Fourth Sunday in Lent 2018

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A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2018

The Epistle, Galatians 4:21-31 – The Gospel, St. John 6:1-14

The Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett

I.  A sacramental perspective on life

A sacrament, by definition, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (BCP 292). This definition is rooted in the principle that the things we see point us to things we can’t see. The creation is a sign that points us to the creator. Jesus, the Son of God, is the sign that reveals the invisible Father. The bread and wine are signs that reveal Jesus.

The church is sacramental. The Bible calls us “the Body of Christ”—the same language that is used of the Sacrament. Each Christian is a sign of the presence of Jesus in the world. Jesus’ standard of judgment will be, “Inasmuch as ye did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). This means that our interactions with each other always have a deeper meaning and larger implications.

Fallen humanity is not able to see the sacramental meaning of life. Fallen humanity sees the creation as just a physical reality, and life in this mortal body in this world as the ultimate thing. This is what the Bible calls living according to the “flesh.”

II. The Gospel and the signs

In today’s gospel, a large crowd was following Jesus. St. John tells us that the people were attracted by “the signs that he performed on those who were diseased.” The word “sign” reflects the sacramental character of the miracles of Jesus. When Jesus turned water into wine, healed the sick, and created bread, these actions pointed to the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, “by whom all things were made.”

In John 6 after the feeding miracle, St. John tells us that the crowd did not understand the signs. They followed Jesus because they saw him as a source of free food and health care. They wanted to make him their ruler so that he would free them from the afflictions of life. They lacked sacramental vision—the ability to see what the signs pointed to.

After the event of today’s gospel, Jesus tried to escape from the crowd. When the people finally caught up with him, Jesus picked a fight with them. He said, “You seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you (6:27).

Jesus contrasted the food he would give with manna God gave to Israel in the Old Testament. “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven that a man may eat thereof and not die” (John 6:48-50). God gave the people of Israel miraculous food in the wilderness. But they all died anyway. Jesus will give himself as a kind of food that imparts and sustains eternal life, life that will never die. This is the meaning of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus. As Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood hath eternal life and I will raise him up at the Last Day” (John 6:54).

III. The union of flesh and spirit

Sacramental food is not merely “spiritual” as opposed to physical food. We were created as a union of matter and spirit. God gave man sacramental food in the beginning, the fruit of the Tree of Life. This food was intended to sustain humans in their union with God. Through sin, the first humans partook of the creation without regard to God’s will, with ingratitude for the life God had given. Their union with God was severed. The result was a loss of sacramental vision. Humanity came to live on a merely physical level. We began to pursue the physical creation as an end in and of itself. We began to pursue the food that perishes. We became idolaters.

By his life and death, Jesus restored us to the union with God that we lost through sin. We no longer live merely “in the flesh.” We live in bodies, but we also live in the Spirit in union with God. Our lives are now sustained by the Bread of Life. The Bread of Life is the same food as the fruit of the Tree of Life. After the first sin, man was forbidden to eat this food (Genesis 3:24). Now, in Christ, this food is accessible to us. We may eat and live.

The feeding of the multitudes reveals the pattern of life for God’s New Creation. Jesus took the loaves and offered them back to God in Thanksgiving. God multiplied the loaves so that they were sufficient to meet the need. This was man’s original priestly vocation; to take the creation that God had given and offer it back to God in thanksgiving. All that man offers to God in thanksgiving is given back to man to use with God’s blessing.

Sin is ingratitude. When we sin we say to God, “I will do as I please with the gifts you have given me.” When we sin we partake of the creation without regard to God’s will, without regard to the deeper meaning of created things and without giving thanks. Our non-Eucharistic partaking lacks the blessing and presence of God. We use the creation wrongly because we are blind to the sacramental meaning of created things. Our lives become disordered and discontented because we live only in the flesh. We are cut off from eternal life. This is the pattern of life from which Christ has saved us.

IV. The Eucharist as the restoration of our priestly vocation

We exercise the priestly vocation to which we have been restored in Christ when we gather around the altar. We offer bread and wine to God. Like the loaves in the feeding, the bread and the wine represent the creation and our participation in it. We offer the creation back to God in thanksgiving. We offer ourselves, our souls, and bodies to God in Christ and through Christ. The miracle of consecration is two-fold; ordinary food that perishes becomes the bread from heaven; and ordinary mortal people become the body of Christ.

The pattern of the Eucharist is the pattern for life. We are called, as St. Paul says, to give thanks in everything (Ephesians 5:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:18). We give thanks for the eternal life that God has given us by obeying the commandments; by honoring the image of Christ in other people; by using our gifts in service to the kingdom. As all of life is offered to God in this manner, Christ becomes present in all things to sustain us, to bring the order and beauty of his New Creation out of our chaos of our sin.

V. Implication of this perspective for life

This perspective changes the way we look at life. We can never focus merely on the visible events and results. Instead sacramental vision leads us to focus on what God is accomplishing in and through visible things. Thus, while the world focuses on how much money a person or a company makes, a sacramental perspective focuses on whether what the person or company does is good. Is the work itself worthy? Does it provide something that is good for people?

The world focuses on how much we accumulate for ourselves. A sacramental perspective focuses on what we are giving to others; for “We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (1 Timothy 6:7). And, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

The world tries to avoid the pain of life. A sacramental perspective focuses on what God accomplishes in us through the pain. The world tried to avoid death at all costs. A sacramental perspective is always preparing for a good death, always preparing for life in the coming kingdom of God… “For or our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).

Thus, as Jesus said, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you.” And, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”