We are in the midst of this month-long summer picnic that the creators of the common lectionary –those readings that are assigned for each Sunday–have devised for us this month, starting with the feeding of the 5000 and then followup discussions about Jesus as the Bread of Life. As sometimes happens at summer picnics, you can get a little ants-y, tired of the same old conversations, ready for some food that’s really cold or hot instead of air-temperature, feeling a little fried from sun-exposure, ready, at some point, to pack it in and go home. You may be feeling that way about this 6th chapter in John by now–I know I’ve had my moments–but the party’s not over quite yet, and there are still morsels to be savored.
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” OK, we heard that last week, and it still is really a remarkable claim. “Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Look who’s getting all high and mighty on us, in other words. We know you, Jesus, and your mother and father. You put your pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us. You may be smart, but you’re no better than the rest of us.
Sounds a little smarmy, maybe, a little too defensive, but as Lutheran pastor David Lose says, [inthemeantime, 8/3/15] I do kind of get it. How can this kid who grew up among them, the crowd surely wondered, how can he be the one God sent to save them? Who does he think he is and what kind of God would send someone like him to save them–save them from Rome, save them from the very real hunger that too many of them knew all too well, save them from their sorry lives of dullness, mistakes, screw-ups, failures?
They were angered, Lose imagines, at Jesus’ audacious claim that he is the one they’ve been waiting for. Is he making fun of their ideas about God? A God you want to be able to call on and who answers quickly, clearly, with power, maybe even a miracle? Jesus of Nazareth was NOT the answer to their prayers they were looking for. Was he “making fun of their deep needs for a God who transcends the very life which is causing them so much difficulty?” I do kind of get that.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?”
We know you, Jesus, and we know ourselves. We know what we’re like–our weaknesses, our failures, our fears, our shame, our regrets, our prejudices and biases, how we can disappoint others, and ourselves. You are just like us, Jesus, and yet you claim to be the bread of life that came down from heaven. You’re starting to make us more than a little angry, and if you are the one sent to save us, we are all doomed. So, as is often the underlying emotion to anger, the crowd is not only angry, but also probably afraid–afraid that God doesn’t have much of a plan to save them/us, and maybe even worse than that, that we’re not worth saving. I get that too. Dare we say they/we are a little disappointed in this God.
Our first gods, as children, are our parents. They are the all-powerful ones upon whom we are utterly dependent for our survival. Not only do they–hopefully–provide us with food and shelter and nurture, but they also teach us about the world, which is completely new and unknown to us. At some point in our development, though, we discover that our parents are not gods. They are flawed human beings, capable of being wrong, capable of doing things that may not be right or healthy or smart, capable of not knowing everything. We may be angry or feel betrayed by our parents’ imperfection, but at some point, we need to accept it and get on with figuring out what kind of human beings we will be.
The development of our faith isn’t so different. Our first conception of God bears a remarkable resemblance to our parents, maybe particularly one or the other. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, the source of punishment and reward, who you have to appease to stay in His [usually] good favor. But then something happens that goes against that image–even though we’re as good as we can be, bad things happen; even though we pray so hard, and promise to be good, our beloved pet, or maybe a parent or friend or sibling, still die. Maybe millions of people die, intentionally exterminated, and God “did nothing about it.” Innocent, good people gathered for Bible are killed by a hate-filled man. Children still starve and die from preventable diseases. What kind of God is that? Who needs a God like that? Many people quit right there, rejecting God altogether.
And if God uses ordinary things–like bread and wine and water–to transform us, well, maybe we can be forgiven for wondering how great a plan that is. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Water? Bread? Wine? Transformative? “Where we expect God to come in might,” David Lose writes, “God comes in weakness; where we look for God to come in power, God comes in vulnerability; and when we seek God in justice and righteousness–which is, after all, what we all expect from a God–we find God (or rather are found by God!) in forgiveness and mercy.” (Ibid.)
John’s portrait of Jesus is as in charge and powerful as any of the gospels, but it is only to the extent that he empties himself of self so that he is an open vessel for God. That is how he can say “I am the bread of life,” able to give life to those who would receive it. It is by the I am–God– in this flesh-and-blood Jesus, who was willing to be used and filled by God, that we are “saved,” given new life. It is through ordinary elements–water, bread, wine–that God acts to transform us in what we know as sacraments–things made holy–and it is in ordinary people like Jesus and you and me–is that heresy?– that God chooses to become incarnate, enfleshed, extraordinarily ordinary.
So it is not in being “raptured up” into heaven, but rather in living in community, as Paul wrote about in his letter to the church in Ephesus, that we encounter God and join with God. So it matters how we live together–speaking the truth, in love; getting angry, but not letting our anger consume us; working honestly so that we might have something to share with others; being careful how we speak, what words we use, how we contribute to the clear or toxic atmosphere between us; being gentle and kind with one another, forgiving one another, so that the past doesn’t determine the future.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. Andrew Prior reflected upon his experience of helping his mom transition into more full-time care, clearing out her house, surrounded by family and objects that sparked a lifetime of memories, coming to terms with her increasing inability to do much of anything for herself, becoming “undone,” as he put it.
When we are undone, [Prior wrote], and can no longer be ourselves, God’s only hands for us are the hands of others. The only real bread of life is people, people who are prepared in a small way–or much more–to be consumed by our need for care….The self-preserving life which will not be consumed, which will not be bread for others–will still grow old and die. [Andrew Prior, One Man’s Web, 8/9/15]
Those who would save their lives, Jesus said, will lose them, but those who lose their lives–give of their lives–for my sake, will find them. You’ll become bread for one another, the bread of life.
“Isn’t this Jesus, whose father and mother we know?” Yeah, it is. And God chose to become flesh in him. Those who are open to it, who are willing to suspend their hard and fast notions of who God is and how God acts, “anyone who has spent any time at all listening to the Father, [as Peterson puts it], really listening and therefore learning, comes to me to be taught personally–to see it with their own eyes, hear it with their own ears, from me.” This is Jesus whose father and mother you know.
And the thing is, God still chooses to become flesh in ordinary people, people whose parents are Mary and Joe, or Helen and Al, or Susan and Frank, or who knows who? In ordinary people like you and me, who struggle with living in community, even in us, God’s radiance dwells and is able to shine and even blaze forth sometimes.
Even with us [Frederick Buechner writes], something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, or sometimes even the unlikeliest person, listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing. [Listening to Your Life, p. 204]
Ordinary people rise to the challenge, jumping in to grab a toddler out of the way of an oncoming car; standing up to speak for justice; keeping watch through the long night at a hospital bedside. Even in the midst of a long August picnic, we can become bread for one another, bread for the whole world even, which, despite all the odds against it, God still loves and seeks to save. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this is really good news. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark