A few years ago pollster George Barna conducted a national survey asking simply, "What is the phrase you most long to hear?" The overwhelming answer was rather predictable: "I love you." In a solid second place was "I forgive you," also not surprising. But the third most longed-for phrase took me a bit by surprise: "Dinner is ready!"
Come to think of it, though, Jesus, especially in John's Gospel, didn't need Barna's research to address our deepest longings: love, forgiveness, and sustenance. In fact, for four Sundays in a row now our lectionary has hovered in this 6th chapter of John where we've heard Jesus repeatedly claim, "I am the Bread of Life." Dinner is ready alright, and he is both host and menu!
"I am the Living Bread that came down from heaven," he says. "Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." This is in chapter 6, remember, but later in chapter 13 during the Last Supper he adds to the Passover remembrance a promise: "This is my body," and "This is my blood."
Our Eucharist, Lord's Supper, Holy Communion, is more than a mere remembrance of what once was; it is the bread of life itself, the cup of salvation. The very physical and tangible presence of the crucified and risen Christ incorporated into our very being! You might think I learned that in seminary; and, of course, I did learn it, but I experienced the power of that promise for the first time 34 years ago.
I spent the summer immediately following my college graduation in Africa, a starry-eyed youth intent on both discovering and then changing the world with the love of Christ--a noble, if perhaps naïve pursuit. Pastor Barry Lang, a Canadian missionary based in the town of Bong Mine, Liberia, was pastorally responsible for a wide geographical area with dozens of tiny villages out in what they called "The Bush," which really meant isolated from development, electricity, or roads easily passable by vehicle. It was a rare and much-anticipated treat when once or twice a year the pastor came and celebrated with them the sacraments of baptism and communion. It was on such sacramental visits that I was privileged to accompany Pastor Lang for a few weeks, two or three times per week. Up before the sun, home long after dark.
On one of these long drives, Pastor Lang shared with me as we bumped along deeply rutted roads that we might not be completely welcome in today's village. That got my attention! The descendants of village medicine men, he explained, felt that Christianity had usurped their rightful power and control over the villagers. So they would on occasion don hideous masks to scare and threaten the villagers.
"Bush Devils," as they were known, most commonly materialized when the people were gathering for Christian worship. On more than one occasion, Lang said, while he was leading a communion service in some remote village, the dreaded bush devil drums would begin to beat, and all the would-be worshipers would scoop up their children and flee to their huts. Several Christians, including a few missionaries during Lang's tenure who chose to defy the drumbeat warnings, had permanently vanished. I tried hard to take all this quite matter-of-factly, but I was scared to death. My pulse was racing!
We reached the village; and as we set up for communion in the mud and thatch church, sure enough, it happened...thump, thump, thump, thumpa thump. Faster. Louder. I glanced at Lang, and he scowled. All of the villagers who had greeted us so warmly disappeared into their huts. My heart was thumping along with the drums. What would I do if a bush devil, or several, appeared? Run? Hide? Fight!?
My contemplation was interrupted by a bell. Not a pretty bell, but a tinny clanging sound, and there was Pastor Lang, ringing the old church bell calling the people to worship. The louder and faster the drums beat, the more furiously he pulled the rope on that bell...a contest, it seemed...clang, clang! Thump thumpa thump! Until abruptly, Lang stopped, and I followed his sweaty gaze to an ancient stooped woman slowly shuffling her calloused bare feet toward the church in defiance of the threatening drums. Faces began to peep from the hut windows in horror and then in disbelief...and finally admiration. The old woman stopped at the church door, glanced back once more at the jungle from whence emanated the thump thumpa thump, and almost with a sneer, stepped into the church. Lang resumed his ringing and then others followed, hesitantly and timidly at first, then boldly and defiantly! Women, then little naked children, and finally the men came streaming toward the church, and the drums fell silent. No bush devil appeared, as their greatest weapons of fear and intimidation had failed. And we shared together with no lights, no organ, no stained glass, the most powerful communion service I had ever experienced. Thanks to that old woman who put it all on the line.
It's amazing what a person will do when she's hungry! In a place where physical bread was so scarce and where life hung in the balance of malaria, dysentery, cholera, tribal violence, and the as-yet undiscovered but clearly deadly AIDS virus, that old woman whose days were numbered knew what she needed more than anything: Jesus, the Living Bread of Heaven. She trusted above all else the promise that Jesus, the life-giving bread was here, and she not only came and received it but inspired others to do the same. And with Martin Luther, who suggested everything from making the sign of the cross to laughing to throwing inkwells to rid oneself of the devil, this old woman chose the life and love Jesus promises in Communion over the fear and threat of the devil, no matter what form that devil might take.
Now granted, that experience in Africa I just described is rather extreme, you might say. Many of us listening today gather in glorious and comfortably air-conditioned worship spaces, nicely dressed, bellies full, lamenting the awful cost of healthcare and the soured economy, maybe even annoyed when it's a Communion Sunday and that means the Baptists will surely beat us to the Sunday buffet; but we are no less hungry, only our hunger is so much more subtle because of our consumeristic attitudes that we carry even into worship and because of the multitude of self-gratifications available to us. We spend a lifetime trying to fill that void in our souls that only Christ can fill with living bread.
Saints down through the ages, including that old Liberian woman, chose to swim against the cultural current of self-interest, to walk to the beat of a different drum, or in her case, a different bell. Perhaps even now the drums of grief and fear and brokenness and guilt pound so loudly in your head and heart that you feel cut off and removed, distant from or maybe even doubtful of or unaware of your need for any living bread from heaven. But it's amazing what someone will do when she's hungry.
Yes, God loves you and therefore I do, too. Yes, God forgives you and so must I. And, oh yes, through Jesus, who is both host and meal, dinner is ready. Let's eat! Amen.