John 6:35, 41-51
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.”
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’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
Too often, religion is used to divide. Belonging to a faith community may seem more like rooting for a sports team or even a country as in the Olympic Games. But, even that analogy points out the disconnect from what sports participation and fandom should be and the reality of what it is. Simone Biles, widely acknowledged to be the greatest gymnast of all time, decided to withdraw from parts of this year’s Olympics in order to preserve her mental health. It was a bold and courageous move on many levels.
And when she did there was support and there was backlash. I wonder what the people she grew up with thought. Like those who new Jesus were they disappointed, or were they more supportive.
The prioritization of mental health and well-being is a counter cultural stance to take in a world that indoctrinates us to base our value on our economic output and productivity. Unfortunately, the topic of mental health still carries a stigma weighted down by devaluation and shame in a way no longer associated with most illnesses. Simone’s transparency about her struggles received well-deserved accolades and well-wishes from around the world. At the same time, shame and condescentation poured forth from those who see athletes, not as people, but as commodities for their entertainment and enjoyment. Walking away from the pinnacle of recognition and glory was an audacious statement that Ms. Biles is more than her medals and taking care of herself means more than standing on the Olympic podium.
Of course, it’s only audacious because of a culture that considers self-care to be a luxury rather than a way of life and prizes winning over being.
The Gospel according to John is structured around signs and sermons. Jesus performs a miracle or some action that points to his divine nature, and then, he provides an explanation that points to his motivation to enter into humanity. The lectionary has walked us through this chapter that includes multiple miracles and moments of teaching.
This passage comes after Jesus has fed the multitude, escaped the plot to crown him, and walked on water.
As a result, Jesus now finds himself in a preaching moment as he uses “bread of life” as a metaphor to illuminate his presence among them.
Once again I find that the crowd who follows Jesus speaks for us, or at least for me. St. John narrates that these people who have followed Jesus, regarded him as a teacher, and witnessed his miracles, also know him as one of their own. That is, they knew his parents and his brothers and sisters, they watched him play and learn his trade, grow up and eventually leave home. In other words, they know him, just like they know all the kids from their old neighborhood. And for this reason, you see—because he is just like them, because he is common—he can’t be all that special, and he certainly can’t be the one God sent for redemption.
And so, once again, I find that the crowd speaks for us, or at least for me. For when I am in need or distress, when I am hurt or afraid, I want to see a God who shows in strength and through miracles, I want to call upon a God who answers clearly and quickly, and I want to rely on a God who is there, really there, when you need him.
Litle wonder, then, that the people in the crowd—and perhaps all of us—are put off, offended, angered even, by Jesus’ suggestion that he, a man just as they are, is the answer to their deepest longings and greatest needs.
And why not? Think of the this seemingly crazy claim that Jesus is making. Who ever heard of a God having anything to do with the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane, the dirty? Gods are made for greatness, not grime; they supposed to reside up in the clouds, not down here with the commoners. I mean, who ever heard of a God who is willing to suffer the pains and problems, the indecencies and embarrassments of human life? It’s down right laughable.
No wonder the crowd grumbles against Jesus’ words, for such words seem to make fun of their understanding of God’s majesty and, even worse, to mock their own deep need for a God who transcends the very life which is causing them so much difficulty.
No wonder they’re upset. They know, first-hand, of their own flaws and shortcomings, of their own faithlessness and failures. They know of their doubts and fears, too, of their betrayals and broken promises, their petty grudges and foolish prejudices. They know all the shame and disappointment and regret which each person carries around on his or her back like a snail carries its shell. And so if Jesus is really like they are, then they are doomed. For how can someone who is like them save. How, even, can one like them be saved? And so they grumble because they are angry, yes, but even more because they are afraid, afraid that, in the end, they’re really not worth saving.
So, are we all that different? I know that I, at least, am not. For rarely does a day go by that I don’t think of just how fragile is the foundation upon which we base our faith. I mean, really, can the words I speak in my sermons make much of a difference? Shouldn’t someone more eloquent preach, or a heavenly chorus sing God’s praise? And the water we use in Baptism: it’s not holy, or special, or different. It’s from the same tap from which we drink and bathe and brush our teeth. Same with the bread and wine of communion—these aren’t special either. They’re ordinary, common, mundane; hardly worthy of God’s attention, let alone God’s use.
And yet…we are bold enough, audacious enough, perhaps in some people’s eyes even foolish enough, to confess that God does use such ordinary things, such common elements, to achieve God’s will and to bring to the world God’s salvation.
How? Why? we might well ask. Because of this very one, Jesus, who was common, ordinary, mortal like you and me, and yet who was also uncommon, divine, the very Son of God. This is the claim Jesus makes in today’s gospel reading, the claim which offended the crowd who followed him then, the claim which still offends any who take it seriously today. For where we expect God to come in might, 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 form a God—we find God (or rather are found by God!) in forgiveness and mercy.
This is the claim and promise Jesus makes today: that God became incarnate; that is, became carnal, took on flesh, became just like us, so that God might save us and all people who come to faith by God’s word!
The carnal God; the God who does not despise the ordinary and common but rather who seeks such out by which to achieve God’s will: this is the promise that rests behind the sacraments. For as God does not despise water, bread, or wine, such ordinary, common things, so we also know that God does not despise or abandon us, who are similarly such ordinary and common people. And so in the sacraments we find God’s promise to take hold of us and make us God’s own, to remain with us and to never let us go.
But we also find in the sacraments another promise which God makes to us.
It is the promise not only to redeem us, but also to use us—to make use of our skills and talents, inadequate or insufficient though they may seem, to continue God’s work of creating, redeeming, and sustaining all that is. And that, also, is an incredible promise.
Over the years, I’ve wondered whether, after praying with someone in the hospital, if they were disappointed when I gave God thanks for the machines and instruments to which they or their loved one is attached, for the pharmaceutical companies which make the drugs and for the trucks which deliver them, for the people who keep the hospital clean as well as for the nurses and doctors who attend to them. I wonder, at times, if they would rather have me pray simply for healing, or for a miracle, or for something more dramatic.
And yet I do find it so very dramatic, surprising, and encouraging that God would work through technology and instruments, through bottom-line corporations and imperfect labor unions, through ordinary, human, doctors and nurses with short tempers or poor bed-side manners. Just as I find it amazing and miraculous that God works through flawed pastors, jaded teachers, worn-out secretaries, over-worked government officials, exhausted parents, and the like—that God would choose these and so many other unlikely candidates through whom to work, even when they don’t suspect it.
And yet this promise, too, we find in the sacraments. For just as surely as God uses ordinary bread and wine to bring to us God’s saving word, so does God also use each of us to accomplish God’s will and work in God’s world.
Now, I know, it can be so very hard at times to see God at work through our instruments, our labors, and our lives. But for this reason, also, God gives us the sacraments. For at the Font, at the Table God speaks to us most clearly, as God’s promise of forgiveness and acceptance, of wholeness and of life, is given to each of us in a form we not only can hear, but also see, taste, touch, and feel. And so the sacraments bid us to raise our eyes from the confusion and ambiguity of life for a moment, just a moment, so that we may receive God’s audacious and faith-provoking promises and thereby return to our lives in this confusing world with courage and hope.