Wednesday, August 01, 2012

A Layperson's Sermon

This past Sunday, as mentioned in my previous post, we heard another sermon from a layperson. This is something new for our church, and I don't know how many of our congregants will get tapped to do this. I would like to post the contents of these sermons, but given the sometimes testy comments posted here, I suspect many laypersons might be a bit leery of this blog. It still took much cajoling and a glass or two of his finest for my friend Deep Pew to weasle his way into this Sunday's preacher's confidence. Thanks to D.P., I was able to obtain a copy of Sunday's sermon (which was based on John 6:1-21) for further review given the questions raised by at least one comment. Here it is.

Wow, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and walking on water! Now those are tough acts to follow.

The last time I stood in a pulpit was when I was thirteen and the narrator in our Epiphany pageant, and that was a point in my faith journey when I was just beginning to struggle with doubts. I was starting to go from the simple and close relationship with God that I had as a child to the doubt, rebellion, and eventual denial of God that I experienced as a teenager. When was a rebellious 17 year old, I remember writing a paper on the new rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar for my religion class. In the process, I found that I identified with  “Herod’s Song” which contained the lines,

“So, you are the Christ, you're the great Jesus Christ.
Prove to me that you're no fool; walk across my swimming pool.”
Feed my household with this bread. You can do it on your head.”

By the time I was a College Freshman, I was a vocal opponent of the Gospel, and stories like the ones we heard today were among my favorite targets.

But later that same year, I accepted the challenge put to me by my Christian friends at school, the challenge that I examine the evidence in scripture for myself, and it was after studying the Gospel of Luke and his orderly account, that I gave up the fight, submitted to God's will, and accepted Jesus as my Saviour.

Finding myself standing here today, reflecting on my faith journey, and now tasked with discussing the signs, and wonders found in the sixth chapter of John, after having vigorously denied them in my youth, is a miracle of sorts. You just never know where God will lead you.

The early followers of Jesus, as described in the sixth chapter of John, were following Him because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.

John's choice of the word for “sign” is intentional. A sign is unique and a bit different from “miracle” or “wonder” in that a sign definitely points to something else.

When I was growing up, our family would take long road trips. We kids would be fascinated by colorful road side signs like ones for “The World's Largest Snake Farm 15 miles ahead.” Those signs usually had a painting of a beautiful woman being threatened by a huge snake... the kind of thing that would make us kids beg for Dad to stop. And there was never just one sign, they were staggered, with another one at 10 miles, 5 miles and so on. And if we ever succeeded in getting Dad to stop the car at the snake farm, we were disappointed to find that the reality of the thing was far inferior to what we had created in our imaginations.

Man made signs are like that.

After witnessing the first sign we heard about today, the multiplication of the loaves, the crowds following Jesus thought that this sign pointed to “the prophet who was to come into the world,” They were probably thinking of Jesus as the second coming of Elijah, and Jesus will have to correct them later on in this chapter of John. His explanation will not sit well with many of his followers.

The other sign John tells us about today is Jesus walking on the water. It is a curious account because in John's account we are left guessing if Jesus ever gets into the boat, and we see the boat immediately getting to its destination. This account seems incomplete, but John, unlike Luke, never said that he was going to give an orderly account of things.

These two events, should be familiar to all of us. They are pretty much foundational for most of us. While the walking on water stories differ somewhat in detail amongst the Gospels and in fact, the story gets left out of the Gospel of Luke altogether, the story of the feeding of the five thousand is repeated with remarkable similarity in all four Gospels, and is said to be the only such miracle to be so documented apart from the Resurrection itself.

Foundational: They certainly were to the early Christian Church to be told so often.

But are these stories foundational for us today?

How can we be sure that these signs are pointing us in the right direction?

And how do we answer the rebellious teenager's assertions, “It was all a trick,” or “People made it all up.” That was me.

Now, arguments that the signs and miracles were parlor tricks are nothing new. The First Apology or defense, was an early work of Christian apologetics addressed by Justin to the Roman Emperor around AD 165. Part of his argument against the claim that Jesus was just a clever magician was that these acts had been prophesied in the Old Testament.

Justin's Apologetic didn't work with the Emperor and that's why we call him Justin Martyr.

And his call to look to the words of the O.T. prophets may not work for people today many of whom either discount much of the Old Testament as irrelevant, or deny that the older scriptures contain things that foreshadow the coming of Jesus at all.

You certainly can't deny the parallels between Jesus and the O.T. Prophets. We heard one today in the story of Elisha and the feeding of the 100, although Jesus beats Elisha’s deed 50 fold.

And before Elisha, we had Elijah (1 Kings 17) feeding the widow and her son, with the inexhaustible jar of flour and jug of oil, a story you did not hear today...

And there were water miracles associated with the older prophets as well.

So was Jesus just another prophet like Elijah or Elisha as his early followers thought? Or was he the clever magician that Justin's opponents claimed? Or was he the fraud that Andrew Loyd Webber's Herod mocked. If all I had to work with was today's little snippet of the Gospel of John, I might still struggle with these miracles, but there is more to the story.

Indeed, it is only with our post resurrection eyes that we can even imagine where these signs are pointing. Let me present the viewpoint of C.S. Lewis on “Miracles.”

“If we open such books as Grimm’s Fairy Tales ... we find ourselves in a world of miracles so diverse that they can hardly be classified. Beasts turn into men and men into beasts or trees, trees talk, ships become goddesses... Some people cannot stand this kind of story, others find it fun. But the least suspicion that it was true would turn the fun into nightmare. If such things really happened they would, I suppose, show that Nature was being invaded. But they would show that she was being invaded by an alien power. The fitness of the Christian miracles, and their difference from these mythological miracles, lies in the fact that they show invasion by a Power which is not alien. They are what might be expected to happen when she is invaded not simply by a god, but by the God of Nature: by a Power which is outside her jurisdiction not as a foreigner but as a sovereign. They proclaim that He who has come is not merely a king, but the King, her King and ours. It is this which, to my mind, puts the Christian miracles in a different class from most other miracles.
... when Christ walks on the water we have a miracle of the New Creation. ... This miracle is the foretaste of a Nature that is still in the future. The New creation is just breaking in. ...That momentary glimpse was a snowdrop of a miracle. The snowdrops show that we have turned the corner of the year. Summer is coming...None of the Miracles of the New Creation can be considered apart from the Resurrection and Ascension: and that will require another chapter.”

Today's readings from John's Gospel clearly show the new creation breaking in, and that should make us curious as to what the next chapters will bring.

This Chapter of John is a good example of his way of conveying that message. Of course, the signs point to the divine nature of Jesus. And, if you read further, you will see Jesus chastising his followers and explaining to them the meaning of the multiplication of the loaves. In the course of his explanation, Jesus repeatedly makes the point that the feeding of the five thousand is not about food for the stomach. It is about something else, something new that has entered the world.

Now this is where the people following Him start thinking that Jesus is not a magician or a fraud but must be crazy, because He starts claiming to be the bread from heaven, and not only that but He is the Word made flesh, and they are supposed to gnaw on that. (Yes the word is translated as gnaw)

That was not what they thought the signs pointed to, and this presents a real problem to His followers, and in fact proves to be way too much for many of them who choose, at this juncture, to leave Him.

“Feeding five thousand, walking on water... okay, Elijah and Elisha could do that, but being the Word made flesh, forget it.” Even many of those who had eaten of the barley loaves, could not stomach this claim., and they say to Jesus, in verse 60 “…This is an hard saying; who can hear it?”

Who can hear it today?

Now, We who know the post resurrection Jesus, have an advantage here and are less likely to walk away because of these bold claims.

Fast forward to the end of John's Gospel to see how the resurrection helps us to accept the“hard saying” of Jesus by looking at the parallels between the early signs and the final ones. After Jesus' death, his disciples had returned to fishing, and they were having no luck at all until a man on the beach, who they later learn is the risen Lord, tells them where to cast their nets. When they listen to Him and follow His instructions, their catch is multiplied.. shall I say… a thousand fold? They are then invited to breakfast where Jesus gives thanks, breaks bread, (sound familiar) and opens their eyes once again.

Next Peter gets instructed repeatedly, to feed Jesus' sheep. Think back to the other Gospels and their pictures of the feeding of the five thousand, reclining on the green grass where Jesus had led them, and Jesus, before performing the miracle, tells his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples couldn't do it then, they did not understand, and they had yet to receive the Holy Spirit. But here, at the conclusion of John's Gospel, Jesus is telling Peter to feed His sheep not with bread and fishes but with the bread from heaven. This bread is the Word made flesh, and it is the good news transmitted to us through the Gospel of John, one example of which we saw back in chapter six, verse 40, “That you believe in Him and have everlasting life, and He will raise you up on the last day.”

Isn't that what people still hunger for?

It took me a long time, but after reading, studying the witness of the Gospels, and chewing on God’s word contained therein, alone and with friends, I confess my belief.

Yes, I no longer have a problem with Jesus walking on water or feeding the multitudes. After all, I believe that He rose from the dead, and I believe that He died so that we might live to tell the tale that the signs of Jesus point to something greater than we can imagine. Man made signs with their promises to satisfy the desires of the human heart will always disappoint. The problem for many of us is how do we tell if a sign is man made or not, particularly when the sign claims to be the fruit of the Holy Spirit. If we go chasing after every one of those, we will never arrive at our destination. No, the message of John's Gospel is quite simple, look no further, the signs are all there, Jesus staring you in the face, believe in Him, fill yourselves with Him, and live.


  1. Allison Taylor9:59 PM

    I am really enjoying the sermons by members of the congregation! I look forward to the ones to come! Here is a link to the church's newsletter with Jessica Taylor's sermon from youth Sunday. Feel free to print it if you like.

  2. Allison,

    You may get a turn too you know.

  3. Allison Taylor10:03 PM

    Not a chance!! I'm more of a behind the scenes person!!

  4. What a great, orthodox, and inspiring message. Thank you so much for sharing!

  5. You are very welcome J. Landless.