[Jesus said,] 56 “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living God sent me, and I live because of God, so whoever eats me will live because of me.
58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
60 When many of Jesus’ disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of humanity ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe, who do not have faith.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And Jesus said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by God.”
66 Because of this many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to trust and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Please pray with me this morning, church:
Amidst all the worries, horrors, and difficulties
We see in our world,
It can all feel like too much.
We can feel like not enough.
Give us food that nourishes.
Feed and sustain us to be your body—
Your hands, your feet, your heart—
Broken, given, and shared
For the world, for our neighbor, and for each other.
There is very little that I enjoy about seeing the numbers 5, 4, and 5 on my watch and on my phone, most especially when they have an A and an M next to them.
I am not a morning person. But most mornings, that’s when I drag myself out of bed. Except for Fridays and Saturdays when I sleep in until whenever Master of the House, Oliver, decides it’s time for the house to be awake, and except for Sundays when those numbers read more like 4:15.
I hate early mornings. But I get up anyway, and I exercise every single morning for at least 45 minutes.
This is a new thing for me.
I’m not big on tooting my own horn or throwing my own party, so I’m not going to dwell on this, but maybe you’ve noticed, I’ve lost a little bit of weight since the pandemic started. It’s something I’m proud of and something that’s taken a long time and will continue to take a long time, but it’s a journey I’m grateful to be on. But since last summer I’ve exercised every single day and I started watching and tracking what I eat, and it’s really helped me with my journey.
In the midst of so much craziness in our world, focusing on my health has been a small thing that I feel like I have a certain amount of control over.
Again, not tooting my own horn, but here’s what I want to say about all of this…I’m still not sure if this is a habit for me. Like, I still don’t really like to do this. I don’t think I would necessarily choose this for myself, and if left to my own devices, I think I’d rather not do these things. I’m still not one of those people who enjoy running or even enjoys working out. But at this point, I’ve got quite a bit of a streak going, and I think my fear of breaking the streak is stronger than my desire to not exercise and eat well.
I don’t know if I would call any of this a habit…but I would say that exercise and watching what I eat and paying attention to my health are practices that I’ve taken on and continue to work at.
There are things in our lives that are difficult things, hard things…and we may not particularly like to do them, but we recognize that they’re good for us. We derive a benefit from them, and the benefits outweigh the costs, and so we work at these practices.
Friends, worship…is one of these practices.
Not that we don’t enjoy worship, or that worship shouldn’t be fun and uplifting…it should be those things. But gathering together for worship, whether in-person or online, it’s something we have to choose with intentionality.
As we come to the end of our worship series for the second half of the summer called Bread of Life, focusing on Jesus’ words that “I am the bread of life,” and discerning difficult questions about what feeds and nourishes and sustains us…I bet you’re ready for a break from bread. It’s like the breadstick basket at Olive Garden or the cheddar bay biscuits at Red Lobster…you’re not exactly sure how much is too much, but you definitely know when you’re there. And maybe by now, you’re feeling that way with these bread texts. And like the loaves and fish on the side of the mountain, Jesus is just the breadbasket that keeps on giving.
But take heart, friends. This indeed is the end of all these weeks of bread. And maybe in some ways you’ve needed to be reminded of the nourishing and sustaining presence of Christ in your life. It’s so easy to get caught up in the news cycle or news feed, and so maybe it takes something repetitive over and over and over again to finally breakthrough before we truly grasp it. Like a habit…or a practice that’s not yet a habit…but it just takes doing or hearing something again and again and again before we recognize and truly see its benefits.
I said it last week, worship together is what has fed and nourished and sustained us so far through this pandemic, and worship together is what will feed and nourish and sustain us going forward, through the end of this pandemic and beyond it. Like Christ feeding us with Christ’s very own body and blood, we, too, feed one another. Whether here or for your neighbor or for someone you don’t know yet, you are the body of Christ, broken, poured out, and given for the sake and for the life of the world.
And worship together isn’t just something we picked up, or something that we like to do on occasion when we feel like it, worship is a habit, it’s a practice. And you have to be committed to practices. They require intentionality. They require…practice.
Even when we might not feel like it.
“This teaching is difficult, Lord. Who can accept it?”
There are things in our lives that are difficult things, hard things…some of these things we may not even particularly like to do them, but we come to recognize that they’re good for us. We derive a benefit from them, and the benefits outweigh the costs, and so we work at these practices.
But wait, work at worship…? What about my coming to be fed, what about my enjoyment, my coming to feel good and be uplifted?
I’m so glad you asked. Not that worship isn’t those things, but worship is also more than those things.
18 months ago and long before that, worship used to be inconvenient. Largely, communities of faith hadn’t really adopted live streaming or online ways of gathering together, at least not in a super widespread way, and so for most folks, including us here at New Hope, you would have to make a conscious decision whether or not you were going to come gather together for worship. You’d have to get up, get ready, get dressed, get in your car, drive here, and show up to worship. It was a very inconvenient thing, not generally something you just woke up and decided, “Oh, I think I’ll go to worship this morning.” Worship used to require forethought and planning.
But then the pandemic hit and communities of faith everywhere, including us, scrambled to figure out how to provide a worship experience that our folks could tap into while we were being urged to stay home, keep safe, and not gather together in-person. And I’m probably biased, but I think we did a pretty good job of doing that. And I think we continue to do a pretty good job of providing multiple ways for folks to gather together in worship regardless of their vaccination status, regardless of their level of comfortability with being in close contact with other people outside of their household, even regardless if they’re physically in town or away on vacation. The pandemic forced our hands in a lot of ways and we’ve made it very convenient to worship. In-person, live stream, recorded virtual worship that you can watch on Tuesday afternoon with a glass of wine in your hand if you want… Something that used to be done in one very specific way, now broadened and made very easy and convenient to gather together…if you want.
Because see…there’s still quite a bit of intentionality behind gathering together for worship. You have to decide whether or not you’ll engage with what’s going on here, whether or not you’ll come in-person for worship or join online via the live stream or our recorded worship.
You still have to make a choice about how much you’re willing to engage. That’s always been true.
But this global pandemic laid that decision bare even moreso.
Because until the past few months, you only had a virtual option available to you, and you had to decide whether or not you were going to push play on that worship service. You had to decide if you were going to log on for Zoom Faith Formation on Sunday mornings or the Zoom Happy Hour Conversations midweek.
And the thing is, those that did, those that chose to engage and be connected, went through a lot over the past 18 months. And it wasn’t just the pandemic.
Maybe you’ll recall. Amidst a global health crisis, we also lived through an ongoing national reckoning and conversation on racial justice and #BlackLivesMatter. We went through an incredibly contentious political season and election. We witnessed a historic attack on one of our country’s great institutions of democracy.
And to be completely frank, some people opted out of the conversations that we had together as a community of faith in the midst of all these events. Some folks chose not to engage in these conversations. And that’s ok. Truly. Zero judgment at all. But those who did…those who did engage these difficult events and even more difficult conversations…they grew together. They grew, and were changed, and were transformed.
We are not the same community of faith that we were in March of 2020 before this pandemic started. And honestly, we will never be that again. Something has changed in and with this place. Values have been clarified, people have been drawn closer together, the mission we are called to by God in this place has become more focused. Friends, it’s becoming clear to those of us in leadership here at New Hope exactly what and to whom God is calling us in these times.
And this mission field looks an awful lot like our immediate neighborhood. It looks like the 41.9% people of African descent population of Missouri City, the 31.6% people of Hispanic descent population of Stafford, and the 36.6% people of Asian or Indian descent population of Sugar Land. Friends, we live in the most diverse county of the United States. How can our worship, how can our expression of faith, the very heart of who we are, our very identity, reflect our neighborhood?
These are the clarifying questions that we’re asking as Leadership and as Staff. This is what we’re working on and what we’re excited about as New Hope is resurrected out of this pandemic.
“This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”
Heck yeah, it’s difficult! But when has being disciples of Jesus and followers of Christ ever been easy? This is the same Jesus who says, “Give up your life to gain it.” The same Jesus whose love was shown most clearly on the cross, through the death and resurrection of Christ. Church, you don’t get to the joy of Easter Sunday without going through Good Friday…and my LORD have these past 18 months been a Good Friday!
But hear me say this…Easter. Is. Coming.
I don’t know when, I don’t know exactly what it looks like, but I trust and I have faith that it is coming. Because I trust Jesus. I have faith in Christ. I have faith in Christ who says, “I am the resurrection…and the life. I am…the bread of life.”
To which my response can only be, “To whom else can we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.”
It’s difficult to see the difference that’s been made. It’s difficult to see the transformation while we’re still in the midst of it. This is where faith comes in.
Council was surprised to hear that our worship numbers now are 75% of what they were pre-pandemic—which, honestly, is pretty dang good—but you wouldn’t know that if all you saw or experienced was in-person Sunday morning worship. But we have folks joining us on our live stream, folks joining us later in the week as their schedule allows through our virtual worship services…we have folks joining us from across the state and across the country, people who have never stepped foot through those doors, but they found Jesus here. They found something to love and trust, something that called them beyond themselves, into their neighborhood, living for their neighbor.
The pandemic has launched us into a completely new reality where we are wrestling with what it means to be a community of faith. How do we welcome and show hospitality to those that we can’t necessarily see? How can we ensure that we’re connecting with one another, making folks feel like part of this community, even though we might not see them as regularly?
Referencing the ones who struggle with his difficult teachings, Jesus asks the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Let’s be honest, there will be some who leave…there are some who have already left… Oh, but what of the ones who stay…?! What of the ones who are new and are caught up in this vision of what we’re doing?!
Have you seen them? Have you seen the new faces who have walked through that door over the past couple of months? Have you greeted them? Welcomed them? Extended them hospitality?
The Gospel in all of these “bread” texts from Mark and John is a kind of trust—a faith—that the bread is somehow more than bread.
Christ feeds us, yes…but it isn’t just our physical hunger that is satisfied.
Christ gives us one another.
So that our spiritual and our mental and emotional needs are met, as well.
This is a faith that takes intentionality.
A faith that requires commitment.
Like a muscle that needs to be exercised.
This is a faith that takes practice.