken for me, broken for you /The body of Jesus, broken for you.  When the service was over, Professor George needed to tell me, in no uncertain terms, how much he hated that song.  He hated it, he said, because Christians are an Easter people.  In light of what he described as Christ’s “most beautiful resurrection,” we should never proclaim brokenness – only healing and wholeness.

While I fully understood George’s point of view, I had already begun to learn – the hard way, I might add – how his theology was incomplete.  I was coming to believe how brokenness and beauty are what Christ’s body, the Church, is all about.   This theological paradox, beauty and brokenness, can be a strange and difficult thing to believe, to hear, to accept.

When the official news broke of Rosa’s departure and her new call to ministry as Priest in Charge at Church of the Holy Comforter, I began to hear responses – in myself, and in others – that were a bit like many of the disciples’ response to Jesus’s teaching about the bread of life.  After hearing Jesus speak of eternal life as an invitation to consider him as their food and drink, they said, “This . . . is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60)

Saying goodbye to someone we love, especially a priest who is a good and faithful pastor, is difficult.  Who here really wants to accept the idea of being part of the Church of the Ascension without Rosa Lindahl?  Won’t that seem strange?  It already feels strange – and difficult – to me.

One way to think about that news and today’s Gospel passage is this: How strange and difficult the message of the Christian faith truly is!  When the disciples hear Jesus speak of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, they talk among themselves about how hard it is to hear this!  In just a few words, Jesus seems to offend and alienate his most faithful followers, his closest friends.  They are learning how difficult real discipleship can be.

And yet, and yet, where else, says Peter to Jesus, do they have to go?  “You have the words of eternal life,” he says.  “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:69).  I suspect you came here today, in part, because where else do you and I have to go?  Why settle for bread that is not the bread of life?  Why settle for life that is not life eternal?

The fourteen verses at the end of this sixth chapter is known as the Gospel of John’s Eucharistic discourse.  It’s the clearest reference John makes to the ritual practice we know as Holy Communion, the Holy Eucharist.  Eucharist means thanksgiving.  Each Sunday we give thanks and praise to God for the gift of our fellowship and communion with God, freely given to us in Christ Jesus.  For John, Jesus is in full communion with God.  He’s the one God sent from heaven, the bread of life.

When we eat this heavenly bread, when we take the cup of salvation, we’re given spiritual food for our journey with Jesus.   This is all, of course, sacramental, symbolic language.  Bread and wine are a powerful metaphor for the real presence of Christ.  It can all seem difficult and strange.  Yet for us, we are here because Jesus is the real, heavenly deal.  Jesus is God, with flesh on.  Jesus invites his disciples, including us, to join him, with this promise: “The one who eats this bread will live forever” (6:58).

In writing about the fact that, throughout the month of August, all the Gospel readings have been about bread, Episcopal priest Barbara Crafton writes, “I need to watch my carbs!”  She goes on to say: “Maybe all this emphasis on bread this summer is just that – a recognition of its dailyness, our daily need of it.  You don’t bake all the bread you’re going to need for the year on the same day.  You bake every couple of days, a few loaves at a time.  You don’t have just one experience of God to last you for a lifetime.  You enter into a relationship with God every day, again and again” (The Christian Century, 2009, reposted 8/18/18).  Every day.  Including today.

What is the bread of life for you and me today?  What is Communion?  Where is the real presence of Christ?  The bishop who ordained me used to say that Christ is not just in the bread and the wine.  Christ is in the lector who reads the lesson, the singer who sings the song, the person who, after a long time gone, has begun to come back to church.  The living bread of life is in the young father who breaks off a small piece of what he receives at the altar to feed his infant daughter – just like he does at home.

We come today to enter into relationship with God and each other.  Sometimes our experiences of God, our sense of God being really, truly present, our awareness of God’s incarnation— sometimes these experiences are so profound, they actually do last a lifetime.  Here’s a story about the difficult, real presence of Christ in Holy Communion I pray I never forget.

During my first years as a priest, I was asked to be the guest preacher at a Catholic church during what is called the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  I arrived with my sermon and was welcomed warmly by the priest.  Then he said, “I’m so sorry, but as you know, only Catholics may receive Holy Communion.”  I knew this, but it was difficult to hear and accept it.

I was given a place to sit, way up near the high altar.  A newer altar had been added, down below, at a place much closer to the people. This meant that, while everyone else was giving and receiving Communion, I was seated high and lifted up, watching it all happen, unable to participate like everyone else.  It gave new meaning to the phrase “spectator sport.”

While I watched, I was getting more and more angry and feeling more and more excluded.  Suddenly a woman received Communion, broke from the line back to her seat, and started walking up toward me.  I thought, “Uh, oh.  What did I say in my sermon to offend her?”  As she got closer to me, I saw that she was crying.  Then, she took my hand in hers and said, through her tears, “I just want you to know there are many of us here today who just don’t understand why you can’t receive Communion with us.”

Tears ran down my cheeks.  I opened my mouth, and I heard God’s Spirit say to her,  “Thank you.  You have just given me Communion.”

My sisters and brothers, strange and difficult as it sometimes seems, we are the beautiful, broken body of Christ.  Just like a literal loaf of bread, the body of Christ is and must first be broken.  Then, and only then, can the bread of life be beautifully shared.

Broken for me, broken for you / The body of Jesus, broken for you. 

The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
The Church of the Ascension
Montgomery, Alabama
August 26, 2018


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