Sermon August 19, 2012


“What Are We Working For? The Personal God or the Perishing God?”


August 19, 2012

The Reverend Dr. Joanne M. Swenson


John 6:51-58

51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This 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.”



In these sermons I’m leaning on the thought of Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher from the mid-1800’s, the philosopher who coined that phrase, “The Leap of Faith.”   I ‘ve been turning to Kierkegaard because, in John Six, we encounter three sorts of people, three types of characters; and these three types correspond strikingly with the three types of people that Kierkegaard writes about.  We’re using Kierkegaard to go deeper in understanding these three types of people in John.

On August 5 we looked at the first type – the pleasure seeker.  The pleasure seeker is represented in John Six by the Crowd.  The Crowd is following Jesus because he has given them free bread and a good show –the Miracle of Loaves and Fishes.  The pleasure-seeker is captured in a cycle of frustration and dead ends, however, because pleasure perishes – that which we once found so pleasurable, becomes routine and boring, and finally irritating.  Pleasure seekers hop jobs, change churches, abandon relationships and even switch Yoga studios.    Theirs is the PRIA pattern:  Pleasure, Repetition, Irritation and finally Abandonment.  How can I keep my pleasure at its peak?   This pattern is the underlying anxiety of the pleasure-seeker.

Today, we turn to the second type of person.  This, the person who wants to change the world for the better, the person who wants to do good.  Kierkegaard calls this person, “the ethical person.”  We need these ethical people – community life would fall apart if someone wasn’t urging us on to do the right thing. The ethical person hears a higher and even a harder law:  they bike to work, recycle the compost and carry the petitions.   The ethical person hears universal laws of duty.  If EVERYONE did this, the world would be better – if we all biked, all recycled, all volunteered — and all kept a Prius for the occasional trip to the Farmers’ Market — the world WOULD be a better place.  It would certainly be more exhausting!  The ethical person hears a higher law than the rest of us pleasure-seekers. – they hear the universal law of duty.

But there is one thing missing from this motivation to do good, one thing lacking from the life of the ethically-driven person.  And that’s what we’ll talk about this morning.  In fact, this missing factor may relate to the decline of Mainline, Protestant denominations, such as ours, the United Church of Christ.

Let’s Pray. . .

Lord, these words of Jesus, I am the Bread of Life, may be just the words that someone among us really needs to hear and understand today.  So I pray that the sermon may bring Your words to life, that that hungry one among us will Feast on your Bread of Heaven today.  Amen.



We are friends with Brad and Sheri Schleiff, back in Portland.  Erik is best friends with one of the sons, Mac; and Siri’s church group was led by Brad.  These parents are hard-working and trying to raise their kids to be good citizens and committed Christians.  One night one of their boys, Tyson, who had just graduated from high school, was at a party where an acquaintance asked for a lift.  Along the way home, this guy told Tyson to stop in a parking lot where he has some quick business to do, and suddenly, Tyson found himself in the middle of a drug deal, a drug deal going bad.

The story ends with Tyson sentenced to prison for five years, an accessory to a serious crime.

The world of ethics is impersonal and harsh. .If giving a ride to a drug deal is wrong, it’s always wrong.  If driving the car for someone who brandishes a gun, is wrong, it’s always wrong.  Even if you’re a good kid from a responsible family.  Even if your dad leads the youth group.  No exceptions, no mercy, no taking account of the personal details.

We say that justice MUST be blind.   Lady Justice sits before courthouses throughout our land, her eyes blindfolded. The ethically driven person follows rules that are blind to the particular circumstances, and doesn’t bend and make exceptions for the individual.  We’re striving for fairness and equity, and the universal good is our ideal.  The same laws AND the same consequences for everyone.    Victor Hugo brilliantly explored the impersonal world of the ethicist in his work, Les Miserable, where the universal rule-driven person was Inspector Javert, the police chief.

So, the world of the ethically driven is impersonal   It has to be.  But here’s the cost.  Here’s the one thing missing.  When we’re ethically-driven, our sense of God must also be impersonal.   The ethical person believes in a God who sets down rules that should be obeyed by everyone. And this aloof, universal God will punish ALL those who break these universal laws.  Immanuel Kant, the greatest ethical thinker of our Western tradition, captures this universal and detached God, when he calls God, the “the Legislator of All Duties.”[1]  (How attached do you feel to your legislator?)   It’s brilliant, it’s true, but, man oh man, it’s an impersonal vision of God.

That’s what Kierkegaard saw.  Kierkegaard studied the soul of the ethically-driven person and concluded, that God, for the ethicist, is impersonal.  This is what Kierkegaard said:  “The ethical dimension of existence . . .result(s in). . .  God becom(ing) an invisible, vanishing point, an impotent thought, unrelated to MY life.”[2]   The God of Universal Laws, the God of ethical right and wrong, becomes irrelevant to our personal life;  in our individual struggles, detached and uncaring.  And so, as Kierkegaard said, God becomes “invisible, vanishing,” “impotent” to help save you or me.  That’s the God of the ethically-driven person, according to Kierkegaard.

So, where is our Gospel Lesson in all this?  In John 6 we have a confrontation between the community’s leaders and Jesus Christ.  But this is really a confrontation, a conflict between impersonal ethical leaders, and the personal face of God, seen in Jesus.

The featured characters of today’s passage, are the ethical leaders of the religious community, called here, “the Jews.”  Starting in verse 41 we read “The Jews disputed among themselves.”  But one very good translation argues for rendering this phrase, “The religious authorities disputed among themselves.” [3]  I think these are not only “religious” authorities, but they’re ethical authorities, ethical leaders, trying to figure out how rules of right and wrong apply — apply to these claims of Jesus.  “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask.  This is a crazy claim, outrageous – people don’t eat the flesh of others!  That violates the law, the universal laws of humanity. So, these characters are “the Jews,” but they are so much more:  they are the community’s ethical leaders, trying to square what Jesus is saying with the ethical law.

And here is the conflict.  The ethical leaders can’t “get” Jesus.  They can’t understand these claims of Jesus because what he’s saying is so wildly personal.  Jesus is personal face of God.  Jesus is the personal face of their God – the God of Abraham, of Moses, of David, of the Prophets!  Jesus is the intensification of all God’s personal characteristics – the God who chose Abraham, who rescued Moses from slavery in Egypt, who compassionately forgave David, who loves Israel despite her infidelity:  choosing, rescuing, forgiving, loving.  That’s the personal God, not the universal God.  This personal God makes exceptions to the rule of law, this personal God goes above the universal rules, for the sake of the one.  Whether that one is Israel, or you and me.

Jesus takes all these attributes of the God the Jews knew – and he embodies them. He holds them all together, and intensifies them.  The personal face of God – here in Jesus. And these ethical leaders can’t get that.

Listen to Jesus’s words in John 6: Jesus says, “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”  “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”  “I am the bread of life.”

We hear these words with 2000 years of distance, and to us this may all sound very metaphorical and mystical and abstract and hard to pin down.  But, it’s just the opposite – it’s a love letter, to us.  It’s Jesus saying, “I love you, and I am going to do whatever it takes to reach you. I’ll give you my very self, so that you can have the abundant life God intended for you.”  No, Jesus’s words here aren’t metaphorical, they’re literal.  He’s not being mystical, he’s being physical – a man with a body who’s going to lay it down for us.[4]  There is nothing abstract in Jesus’s love letter.

Jesus is the personal face of God.  And for the ethical person, this is impossible – God is the God of universals, not the individual.   Who needs a God who is interested in personal salvation?  There’s a world out there to save and we’d better get on with it, and not sit around waiting for some heavenly help![5] That’s the reaction of the ethically-driven person to the personal claims of Jesus Christ.

And that’s why, I think, the Protestant Mainline and our denomination, the United Church of Christ, are in trouble. We’ve all read the statistics and the editorials.  The UCC has gone from almost 7000 congregations in 1962 to fewer than 5500 in 2008, and the bulk of our congregations number fewer than 300 members.[6]   Political announcements set the tone of Sunday worship. Ethical concerns dominate Christian education curricula.  Social justice causes galvanize – or divide — the congregation’s identity.

I often wonder if our denominations’ activism, its devotion to ethical causes, leaves behind the personal God.   Will people come on Sunday, and participate in church activities, and give, if God seems invisible, impotent, irrelevant?  (Kierkegaard’s words).  Will people worship, love and obey a God who seems impersonal?  Paul Tillich once said, “We cannot be obedient to the commands of a stranger, even if he is God.”[7]

Would you come if God is the stranger — if the personal God is receding, vanishing, perishing? People won’t come if the Bread of Perishing is on the menu.  They’re hungry — we’re hungry — for the Bread of Heaven we find in Jesus Christ.

There is a way forward.  There is a way past the emptiness of the ethical position.  There is a way to love God and serve the world.   There is a way to be loved by God, the personal God and serve the world.

James Davison Hunter, a historian of American religion, has written a survey of Christian ethical activism, called, “To Change the World.”[8]   This book argues that Christian activism has NOT changed the world — at least not lately – not since the Civil Rights movement.   Despite the lobbying, political endorsements, institutes and marches, neither Christian progressives nor conservatives are influencing and changing public attitudes and behavior.

But, Hunter is not completely pessimistic about the power of Christians to make the world a better place.  He looks around him and see that Christians do “change the world,” when they embody what he calls, “faithful presence.”  Faithful presence.[9]  Faithful presence means, “Be the presence of Christ to others,”  “Bear Christ’s abundant Life to others.”  Faithful presence, thus, is on-the-ground, face-to-face, and deeply personal, giving of ourselves to others.  That’s how to “change the world,” according to Hunter.

Next week we’ll explore that – making the world better, by being attached to Christ. Next week we’ll find that person in Peter — the Apostle Peter .   You can read ahead in John Six, and think about that.  Look at Verse 68.

The Good News this morning is that God is not just the God of the universe, the God of unbending laws, who blindly executes justice.   God is also personal, a God who bends and even breaks the rules for the sake of the lost.   Jesus is that personal face of God, the one who reaches over the rules and offers himself as our Bread. That’s the difference between the Bread of perishing, and the Bread of Heaven.


[1] Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, pg 158 (6: 161).

[2] Soren Kierkegaard, included in Provocations (Plough Publishing), pg. 25

[3] An Inclusive Language Lectionary (readings for cycle B), The Pilgrim Press, 1986

[4] For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. John 6: 55

[5] “ Do your duty from no other incentive except . . .the appreciation of duty itself,. . .(and) do not wait quite passively for moral goodness, with hands in your laps, as if it were a heavenly gift from above. . .in lazy confidence that surely a higher moral influence will somehow make up for your lack of moral perfection.” Kant, loc. Cit.

[7] Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York, Oxford University Press: 1959), pg. 136

[8] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World:  The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010)

[9] Ibid, 266.

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