First Lutheran Church
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. But the third most longed-for phrase was a bit of a surprise—Dinner is ready. Jesus, especially in John’s Gospel, did not need Barna’s research to address our deepest longings for love, forgiveness and sustenance. In fact, for four Sundays in a row now the lectionary has hovered in this 6th chapter of John where we have heard Jesus repeatedly say, I am the Bread of Life. Dinner is indeed ready, and he is both host and meal.
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. All of that is in chapter 6. Later in chapter 13 during the Last Supper Jesus adds to the Passover remembrance a promise, This is my body, and This is my blood. Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, is more than a mere remembrance of what happened a long time ago. It is the bread of life itself, the cup of salvation, given for the life of the world. The presence of the crucified and risen Christ calls us into discipleship and molds us into the Body of Christ on earth.
I came across an account of Pastor Barry Lang, a Lutheran missionary based in the town of Bong Mine, Liberia. He was pastorally responsible for a wide geographical area with dozens of tiny villages out in what they called the Bush. These villages were primitive but full of life. 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.
There was one village in particular which was not completely welcoming to him. The family of the village medicine man felt that Christianity had usurped their rightful power and control over the villagers. When Pastor Lang came they would don hideous masks to scare and threaten the villagers. They were called the bush devils, because they would materialize out of the bush when the people were gathering for Christian worship. On more than one occasion, the dreaded bush devil drums would begin to beat. The worshipers would scoop up their children and flee to their huts. Several Christians, including a few missionaries during Lang’s tenure, chose to defy the drumbeat warnings, and had permanently vanished.
Lang reached the village and set up communion in the mud and thatch church when the drums began to beat. All of the villagers who had greeted him warmly disappeared into their huts. In response, he began to ring the 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 between the gods. Lang stopped when he saw 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 and stepped into the church. Lang resumed his ringing while the others followed, hesitantly and timidly at first, then boldly and defiantly. Women, little children, and finally the men came streaming toward the church, and the drums fell silent. No bush devil appeared in their hideous masks because their greatest weapons of fear and intimidation had failed. They share the Lord’s Supper with all the power of Christ and all the courage of that old woman shielding them from the intimidation of the bush devils.
It is amazing what a person will do when she is hungry. In a place where physical bread was so scarce and where life hung in the balance of malaria, dysentery, cholera, tribal violence and AIDS, that old woman knew what she needed more than anything. She needed Jesus, the Living Bread of Heaven. She trusted above all else the promise that Jesus, the life-giving bread, was here. She not only came and received but inspired others to do the same. 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.
We worship in very different circumstances, in the beauty of this sanctuary, comfortably air-conditioned. We are nicely dressed, full from breakfast, with no one threatening us as we enter the church. But we are no less hungry although our hunger is more subtle because we enter worship with all the comforts of First World Christians. We spend a lifetime trying to fill the void in our souls that only Christ can fill with living bread. Saints through the ages, including that old Liberian woman, chose to swim against the cultural current of self-interest. Perhaps even now the drums of grief, fear, brokenness and guilt pound so loudly in your head and heart that you feel cut off and removed. Some may feel distant, doubtful or even unaware of your need for any living bread from heaven. But it is amazing what someone will do when she is hungry. God’s infinite love and forgiveness abound here, as it does in the mud and thatch churches of African, and all over the world. Jesus, who is both host and meal, calls all of us to share dinner with him at the table.
To God be the glory. Amen.