Monday, August 20, 2012

Radical Invitation: Come, Eat, Live

This Sunday I had the privilege of leading worship and preaching at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Toledo, OH. I had a wonderful time worshiping with the people of St.Paul’s, and I wanted to share the text of my sermon for anyone who is interested in reading it.


Proverbs 9.1-6 NRSV
Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
“You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.”

John 6.51-58 NRSV
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”


In these two texts, we learn a lot about bread. First, in Proverbs, Wisdom issues an invitation for all people to come and eat of her bread, the bread of wisdom. Then, in the Gospel of John, we hear the proclamation of a new voice—the voice of Christ—saying, “I am the bread you’ve been talking about. I am the bread of life, the bread that came down from heaven.” So, to be sure, these passages are about bread. But they are about a lot more than bread as well— they are about invitation, about wisdom, about the history of God’s people, about sustenance, about a way of life. We hear about bread that is not just food, but Christ’s flesh, and as if that is not enough to make us wonder, Jesus tells us that we must eat his flesh if we want to abide in him and receive the gift of life.

Of course, a couple thousand years removed from this conversation, it is easy for us to see that Jesus is talking here about the Lord’s Supper—about his death on the cross and the meal that we share in community to remember this sacrifice and celebrate the grace of God at work in our lives. It is also easy for us, two thousand years later, to forget that Jesus is talking about much more here than communion as we know it. The text from Proverbs reminds us that bread is an essential part of the biblical story from beginning to end, not simply in the gospels at the Last Supper. In the same way, this is not just a sermon about communion, although I hope it will shape how you think about communion the next time you celebrate it. But even more than that, I hope it will help you recognize moments of communion as you celebrate everyday life.

So, these two texts come together to form a vision of breaking bread, a vision of all people being invited to COME to the table, to EAT their fill, and to LIVE in the way of truth and grace. This vision is placed in the larger context of Scripture—from the Old to the New Testament, from Proverbs to the Gospel of John, from the ancient people of God to the church today, from manna in the wilderness to open communion in our United Methodist churches. Bread is not only a source of physical sustenance, but our source of spiritual identity—and it is central to our faith precisely because it satisfies both physical and spiritual hunger. As people of faith, as spiritually hungry people, as physically hungry people, and just as people—this radical invitation to come, eat, and live is for you and me.

In our first text, Proverbs 9, we encounter the first radical invitation in our Scriptures for this morning: COME. Here we find the voice of Wisdom, shouting from the rooftops of the city— “come, feast on bread and wine, you who are simple and without sense!" In the book of Proverbs, there are two influential women with persuasive voices—Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly. Here, Woman Wisdom is speaking, and much to our surprise her invitation is addressed not to those on the path of wisdom and truth, not to those who fear the LORD, but to those who are simple. To those without sense. To those who are immature enough that they could stand to lay some of that immaturity aside. Now, I am sure you’ve never met anyone who fits that description, have you? And certainly not…in church? But if we were being honest, we would recognize that Woman Wisdom’s invitation is an invitation to you and to me. The simple ones. The ones who occasionally— of course, only occasionally— lack sense. This is a radical invitation, an invitation of abundant grace, to COME and partake in the feast, to eat the bread and drink the wine.

This invitation to COME continues in John 6, with Jesus proclaiming not only that we are invited to come eat the bread, but that he is the bread that came down from heaven. While Woman Wisdom invited the simple to eat of her bread, Jesus takes it a step further—he says that he is the living bread and that he “will give [it] for the life of the world.” The WHOLE world. The simple, the wise, the believing, the unbelieving. You, me, and everyone else. We are ALL welcome at the table of God’s grace, we are ALL invited to eat the bread of life. Come.

After inviting us to COME to the table, both Woman Wisdom and Jesus invite us to EAT the bread. It is hard for me to think of anyone who has taken this invitation more seriously than my Grandma. I will always remember one day, a few years ago, when we took her out to lunch at a restaurant that served rolls which were particularly appealing to her. Grandma has always been conscious of healthy eating, so naturally, when the rolls were served before our meal, she commented that she wasn’t very hungry and that we certainly didn’t need all this food. As the next few minutes passed, she ate one roll…and two, and three, and four, and five…and finally SIX rolls. Now, I am not sure if it was Woman Wisdom or Jesus or just that honey butter calling her to eat the bread, but she sure enjoyed every minute of it, and we couldn’t help but laugh as we watched this unexpected feast take place before our eyes!

We, too, are called to EAT the bread of wisdom and the bread of life. Throughout the Scriptures, the act of eating is an act of digesting truth, internalizing identity, and embodying love. Proverbs is one of the wisdom books in the Bible, and in these books, eating is a metaphor used for gaining wisdom—it is said that wisdom is sweet as honey. So it is not surprising that Woman Wisdom invites us to a feast, to EAT bread and wine. This act of eating is what transforms us from simple to wise ones. The prophets, too, are often called to eat scrolls, to digest words, to literally take in the truth. And then here in John 6, we hear Jesus speaking—the Word, the truth, made flesh—proclaiming that his flesh is the bread of life that we must EAT in order to truly live.

As we think about the act of eating bread, we must always remember that for Jesus, this invitation to EAT the bread of life—spiritual bread—is inseparable from the act of feeding the hungry. This dialogue about Jesus being the spiritual bread of life follows the feeding of the five thousand at the beginning of John 6. Only after the hungry are fed does Jesus begin teaching about spiritual hunger. Only after the fishes and loaves have been blessed, broken, and abundantly shared does Jesus invite us to EAT the bread that is his being—the food that enables us not only to survive, but to truly live. This challenges us to ask questions about our practices as the body of Christ—how can we serve communion to people whose basic needs are not met? How can we share the bread of life with one another and neglect to share our other resources, both personally and collectively? This invitation to eat is inseparable from God’s command to share generously. We must always remember that to eat the bread of life is to be transformed by God for the purpose of transforming the world.

This brings us to the final facet of this radical invitation—after we COME to the table, after we EAT the bread of life, we are called to LIVE faithfully in truth, grace, and love. In the Proverbs text, the result of our coming and eating is to “walk in the way of insight.” Then, in John, Jesus promises that if we eat his body and drink his blood, we will abide in him, he will abide in us, and we will receive the gift of eternal life. What is certain is this: to COME and EAT the bread that is offered to us by God is to LIVE differently—to walk in love as ones who have been freely loved, to offer grace to all as ones who have received the free gift of God, to walk in truth as ones who have feasted on wisdom.

As an intern at the United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida this May, I had the privilege of having a transformational come, eat, live experience with thousands of leaders in our denomination from all over the world. After an incredibly difficult, divisive day of debates on human sexuality, our evening worship service happened to be a love feast. As we entered the worship space, we were perplexed to see trays of hot cross buns near every section of seating. The worship leader explained that love feasts were common in the early Methodist movement, so she had decided to include one in our worship together as the global United Methodist Church. She went on to explain that she had planned this love feast over a year before General Conference, having no idea which legislation and debate would fall on this day. Ironically enough, the schedule for conference business had shifted just a day before, and somehow—surely by the grace of God—the love feast fell at the end of the most controversial day of our two weeks together.

As worship began, the leader issued the very invitation that we’ve been talking about this morning—“COME.” I remember it clearly…as the love feast began, she admitted, “There is no plan and no order to this…we are going to sing a song together and if you feel led, move to the trays of hot cross buns and we will bless them together.” We sang the most beautiful and fitting song, “Come to the Table of Grace,” proclaiming together these words that we ALL needed so desperately to speak and to hear after a long day of hurtful division: “this is God’s table, it’s not yours or mine…come to the table of grace.” As we sang, people began moving to the trays of hot cross buns, and when it came time for the blessing, the most sacred stillness came over the room. Each tray was lifted up to God by two or three people who happened to find themselves presiding over the table of grace—young people in rainbow stoles, men in business suits, delegates from around the world, progressives, conservatives…unlikely dance partners moving together to the rhythm of God’s abundant grace.

As I looked around the room, I watched with my own two tear-filled eyes as the Holy Spirit broke down the walls we had all worked so hard to build. And in that moment, I learned the most powerful lesson of my time spent at General Conference: the grace of God is meant to be received TOGETHER. And together that evening, we received the grace that each side had so valiantly fought to keep to itself. Together we received the grace that we all needed after the words and actions of that long, painful day. Together we received the grace that was not ours to give or take. Together, we came to the table of grace. And as we shared that sweet bread, we prayed even sweeter blessings over one another and our church. And for the first time all day, it felt like OUR church. Not my church, and not your church, but OUR church. We were transformed by the act of coming, eating, and living together as one body, if only for a moment.

That, my friends, is the radical invitation. Come to the table. Bless, break, and share the bread of life in the midst of brokenness. And live your life as an invitation for all people to join in the feast. May it be so. Amen.


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