August 10, 2015 by jmar198013
My sermon from Central Church in Stockton, CA Sunday August 9, 2015.
Alright, church—we’re now in our third week exploring John’s Gospel. Here’s the terrain we’ve covered so far. First, we encountered Jesus in the wilderness. We saw him feed a crowd of 5,000 people using only five loaves of barley bread and two dried fish from a boy’s packed lunch. There were twelve baskets of leftovers gathered—enough to feed each of Israel’s tribes. Then we watched Jesus walk across the sea, carrying his disciples with him. And then we overheard a conversation between Jesus and the hungry people he had fed the day before. Isn’t he going to keep feeding them? Won’t he provide manna for them like Moses had given Israel in the wilderness? Jesus affirms that he will indeed feed them, though it may not be in the same way he had fed them before. My Father gives you the true bread from heaven, he tells them. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6.32, 35). Feeding twelve tribes in the wilderness. Leading his people across a sea. Around the time of Passover. Giving bread and water in the wilderness. We’re in familiar geography, biblically speaking—aren’t we? Haven’t we been here before? Where does this place look like, sound like, feel like? Right—the Exodus. Jesus is leading whoever will follow him on a new Exodus. Liberation. Freedom. A promised land. A land flowing with milk and honey—or loaves and fishes, as the case may be. Away from the Egypt and Babylon and Rome of our time, into the wide open space of eternal life. But wouldn’t you know it—there’s this nasty, vicious thing that seems to accompany most any Exodus: Grumbling. People freak out. They see all this unfamiliar land. Their senses magnify dangers and threats. People who feel walled in by the unfamiliar will tend to white knuckle what they already know. They may even want to turn around and go back to wherever they came from. No matter how ugly it was. We’ve heard about that in last week’s Old Testament reading: In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses . . . “In Egypt . . . we . . . ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Exod. 16.2-3) Well, in our Gospel reading today—and this is interesting—it’s not the hungry people who start grumbling against Jesus over bread. It’s some haters on the fringes. Latecomers to the conversation. Eavesdroppers dipping their finger in the Kool-Aid and ain’t even know the flavor. As our Gospel lesson for today begins, John tells us: The Jewish opposition grumbled about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
Now, before we journey deeper into the story, I want to take us down a little side-road. The translation I prefer says at the beginning of this episode that: The Jewish opposition grumbled about him. Did you notice a difference? Your Bibles probably simply say: Then the Jews began to complain about him. Why is there this difference? Well, an unfortunate part of the church’s legacy has been brutality against Jewish people. And sadly, John’s Gospel has often been used as the justification for Christian violence against Jews. See, the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—use the phrase the Jews only five or six times each. John, on the other hand, uses it about seventy times. And very often, he is using the phrase the Jews to signify Jesus’ opponents. What’s going on? Well, it turns out that what we see in John is a record of old identity politics within the first century Jewish world. See, the Galilean folk—and Jesus and John would have been in this group—viewed the Jewish—or Judean—leadership, based in Jerusalem, as corrupt, greedy, and out of touch with the needs of the common people. Meanwhile, the Judean establishment saw Galileans as uneducated, lazy troublemakers. In John’s Gospel, you actually get a revealing glimpse into the hostility between the two groups. As the seventh chapter of John begins, we hear that Jesus traveled throughout Galilee. He didn’t want to travel in Judea, because the Jewish authorities wanted to kill him. Did you catch that? Jesus stayed in Galilee because the authorities in Judea wanted to kill him. Later in the chapter, one of the Judean Pharisees, Nicodemus, tries to stand up for Jesus. They rebuke him by asking: You are not from Galilee too, are you? (John 7.52) So to call someone a Galilean was an insult—sort of like calling them white trash or a thug. Likewise, a Galilean might call people from the Jerusalem establishment the Jews—like the Man, or the System. So what’s probably going on in John’s Gospel, with all this talk about the Jews, is that John is talking like a Galilean. The Jews means the Judeans. The leadership based in Jerusalem. He didn’t mean all Jews everywhere for all time. He’s using it like we Americans might use Washington D.C. Make sense to y’all? Okay, that was quite a digression. But it’s an important conversation; it’s a sticking point for some people. See, going out and lynching Jewish neighbors used to be a favorite Good Friday pastime for some Christians. Of course, Good Friday falls around Passover. So it was the case that until very recently, when Jews around the world ate their Passover dinner with their walking shoes on, it wasn’t just being faithful to the tradition. Often they did have to eat in a hurry with their shoes on, on yet another Exodus from violence.
So what were these outside agitators grumbling about? What set them off? Again, John says: The Jewish opposition grumbled about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They’re grumbling because they find this bread of heaven stuff hard to swallow. They know full well Jesus came from the backroads of Galilee, not heaven. Isn’t this Jesus, they ask; Joseph’s son, whose mother and father we know? Just who does he think he is? Ain’t he just acting brand new? But we remember when his folks came to dedicate him at the temple. He was like any other baby—couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, had a stinky diaper. We remember when he was a pimply, shag-haired tween with big feet. Always strutting into the temple during festivals and asking the scribes cheeky questions. This is the sort of stuff they’re muttering under their breath, but not too carefully. These Judean muckrakers want to be overheard. Jesus quickly squashes their sidebar conversation. Don’t grumble among yourselves, he tells them. It’s like in school when the teacher catches kids whispering or passing notes. She says, Got anything you care to share with the rest of the class? Don’t grumble among yourselves. I’m sure he put emphasis on the word grumble. Like we’ve already heard, in Exod. 16.2, before God sent the manna, the whole community grumbled against Moses (NIV). Later, in Num. 14.2, Moses sent agents to survey the land God had promised Israel. When the spies reported that the land was currently populated by roided-out MMA fighters, once again: the Israelites grumbled against Moses . . . “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness!” (NIV) So I think when Jesus told them to cut out their grumbling, that was an intentional echo from the first Exodus. He’s comparing them to the Exodus generation who wouldn’t trust what God was doing through Moses. They grumbled about bread. They grumbled about dying in the wilderness. And die in the wilderness, they did. Jesus reminds the Judean faction of this: Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. They got what they asked for. But they lost the promises of the Exodus. The land. The milk and honey. They never got to live in the freedom God had hoped for them. Likewise, these Judean grumblers are refusing to see what God is doing through him—like their ancestors had done back then. Jesus has also come to lead God’s people on a journey to freedom. But as long as they protest and grumble and refuse to recognize and join the Exodus God has initiated through Jesus, they will never be free. They will go on dying in Egypt. In Babylon. In the wilderness. In exile.
Having shushed the Judean peanut gallery, Jesus is back in command of the conversation. Seizing his opportunity, Jesus proceeds to blow everyone’s mind. He says: No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me. Wait, is Jesus a Calvinist? Is he teaching predestination—that God has already decided who will be saved and who will be lost? And that God only equips those already chosen for salvation to respond to Jesus? If so, why is Jesus wasting time explaining things to these Judeans who have crashed the party? Why doesn’t he just say, Hey, you Judeans—this is an A —> B conversation, so C your way out of it? I mean, if they’re already damned and have no choice in the matter, why fool with them? Anyway, as we’ve already seen, the topic at hand is Exodus. God has sent Jesus like he sent Moses to lead the people to freedom. For Jesus to suddenly start laying the foundation for a doctrine of predestination would be completely off-topic. What Jesus is saying is, essentially: The people you see with me know what time it is. They know what’s up. There’s a magnetic attraction at work here. They’re drawn to me because they sense God’s presence in what I’m doing. Look—God’s chosen people are always God’s choosing people. Even these know-it-all Judeans could join up if they’d just get over themselves and hang out their hang-ups. This isn’t the only time in John’s Gospel Jesus will talk about people being drawn to him. In John 12.32, Jesus speaks of his impending crucifixion. And he says, When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me. Hardly sounds like God has already decided who’s in and who’s out if everyone can be drawn to Jesus. Actually, it sort of sounds like the opposite of that. Anyway, what Jesus says next makes it clear that people are drawn to him because they see God at work in him. It is written in the Prophets, And they will all be taught by God, he says. Everyone who has listened to the Father and learned from him comes to me. Jesus is actually poking at the Judeans when he says that. They were important people, after all—scribes and priestly types. Jesus is basically saying, Some of these illiterate Galileans y’all like to look down on know God better than you Bible scholars. They get it and you don’t. Ouch. The prophet he was quoting was Isaiah. In our Bibles, it’s Isa. 54.13. But of course, they didn’t have chapters and verses back then. Well, just a few lines further down, in Isa. 55.2-3, God extends an invitation through the prophet: Why spend your money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good … Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live. Those who come to Jesus are already listening to and learning from God. And hidden in Jesus’ rebuke is a gracious invitation to these agitated Judeans: Stop grumbling and start listening. You can come, too. You can come to me and be satisfied. Listen, and you will live. See, church—here’s the deal. Being a Judean, like we see in this story—it’s not really about where you’re from. It’s a state of mind. A matter of perspective. A worldview. It’s when you can’t learn anything new. You can’t imagine anything ever being different. You lose your sense of wonder. You get suspicious of anyone who looks different from you, thinks different than you, doesn’t live up to your standards. You can’t see the work God is doing in the world, and in the lives of people around you, because it doesn’t fit your script. You want the world to be predictable and orderly, like it was way back when. Problem is, you forget that there was all sorts of ugly stuff back then, too. That’s where the Exodus generation was when they wanted to go back to Egypt, where they were slaves. And that’s also the headspace the Judeans who grumbled about Jesus were inhabiting. Okay, that’s real bondage. That’s not abundant life, everlasting life. That’s dying in the wilderness. In Egypt. And once you get there, it takes action from God to get you out. God has to rescue you. People who were in bondage to hunger and disease and shame were coming to Jesus, and he was leading them on an Exodus into God’s freedom. Into a life that matters. A life that endures. Into God’s life. But there’s room for these Judeans too, on this journey to real, enduring life. Listen and come to me, begs Jesus; listen and you will live.
So what’s going on is, in Jesus, God has initiated this massive rescue operation. He has sent Jesus to lead a new Exodus. What you see in the Gospels is all these people—hungry people, sick people, hard-living people, lonely people. People who have been oppressed and ignored, mistreated and abandoned. And from the depths of their souls, they have cried out to God. Maybe they didn’t even know it was God they were crying out to. Maybe they just had this longing, this hunger, this craving for a different life. A different world. And God heard these cries, and dispatched Jesus. And in Jesus they catch a glimpse of what they have been longing for. The answer to the deepest cries of their souls. And they come to him. Because he embodies their hope for a new kind of life, a whole ‘nother world. Something that endures. Built for glory. Made to last. I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said, No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me, and I will raise them up at the last day. God has heard their cries for help, and sent Jesus. And they’re drawn to Jesus because he shows them the life that endures. He lets them peek into a new world. And they begin to see that even if this life, this world, kills them, they will not be lost in the wilderness. He will raise them up. He will vindicate them. He will make sure they are included in the world to come. Now, for this to work, for this Exodus to happen, a relationship of trust has to be cultivated. If we’re going to make this long, dangerous journey with Jesus into this new life, we’re going to need assurance that he is guiding us in the right direction, and that he will sustain us on the way. He’s not just going to let us rot in the wilderness. I think this bond of trust is what Jesus was talking about in our Gospel lesson today. When he says: I assure you, whoever believes has eternal life . . . I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. See, that’s about trust. It’s about trust that Jesus is God’s response to our cries for rescue; that Jesus knows where he’s going; that where he is going is where we want to be; and that he’s going to give us what we need for the journey. The portion of John’s Gospel we heard today is a breadcrumb trail to guide our Exodus into the life God gives. Eternal life. A life that endures. This breadcrumb trail is made up of the gifts Father God gives to guide and nourish us along the way. Jesus scatters these breadcrumbs throughout the conversation we overhear. Listen. Draw. Believe. Come. Bread. Give. Life. Raised up. Never die. Live forever. Eternal life. These are gifts we can live by. Gifts we can trust. But Jesus does more than scatter this trail of gifts to guide us. He offers himself—his own body, his own life—to sustain us. He says: the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. He gives his own life to sustain ours. His crucified and resurrected life feeds us. Nurtures us. Nourishes the hope we need to carry on. Assures our portion in the life to come.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the old nugget that you are what you eat. If our nourishment—the source of our life and strength and hope—on this Exodus God has begun in Jesus is Jesus’ own life, it doesn’t just determine the destination of our journey. It determines the shape of our journey. Not just where we travel, but how we travel. In our Epistle lesson for today, Paul tells us to live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us (Eph. 5.2). Remember, the bread he gave for our life was his own flesh. His body. His life. Himself. That’s what we celebrate every time we share in communion. Our share in Christ’s life. That Jesus gave himself for us. And as you follow this breadcrumb trail Jesus has left leading to eternal life, never forget that the gifts you find that nurture you aren’t yours alone. Don’t ever forget that Jesus gave himself for the life of the world. He gave himself to sustain everyone on this Exodus into the world to come, eternal life. If we are what we eat; and our nourishment is Christ’s own life; then our lives will gradually take on the shape of his life. So Paul tells us that, thieves should no longer steal. Instead they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need (Eph. 4.28). I find it quite compelling that Paul didn’t say not to steal because it violates one of the Ten Commandments. Or because it violates someone else’s property rights. Or if you get caught you’ll go to jail and make the church look bad. Rather, he uncovers the fundamental selfishness of stealing. Don’t steal, share, he says. Be a giver, like Jesus—not a taker. It’s all about becoming more and more like Jesus as he leads us on this journey, sustaining us with his own life. So Paul tells us: Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other—these are all nurturing, sharing, giving verbs—in the same way God forgave you in Christ. That’s how Jesus becomes the bread of life for us and for the world. The gifts God gives us through Jesus help us find our way and sustain our lives on this Exodus. And we share them with others. And that way, we all make it. Church, eternal life is not just later and somewhere else. It begins right here and right now. We are given foretastes along the way. Our lives become foretastes of the life to come for others. Lives that endure are lives for others—kind, compassionate, forgiving lives. That’s abundant life. Enduring life. Eternal life. After all, the purpose of any Exodus is to make us ready for the Promised Land.