Year B, Proper 13 August 2, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“I am the bread of life.”
Good morning everyone. I’ve missed you all! I’ve been away for three weeks as we went visiting our families in New England. Thank you for the time away! It was restful and fun, the girls had a blast with their cousins and we got to spend a lot of time on a lake in Maine and a beach in Gloucester. We spent time in extremely beautiful places, and all in the not always uncomplicated sanctuary of family, and we’re back and very glad to be here. Thank you to everyone who carried the parish in my absence. In particular, thanks to Kevin Gore who led Morning and Evening prayer in my stead. He’s off to seminary soon and I think that the church has found a good one in him. (And I hear that even after three weeks in a row up here he still wants to go)!
I hope everyone has been getting on with this heat. I spent three years living in the middle of the Mohave Desert and the past few days have been average summer days for Twenty-nine Palms, California… in other words, brutal. Please keep our unhoused brothers and sisters in your prayers, and those who don’t have the resources to keep fans or A/C running as much as they need or whose health makes the heat even less suffer-able. And pray for the fire fighters! It is going to be quite a season for them. Heat like this makes things very real.
Real. What is real. That is a hard place for people of faith, knowing what is real and what is not and then living in accordance with that knowledge. Even the most rigorous, “objective” scientists spend careers arguing about the nature of very real, very seen things, so when we consider the realm of the spirit, the spiritual, the unseen, as the Nicene Creed calls it, all bets on clarity are off. And that is really the center of this entire chapter of St. John’s gospel.
Our Gospel lectionary, starting last week and running through the next three Sundays, all come from the 6th chapter of St. John’s Gospel, and it is all about the metaphor “bread.” “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” It doesn’t get any more real than that, hunger and thirst and their cure. But it is not quite that simple.
The story contained in John 6 is, however, quite simple, but simple does not always mean understandable. It started last week with the feeding of the 5000, a primary miracle story from the life of Christ. It then tells the story of the running conversation between Jesus and the crowd about why Jesus was incarnate. Large crowds had assembled to hear Him preach and maybe witness a miracle or two. Well they got what they came for on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Then Jesus and the disciples slipped away unnoticed, stealing off across the sea (them in a boat, Jesus on foot). This week, the crowd tracks Jesus down in Capernaum and confronts him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” And He replies, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not,” He says, “work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”
They didn’t understand, so the crowd pressed Him for details. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” they ask. “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we might see and believe you?” they ask. “Sir, give us this bread, always.” they cry.
For me, and for a goodly portion of the folks in this room, understanding, comprehending is very important. We don’t have as high a per capita rate of advanced degrees here for nothing. Many of us are in the knowing business, so of course our religion and our God follows suit. Mo. Nancy gave me a book for Christmas, a little festschrift called Loving God with Our Minds. It would go over pretty well here.
We have a picture in our minds of what we want to follow, of what we think a Savior or a God is, or is supposed to be. (Caution, most often it is in the image of what we want that God and Savior to be). And for many of us, not only here in this highly educated parish, but across the Episcopal Church, and other main line, liberal protestant denominations in the U.S., understanding, comprehensibility is a primary attribute of God. This is part of our complicate inheritance from the Reformation and later Enlightenment. Marcus Borg is very popular in these circles (and I deeply appreciate his work), but he is so popular largely because he takes the incomprehensibility of God and fits it rather neatly into digestible concepts that fit the mystery of faith into liberal academically definable frameworks. He files off the edges of the spiritual fractals that we get hung up on so they fit into our neat systems. And, and that is very helpful, but that is not the whole picture. That is not what we get when we listen to Jesus, particularly the Jesus Christ we meet in the Gospel according to John.
We’re broken hearted. Grieving. Fearing the loss of a loved one, of the security of a relationship, of a job, a means to support yourself and your family. We can’t face who our mother actually is because that accounting will put you and your entire life, your self into question, so what do we seek but a rock upon which to rebuild. Or our intellectual system, our understanding of the world needs a sure foundation, one eagerly provided for my myriad forces, the church being a primary go to place for a foundation of the meaning of life. (The culture, the economy, an industry of self-help and spiritual resources offer competing starting points for a meaning of life). And of course we want that, we want some place solid, concrete from which to start knowing the world and our place in it. As the psalmist says, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all knowledge, right? God is the place to start and to start with God as a Christian, we start with Christ.
Those people flocking by the thousands to Jesus wanted the same things, security, surety, something they knew was worth believing in. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” we ask with the crowds in Capernaum? Answer: “Believe in him whom he (God) has sent.” That is the work of God?
“What sign are you going to give us then, so that we might see and believe you?” (They reference Moses’ gift of Manna in the wilderness as being the sort of sign that would be sufficient). And Jesus replies, that it was God, not Moses, who fed Israel in the desert, and that it is “the bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir, give us this bread always!” they cry, and Jesus answers, “I am the bread of life…”
We all want surety of some kind. Or clarity. Or at least knowing that what we are doing and believing in is real, worth our time, will provide us some benefit some way, somehow… When we face the dark nights of our souls or our lower backs or our T-cell counts, we need a God of strength and power and clarity. And what do we get, bread? What do we get, a peasant hung from a cross with a couple of thieves, abandoned, forsaken, forgotten?
We want the strength of God brought to us in Jesus Christ and what we get is weakness. Defeat. A broken body on a filthy cross. That is what we get, weakness and failure and confusingly it is delivered to us in grandeur, in the stone of massive cathedrals, in gilt pages in expensive tomes, from the mouths of the established and highly educated.
And Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”
“…the food that endures for eternal life…”? There is nothing comprehensible about any of this. There is little that makes sense either now or two thousand years ago it would seem. Understanding is inadequate to the task at hand. As one commentator writes, “…surface comprehension, mere intellectual assent, is inadequate to the truth under consideration.”
“I am the bread of life.” That is what Jesus Christ offers, bread. Himself. His body and blood, broken and shed. It is not anything to understand or even can be understood. But time and time again, across the centuries, throughout your life, in this very moment, we have the opportunity, the invitation, the divine order from on high to experience God, to encounter the creator of light and source of life in every tree you pass, in every face you see, in every mote and speck of this world. And much to my chagrin we find that not in words, but in the Word, the Word made flesh and dwelling among us.
John Calvin said regarding the Eucharist that he’d rather experience it than understand it. Shall we continue there? AMEN