“Living Forever” Colchester Federated Church, August 15, 2021, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (John 6:51-58)

This morning marks the end of our contemplation of Jesus as the bread of life from John’s Gospel.  I told you that we all may be a little tired of hearing about bread in church after these three Sundays.  Jesus ends his long speech by saying to those gathered before him, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”[1]  When people question what he means by this statement Jesus reiterates that he is the bread that came down from heaven.  Jesus tells the people that it’s not like the bread that your ancestors ate in the wilderness (which we talked about last Sunday) and then those ancestors died.  Whoever eats this bread will live forever.  This morning’s passage is about Jesus’ legacy. 

The change in the language here shows that Jesus is shifting his understanding from talking about a historical event to speaking more theologically and liturgically.  From our Christian perspective we recognize that Jesus is talking about the Sacrament of Communion.  Today’s story can help us ponder what the Lord’s Supper means to us.  What memories do we have come to mind when we contemplate Communion?  What is our understanding of the whole point of this unique way we worship in the Christian Church?  Can we see how this whole passage about Jesus talking about his flesh being true food and his blood being true drink might have been strange (or even offensive) to those who heard it for the first time?  Of course this is familiar language for us.  But we’ve often grown up with this kind of language in the Church.

When we think of Communion, we can appreciate what the sacrament means.  We can even have some appreciation that our Communion Table is open at our church which means that everyone is welcome to come and eat.  You don’t have to be a member of our congregation to receive the Sacrament here.  You don’t have to have come to this particular church for your whole life.  You don’t have to be tested in your faith whatsoever to receive the bread that came down from heaven.  For Protestants like us Communion is about table fellowship.  Communion is about the spiritual practice of Christian hospitality.  Communion is about sharing and simplicity.  Communion is about the love we show to one another when we welcome and invite every single person to Christ’s table to participate.  In some of our Communion liturgies we will hear the phrase that Communion is a gift of God for the people of God.  All are welcome.  This is part of the legacy that Jesus left behind for his followers to witness.

The Bread of life teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum in the Gospel according to John ends with Jesus gifting the community with Communion.  The Christian Church would go on to develop our own liturgies and theologies about what Jesus being the living bread that came down from heaven means.  Though that’s where these three Sundays in the Lectionary end—with language pertaining to the Lord’s Supper.  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”[2] 

This Gospel story can help us think about Jesus’ legacy and what we continue to believe and practice in his name.  Communion was a great gift that he gave to his followers.  It’s a spiritual gift that provided a lasting legacy once his time physically on this earth had come to an end.  It can make us contemplate all of our lives and the gifts that we leave for those who will come after us.

One famous example of leaving gifts behind for those who follow is the life and art of Vincent Van Gogh.  There was a compelling story previously aired on 60 Minutes where two co-authors of a new biography on Van Gogh were interviewed and spoke about his legacy.  The book—Van Gogh: The Life—challenges many of the traditional views art historians have held for years about the famously troubled artist.  The brief outline of his life as we know it now is: “unappreciated Dutch genius who in a fit of madness cut off his ear and later killed himself.”  But Steven Naifeh and Greg Smith (both winners of the Pulitzer Prize) spent ten years researching and delving into the mind of this troubled genius and had access to family correspondence never published before.[3] 

The authors believe that there was a level of genius within Van Gogh’s madness that has thus far not been taken seriously enough and furthermore that he didn’t die by suicide.  The authors posit that he was shot by a villager, probably on accident, and that Van Gogh died trying to protect his killer.  When police came to interview Van Gogh on his deathbed, they asked him if he died by suicide and his response was, “I believe so . . . don’t accuse anybody else.”  It’s a rather peculiar turn of phrase.

This interview was fascinating, with all the Van Gogh paintings displayed and explained; with the inside information on his family life, and a glimpse into the heartbreakingly sad life that he led.  He died thinking of himself as a failure.  We may have even heard his lament before because Van Gogh famously said, “As a painter, I will never amount to anything important.  I am absolutely sure of it.”  He was laughed out of art school, couldn’t hold a job, even tried to be a minister like his father and the congregation found him too weird and kicked him out of the ministry!  The authors said, “He basically is a man who lived to be 37 years old and never really had a friend . . . of all of his subjects, portraits were definitely his favorite. The reason was really less artistic than it was emotional. And that was out of his loneliness, one of his few ways to connect with people was to paint somebody.”  In nine years, Vincent Van Gogh turned out more than 1,000 paintings and 1,000 drawings.  But he died thinking of himself as a failure, with no friends except for perhaps his younger brother, Theo, who had supported him his whole life. 

Perhaps the silver lining of his story is that his paintings make so many people happy today.  His legacy endured, he proved himself wrong—Vincent Van Gogh is a beloved painter.  Today his works sell for millions of dollars and are part of prized collections the world over.  The interview on 60 Minutes showed people traveling to visit his grave.  He is buried in a simple plot next to Theo in France.  One tourist from Japan even played Don McLean’s song, “Starry, Starry Night” on his phone to honor the artist as the tourist came to pay his respects. 

No one can know exactly what our legacy will be.  No one can know exactly what people will remember the most about us when we are no longer physically here on this earth.  How will our lives be measured?  What will matter most?  It won’t be so much about our success, but our significance.  Not so much what we learned, but what we were able to teach and pass along to others.  What will matter the most will be every act of integrity and courage, sacrifice and compassion that empowered other people and enriched their lives.  It won’t be how many people we knew, but those who will feel a lasting loss when we are no longer here.  None of us will live forever, but we can leave beautiful gifts behind to strengthen others for their journeys of life and faith.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 6:51, Common English Bible.
[2] John 6:54.
[3] “The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh,” Originally aired on October 16, 2011, CBS 60 Minutes, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-life-and-death-of-vincent-van-gogh-31-07-2012/

Photo by Rev. Lauren Lorincz