Guest Preacher: Why do we come to church?

On August 2, Rev. Irina Solej of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Georgia and the Southern Caucasus was the guest preacher as part of their official visit to Good Shepherd. Read more about there visit here.

Dear brothers and sisters, may God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. Amen

I will ask you a strange question: why did you come here, to the church, this morning? I believe, the answers will be different. The pastor, the organist, the choristers, the readers, the assistants will say: we come to help conduct the service. Someone will say: I come here to hear God’s word or to communicate with sisters and brothers in faith or to pray. As you can see, reasons can vary. There are reasons we might not want to voice. For example: it is warm and cozy, I am among people here while I feel lonely at home. Here, I can hear kind words and get consolation. I get help. One should not be ashamed of those reasons. We all come to church because we seek protection by God, this is as true in my home country, Georgia, as it is here in the United States.

In Jesus’ times, people also had different reasons for seeking closeness to God. The Gospels tell us that people came to Jesus in flocks. They saw Him performing miracles: the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who suffer from dreaded skin diseases are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life. For some people, it was the first step to faith, for others – mere curiosity.

Is Jesus interested in the reasons why people follow Him? It seems that He is not. He knows: people come to Him because they need help. People come because they are hungry or ill. People come because their lives have gone off track. Jesus never refuses help. But He can give more than just a piece of bread, more than a helping hand. With God, people find more than what they came for. He gives us more than what we ask for. Jesus calls on those who come to him: Do not work for the food that spoils, work for the food that lasts for eternal life.

This does not mean that Jesus attributes no significance to a piece of bread that He can provide. On the contrary, He teaches His disciples to pray for daily bread. But with Him one can find more than what satisfies people’s daily needs. Hunger is quite easy to relieve with a bowl of soup or a loaf of bread. But a person as a whole needs to be fulfilled. And this cannot be achieved with bread alone. Human beings cannot live on bread alone, but need every word that God speaks. This is why Jesus says: work for the food that lasts for eternal life.

We know what Jesus means: He gave Himself to the people. He sacrificed Himself on the cross. He agreed to die for the sake of our lives. He agreed to the death that we, the sinners, deserved. He is concerned with justifying us before God. This is more than we can expect and deserve. This goes beyond human understanding.

For this reason, it is not surprising that people cannot understand what Jesus is talking about. He calls Himself bread that came down from heaven. But the only bread that came down from heaven is known as manna that God once gave to his people in the desert. Perhaps Jesus wants to give them manna from heaven once again. Of course, they would not refuse it. But He says to them: Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If you eat this bread, you will live forever.

Thus, Jesus is trying to explain to people: He was sent by God and came from heaven. He came to this world so that people could get to know God and faith through Him, and to attain life. People look at Him failing to understand. How could He come from heaven? They know him. He is a human being, just like them: born in Nazareth; son of Mary and Joseph, He grew up with them. Fine, He might be a prophet but coming from heaven…?

Jesus explains again and again and this is what people have to realize: He is the living bread. He gives Himself entirely and fully to save the people, to save the whole world. He commits Himself fully – flesh and blood. My flesh is the real food; my blood is the real drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them.

His disciples say: This teaching is too hard. Who can listen to it? Indeed, the message that Jesus is trying to convey is beyond human understanding.

You remember the story how Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. He gave them food when they were starving and they decided they wanted to make Him their king. People said: if he becomes our king, we will not starve anymore. But Jesus distanced Himself from them. He came to people not to become their earthly king and open a sort of a soup kitchen. He said to them that the bread they had would change nothing in their lives. It would only temporarily relieve their hunger and they would want to eat again. But there is bread that comes from heaven and gives life to the world. They asked Him: Sir, always give us this bread!

And Jesus said to them: I am the bread of life. Those who come to Me will never be hungry; those who believe in Me will never be thirsty. I am telling you the truth: he who believes, has eternal life. He meant: I give more than a full stomach, something more important than one day of fulfilled and carefree life. And this something is not in the bread I gave you, but in Me. I am the bread of life that you need. I give satiety, I give eternal life.

Naturally, we all want a fulfilled and carefree life. But there are examples when this kind of life kills spiritual life. If people have enough to provide themselves with proper sustenance and live better and better every year, they often stop seeking God’s help, they do not need God. They are certain that all they have is their own achievement, they are not thankful to God, they want to hear nothing of Him. Having enough sustenance for their flesh, they reject spiritual bread, reject the completeness of life.

Only God can give us the completeness of life, it is in Him that we find a happy life and can be glad. He opens our eyes to see the world, to see ourselves and we start understanding that material things are corruptible, they are secondary and that it is better to collect treasures in heaven. We understand that only faith, only God give us peace in our soul, freedom, love in communication, joy being together. Giving us the spiritual, He does not forget about providing us with the corporeal. To the extent we actually need it.

Yes, we have both spiritual and physical needs. And we need to satisfy both our bodies and our souls. But how do we do it? While everything is more or less clear with the body, we often encounter problems when it comes to spiritual food. Not only our body but our soul, too, constantly needs to be fed. We do not think much about what we feed it. If we feed on hatred, intolerance towards other people, envy, striving for power and wealth, anger and fear, we lose our soul. Remember the words of Jesus: Will you gain anything if you win the whole world and lose your soul?

Dear brothers and sisters, you and I, too, once came to Jesus. The reasons could have been very different. Perhaps, we were drawn by curiosity or a wish to learn more. Perhaps, we came became we needed help or it was simply cold outside. Or, perhaps, we were looking for contact with other people sitting by our side. But when we did come, we received support and we understood in what direction we have to move in our lives. When we came, we strengthened our faith, overcame doubts and desperation.

Regardless of the reasons that brought you here, one thing unites us: He, whose presence we feel today, can give us much more than we expect and what we can imagine. He, who sacrificed Himself on a cross to save the world, keeps giving Himself to us today. He is present here among us. We can hear Him because He speaks to us in His Word. We can accept Him because He comes to us visibly and tangibly in the flesh and blood of the Holy Communion. We can feel Him because His Spirit connects us to each other.

And God‘s peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Jesus Christ. Amen