A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
March 6, 2016: The Fourth Sunday of Lent
Genesis 3:1-8, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, John 6:48-58
Our spiritual journey towards Easter is slowly drawing towards a close—in just two weeks we will stand ready to welcome Jesus into the Holy City where he will live out the most important week of his ministry. This journey that we have been on towards Easter is called Lent, and I was reminded this week about the purpose of Lent. Lent was invented by the early church as a time of preparation for those who would be baptized or welcomed into membership in the church on Easter morning. The five weeks of Lent served as time for to study the Scriptures, pray, and come to a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus Christ. It was a time to confess sin, repentant, and savor the good news of God’s forgiveness. Taking the journey of Lent seriously was like a spiritual boot camp, preparing these new or recently converted Christians to give their lives fully to Christ. By the end, the church thought, they were ready to take up the ministry of Christ and bear witness to his gospel in the world.
Lent for us this year has been similar in many ways. With the theme of “Restored In Christ” we have taken time to consider how Christ’s life, death, and resurrection restores the broken areas of our lives and the world. It has not been the easiest or most pleasant journey—coming to terms with the ways that we fail God and one another requires us to look deep within to places that we sometimes would rather remain hidden. Coming to terms with the complex and broken world we live in is equally as unpleasant. I’ve been reminded, though, over and over this Lenten season, that Jesus never promised us it would be easy to follow him, just that he would always be with us.
We grow up physically and spiritually with this notion—or maybe its genetic, I don't know—that confessing fault, or admitting wrong, or realizing that we’re broken is weakness, something to avoid, something to put away for another time because not one of us wants to appear weak. And yet, at every turn, on every corner of this journey, we’ve not been confronted with weakness, but rather with God' goodness. God’s goodness has been a beckon of light beckoning us to come, to confess, to grow, to be transformed. Most of us here are not like those new Christians centuries ago who were preparing to give their lives to Christ on Easter—we’ve already done that. But that does not mean we can sit back and rest on our laurels. Growth in God, development as disciples, transformation as those who are loved and forgiven…that is something we must take up every day we are alive. It is not easy work, it is not always pleasant, we may not always be happy with what we see, but the end result is always worth the effort.
The end result of looking into the broken areas our lives these past few weeks has been a confirmation that there is nothing in heaven or on earth, nothing above the earth or below the earth, no powers or rulers or principalities, and certainly no power of hell that can separate us from God’s love. We are new creations by the power of God! We are restored in Christ! We will continue to stumble and fall, make bad decisions and sin, but God alone gets the final word. And God’s final word is this: the life, death, and resurrection of the Jesus Christ. The past is the past, and the future is squarely in God’s hands; with joy we can take up our calling and confidently move forward with the Gospel as God stubbornly transforms us and the world all around.
The first broken thing we considered was the heart, the heart that beats with life inside us all. It is a fragile and powerful organ, capable of giving the greatest gifts in life and also taking them away. Sin is a smooth criminal, and it has this unique way of weaseling its way into our hearts, no matter what mask it puts on. Unkind words, unholy thoughts, impure intentions, desires that harken back to the Fall in the Garden of Eden—whether they are done to us or we do them to others, the heart gets broken. Unmet expectations, unrealized dreams, spurned love—these, too, break the heart. The good news, spoken by the Psalmist, is that God never despises a broken heart. This is not an excuse to break hearts, or a justification for the things that break our hearts, but a gentle assurance that a broken heart is an arena where God does the best work. A broken heart is fertile ground for God to work peace and reconciliation, healing and wholeness, and transformation, so that the things that break hearts come to an end. A broken heart God will never turn away.
The next thing we considered was an image, of a broken vessel, specifically the vessel of precious perfume that Mary Magdalene broke open and poured all over Jesus. The disciples came unglued: how could she waste something so precious that could have been used for a more important, more holy, more substantive purpose? Jesus pointed them, and us, in a different direction. The broken vessel was not waste, but something to imitate. God does not want us to be reserved, conservers of ourselves, our time, or our ability to share God’s good news. God wants us to be utterly broken open, poured out completely in love and service to God and one another. Being broken open in this way can be dangerous, but because we have been restored in Christ, it will lead to only better things: better lives, better disciples, a better world.
Then, and this is where it got tricky, we considered the acts of trust and making promises, and how broken both can be and are. Judas displays for us the most potent example of breaking trust with the Lord, with how he sold his relationship with Jesus for a bag of silver coins. Peter displays for us the essence of broken promises, how we make promises and then quickly turn on them when there is hardship or testing. Both are relevant to where we are today. Not one of us has kept every promise and neither have we done our utmost to initiate and sustain trust; we are all guilty of breaking these things and we are responsible for the pain and suffering caused. But not even broken trust or broken promises fall outside the restoration and redemption of Christ. Christ models for us the very nature of trust and life-giving promises, and he invites us to follow after him. He shows us the power of healthy relationships, the power of promises that are made for the well-being of all, and he bids us come and do the same. Again, we stumble and fall and make big ole’ messes; he offers us forgiveness to start again and to live in a much better way.
Today our journey to Easter, this Lenten exercise of growth and deepening and transformation, reaches a climax of sorts. Today, as we do at the start of every month, we gather around the table of Christ and feast with him on a meal of bread and juice. It is here, at this table, that we come face-to-face with our salvation and redemption and consider how the brokenness of Christ, the bread and his body, restores our own. It is here that all the good news we've heard these past few weeks makes itself really known!
At this table we take part in a pageant that has been playing since the night Jesus gathered his disciples in the upper room. The night began like so many others: hands were washed, plates were set, wine glasses were filled, and the room smelled of fresh bread and exotic spices. Jesus stood up from the table after making a few opening remarks, took off his cloak, and wrapped himself in a towel. He then took a basin of water and one by one, methodically around the table, washed the feet of the disciples. It was strange that the teacher would do the work of a servant, but they went along with it;'only Peter had the slightest hesitation. Taking his place back at the head of the table, Jesus told them that this would be his last meal with them. A few were confused, but again they went along with it. He took the freshly baked loaf of bread, lifted it up to heaven, blessed it and broke it, and gave it them saying, “This is my body, broken for you and for many. Whenever you eat it, remember me.” Then with a cup filled with wine, he did the same thing: blessed it and gave it them saying, “This is the cup of my blood, a new covenant between God and all creation, that sins have been forgiven. Whenever you drink it, remember me.” It was at that moment that Judas slipped into the night to betray Jesus to the authorities.
It was not just a meal. It was Jesus giving himself in physical form to the disciples. Even though in less than 24 hours he would be dead and buried, the meal would last forever as their unbreakable connection to God. The bread and wine were symbols of the torture and suffering Jesus was about to endure for them, a constant reminder that their life was purchased at a high cost. Each time the disciples gathered to share a meal, with bread and a cup, they would be transported back to that upper room, where they dinned with Jesus with clean hands and clean feet. Never again could they smell the sourness of yeast or the sweetness of grapes without thinking about the One who lived and died, and rose again, to set them free. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus said, and every time those faithful men and women gathered at a table in his name, they would have life, a life that could never be taken away from them, no matter what.
And that is what is going to happen for us today, when we break the bread and share the cup. We will be reminded that the broken body and spilled blood of Christ paid a debt on our behalf that we could have never settled. We will be reminded that it is Christ who has washed us from head to toe and presented us as clean to God. We will be reminded of and transported back to that upper room where Jesus sat at a table not with the righteous or the worthy, but with sinners and two, Judas and Peter, who would betray him and break promises. We will be overcome with the warmth and sweetness of two very common elements that represent a vast holiness our finite minds cannot comprehend. In this meal Christ gives himself to us, abundantly and without reserve, and he gives us life that can never be taken away, no matter what.
At this table today there will be some who have broken their promises to the Lord, who promised to never turn away or abandon him, who have done that very thing. At this table today there will be some who have broken trust with the Lord, who turned him over for one flashy trinket or another. There will be some at this table who have betrayed their friends, broken promises to their loved ones, and caused unnecessary pain to someone else. There will be some who come to this table who think they are hopelessly broken, hopelessly lost, hopeless that their life will ever change. There will be some who come with a broken heart. There will be some who come to this table thinking that they deserve to be here, who think that this is a reward for the work they have done for God. There will be some who come because they are curious, some who come because they don’t have any other place to go, some who come because that is just what they do.
However you come to this table today, for whatever reason you approach this meal with the Lord, you are welcome. That is what broken bread, the broken body of Christ, is for us: an eternal and unconditional welcome. You are welcome here because you are forgiven. You are welcome here because your past is your past and God does not keep a tally of wrongdoing. You are welcome here because you are loved, not because you are holy, or righteous, or good. You are welcome here because God’s desire for you is life and you will meet Jesus here, who is the beginning, middle, and ending of all life. You are welcome here because this is the table of Jesus, and the only thing standing in your way is your hesitation. Come and feast on the daily bread that keeps your body alive and feast also on the promises of God that will sustain you and bless your living deeply. You are welcome here because all of it—the hearts, the minds, the trust, the promises, and the brokenness—all of it has been restored in Christ!
The saying is true and worthy of our full trust and belief: we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The Word of God is here today, broken for you and for me. Eat up. Drink it in deeply. Come. Christ is waiting for you! Amen.