Weekly Seeds: “Help, Not Hinder”

Sunday, August 8 , 2021
After Pentecost Year B

Focus Theme:
“Help, Not Hinder”

Focus Prayer:
Bread of life, you taught us to put away bitterness and anger, and with tenderhearted kindness to share the fruit of our labor with the needy. Strengthen us by your grace, that in communion with you, we may forgive one another and live in love as Christ loved us. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 6:24–35
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 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.”

All readings for this Sunday:
2 Samuel 18:5–9, 15, 31–33 and Psalm 130 or
1 Kings 19:4–8 and Psalm 34:1–8
Ephesians 4:25–5:2
John 6:35, 41–51

  1. Do you join or avoid crowds?
  2. How do crowds function in encouraging or determining behavior of the members?
  3. Why do you imagine Jesus largely avoided crowds?
  4. How do crowd dynamics hinder or enhance ministry efforts?
  5. Who is attracted to the ministry found within your faith community?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Too often, religion is used to divide. Belonging to a faith community may seem more like rooting for a sports team or even a country as in the Olympic Games. But, even that analogy points out the disconnect from what sports participation and fandom should be and the reality of what it is. Simone Biles, widely acknowledged to be the greatest gymnast of all time, decided to withdraw from this year’s Olympics in order to preserve her mental health. It was a bold and courageous move on many levels. The prioritization of mental health and well-being is a counter cultural stance to take in a world that indoctrinates us to base our value on our economic output and productivity. Unfortunately, the topic of mental health still carries a stigma weighted down by devaluation and shame in a way no longer associated with most illnesses. Her transparency about her struggles received well-deserved accolades and well-wishes from around the world. At the same time, vitriol poured forth from those who see athletes, not as people, but as commodities for their entertainment and enjoyment. Walking away from the pinnacle of recognition and glory was an audacious statement that Ms. Biles is more than her medals and taking care of herself means more than standing on the Olympic podium.

Of course, it’s only audacious because of a culture that considers self-care to be a luxury rather than a way of life and prizes winning over being.

The Gospel according to John is structured around signs and sermons. Jesus performs a miracle or some action that points to his divine nature, and then, he provides an explanation that points to his motivation to enter into humanity. The lectionary has walked us through this chapter that includes multiple miracles and moments of teaching:

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel is a rich kaleidoscope of colliding images and themes. It begins with the dramatic feeding of the five thousand, one of those rare pre-Passion Johannine events with Synoptic parallels. This miracle of compassion occasions next day a synagogue dialogue that weaves with mounting wonder from miraculous bread already eaten (vs. 26) to a new heavenly bread promised (vss. 27-34) to a life-giving bread that is somehow Christ himself (vss. 35-5ia) to the supreme bread which is his very flesh (vss. 51-58). (Vernon Ruland)

This passage comes after Jesus has fed the multitude, escaped the plot to crown him, and walked on water. “The multitudes of John’s narrative misunderstood the significance of the signs and events surrounding Jesus.” (Thomas R. Valletta) As a result, Jesus now finds himself in a preaching moment as he uses “bread of life” as a metaphor to illuminate his presence among them:

What, then, did John mean? It was clearly his manner to write about one thing while wanting his readers to see through that to another. All his “Signs” point to something beyond themselves. And in the case of this discourse on the Bread from heaven and the eating of Christ’s flesh and the drinking of his blood he provides his own pointer by registering a protest and giving an answer to it in w 60-63 : *It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Not only that, he has given a hint earlier on of a deeper meaning, when to the protesting…Jesus says: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him”, (v 56) In the rest of the Gospel there is a great deal both about abiding in Christ and about the life-giving power of his words, but there is no further reference to the eating of the flesh and the drinking of the blood, not even at their last supper together before Passover. Indeed, it is in this setting that John has Jesus use the simile of the vine and its benches as descriptive of the essential relationship between himself and his disciples. (Francis John Moore)

One description proves insufficient to convey the relationship that Jesus seeks with humanity. The Creator enters into the creation…just as the food we eat enters into our bodies. Eugene Peterson describes the studying the word (scripture) this way, “We come to realize that what we need is not primarily informational, telling us things about God and ourselves, but formational, shaping us into our true being.” Should encountering the Word Made Flesh provide a different experience? In offering themself as the bread of life, Jesus invites us to take them in, to be nourished by them, and shaped from their essence.

This passage can often be used divisively, pitting one faith against another, but Jesus’ words do not suggest that reading. In fact, the admonition, “Do not complain among yourselves,” discourages acrimony and disagreement. This is an invitation accompanied by a promise from the One who comes down from heaven because they care about the ones on earth. Jesus comes to help, not hinder.

Does our collective faith witness demonstrate that we follow that same model of incarnational ministry?

The interconnection between word/idea and eating/food permeates the biblical narrative from the beginning to the end, but is especially pronounced in John’s account. Muir and Tappenden categorizes them as targets. Food is the source and ideas are the target, yet the two move back and forth toward each other in mutuality:

The target domain IDEAS is compared to, mapped onto, and equated with the source domain FOOD, thus producing an ontological metaphor that gives concrete substance to more abstract notions of teaching, learning, and thinking. But the process does not end there. As we will see below, while it is true that the concrete gives substance to the abstract, the more nebulous target domain also comes to enrich and deepen the common, everyday somatic experiences of the source domain. This is particularly true in instances where the source and target domains become wrapped up with each other in social practices, as is the case with food and learning in the ancient world. Because the acts of both eating and teaching/leaming often share a common context in the ancient world—namely, the banquet—there is a dialectical relationship between the two: yes eating (i.e., food) structures the experience of learning (i.e., ideas), but learning (i.e., ideas) also structures and gives shape to the experience of eating (i.e., food), a process that cognitive linguists call “reverse mapping” or “backward projection.”8 Through this mutual shaping of source and target domains, expressions of the ideas are food metaphor are as wide and varied as the communities that employ it as part of their meaning making apparatus. (Steven C. Muir and Frederick S Tappenden)

Both food and ideas have substance, but independently, that substance manifests in distinct ways. In Jesus, the two reside synergistically. The nebulous and the tangible become one, each magnifies the presence of the other.

An idea that goes unrealized becomes a myth–it’s a nice idea that seems reasonable, but it isn’t true or real. Perhaps that explains why Jesus insisted on feeding the multitude after teaching them. Undemonstrated words lose their power. It’s more than a miracle or even a sign of the divinity of Christ. It’s a necessary accompaniment to the teaching of Christ.

Several years ago, a dear friend had been ill for several months and unable to attend worship. Eventually, she recovered enough to come back to the meeting house. That first Sunday after she returned happened to be the week that we celebrated communion. I vividly remember her walking toward the communion table. Her weakened body relied on a cane and the assistance of others to enter the building, but she walked down that aisle with hands raised and joy bursting through her countenance. Her steps were slow and measured, but she could be heard shouting expressions of praise toward God as she approached the bread and the cup. The bread of heaven and cup of blessing at the table set by Jesus were made flesh, demonstrated as real, and proclaimed as true in that sacramental act for her…and for the community gathered with her.

The term evangelical, rooted in the Greek “to spread the good news,” has been loaded with heavy baggage. For some, it’s too attached to a partisan political movement to be claimed by the body of Christ any longer. But eschewing the word (if that is one’s choice) doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning the intent of God for the restoration, well-being, and care of their creation. The witness of my friend that day had a sense of triumph to it, but the opponent was a disease not another person or community. Her actions were an unmistakable statement of faith without a diminution of any other religious adherence or lack thereof. I don’t recall the sermon that day, but I do remember her nonverbal testimony. Our faith community had been praying for her, but even the visitors that day could decipher that she was carrying good news.

I’ve heard preaching described as one beggar telling another where to find bread. Folks are hungry–physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually–while so much of the church spends its time and other God-given resources complaining among ourselves. Jesus still comes to us, receiving whatever meager offering we might have, magnifying it, spreading it, and making it a sufficient and helpful feast for all around a table set with bread from heaven.

For further reflection:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” — Fred Rogers
“Sometimes, the best way to help someone is just to be near them.” — Veronica Roth
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You’re welcome to use this resource in your congregation’s Bible study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.