Sunday, August 09, 2015

Sermon; 11 Pentecost/Proper 14B; John 6:35, 41-51

We are smack dab in the middle of what is called The Bread of Life series in John.  It is called that because this sequence of five readings from John deal with bread:  it begins with the feeding of the 5000, gives us the reflection and anticipation of last week's placeholder gospel, today's reading, a dispute next week about what Jesus is talking about, and finally, concludes with the hard realization that not everyone will choose to follow Jesus.

As I said, last week was the placeholder gospel that reflected on the feeding of the 5000 and its anticipation of things to come.  That gospel closed with the line, “I am the bread of life.”  Today's gospel reading opens with that very same line, and, if you noticed, those gathered around did their best Ricky Ricardo impersonation and said, “Jesus . . . you got some 'splainin' to do.”

This is where we are today:  Jesus is trying to address the complaints and explain this whole “bread of life” thing.

First, the complaints.  The people complain about Jesus because he makes the claim that he is from heaven and it is he who will feed the people.  And, like those in his home town who rejected him, they also put constraints and limits on him because they claim to know him.

In some ways these are the same complaints issued against Jesus today.  He's really not the Son of God.  He must have been crazy to imagine his body and blood feeding people.  There's really nothing compelling about him.  Or, possibly worst of all, we know who Jesus is and we will use our definition to ensure that he fits within the rules and constraints which we have established.

The second thing we need to examine is the explanation Jesus gives.

Last week in response to Jesus talking about the true bread from heaven, the people said, “Give us this bread always.”  They had just been fed by Jesus.  They were probably looking for someone who could perform miraculous signs.  And, in their poverty, they would welcome someone who could feed them always.  But instead of offering them physical food, Jesus offers himself.

Ancient Israelites ate bread from heaven in the wilderness and died.  But unlike that bread, Jesus is the true bread.  Unlike that bread which offered temporary life, Jesus is the bread which provides eternal life.  Jesus is the bread that is given always.  In essence, Jesus is making an argument that he and God are one.

But this is not easy for people to understand, and in two weeks we will hear many disciples say that these are difficult words and turn away.  So Jesus doesn't explain as much as he restates that he and God are one and the people need to accept that.

This gives us two problems.  The first is what the early church faced from the non-Christians of the day, and that was a literal reading of the text which caused them to be labeled as cannibals.  If we only know one thing of John, it's that we can't always read him in a literal sense.

The second problem is the over-spiritualization of the text.  It seems to me that this passage (and others like it) are used to promote a pie-in-the-sky fantasy.  While an eternal life resting in the presence of God almighty might be what's in store, we cannot let that fantasy keep us from attending to the needs of the here and now.  Nor can we use it as a carrot in an attempt to keep certain people happy with their lot in life.

In the end, what do we do with this?  What do we do with a passage and series that, on its surface, appears to be cannibalistic while also coming across as too spiritual to be of any earthly good?  I think we need to look for a meaning that transcends both the completely literal and the completely spiritual.  I think we need to look for a practical answer that rests somewhere in the middle.

One of the questions I asked last week had to do with nourishment.  Where do you get your nourishment?  Are you being nourished, or are you just fighting off the pangs of hunger?  How much work is involved in providing nourishment?  I want to delve into that line of questioning a little deeper today.

Why do we eat?  We eat for nourishment.  We eat for fun.  We eat with friends and family.  We eat to get to know someone.  We eat when we are happy.  We eat when we are sad (my wife introduced our daughter from Prague to the benefits of chocolate ice cream after her recent breakup).  We eat in community and we eat alone.

Eating is central to our lives, and we eat for a variety of reasons and at a variety of times.

Eat my flesh.  Drink my blood.  What I think Jesus is telling us is that, by treating him as food, we make him central to our lives.  In Jesus we gain spiritual nourishment.  In him we find joy.  In him we gather in community.  In him we get to know others.  In him we find solace.

And maybe that's the point here: that Jesus is asking us to make him as central to our lives as food.  Jesus is life because he is central to our lives.  Jesus is life because he encompasses all that life encompasses.  And Jesus is eternal because he is from and of God.

“I am the bread of life” is one of the holy mysteries of the Church.  But this mystery isn't a mystery to be solved.  Like our daily bread, this is a mystery to be eternally lived.



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