Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on August 2 2009.
Psalm 34:1-8; John 6:41-51
In the story just preceding this one, the crowds of people were concerned with how Jesus had reached his destination at Capernaum. Now, here in this portion of John’s sixth chapter, that is no longer the issue. These folks don’t seem to care about Jesus’ itinerary or his mode of transportation. They’re in more of an accusing mood, and by their questioning of Jesus give us the distinct idea that the honeymoon between Jesus and these people is over. They think they know him well enough to believe that he’s not all that special. After all, Jesus is one of them.
“Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
For the twenty-two years we lived in various places on the other side of the Mississippi I got used to making my own way and forging my own sense of identity. When we returned to northeast Arkansas in 1993, however, I re-entered my old familiar world. I was once again identified by where I had come from and whose son I was. It was all quite strange, and took some getting used to, let me tell you.
For a couple of years I served on the Jonesboro Church Health Board. A number of churches went together to provide health care for people who were caught between the cracks, working folk who did not earn enough to be able to afford insurance. One day I met a new board member, a young farmer from Bono. For those of you not familiar with that part of our state, Bono is a small, rural hamlet between Jonesboro and Walnut Ridge.
He asked if I was from Paragould. Yes, I was willing to admit to that. “There are a lot of Hydes in Paragould,” he said to me. Yes, I also knew that to be true. Even though it is not that common a name, there were a lot of folk with the Hyde surname in Greene County. And just as I was about to tell him that we weren’t related to any of the other Hydes in Paragould because my dad was originally from Mississippi, he looked at me and asked, “You related to Eric?”
Eric was the one Hyde to whom I definitely was related. When I told him that Eric was my dad, he then informed me that his family had owned a store in Bono and my father was their grocer salesman. My dad had called on the store so many years that this man had known him all his life. And not surprisingly, he told me what a fine man my father was. I’ve had the good fortune of having people tell me that quite often.
Isn’t it true that very often when you meet someone you immediately start trying to find a connection? That’s certainly the way it is around these parts. So, after you ask where they live and what they do for a living, you start talking about their kin. You search for common acquaintances. It doesn’t take long, does it, for that connection to be made because, as I’ve mentioned to you before, there aren’t very many degrees of separation where you and I live.
And if someone from our hometown makes it big, does that create resentment on the part of some of the people who didn’t? Sheryl Crow, the famous rock star, is from Kennett, Missouri. If you’re not into that scene and aren’t familiar with her, it may help you to know that she was once engaged to Lance Armstrong, the professional cyclist who has won the Tour de France several times. Kennett is located in the Missouri boothill, about thirty miles from my hometown. I’ve driven through there many times over the years, and once played in a high school tennis tournament there. When Janet was pregnant with our daughter Emily, we were once stranded in Kennett because of car trouble... on Christmas Eve, no less. I know Kennett, Missouri, the hometown of Sheryl Crow.
I would imagine that most of the folk who knew Sheryl when she was young are quite proud of her notoriety. But I bet there are a few, at least, who are resentful that she has become so well-known.
What’s so special about her? She’s just a girl from Kennett, and don’t we know her mom and dad and all her family? Do you think the same kind of question has been asked about Bill Clinton or Glen Campbell or John Daly or any of the other celebrities who have their origin in Arkansas?
Perhaps the same was true for Jesus and the Galilean crowds who followed him to Capernaum. Despite all the signs he has revealed — from changing the water into wine at Cana to healing the sick and feeding the multitudes – when he started talking about his origins, and how he had come from his heavenly Father, they say to him, “Now wait a minute. We know you. You’re Joseph’s boy. We know your father and mother, your brothers and sisters. Why, we’re even familiar with your cousins over the way. How can you say you’ve come from heaven? What’s that all about?”
When you think about it, it’s a pretty good question. A fair question too. They know who Jesus is. Come from heaven? Whatta you mean? Come from Nazareth more likely. Where does he get these ideas?
Yet, they have to admit there has to be something special about Jesus. Otherwise, why did they jump in their boats and chase him across the Sea of Galilee? Just to complain about the answers he gives to their questions? Don’t think so. They’re certainly willing to take advantage of his abilities to take care of them, to heal their sick and feed them, but when he starts telling them that what he really and truly offers is more spiritual in scope, and certainly more eternal than just where they’re going to get the next loaf of bread, they begin to grumble. They want the next meal, not a sermon. They didn’t come here to discuss theology. They’re more interested in his menu.
So you would think that Jesus would respond to their specific complaints, right? Wrong. He says to them, “Quichurbelleakin”... or words to that effect. “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me...”
You want to know why they’re grumbling about Jesus, why the honeymoon is over? Because he doesn’t give them what they want. Their history tells them about the manna in the wilderness. If Moses gave them manna, why can’t Jesus? Jesus reminds them that Moses didn’t do it; God did. Then, their memory shifts to a more recent episode. Just the day before, Jesus fed the multitudes from five pieces of barley bread and a couple of fish. If he did it once, why doesn’t he do it again? Because he’s not a perpetual meal ticket, that’s why. The bread he offers doesn’t perish. Besides, that was a sign of a greater reality that his heavenly Father, through him, was offering them.
Okay, so what is that greater reality? Eternal life, Jesus tells them. He is the Living Bread that does not need to be given every day over and over again. If they accept the bread he offers them, they will never hunger again. But that’s not what they want. Not that eternal life isn’t good, mind you, but that wasn’t a popular nor widespread belief in the first-century Jewish community. The concept of eternal life is a fairly new idea to these people. And besides, they’re hungry now. The promise of eternal life isn’t going to put food on the table. They need something just a bit more tangible, thank you very much. But Jesus tells them the feeding trough is empty. No more free meals. So they become agitated because he doesn’t give them what they want.
And not only that, he tells them that they can’t come to him and receive this eternal life unless they are willing to give in to the guiding hand of God. There would be those who did accept his offer, who were “drawn” to him by his heavenly Father, and there would be those who did not.
You see, Jesus knows there is hunger and there is hunger... a hunger for a word from God. Philip says it later in this fourth gospel. He says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8). When you hunger that much for what God offers in Jesus, a “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” as Jesus puts it in the Sermon on the Mount, then God draws you to himself and feeds you with the living bread.
I admit to you that this passage of scripture is not easy for me to interpret, much less preach on. I scoured, not only my own brain and heart, but the thoughts of others in preparation for today’s sermon. I consulted the commentaries and looked at the thoughts of those who I think have a greater understanding of scripture than I do, and very little of it spoke to me. It says that perhaps these learned folk struggle with this as much as I do.
And maybe it is because we have too much in common with those folk who chased Jesus from the wilderness of Galilee, across the sea to Capernaum. We’re looking to Jesus for one thing and he’s offering us another. We think his gospel of grace gives us what we want and does not make a demand of us that is more in line with what the kingdom of heaven is all about. Martin Luther struggled with it when it came to his congregation. He once told them, “I wish I could get you to pray the way that my dog goes after meat.”1It is when you’re that hungry that Jesus has something to offer you.
Yet, even that hunger does not come first from us. It is the gift of God, and I think that may be what Jesus means when he talks of those who are drawn to him by his heavenly Father.
In addition to working on this sermon, I’ve been preparing the adult Sunday School lessons for the three Sundays I will be out following my knee surgery in a couple of weeks. The lessons are based on the “Decade of Destiny” paper I wrote last fall that delineates the challenges our church will be facing in the coming years. It is an attempt to use this effort as a time of renewal and recommitment to Christ and the ministry of this church.
Most of you know that a group from our church has been meeting for the better part of a year, working and planning in an effort to make more effective our outreach to the community. We are looking at ways to make our church more visible, and therefore more attractive to those who have not yet discovered who we are.
A number of you have been faithful in inviting people to come and experience our worship, in the hopes that they will see what we have to offer and will want to be a part of it. In the meantime, we have worked diligently to share Christ with those who have no way of giving us anything in return. I’m thinking of our involvement in the Interfaith Hospitality Network that houses homeless families in our church. I’m thinking of the good work that has been done in Helena, not to mention the hospitality we have shown to our guests in the Fields Centre, who are here from out of town because they are receiving treatment in our nearby medical facilities.
I commend all these efforts and want to express publicly, if I have not done a good enough job of it personally, how much I appreciate all you do. I truly believe this is the heart and soul of our church.
But I’ve also come to believe that if anything will come of these efforts – anything – it will not be because of our faithfulness, nor the result of our good works. It will be because God’s grace has made it so. If it were not for God’s grace, the efforts of our planning group would simply be marketing. If it were not for God’s grace, what we do for the homeless and for our friends in the Delta and those who stay across the street, would simply be social work.
To whatever extent we understand these words of Jesus and are able to come to him and accept his offer of eternal life, and then live out his mandate to be his presence in our world, it does not come from our earnest efforts. It is because we are drawn to Jesus by our heavenly Father. That’s the way Jesus puts it, but however Jesus says it, what he’s talking about – bottom line – is grace.
When we hunger for that grace, God does a magical thing. God reaches down into the very depths of our hearts and lifts us up above the cares and difficulties we encounter, and enters our personal wildernesses. And in that moment, we are offered something to eat, something that will never perish. I encourage you to accept this grace as if it were your very last meal, for in it you will find the Living Bread. And if you accept it, you will never hunger again.
Lord, feed us with your grace, and then find us hungry for more, that we might be people of the kingdom. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.