Sermon preached August 9, 2015
Texts: John 6:35-41-51
“Dazed and Confused,” Led Zeppelin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehwSEVbBZl4
This is a good “Blues Fest” song. Do you think people ever felt dazed and confused when Jesus was speaking, particularly in the way he speaks in the Gospel of John?
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…. 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. Even the first listeners were a little dazed and confused.
Even looking at more contemporary renderings of the passage does not make it that much easier.
Jesus said to them, “I, I am the loaf of life. The one who takes my route will never go hungry, and the one who bases his life on mine will never stay thirsty…. I am indeed the live loaf that came down from on high. If one eats from this loaf, he’ll be alive in the new age. Now the loaf that I’ll give for the life of the world is my own flesh. (Cotton Patch Version).
So let’s do a little reflecting and then ask what all this might mean for our lives. First of all it is really important for us to remember again that part of the context for John’s Gospel is a family fight among Jews who were followers of Jesus and those who were not. In verse 41 where it reads, “then the Jews began to complain,” we should remember that this was not all the Jewish people, for the followers of Jesus were also Jewish. The sad history of Christian anti-Semitism does not allow us simply to let these words stand without some comment.
Verses 47-48: Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. We tend to think of the word “believe” as giving cognitive assent. It is something to do with our thinking. “Yes, I think Jesus is the bread of life.” The Greek word is much richer than that and has much more to do with trust. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowen Williams, in his book on basic Christian faith, entitled Tokens of Trust, makes this point well, comparing Christian “belief” with belief in UFOs or the Loch Ness monster. Hence the radical difference from ‘believing’ in UFOs or the Loch Ness monster. To believe in these doesn’t make that much difference to how I feel about myself and the world in general…. [Christian belief is] about where I find the anchorage of my life, where I find solid ground, home. (5-6)
Finding anchorage in trusting Jesus leads to new life, not just life beyond this life, but a new quality of life here. Here are a couple of other renderings of verse 47. “I truly tell you that he who lives his faith has spiritual life” (Cotton Patch). “I’m telling you the most solemn and sober truth now: Whoever believes in me has real life, eternal life” (The Message).
Finally, we should remind ourselves that the language here is poetic language, the language of metaphor, symbol and parable. Jesus isn’t literally bread, isn’t literally a loaf of bread. The words of Jesus here are introduced by a feeding story, where a crowd is gathered and in need of food, Jesus takes five loaves and two fish, blesses and distributes them, and there is enough. If Jesus were literally bread, why any need for the five loaves? People are fed, but Jesus thinks there may be deeper hungers, and the language shifts to metaphor and symbol.
So what? We’ve done some good background work on this passage, but so what? What might this say to us? I want to get at that through a series of observations and questions.
All that happens here seems to imply that human hunger is not just hunger for food, for daily bread. There are hungers/for a nameless bread poet Carl Sandburg wrote (“Timesweep” in Collected Poems, 758). Poets can be helpful in trying to figure out the meaning of the poetics of Scripture. The poet William Carlos Williams, on one of his poems (“Asphodel: That Greeny Flower”) wrote:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
We have hungers of the heart and soul. We hunger for meaning. We hunger for aliveness. We hunger for connection. We hunger for joy. We hunger to discover our gifts. We hunger to use our gifts for the good of the world. We hunger for love. We hunger for God. The words of Jesus here are intended to open us up to these other hungers.
If we have so many hungers, how can we make sense of them, how can we deal with them? First let’s admit we are privileged in that hunger for our daily bread does not consume us. Most of us are privileged to be able to ask, “What should we have for dinner? Should we go out, or cook at home?” rather than having to ask, “When will I next eat? Where will my next meal come from?” The church that proclaims Jesus as the bread of life, acknowledging the full range of human hungers must not ignore that fact that the basic hunger for bread goes unanswered too often in our world. In John 6, Jesus feeds the people before moving to this other conversation about the bread of life.
Yet there is hunger for a nameless bread and such a thing as “death by bread alone.” I purloined my sermon title from the title of a book by the late German theologian Dorothee Soelle.
“One does not live by bread alone.” In fact, bread alone kills us. To live by bread alone is to die a slow and dreadful death in which all human relationships are mutilated and strangled. Of course, such a death by bread alone does not mean that we cease to exist. Our bodies still function. We still go about the chores and routines of life; we accomplish things; we breathe; we produce and consume and excrete; we come, go, and speak. Yet we do not really live…. This is what the Bible means when it speaks of death. Death is what takes place within us when we look upon others not as gift, blessing, or stimulus, but as threat, danger, and competition…. The death of which the Bible speaks lays hold of us in the very midst of life. It is the boredom and emptiness of going through all the motions of living while being totally drained of all humanity and reduced to the level of an old work horse. (3, 4, 5)
In these dramatic words, Soelle is trying to tell us that we can misuse and mis-order our hungers. We may spend too much time, energy and attention entertaining ourselves rather than being engaged in life. We may spend too much time, energy and attention on accumulating rather than on creating or relating.
I recall here the words of the theologian James Gustafson about the Christian life. The question for us, Gustafson thinks is “What is God enabling and requiring us to be and to do?” the general response is we are to relate ourselves and all things in a manner appropriate to their relations to God (Ethics From a Theocentric Perspective, Volume One, 327). This is a way of saying that we need to pay attention to how we order our hungers, how we feed our hungers.
So what might someone coming to this planet say about the ordering of our hungers in this society at this time? Say someone just dropped in and wanted to find out about how we use our time, our energy and our attention? They might find that we spend a lot of time, energy and attention on spiritually empty calories, things that may contribute to death by bread alone. We pay a lot of attention to celebrities. We may know more about the Kardashians than about our cousins. We are deeply loyal to athletic teams. We wrap our identity around them. They call forth some of our best energy. We gather to celebrate their successes and mourn their defeats. The team becomes us. We have “political” debates but spend much time before them analyzing who got in to the debate rather than discussing the issues that might be debated, then we spend a lot of time afterwards figuring out who “won” rather than discussing the policy proposals. Apparently after the earlier debate on Thursday, a lot of people wanted to know how old and how tall Carly Fiorina is.
There is nothing inherently wrong about keeping up with the Kardashians, or following the Twins, the Vikings, the Packers or whomever. It is o.k to ask about debate processes, and Carly Fiorina is 60 and 5’8,” though you have to wonder why no one is asking how old or how tall Mike Huckabee is. The concern we should have is how much time, attention and energy we give to things which may be the equivalent of empty calories – they taste good, and are o.k. in perspective, but not highly nutritious.
So we want to order our hungers, attend to how we use our time, energy and attention. But it is not a matter of cultivating “the spiritual” over “the material.” A Jesus spirituality is not an ethereal spirituality that is only concerned about worship, prayer and the next life. Body and soul are intertwined. Jesus fed the people before he got into this metaphoric discussion about other hungers. It was this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother were known, who was also the bread of life, the loaf that came from on high. It is in this life that we make our relationship to God real. We worship to connect more deeply with God and to seek grace and wisdom for ordering our lives, here and now. We pray to help us reflect on how we will use our time, energy and attention, here and now.
If Jesus is our bread, if we trust that, how do we live? We acknowledge our hungers and their variety. We order our hungers and how we meet them. We give time, energy and attention to what matters most – kindness, generosity, growth, helping others grow, welcoming others into the love of God, doing justice, fostering reconciliation. There will be time for entertainment and a few empty calories, but too many is death by bread alone. And to find in Jesus our bread of life is to understand that eternal life is something that happens now.
A story. Yesterday we had a celebration of life service here for Floyd Mott. You may or may not recall Floyd by name, but if you were here in worship on July 19, you will never forget it. At that point in time, Floyd (65) knew he was dying. He had also never been baptized, and it was something he wanted. Why? I can’t give you all the reasons, but somehow in recent months our church had given him a place where he could meet Jesus as the bread of life. We offered hospitality, welcome, worship that connected, that help him discover a deep hunger and helped feed that hunger. So Floyd chose to be baptized, and so, too, did his granddaughters Kaitlyn and Macie on that same morning. Then Saturday, we offered Floyd’s family and friends a place to gather to celebrate his life and offer his life back to God.Our lives are not perfect lives. Our church is not a perfect church, whatever that means. When we order our lives so that we are paying attention and using our time and energy to be a place of welcome, hospitality, kindness, caring, connection remarkable things happen. Jesus, the bread of life becomes more a part of us, and is more real for others. Let’s keep at it. Amen.