We are in week three of our journey through the Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John. We have two more weeks to try and grasp the nature of salvation in Christ and what it means that he is the Bread of Life. No pressure.
At times though we are content to leave some things to be mysteries of faith. That’s not necessarily bad. There are many aspects of the Christian faith that our Orthodox brothers and sisters are content to simply explain that it is a mystery. In the Western tradition we are never content and so we send theologians and philosophers down rabbit trails trying to explain the truest natures of God. Which even from the beginning we know cannot be fully explained. Yet they try all the same.
One thing that is not much of a mystery is that there are a couple of difficult parts to today’s Gospel and I want to focus on those, talk through them a but and offer some context, both literary and theological. Now, anyone who was following along with me realized very quickly that I read more than what’s on your bulletin inserts. Let me explain that. The Revised Common Lectionary, the collection of readings laid out for use in many mainline Protestant traditions, has left out a portion of the Gospel. I think this was done rather intentionally.
Left out are verses 36 through 40: “But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
One of the reasons why this section may have been left out is that it is, taken with the rest of the discourse, theologically difficult to untangle from a very Calvinist understanding of Predestination. One can begin to insinuate that only certain people are ‘drawn to the father’ as Jesus says, and those few are raised up on the last day. This is, of course, not what is meant by this passage, but it certainly has been appropriated in the past. It could be that the editors felt it was simply repetitive in the discourse. But I decided to leave it in. I did this because it paints this scene with a broader brush. It lends depth to the conversation and interaction between Jesus and those gathered.
While not flipping tables in the temple levels of confrontational Jesus is making his feelings pretty clear here to the people gathered that their doubt and their questions are based in the same parallel to the people that were following Moses in the wilderness and no matter what God provided them, they asked for something more. Jesus is offering a different path than the one these people currently live, but to grasp it, to understand that this is about more than just eating your fill sitting on the abundant grass is going to take some work.
Now, before I talk about more about what Jesus is calling us to, there is one other quick point to make. It is always incumbent upon those that preach to address places in sacred text that have been historically problematic. In this case I’m looking specifically at verse 41. “The Jews began to complain about him…” The Gospel of John can at times make us very uncomfortable in how it addresses the role of the jewish people in the narrative. And this is one of those moments. The Gospel of John is written at a time when the early Christians were separating their identity from the other Jewish sects. They were emerging as something other than another group like the Pharisees or the Essenes. So the author of this Gospel then is writing into it a clear distinction between the Jewish people and Jesus and his followers. It’s part of the reason that this Gospel also attempts to put the blame of the crucifixion on the Jewish people, but we will have plenty of opportunity to talk about that in a few months.
The other use of writing this way is that these nameless groups of Jewish people that are saying things like muttering against Jesus is more of a literary device that acts like the chorus of a classical Greek play. It’s not to say these things aren’t being muttered about Jesus, it’s more to show that we don’t have a clear understanding of who said them, but it’s important to be said. I know that seems like a little bit of a segue, but as I said, it is the responsibility of a preacher to cast like on the sticky places in our Holy Scripture. Now, that muttering does really serve a purpose. These questions could be rhetorical. Who is this Jesus who is saying he’s come down from Heaven? We watched him grow up. Joseph is his father. Surely he isn’t some celestial being!
They can’t accept this idea that Jesus, the Christ incarnate, the Logos, is sent by God for the salvation of humanity. They are failing, as Bishop Larry put it so well last week, to see the good in what they’ve got right in front of them. Jesus is trying to explain to them that he’s like the manna from heaven, but that the result of eating this other bread is different from the bread of their ancestors. The people that had gathered and were fed only felt satiated for a small time. When the next day came they were physically hungry again. What Jesus is teaching them now is not that following Jesus means you will never go hungry.
I have talked to you about abundance and how living into the abundance of the Kingdom of God is important in following Jesus. So I don’t want it to get confusing here that Jesus is refuting that abundance. He’s not. What he is making clear is that he is greater than any miracle of feeding the multitude and that following him, taking into ourselves fully the path that Christ lays out for us is how we take hold of the faith of an abundant existence for all eternity. He’s talking about being gathered into the loving embrace of God and on that last day entering into the joy of the eternal Kingdom.
Jesus knows that here in this world there is still suffering, and there always will be. He knows that no matter how many times you feed the five thousand, they will be hungry again the next morning. So the next step is to show them a path to an existence that will one day be truly free of all that strife. That doesn’t mean we don’t work to do those things Christ asks of us in the here and now. Feeding people, reaching out to those in pain and need, those are effects of the Christian life. First we feed on the bread of Heaven, and strengthen ourselves with the Good News of Salvation and God’s love. Then we reflect that all out to the world in the best, human, here and now ways we can. I dare say that is something you and I can always be working to improve in ourselves.
The Rev. Kevin Gore, AF