Growing in Faith
1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43John 6:56-69
Well, here we are. It has been an incredible summer at OPC. Our outdoor worship services and intergenerational fellowship and education in July inspired us and gave us a burst of energy. Our Adult Education series in August on the Middle East was both challenging and uplifting, giving us cause for reflection as well as a glimpse of what hope might look like. And so, as we reach the end of August, here we are.
Today is our Fall Kick-Off, which I’ve been told is an ancient sacred day in the church calendar. If you haven’t had the chance already this morning, I invite you to spend some time after worship at the tables in the Narthex outside the sanctuary doors and up in the lobby by the back parking lot. You will find information about our plans and activities for the program year, echoing some of that same inspiration, challenge, and hope from our busy summer schedule.
As we gather here this morning, and as we listen to our texts, and as I feel this sense of energy and excitement here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, I can’t help but wonder what it felt like to stand there in the congregation in Jerusalem as King Solomon led the people in prayer. Surely there was energy! This wandering people, these former slaves, have now been rooted in the land for several generations. Their last ruler, David, united the kingdom, established Jerusalem as the capital, and made it the center of political and religious life. And now, with the building of the Temple, there was finally a home for that Ark of the Covenant, and therefore, in a sense, a home for their God. It is in that context that Solomon stands before them and prays God’s blessings upon that house of worship: that prayers be heard and answered, that the nations be welcomed, and that forgiveness and mercy overflow.
And I can’t help but wonder how it felt to stand there with Jesus that day in Capernaum. Surely there was excitement! The wandering rabbi had slowly been building a following due to his teachings and miracles. He couldn’t go anywhere without a crowd pressing in on him, seeking the healing of his touch. He had just given one of the more impressive performances of his young career, feeding thousands with a handful of bread and fish. There is no doubt, as he began to speak in this synagogue in Capernaum, that everyone there – his followers and naysayers alike – were eager to hear what this Jesus had to say.
What he says, as usual, catches everyone off guard. Out of his mouth come these odd words of mystery: it’s not the physical bread on which they’ve just feasted that is important. Instead, it is the bread of life. “And I am that bread of life,” he tells them. And as the head-scratching begins, he continues his thoughts with this graphic, violent imagery, telling them that they have to drink his blood and eat his flesh. The questions of the crowd turn to confusion; the confusion becomes doubt: “What kind of teacher is this, anyway?” And as they mutter to one another about this cannibal preaching before them, he gives voice to their concerns: “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” In other words: “If you think this is tough, if this imagery turns your stomach, then what are you going to do at my crucifixion?” It is not long before the crowd begins to thin, and his mushrooming followers are whittled back down to the twelve. And as Jesus asks them if they will stay, it is Simon Peter who gives voice to their faith: “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
It is almost as though the lectionary texts this morning are giving us a word of caution for our energy and excitement today. Do we really understand what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ? With whom can we most closely connect in the story; the naysayers who question Christ every step of the way? Or are we part of those crowds thrilled by the miracle and the physical nourishment of bread and fish? Or can we proclaim that certainty of Simon Peter’s faith, of sure and certain knowledge about Christ? I am sure that many of us connect with more than one of those groups. We have our moments of certainty and our times of doubt. Questions rise and fall, answers come and go. But when the going gets tough, when Solomon is no longer king, the kingdom is split, our people in exile, the Temple destroyed, will faith remain? Would we be able to say with Simon Peter that Jesus Christ is the Holy One of God, that precious bread of life?
Friends, today is a celebration. It is a joyful feast around this table. We mark the end of summer with gratitude for safe travel. We note the beginning of the school year for our children and the program year for our church. And yet, at the heart of our celebration lies a series of questions: are we willing to risk where we are now? Do we want to grow in our faith?
It is no accident that this is our theme for the program year: “Growing in Faith.” And in each of our programs, from our education to our stewardship, from our evangelism to our outreach, this theme will be at the heart of all that we do. So this morning, as you walk among the tables and as we see and share our lives, our hopes for the coming year, I want to issue this challenge to each you as a goal for the coming year. Pick something in which to be involved. It could be joining the choir, or getting involved with one of our ministries as a committee member, or attending an Adult Education class regularly, or giving time to one of our many opportunities for outreach and compassion, or even just a daily exercise of praying for this church and its witness. Pick something that’s doable – don’t overwhelm yourself with expectations and set yourself up for failure. Pick something where you feel comfortable, or pick something that moves you a bit beyond that comfort zone. Take that risk of time, talents, and treasure.
As we move forward in this time of energy and excitement, I see the Holy Spirit at work in our midst and I encourage each one of you to be a part of this inspiring time of growth. I won’t make any predictions. But I do suspect that we will find ourselves strengthened in our faith: personally, as a congregation, and as the Body of Christ around the world. And as we grow, throughout this year and for years to come, it is the sustenance of this table, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, which will feed and strengthen and nourish us. And as we grow in that faith, we will be able to claim that certainty and that knowledge of Simon Peter as our own, seeing in Christ the Holy One of God.