For John, it’s clear that Jesus has always been divine.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being”**
The Jesus we meet in John’s gospel has been described as uncreated and imperishable. *In this framework, Jesus comes from God, descending to live amongst us, and serves as a mediator between God and humanity.* Jesus is the perfect mediator, being fully God and fully human.* From the beginning, we know that just as Jesus descended, he will once again ascend to return in unity with God.*
Whereas in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there is wiggle room for the when and how, and even whether, Jesus becomes divine. Was it at the incarnation? At his baptism? In any case, unlike John, it was not before time began.
Who knows what the ‘right answer’ is, or whether such a thing even exists. Some of us might know squarely where we stand and how we understand the nature, role, and person of Jesus. And that’s cool. All I know is my own experience.
When I become absolutely certain of something, I usually find myself being pushed back by some other idea or experience. Yet when I remain more curious than certain, I find I am drawn to different aspects of God and different ways of understanding Jesus. Instead of feeling righteous, I feel a sense of calm and content, as I make this journey through life and faith.
This means there are moments when I do hold a high christology like John and support this idea that Jesus was always divine.* For me the story of the incarnation has always meant the most, whereas for others it might be the cross and resurrection. This means Christmas is my favorite high holy day, and it’s not for the presents, or at least not in the way our culture thinks about presents. The gift that God would take on human flesh to walk beside us is a source of deep connection. I know when I pray and worship God, that this God knows everything I feel and experience, the greatest joys and pains of this life.
There are other times, where I am not even sure Jesus’ divinity really matters. Maybe Jesus is divine, as we all are, made in the image and likeness of God. Maybe there is nothing extraordinary about this prophet, healer, and teacher, beyond their deep connection with the divine and God’s dream for this world.
In other words, there well may be a spectrum of how we might understand the nature, role, and person of Jesus. In some ways, it should come as no surprise that there is such a wide range of interpretations on the purpose of Jesus, or any other matter the Church has historically cared about.
Maybe at this point you are wondering why I am still yammering on about these differences, many of which may be old news to you. Yet this spectrum of understanding is an important factor when we approach the gospels.
Take this Sunday’s lesson.* * *
We are in the fifth and final week with John 6. Jesus, the twelve, and many other disciples are in the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus is expanding on his earlier teachings in this chapter, affirming that not only is he the living bread, but that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will abide in him, just as Jesus abides in God.
This is uncomfortable for the crowd, even sacrilege. For in the Jewish tradition, blood was life itself.**** There were an abundance of purity laws: due to the blood that was passed in childbirth, women would undergo a period of impurity for 40 days if she bore a son, and 80 days if she bore a daughter.***** The reason for the extra 40 days was because that newborn daughter would someday have the lifeforce to bear children herself.
This is one small example of many within scripture. So you can imagine why some of the disciples, upon hearing they would be drinking his blood, felt a little overwhelmed and doubtful.
The teacher met their discomfort and alarm by asking: “Does this offend you?”
For some of the disciples the unspoken response was, “Uh, yeah…”
Jesus acknowledges that there are some amongst him who do not believe. And remember, because this is John’s gospel, the Jesus before us is an all knowing, uncreated, and imperishable being in full communion with God. Simply by looking at the gathered people, he can separate the wheat from the chaff, who believes and who does not.*
At this moment, some disciples rejected Jesus’ teaching. The departing disciples could not fully swallow this idea of Jesus descending and ascending, that this truly was the all-knowing Christ Jesus.
Jesus turns to the twelve and essentially asks, “And you? What’s your choice?”
To which Simon Peter cries out on behalf of the twelve an unapologetic, ‘We believe!’
What does this story tell us about how we practice Christianity?
For so long we have gone along with the binary frameworks we have been offered by authors, like the one who composed John’s gospel. We have been taught historically that to be a Christian we have to be all in, like the disciples in today’s gospel. The author of this gospel sees the world as so many of us were raised to see it: with tunnel vision and either/or thinking, when what we really need is both/and, or better yet, a spectrum, a rainbow of different ways of looking at things and understanding them.
It needs to be okay to be unsure about it all, to doubt and question. When we are offered binary options, we need to know it is okay to push back and use our reason. After all, reason is an essential part of our Anglican three legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason.
My hope is that we each might become more curious than certain as we take in the gospels, how the passages relate to our lives, and what it tells us about the role, nature, and person of Jesus.
This week, I invite you to do some reflecting:
I would encourage you to share your thoughts with a spouse, friend, or fellow parishioners. Go for a walk or a cup of coffee and share your insights and questions. As a community, let’s get comfortable being a bit uncomfortable, asking hard questions, and letting there be space for doubt in our faith. Let’s learn to talk about the things we’ve never felt okay to talk about. In the end, getting curious about our faith can help us to expand our root system, to have conversations we never imagined possible, and to find new ways of seeing the God of Love in action throughout scripture, tradition, and life itself. Amen.
*The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, with the Apocrypha, Fully Revised Fourth Edition. Editor- Michael Coogan. Commentary by Jerome H. Neyrey pgs 1879-1881.
****Genesis 9:4 and Deuteronomy 12:23
And God’s reply, “You have not asked for yourself long life or riches or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right. Indeed, I give you a wise and discerning mind.”
Reflecting on the nature of Solomon’s prayer, he begins with a statement of considerable humility, of being overwhelmed with the enormity of the responsibility he has inherited. He identifies as a servant, and then says, “ I am only a child - I do not know how to go out or come in - who can govern this your great people."
And Solomon’s plea, how do I navigate the waters between good and evil in this world?
How relevant is this for us today, in these times, as we live and participate in our secular world?
As we encounter the inherent tension between our own self interest and the greater good, between the secular and the spiritual
- of being understood and misunderstood
- of being faced with temptation
- of contending with demands and distractions in the face of feeling the need for rest, replenishment, time for reflection and communion.
Wisdom and discernment
Wisdom has been defined as the power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action, based on knowledge, experience, insight, and understanding.
Discernment, to discern has been defined as to perceive or recognize, to make out clearly.
How do we discern? Unlike Solomon, seldom do we hear such a clear response from God, “Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind.”
How do we discern and apply wisdom in our spiritual lives?
Our course begins to be charted in Paul's letter to the Ephesians;
“Be careful how you live, make the most of time, understand what the will of the Lord is, give thanks to God and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There are days, when to me, this is more easily said than done.
The distractions of the world and my self interest can compromise my conscious contact with God.
There have been times in my life when God has seemed so very large and so very distant and so very separated from my daily life, my daily struggles - my journey back, or my change in perception, or my change in being has so often been through prayer and meditation, however imperfect these attempts may be, by way of making the most of time, not taking passing moments for granted, by being open to try to understand what the will of the Lord is.
At one point in my life I spent a number of years sailing on ships. My main job was to provide navigation and be a lookout on watch. When standing watch at night it is very important to protect your night vision. In order to see in the dark, you benefit from the absence of light; too much light and the pupils of your eyes constrict. All of the lighting on the bridge of a ship at night has a red filter over it, so as not to compromise the watch standers night vision and ability to see in the dark. So, I remained able to read my navigation chart and maintain good night vision, due to the red filter over the light.
I met a man, a fellow mariner, who described to me, the role of Jesus, as that of the red filter over the light. I was able to see because of the red filter. I am able to access God through the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. The life of Jesus and his teaching provide the means by which I am able to attempt to understand the will of the Lord.
Through our application of discernment and wisdom we are able to achieve and embrace our conscious contact with God, enabling us to maintain an understanding mind, the ability to discern what is right, make the most of our time, give thanks, and partake of the living bread that came down from heaven.
There is a particular prayer (probably familiar to many of you) that has been of value in orienting people to live, not as unwise people but as wise.
God be in my head
And in my understanding
God be in mine eyes
And in my looking
God be in my mouth
And in my speaking
God be in my heart
And in my thinking
God be in mine end
And at my departing
This was a common practice for Jesus, to take familiar, everyday items or practices and use them as metaphors and parables when teaching. It was an incredibly effective tool in getting his message across. There are some references that were familiar to his original audience that are no longer familiar, and this can leave modern day readers turning to a bit of commentary to better understand his point. Yet most of his metaphors and parables remain pertinent. None more so than bread.
Bread has been a part of the human experience for over 14,400 years, at least 4,000 years before Neolithic agriculture.* During the life of Jesus, bread was a core staple on every table within the Roman Empire.** Bread has remained such an essential part of life, that some form of bread is in nearly every culture, if not all. We know firsthand how breaking bread together can connect us to one another and the divine. What are your earliest memories of bread?
I remember as a very young child my mother would come home from a long and intense shift as a naval air traffic controller, where she and her colleagues would spend their days directing fighter and attack aircraft to carriers along the East coast. She would be, understandably, exhausted. And since my father was deployed in the Mediterranean she was also solo parenting. Yet even in her exhaustion, she would come home and take two slices of bread, and her tired hands would lovingly spread peanut butter and jelly on each slice. These peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were never just my lunch, it was her time, her love and care. And on some days we would take the stale bread that was no longer fit for sandwiches, and we would tear it up and walk beyond our culdesac to a creek where ducks and seagulls regularly spent their time. When I recall those moments, I can still feel in my body the joy of tossing breadcrumbs together.
I imagine we have all experienced a similar joy when we are gathered at a table with those we love, and a warm, fragrant loaf of bread is shared. And thanks to science, now there are even gluten free and low carb breads so all can truly feel welcome and included in the shared meal. As followers of the Way of Love, we share this communal experience in weekly worship.
As a teenager I was reintroduced to the eucharist, and I watched as the priest lifted up the small, near see through wafer and proclaimed that this bread was the living presence of God. While I thought calling the wafer ‘bread’ was a real stretch of the imagination, I followed everyone else as they stretched out their hands to receive the bread. And as John Wesley once wrote in his journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”***
From that moment on, receiving bread in communal worship has always been an experience of grace, peace, and a sense of connection with God, creation, and neighbor. That experience only grew deeper roots when one time at a retreat the priest lifted up pita bread and at communion we experienced an actual aroma and texture of bread. And those roots stretched out even further the first time I was given a small piece of communion bread that was lovingly made by the brothers at St. John’s the Evangelist in Cambridge, where they use whole wheat flour, baking powder, salt, milk, oil, water, and honey to create their communion bread.**** The more the substance given to me resembled bread in it’s most beautiful, aromatic, and fulfilling form, the more depth it would bring to my experience of being nurtured, loved and cared for by the living presence of God.
Receiving the bread is a tangible moment of being overwhelmed by grace, and a point of connection, for but a moment, to God’s overwhelming love for all of humanity and creation.
Can you recall your first experiences of the eucharist?
What struck you? What nurtured you?
What has the experience come to mean to you today?
For that matter, what did you learn about yourself during the pandemic, when we were suddenly forced to fast from both the bread and community? My sense is folks felt a whole variety of emotions in their absence.
Some expressed a season of grief and mourning. They longed for community and the bread and wine like they longed for a loved one who was taken suddenly.
Some were afraid. The weekly ritual of church and eucharist was their primary sense of connection with God, and they felt unsure how to move forward.
Some were angry. Frustrated that a pandemic or priests and a bishop would prevent in-person worship and eucharist.
Others saw this as a season to explore the depths of their faith. They got curious about how else they might tap into the sense of connection and nurture they once received in weekly worship. Some found nourishment and connection in the outdoors, in singing hymns, in sleeping in and enjoying time with their loved ones, in feeding hungry people at Sunday Sandwiches. Some found they could still experience connection and nurture at virtual worship.
There are no wrong answers. Whatever you found yourself feeling or learning, God was with you in that moment, and still is today.
Because as Jesus reminds us in today’s lesson:
“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.”
The living presence of God is in the bread we are so accustomed to receiving. Yet the living presence of God cannot be limited to only bread. God’s presence is in this space connecting us to one another and to those watching from home. God’s spirit is in the wilderness, in the music, in the way we live, move and have our being.
God’s presence is in every act of mercy and justice. God’s spirit is everywhere. We cannot escape it. While we may have felt an absence from the ritual that reminds us of the way the living presence of God endures in our sacramental practice of eucharist, we also know that the living presence of God did not leave us for one moment.
The question before the crowd in today’s gospel, and the question before us today are one and the same.
How will we respond to the living presence of God in our life?
God’s spirit is here amongst us, in us, and always with us. In the bread, in community, in nature, in art, and in acts of love. How will we respond? How will this guide the way we live our lives?
As we move through our days, can we see the presence of God before us? In this worship? In our lunch with friends? In yet another boring meeting? At the grocery store or during our chores?
Can we spot the spirit of God in broken relationships? In the wounds we are still nursing? In the injustices we witness all around us? In the illness we are battling?
How does God’s presence inspire us to live more intentionally in every waking moment? Amen.
* “Archaeobotanical evidence reveals the origins of bread 14,400 years ago in northeastern Jordan” https://www.pnas.org/content/115/31/7925 ( accessed 8/3/21)
** “Bread: the extraordinary fate of an ordinary food item” https://www.technogym.com/us/newsroom/bread-history/ (accessed 8/3/21)
*** Journal of John Wesley, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.vi.ii.xvi.html (accessed 8/4/21)
**** Altar Bread-SSJE, https://www.ssje.org/2017/07/31/altar-bread/ (accessed 8/4/21)
It turns out that the ship was sailing in an area of the ocean called “the River Sea,” where the mouth of the Amazon River extends an area of fresh water for many miles out into the ocean. I’ll come back to this.
Today’s gospel is an immediate follow up to the story of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude in John’s gospel, which we heard last week.
All four of the gospels include feeding stories; Matthew and Mark actually both include two each. These stories are powerful for several reasons:
I think the stories also work in an effective way because being hungry and thirsty, and then having hunger/thirst satisfied is as powerful metaphor for all of the ways in which we hunger and thirst spiritually – we feel a deep need to make sense of our lives, to feel that our lives matter.
Jesus’ feeding the crowd physically also suggests an assurance that we will be fed spiritually.
And this is what John is addressing in today’s gospel. As always, the fourth gospel, written decades after Matthew, Mark, and Luke, focuses not just on what Jesus did, but also on what Jesus did means – often attributing to Jesus himself lengthy explanations of the mystical implications of his life and actions. The explanations we hear in John’s gospel are probably reflections of the faith of the early church more than they are historical memories of what Jesus actually said.
In this gospel text, then, having just fed the multitudes, Jesus seems to turn on them with accusations:
Jesus’ listeners really do want to be concerned about the right things: “What must we do to perform the works of God?”, they ask. At the same time, they can’t help going back to talking about being fed, and in this, they inadvertently prove Jesus right.
In suggesting that “We’d really like some proof that what you’re saying is true”, they refer to the way their ancestors’ faith was strengthened when the ancestors received manna in the wilderness from Moses. They want to be spiritually focused, but can forget worrying about their hunger.
John concludes passage with one of Jesus’ “I AM” statements that constitute a thread running through the gospel: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
This passage sounds a very familiar gospel theme: both disciples and crowds have a had time hearing and understanding what Jesus has come to teach.
The disciples, despite years of travel with Jesus, still see with eyes of the world, rather than eyes of God’s Realm.
As Kathryn observed last week, faced with hunger of the crowd, they can still see only scarcity: Philip seems rather desperate when he observes that “Six months’ wages would not buy enough.”
The disciples’ worries reflect lives lived with real anxiety over having enough; it’s hard to unlearn the need to worry about providing for the future, despite their actual experience that life with Jesus is a life of abundance. Jesus needed to show them, yet again.
Those in the crowds themselves, despite really wanting to be concerned with living lives faithful to God, also unconsciously revealed the underlying power of their concerns about their worldly needs.
I think John has put his finger on one of the fundamental spiritual struggles that we live with as human beings. We want to focus and direct our lives around what our faith tells us is important, the selfless and generous lives that God calls us to, but we constantly slip back into prioritizing and pursuing the outward symbols of success that the world tells us to value.
Rather than living primarily in gratitude for what God provides, it’s hard to stop fretting over what is missing in our lives - the “something more” that feels unfulfilled.
Even when we manage to free ourselves from material longings - easy to focus on what we don’t have and wish we did have – more time, better health, more love, more recognition…
I don’t mean to suggest that the deficits in our lives are trivial. We have just come through a period of really difficult deprivation as the Covid virus has forced us into isolation, separated families, and caused countless losses. These are not unimportant, and they’re not illusions.
And as you know, the news of the pandemic seems like it is getting worse again. The world has changed as a result of the pandemic, and what lies ahead of us is unclear: we don’t know what familiar parts of life are just not coming back.
When we are worried about whether we will have enough, or how we will manage in a changed world, or hurting over what we have lost, it gets hard to see beyond those concerns.
This is where Booker Washington’s story comes in:
John’s gospel reminds us that God has given us what we need.
The important message in the story of the feeding of the multitude is that God can do very much with very little – that when what we have is blessed by God, what we have is more than enough. Our challenge is to notice what we have, and to cast down our buckets and let ourselves be filled.
We probably spend too much time worrying about the what is to come, rather than living fully in the particulars of the moment.
God loves us as we are. God is ready to bless our strengths, and to use them.
Having begun with the words of one great thinker, I want to leave you leave you with the words of another, writing about a century after Booker T Washington. Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and writer. She says this, in An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith:
No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X [that marks the spot where the treasure is] is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no special equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.*
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