Sunday, August 2nd, 2015 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:24-35
Hymns: “I’ll Fly Away”, “Praise Him! Praise Him!”, “How Great Is Our God”, “How Great Thou Art”, “When You Do This, Remember Me”, “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder”
…He’ll Eat for a Lifetime
The comic book Daredevil has been around for over fifty years now. It’s one of few comic books that focuses on a relatively ordinary individual instead of some ludicrously wealthy superhero. No Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark to be found here, instead, Daredevil is about Matt Murdock, a struggling attorney from the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. Inclined to work toward helping people, Murdock often takes cases for individuals who are too poor to pay him, doing the work either pro bono or for in-kind donations (example: he takes on a rent-control case in exchange for several chickens).
There’s a couple of very important things to know about Murdock. One: he was blinded by an accident involving radioactive toxic waste when he was a child. This, in turn, gave him a heightened sense of hearing that acts almost as a sonar. He uses this power for good, dressing up and going out each night as the costumed superhero Daredevil, fighting corrupt and evil individuals for justice in Manhattan. Two: he grew up Catholic, and tries to be devout in his faith, but often struggles. One of the hallmarks of the character of Matt Murdock is that whenever he is about to do something truly heinous to one of the villains that inhabits Manhattan, he’ll go to church, and attempt to confess the sins he is about to commit to the priest in the confession booth, hoping to receive penance beforehand.
This spring, Netflix released a thirteen episode Daredevil TV series, and in that series, the confession-before-sin doesn’t end up working out for Murdock. Instead, the priest tells him that the man who confesses his sins and then continues to commit them anyway is not truly repentant. Quoting from the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John, the priest tells Murdock that when Christ forgives our sins, He also tells us to go and sin no more.
This does not sit too well with Matt Murdock, who storms off from his meeting with the priest in a huff, having not received the remission of his sins that he sought. He will, in due time, return to the priest, but in that moment, he walked away from the church for one simple reason: he didn’t get what he wanted.
But lest we judge a fictional character too harshly, we need to remember that that attitude is hardly confined to the pages of a Marvel comic book series. Far too many people approach church less with an attitude of “how can I come to worship God” and more with an attitude of “what have you done for me lately”.
When we look at the numbers released by the Pew Forum on Religious Life each year, we groan and shudder as we look at the increasing number of “Nones”. We wail and gnash our teeth as Christianity in America – especially mainline Protestant Christianity – continues to decline. And when we look at the fact that in the last fifteen years, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has lost nearly 150,000 members, well, it’s enough to drive a person to abject despair.
And so often, the church is blamed for failing to be relevant to the people who leave, especially Gen-X’ers and Millennials, and not without fault. The Church as a greater whole – and again, especially mainline Protestant Christianity – has spent essentially the entire period since World War II resisting change and progress, and now is paying the price. But the full blame cannot be laid at the feet of the church.
Since the 1980s, there has emerged a pernicious trend in American Christianity: church-goers asking, “What has the church done for me lately?” It is a trend that sprang out of a resistance to traditional culture, and which has been egged on by a subset of Christian culture known as the prosperity gospel. This so-called gospel teaches that if you love the Lord and serve God in the RIGHT way, you will be rewarded with earthly riches. That, of course, is entirely antithetical to Scripture, but it hasn’t stopped charlatans like Creflo Dollar from exploiting the earthly desires of his flock to get them to buy him a 65 million dollar private jet. And naturally, when those poor folks who did what they thought they were supposed to do end up not being blessed with riches beyond their imaginations in return, they’re going to be disappointed. They’re going to look at the church and say, “What have you done for me lately?”
But that’s not the only cause of it. Our culture of instant satisfaction breeds that attitude as well. I, for one, have had consistent access to high speed Internet since I first moved into the dorms at Northern Arizona University, fifteen years ago this month. Since the year 2000, I have been able to instantly access essentially the whole of human knowledge at any time. Thanks to having been on Facebook for the last ten years, I am able to determine at any time what is going on in almost any of my friends’ lives, something that at one time would’ve taken actual face-to-face interaction (or at least a phone call). And since I got my first smartphone five years ago, I can do any of that no matter where I am in the world, using a pocket-carried device that is approximately the size of a Pop Tart.
And so it is that when younger people who are used to that kind of instant gratification encounter an institution that operates in five hundred year cycles, an institution where change is basically a dirty word and is met with the kind of resistance ordinarily reserved for a root canal, they’re going to ask, “What have you done for me lately?” And while, again, a hefty chunk of the blame for that rests with the church’s failure to remain culturally relevant, a sizeable amount of the blame needs to be attributed to the culture that has encouraged people to have an attention span like that of Doug, the dog from the Pixar movie Up, who gets distracted every time he sees a SQUIRREL!
Believe it or not, though, the culture of gratification is not something new. Now, yes, the modern culture of instant gratification is a uniquely twenty-first century phenomenon, but two thousand years ago, Jesus had to deal with something very similar, even if it did move at a slower pace. You see, the Roman Empire was nothing if not culturally excessive. If it wasn’t lavish, it wasn’t good enough for Rome. Citizens of the Empire and its occupied territories were encouraged to over-consume, over-use, over-indulge. It was not uncommon at high-class Roman feasts for there to be a vomitorium, where the guests could go, puke up what they’d eaten thus far, and continue stuffing their faces.
Obviously, for the people of Israel, they did not have nearly the privilege of the people of Rome – after all, they were an occupied people, many of whom had been a real pain in Rome’s rear end. But the culture of gratification still trickled down to them. When they desired something, they desired it now, not in a few days, weeks, months, etc. In the case of the coming Messiah, they desired for him to show up and give Rome a taste of its own medicine. Indeed, their impatient desire to be liberated from Rome was fueled by a distinctly Roman desire for immediate gratification.
In the case of the passage we read today in the sixth chapter of John, Jesus had just committed what we might judge to be a tactical error, although knowing the way He operated, it may well have just been an object lesson writ large. As we heard last week, Jesus, having compassion on the 5,000 men plus wives and children who had come to hear Him preach, took five loaves of bread and two fish and turned them into dinner for every single person present. Pretty amazing, to be sure, and as I mentioned last week, a metaphor for the simple communion meal that has turned into a feeding of the billions since, but in that moment, it only fanned the flames of the people’s desire for gratification.
You see, the night of the feeding of the 5,000, after dinner was over, Jesus and the disciples had left and headed across the Sea of Galilee, back to His home base in Capernaum. Now, yes, they took somewhat different routes to get there – they took a boat, He decided to go for a stroll across Lake Genessaret, but that’s another story for another day. The fact is, when they got there, somehow, the people who he had fed found out, and they tracked Him down.
First of all, I want to know how on earth they found out so quickly. This was somewhere around the year 30 A.D. There were no cell phones or email back then. Rome had a mail service, yes, but that was reserved for the higher classes of Roman citizens. If it was word of mouth that got back to the people that Jesus had gone off to Capernaum, then there had to have been a rumor mill in place among Jesus’ followers that would put even the most gossip-riddled of modern churches to shame.
But if you stop and think about it, that makes sense. If we’re talking about a culture that wanted quick and easy gratification, then of course there would be some sort of informal structure in place to facilitate that need. Of course they would want to know quickly when Caesar has made a decree, or when Pilate has opened up the food stores, or, in this case, when the man they believed would liberate them from Rome had headed back to his house in Capernaum.
When they got to Jesus, though, He knew. He knew why they had come looking for Him. He knew that they had come looking for Him not because they witnessed His work in power as the Son of God, but because He had fed them dinner. They wanted more to eat, and they figured Jesus would give it to them.
Not so fast, Jesus told them. Rather than working for perishable food of this earth, you need to be working for the bread of life, which comes from God. That is the food that will give you eternal life.
Of course, they still didn’t get it. They thought Jesus was referring to the manna of the Hebrew Exodus, which they mistakenly believed had been given to their ancestors by Moses. Once again, Jesus had to clear some things up, telling them that 1) that bread was given to their ancestors by God, and 2) it was STILL perishable food of this earth. “The Father will give you the true bread from heaven,” Jesus told them. “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Did they get it? No. Much like the Samaritan woman Jesus had encountered at the well a few months earlier, they took what Jesus was saying to be literal. She had thought that the living water was literal water that would cause her to thirst no more; Jesus’ followers that that the bread of life was literal bread that would cause them to hunger no more.
So Jesus had to lay it out for them. “I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE,” he informed them. This was not literal bread of which He was speaking. This was metaphorical, a way of telling them that belief in Him would end their spiritual thirsting and hungering. It was a precursor to the meal he would share with the disciples not long after that, when he would give to them the bread of life and the cup of salvation, telling them to hunger and thirst no more.
Following in the way of Christ is not a path to instant gratification. It is, instead, a path through the wilderness of the world that leads to eternal life. Our belief in Jesus Christ will give to us the bread of life and the cup of salvation, but receiving those does not mean our work is done.
When we ask what the church has done for us lately, we are missing the point. Perhaps a better question is, what have we done for God lately? Have we recognized and understood the deeper meaning of what the Son of God came to earth to accomplish, or have we seen only the shallow end of things, believing that if we do right by God, we’re going to be rewarded?
Matt Murdock walked away from the church because he was frustrated. The priest told him that he couldn’t get just what he wanted, but rather that he needed to seek out the bread of life. Many more in the real world have walked away from the church for the same reasons.
How can this be undone? Patience. Just as the people cannot receive instant gratification, neither can the church receive instant gratification. It takes time to teach a different, slower way of living, to help people unlearn their habits of instant gratification. Yes, we as a culture must adapt to move away from needing everything right at this second, but so too does the church need to reach out and demonstrate the better path.
It will take time, and it might be painful. But in the end, our hope in Jesus Christ is that the bread of life and the cup of salvation will be received by all, and they shall hunger and thirst no more.