August 12, 2018

Pentecost 12   August 12, 2018   (Psalm 34, 1 Kings 19:4-8, Ephesians 4:1-16) John 6:35, 41-51    Eat this bread

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Jesus heals the sick and the crowds seek him out. Jesus feeds five thousand from two little fishes and five small loaves of bread and crowds try to make him king. But when Jesus refuses to give a repeat performance, and accuses the crowds of caring more about food than about life eternal, people get crabby and testy, and test the patience of Jesus…

“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” the philosopher Santayana said.

Israel of old tested God and Moses in the wilderness – complaining, murmuring, saying ‘let’s go back to slavery in Egypt, the food was better there.’ Now many who’ve been following Jesus start acting as if Jesus needs to audition with them for the role of Messiah. Like ‘Nice miracle, Jesus. But Moses got us manna every day for forty years. You’ve only fed us once. Come on, show us something new. What else you can do?’ Like we’re the hiring committee, and you’re the job seeker.’

Jesus points out the similarity between their behavior and Israel’s of old – reminding them “Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness – and they died.”  “I am the bread of life. Eat this bread and you won’t hunger. Eat this bread and live forever.” Now the grumbling gets even worse…

It’s probably not the metaphor of spiritual bread that’s the problem. The crowds themselves have called manna of old “bread from heaven.” Many know the prophet Isaiah’s words (in our Thought for the Week): “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich food.” Many remember the cake of bread the angel gave the prophet Elijah – physical and spiritual bread that sustained Elijah through forty days and nights of travel. They surely know Psalm 34’s exhortation – “O taste and see that the Lord is good…”  Israel’s scriptures are a verbal feast of food symbolism. Long before money came into being bread was the bible’s main symbol for prosperity and human flourishing. Jesus taught us to pray “give us this day our daily bread…” He didn’t say “give us this day our daily wages…” People understood bread as a metaphor for life…

The problem the crowd’s having isn’t about Jesus’s use of bread as a symbol for life. It’s about Jesus naming himself as the life-giving bread. As now crowds grumble and murmur all the more, as what Jesus says starts to sink in. Now they say: “Isn’t this the Jesus we know? We know his parents. We know where he comes from. Where’s he get this talk about ‘I have come down from heaven?’ Who does he think he is?”

Jesus has been telling them who he is. He says four times – I am the bread of life –  I am the bread that came down from heaven – (again –) I am the bread of life – (again–) I am the living bread that came down from heaven.’ The four-fold repetition – I Am, I Am, I Am, I Am – ought to jog memories and get us remembering – God revealing himself to Moses in the burning bush that burns and burns and the fire won’t go out – and when Moses draws near to see what’s going on he hears the voice of God say, “take off your shoes, you’re on holy ground” –  and Moses begs God “tell me your name” and “What should I say when people ask me who it was that spoke to you?” – God tells Moses –  “Tell them ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ Tell them ‘I AM has sent me.’” (Exodus 3:13-14)

God is beyond all naming – any name we can come up with for God is always going to be insufficient and partial at best. Any description of God we can ever make is always going to be at best very incomplete. Any God we can completely define is not the real God, but rather a god of our own creation – an idol.

But I AM is the name the Lord God Most High uses to name himself  – when pressed for a name by one of his most faithful servants – an open-ended name that’s more-or-less-equally translatable as “I AM” or “I AM WHO I AM” or “I AM WHO I WILL BE.”

And yes we’re supposed to make the connection – Jesus and God the Father sharing the same I AM name – when Jesus says “I am the bread of life… I am the bread that came down from heaven…”

And yes – this a very big leap to make – especially for first-time hearers – connecting Jesus, who clearly is human – with God. People are telling the truth, as far as they know – when they say they know Jesus, and know his parents – so it’s hard for them to connect human Jesus whom they think they know – with God Almighty whom they also think they know. Though in truth they don’t know either nearly as well as they think…

And in fact it’s impossible to make the connection – unless we are willing to be open to admitting we don’t know Jesus as well as we think – and we don’t know God as well as we think… Otherwise it’s virtually an impossible leap of faith to connect up all Jesus says – and recognize – Jesus’ name is the same name as God’s name – I AM – unless we can believe Jesus is both human and divine. As CS Lewis the Christian author said – Jesus’ “I am” sayings (today we’re hearing just the first of seven in John) virtually require us to hear Jesus either as God – or as someone really out their mind.

(Not to say there’s never been Jesus imitators who earn the loony label. Back in the late sixties now and then someone would come down from a trip thinking they were Jesus. None of them, as I recall, could ever multiply loaves and fishes, heal the sick or raise the dead… Just saying…Lewis is probably right in calling attention to the edginess of Jesus in John… There’s not a lot of wiggle room in John for half-way believing in Jesus is God.)

Which is the main plot of John’s gospel – God the Father revealing himself through Jesus the Son. God inviting us to become children of God, living the life of God that lasts forever through Jesus. The story of God who made heaven and earth and all that fills them – inviting us to live with God forever through Jesus – the Great I am embodied in human flesh. (No spoiler alert here, since John the gospel writer tells us all this in his opening verses.)

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“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” Santayana said.

And Kurt Vonnegut, the once-upon-a-time Cape Cod novelist said, “I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”

Vonnegut was a keen observer of history who had a lot of exposure to the dark side of history. As a young army enlistee in World War II he was taken prisoner by German forces in the Battle of the Bulge. He survived the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden only because he was imprisoned deep underground in a subterranean slaughter house. His best known novel, Slaughterhouse Five tells some of that story… But like all of us, Vonnegut saw history subjectively. Me too.

As one who has seen only a short brief span of history and that selectively – though I’m still studying, still observing, still learning – I believe we’re both doomed and blessed to repeat the past – selectively – as we also remember the past – selectively.

The songs and stories and history I remember may be similar – or different – from the songs, stories and history you remember. Even when our lives and histories overlap and coincide, we all have personal and family histories that are distinct from and yet inter-related with one another… So… We each remember history differently… and repeat history differently….And… So it has always been…

In the church’s history of interpretation some have always heard the accents falling on the exclusive claims of the gospel – “no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (6:44) and “”no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father” (6:65)… Others through the ages have always heard the accents falling on the universal love of God – as in our last verse today – “I am the living bread that came down from heaven…. and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (6:51)… This last verse reminds me of “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…” (3:16) But –

Both the exclusive and the inclusive themes are there – each with it’s part in the divine symphony. I may be guilty of wishful thinking – but I can’t believe God is going to condemn all atheists (including Kurt Vonnegut, decorated war veteran and committed peace-maker), agnostics, and believers in other religions to eternal damnation for lack of proper or sufficient faith… I don’t know this for a fact – but I’m guessing God’s interpretation of faith is more generous than my own…

I believe most of us will need some serious scrubbing and cleaning up –  maybe some long time-outs in some kind of holy holding place – to get us to where we rightly believe in the sense God intends… But I know I don’t know the inner working of the mind of God…

What I do know for sure – is that Jesus loves us – and God is love – pure universal love – for the bible tells me so. The technical mechanics of salvation I don’t claim to know. But I believe the divine menu of holy metaphor permits multiple interpretations… if we love God and love one another…

I know there’s a lot about God I don’t know. But I do know it’s only God the great I AM – and Jesus, one with the Father – who is Lord of history. The only One able to free us from the power of the darkness of history… Free us to be able to live out of the shadows of the past into true newness of life…

Where we can eat of the Bread of Life in peace and joy and live…

With Jesus… together…

Forever…

Thanks be to God. Amen.