August 12, 2018, 12th Sunday after Pentecost PR 14 YR B
Year B, 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14
August 12, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“I am the bread of life.”
Good morning everyone! It is good to be back here after a couple of weeks back East! We
spent a week on the North Shore of Boston with my family and a week on a lake in Maine with
Windy’s. We had good, I mean good Italian subs and a clambake… two things you cannot get this
far west. And there were cousins and kayaks and connecting with family and all the trappings of
summer. It was a good rest. And, it is very good to be back here where it is neither humid nor
crowded. There are a lot of people back there, and they all seem to be trying to get somewhere at
the same time! And you all aren’t back there. I do love and appreciate you all and this community.
Thank you for the time away, and thank you to everyone who made that possible. All the worship
leaders, preachers, Jerry our Senior Warden, Mo. Jo on pastoral call, and all of you keeping up with
what you do around here, praying and coming to church and paving parking lots… thank you.
It is August, the smoky days of late summer and today we are in St. John’s gospel. John can
be tough. It give us some of the most resonate and beautiful language and imagery of our faith and
some of the most striking challenges to our faith. You can feel ok about feeling uncomfortable with
this gospel. It is not very comfortable. That’s a good Christian rule of thumb: if it is too
comfortable, too easy or too palatable, it’s probably not Jesus. Jesus is the hard case, the narrow
gate, the mighty effort. The fourth and latest gospel is all of those things. On one hand, it is so
seemingly abstract, so floating out there in the nousphere. “In the beginning was the Word…”
Water transformed into wine, or walking across the sea. It is His long, theologically dense and hard
to decipher discourses. The Disciple who loved Him. Deep water. On the other hand, John gets
very concrete in ways that to modern ears, liberal ones especially, are hard to take in. Those “I am”
statements are like that: “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the way, the
truth and the life.” Unequivocal. And those unequivocal claims of identity are backed up with some
equally unequivocal theological claims. Think John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave
his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Or
14:6 “No one comes to the father except through me.” And conversely, today’s verse 44 “No one
comes to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me…” What does it all mean? Or more
disturbingly, does it really mean that? Does Jesus really mean that, that He is all those things, that
He is the only way? There is not a lot of wiggle room in this Gospel, not a lot of place for us to hide
from truth claims by and about Jesus, the universe and everything. It is a post-enlightenment, liberal
nightmare! To take this gospel seriously, we really need to decide for ourselves: is Jesus who He says
he is? (A hint: we need to take this gospel seriously).
I used to be just plain old scared of John. My biggest reservations of the Christian faith were
played out in those kind of verses with their certainty about the nature of things, God in particular; with
their exclusivist claims that this is the only way and you are damned, quite literally, if you don’t
follow it. Coming from outside the faith, why would we believe this? It is totally self-referential.
There are a couple of miracles, some healings are described and we hear some testimony, that’s
pretty convincing, but in the end, we are called to believe this because St. John said that Jesus said
He was those things? Is that the expectation? Well… yes. We are supposed to believe this, believe
that Jesus is the bread of life, is the light of the world, is the way, is the truth, is the life and that
through Him we come to God (and through God we come to Him). We are supposed to believe,
supposed to have faith, supposed to take refuge in, to trust that God is in fact what we hope God to
be, is in fact what God promises God is. Wheh… I don’t know about you, but thinking that way
makes me feel kind of funny inside, and not in a particularly good way. It is a stretch for a lot of us.
It scares me to think about believing all that. That is not me, it is unreasonable, unenlightened. Isn’t
that the first step to fundamentalism? Or maybe the concern is what do I have to do and be if I
have that kind of faith in Jesus Christ, you know, heart wide-open religious faith? What do I have to
give up to do that, to be that, to believe?
I don’t know about all of that, but I do know that this reading today, probably the whole of
John’s gospel actually, but this pericope for sure is about grace. Grace. The undeserved, unearned,
un-worked for love and action of God. Grace. That’s good news, grace is good news because grace
lets us off the hook in some very important ways. It is more important as a get-out-of-jail-free card
than “mystery”, it sort of gets us out of everything, every argument about reason-ability, because
grace is not reasonable, or rational, nor is it about you. It is not about what do or fail to do, what
you believe or don’t believe, feel or don’t feel. It is not about what you have faith in or don’t have
faith in. The grace that God is offering through the good offices of St. John the Evangelist is that
getting to God through Jesus (or to Jesus through God), is not up to us. It is up to God. That is
what the little story of Jesus telling us that He is the bread of life is about.
“I am the bread of life.” That is where last week’s reading ended and this week’s begins.
Jesus was having a conversation with the Jews (One note, a more helpful rendering of “the Jews”
would have been “the Jewish opposition”). They were not buying what He was selling so they
“complain about him.” This complaining or grumbling is similar to Israel’s grumbling that led to the
manna miracle in Exodus… that would be an interesting thread to tug at; maybe in three years when
this reading comes around again. They grumble that he says He is from heaven because they know
Him, (the human part at least). He is Joseph and Mary’s son; He’s not from heaven, he’s from
Nazareth. (And everyone knew that nothing good comes from Nazareth, a pre-modern sort of
West Virginia joke,). And Jesus’ response is very simple and full of grace: Stop complaining. That is
the only thing He tells them to do, the only directions He gives them. Stop actively working against
me and what I am saying/doing/being. That is all you need to do; the rest is in God’s hand. God
will call you. He tells them, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me…” This,
faith, believing in Him doesn’t happen by your own effort. As one commentator writes, “You just
don’t come to faith by yourself, through your own deduction, reasoning and insight alone. You are
wooed, invited, even cajoled.” All Jesus asked the opposition (and by extension, us) to do is to just
stop grumbling, stop saying “no.”
There is a branch of theology called Process Theology. It is kind of complicated and is not
always in fashion, I’m not sure where it stands now in the academy, but one helpful and beautiful
notion it offers is about how God’s power works. Process theology posits that God does not coerce
or force us into anything, that is not how God’s power works. Rather God’s power manifests as
“yearning love” within our own hearts. God can’t (or at least doesn’t) make us do things, we can
resist. This theology implies that God is maybe not all-powerful, but it allows for God to be all-loving.
And it is that love that draws us in, it is that love that Jesus is talking about when He says
that “no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father…” Like St. Augustine said, “…our
preaching in only noise to the ears unless listeners are drawn by the Father’s love to hear it.” I fear,
and at the same time am glad, that this is the truth.
Sure we can work ourselves up into a frenzy through extreme asceticism, long fasts, sleep
deprivation can do it, or joining a whole bunch of other people all leaning into the ecstasy of
common experience and common belief, nationalist demagogues are as good at that as religious
charismatics, but that is not where it comes from, not true “belief” not true heart opening, eye
widening, mind bending, soul eviscerating faith. That sort of thing, the sort of thing Jesus is talking
about here in John chapter 6, is about grace, God’s undeserved and radical invitation in love
embodied in the life sustaining flesh of an only Son. Accepting that love and the graceful power
that comes with it takes surrender. It takes letting go. As our 12 step friends admirably strive
towards, let go, let God. Open yourself to receive the grace of faith, and I’m not always convinced
that we can even do that. Maybe the best we can do is to just stop saying no to it.
And this can be inviting some high adventure. Because if you really let go, really surrender,
really submit to and accept the powerful, yearning, grace-given, life-sustaining love like Jesus is
talking about here, O! The places you will go! This is where we get people who actually give away all
their belongings to the poor and follow Him. This is where we find the people who will march
peacefully into ranks of police and white supremacists. This is where people who stand up against
tyranny, heedless of the personal costs come from. This is how you end up choosing to lose your
life in order to save it. This is how you experience resurrection.
Now the question really comes down to this: Do you want that? Do you want to have faith
that tells you that Jesus Christ, the Jewish peasant dead now 2000 years, that He, His presence in
your life, in the world itself is as basic to your life as the force of life itself? Is as important as a
shepherd is to her sheep? Is as necessary to your subsistence as bread? He is the bread of life. Are
you willing to not put reason aside, but transcend it? To live into God with your heart, soul and
body as much as your mind? To risk succumbing to the foolishness of Christ and have life, and
have it abundantly? Is that what you want? I do think it what we all need, but is it what you want?
And are you willing to let it happen? To stop saying no to it? To accept that the grace of our Lord
Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit will be with us all evermore?
This is not a sermon with a lot of answers, but is rather one with a lot of questions.
Questions for you.
Why are you here? On earth; in your life; at church, at this church?
What do you want? What do you need? What do you hope for?
Who is God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth? Who is Jesus Christ, the Son, the
redeemer of the world? Who is the Holy Spirit, the giver and sustainer of life?
Jesus tells us that He is the bread of life. “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are
they who trust in him!” AMEN