19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
To me personally, John chapter six is one of the most important chapters in the Bible. Although it may not be as significant as, say, the accounts of the Resurrection, or that day on Pentecost, or even John chapter three for that matter, John 6 is certainly up there. Like I said, that is my personal feeling. You don’t have to hold John 6 in such high regard, but I think you should. We’ll be looking at this chapter next week and maybe the next, so maybe take a few minutes to read it again this week. The themes we find here have shaped who I am lately [by “lately,” I mean over the past few years]. What Jesus has to say to us throughout this chapter ought to mold who we are as his followers and also as his church in this world.
Now, having said that, notice I never said I liked John chapter six. For the record: I do not. In fact, that’s why this chapter is so important to me: it’s made me work on my faith and how I live it out. Here, Jesus shows us things about ourselves and about who he is that are alarming and not just a little offensive. We’ll talk more about that next Sunday at the park; but for today, realize that Jesus is not trying to make friends here. When Jesus offends people today, it’s on purpose. Jesus is indeed the Bread that has come down from heaven and the Bread of Life, but he might also have reason to leave a bad taste in your mouth.
I imagine, you don’t have the same love/hate relationship with John 6; so let us start with a brief background. John chapter six begins with an interesting version of the feeding of the multitude. In John’s version, Jesus, the disciples, and the multitude are out in the middle of nowhere. Apparently, Jesus had gone out into the wilderness to get a break from the religious people—who were actively persecuting Jesus as this point—but it seems everyone (including the religious people) followed out there. Now, the reason I mention that story is because there are two things about it that set a context for the rest of the chapter. The first thing is bread.
I’m sure you’re familiar with that feeding story: it got late so they started they taking stock of their food situation; and apparently, the only person who thought to bring food into the wilderness was a child. The only person in the entire multitude with food is some kid with five loaves of bread and two fish. Now just as an aside, I would point out that, although that is not enough food to feed something like five thousand people, that is a lot of food for one boy. But as you’ll also recall, Jesus takes that boy’s food and feeds everyone with twelve baskets full of bread left over. So that story brings into chapter six, this theme of—not only bread—but abundant bread that we will hear throughout the chapter.
There is another thing that sets a context to John 6. We’ll talk in more about it next week, but it’s worth mentioning: before Jesus feeds the multitude, he turns his disciple Philip and asks, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” This freaks Philip right out because it’s meant to. The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus asked Philip this to test him. Jesus is trying to challenge Philip’s faith and Philip does not pass the test. The panic-stricken Philip says, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” So another context that runs through John 6 is that Jesus will be testing everyone; and I mean everyone. He will test the faith of his disciples, the gathered multitude, the religious leaders, and if we’re paying attention, even us. In fact, if we’re paying attention, we’ll see that, even in our lesson today, Jesus is testing us.
In our lesson today, John begins by saying, “The Jews began to complain about [Jesus] because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’” Today, in Washing DC, there is a march going on. I don’t think I know anyone in that march and I certainly don’t know what the motives are for every participant in that march; but I know there are some in that march would read that verse and say, “See.” I know that there are some there who would distort that verse to reinforce their prejudice against Jewish people; as though Jesus would ever be okay with that. Not only would Jesus not condemn or exclude a group of people because of their so-called race, but I think he would prefer we would take his words more personally. Rather than hearing from Jesus only that which reinforces our stereotypes, I think Jesus would prefer we pay attention to what he’s saying to us.
John refers to these complainers as “the Jews,” but I should point out that there isn’t anyone in John 6 that isn’t Jewish. Jesus is Jewish, the disciples are Jewish, the crowds are Jewish, and these complainers are Jewish.” So what is John actually saying? Well, he probably means is “Judeans”; he’s indicating that these complainers traveled from the south, where Jerusalem is, up to Capernaum just to keep an eye on Jesus. They travel all that way, just to complain. So what John is alluding to is that these complainers represent the Temple; they are from the religious establishment; they are important church-going people. They are, I’m afraid, a lot like us.
I know: we don’t like being compared to the religious people in the Gospel story; they’re typically the bad-guys. We’re not bad-guys; we wouldn’t have crucified Jesus, right? Well maybe, but in retrospect we would have at least regretted it; but as religious people, we do share their “tendencies”. If we’re not careful, we risk making their same mistakes. We would be wise to hear what Jesus says to them as though he is speaking to us.
John tells us that they complain about Jesus, but what is their complaint exactly? Is it that he fed thousands? No. Is it, as it often is, that he does these things on a Sabbath? It doesn’t seem so. Does their complaint even really have anything to do with Jesus saying, “I am the bread that has come down from heaven”? Not really. They certainly don’t like it, but their complaint comes down to something else: they know his family. They say, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know. And now here he is calling himself bread from heaven.” They are offended by Jesus, not because of anything he’s said or done. They are offended by him because they think they know him. “How could God possibly have anything to say through this son of Joseph?”
We see in these religious people, something we see a lot in religious people: a tendency to practice a faith without risk. We have our routines. We practice our religion this week like we did last week and the weeks before that. We fulfil our obligations. We care for the folks we go to church with and we even like most of them. But do we trust them? Do we trust that God might say something profoundly new through them? Would we follow one of these people into a new direction for the church if God actually spoke through them? Do we trust that God would even speak through them?
I saw a great metaphor this week when I was visiting our sister church up in Lake City on Wednesday. They are starting the process of looking for a pastor and I am the Presbytery’s representative to them from the Committee on Ministry. So this week, as a part of those responsibilities, I went up there to moderate their Session meeting. It’s funny: in my thirty-some odd years of church work, I can’t say I’ve seen everything, but I’ve seen every kind of thing. They started talking an issue they were having and a little bell went off in the back of my mind; it was kind of like the sensation you get when you hear the opening notes to a song and you realize, “Hey, I know this one.”
They were talking about a flower garden on their church grounds and they were having trouble figuring out how to care for it. Should they ask for volunteers? Should they try to hire somebody? Should they just let it go fallow for now? As they were debating, I asked a question that I thought was terribly insightful. They didn’t notice how insightful it was and I’m afraid you won’t either; that’s why I’m telling you. As they were talking about how to care for this garden I asked, “Well, who used to do it?” They told me about this lady (we’ll call her “Martha”) who used to coordinate everything—she had an entire team of helpers—but then “Martha” had to move away. I don’t know the “Martha” or the garden in question, but I knew all those things before I asked; I’ve seen it before.
You see, “Martha” started this garden and this was “Martha’s” baby. Everyone loved the garden and “Martha” for tending to it; but now “Martha” is gone and no one is brave enough to touch “Martha’s” baby; no one is brave enough to seek a new purpose for “Martha’s” garden; so now, they have an unattended garden, overrun with weeds; and their Session can’t pinpoint what to do.
I didn’t feel it was my job to make their decisions for them, but the solution to me was obvious and awful. They don’t need to walk away and let it go wild. They don’t even need to hire someone to care for it. What they need is trust. What they need is siblings in Christ who can trust each other enough to hear God’s calling and mission through this crisis. Because it’s going to take more than just volunteers; because something is going to go wrong. It’s going to be my day to water and I’m going to show up and find out you’ve already done it. Do I love and trust you enough to find out why? Will I just bail on the project and let you be the new “Martha,” or will I hear your apology and listen to your story; maybe a story about a neighbor, who never goes to church, but likes to tend to gardens, and this was a window.
I love that garden metaphor because I think it speaks to the obvious and awful truth about being a part of the Body of Christ, the Church: that it is all about our relationship with one another. Relationships are complicated, and messy, and they can sometimes hurt. Having the love for one another that allows that complicated, messy hurt to then strengthen our relationships is what makes it worth it; but it takes work. It takes trust. Trust in one another, but trusting more in the Bread of Heaven, who nourishes us for eternal life. A nourishment that sometimes comes in the form of the people you call “your church.”
Let us not be like the religious people of Jesus’ day. Let us not be so comfortable in what we think God is doing that we neglect to see it even in those next to us. Let us have eyes that are open, ears that will listen, and spirits that will be fed by our Risen Savior. And may the world around us see the life-giving Bread of Heaven alive and at work in us and among us.