Tuesday, September 4, 2018

TRADITIOOOOOON!!!!!

'When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;

in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’


You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”'
--Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15


Is there a musical with a better opening number than Fiddler on the Roof?  Apologies to anyone who may not have seen this classic either on stage or film.  Set in the Russian Jewish town of Anatevka, the story centers around the local milkman Tevye and his family as they deal with the changing times.  They keep the balance in Anatevka, Tevye says, and how do they do that?  Tradition!  The score then swells into the show’s first song, and we hear the ensemble echo Tevye:  TRADITIOOOOON!!  Tevye tells the audience that in Anavatevka they have traditions for everything:  how to eat, how to sleep, how to work.  But my favorite moment in the number is when Tevye says to the audience:  “You may ask, ‘How did this tradition get started?’  I’ll tell you….I don’t know!”  Rarely have I ever come across a show that pulls me in and makes me love it before the opening number is even finished, but that’s what Fiddler on the Roof does with ‘Tradition,’ the name of that opening number.  Click below to watch the full video of the song at the beginning of the 1971 film. 



Traditions are wonderful.  They bind us together with our ancestors.  They remind us that we are part of something so much greater than ourselves.  For us Anglicans tradition is one of the pieces of the three legged stool on which our faith is grounded—the other two being Scripture and reason.  When we are faced with an issue about how to worship or what decision to make we very often ask what our ancestors did, and that answer informs what we ourselves will choose to do.  But if we cannot answer that very important question that Tevye poses—How did this tradition get started?—we run into trouble, as Tevye himself does throughout that story.

The keepers of the traditions in Jesus’ days were the Pharisees, tasked with not only keeping the Law of Moses—the Torah—must also maintaining the traditions of their ancestors that grew out of that Law over time.  So often we like to paint the Pharisees as stuffy know-it-alls who were more concerned with legalism than they were an authentic relationship with God.  They have become something of a caricature to modern Christians.  And while many of the Pharisees we meet in the Gospels do come of as fundamentalists, it’s essential for us to remember that they are not representative of all Pharisees; in fact, if it weren’t for the Pharisees maintaining the traditions and customs, then Judaism would have disappeared after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 AD, but thanks to the Pharisees the faith survived, and a new kind of Judaism was born:  rabbinic Judaism, which is the Judaism still practiced today.  We must not vilify the Pharisees as a whole simply because some were fundamentalists.

It isn't a bad word!

But what was it about Jesus that was so hard for those particular Pharisees to understand and deal with?  Chief among the issues on which Jesus and the Pharisees disagreed was tradition, how they viewed and practiced it, and how he called them out for their interpretation of it.  Take today’s story, for example.  A group of Pharisees and scribes are stunned that Jesus and his disciples eat without washing their hands, and they ask, rather sincerely, why Jesus and his disciples do not observe this tradition.  And Jesus responds by calling them hypocrites—which meant something different back then, the Greek word hupocrites simply means one who answers in a dialogue; that is, an actor, someone who is pretending or putting on a show.  They’re acting the part of being religious, and like Isaiah and the prophets of old, Jesus is calling these actors out for their phony righteousness. He then  goes on to say that they abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.  How can this be?  The Torah explicitly says that one must wash ones hands before eating, right?  Well…no.  That’s not in Torah.  That’s not part of the Law that God gave to Moses to give to the people.  That is actually one of those traditions that grew out of the Law over time, and now it has become so commonplace that the Pharisees are treating a tradition as if it were part of God’s own law.  That question from Tevye—How did this tradition get started?—they can’t answer it because they have been playing the part of being religious for so long, elevating their traditions to a place of parity alongside the Torah, which ultimately undercuts the sacred Laws that they have, ironically, committed their lives to uphold.    It isn’t that Jesus believes washing ones hands before eating is pointless—I think we all can agree that being sanitary is important—rather, his frustration lies with people who are following their own traditions as though they were from God, as if there could not possibly be any other way to live, and that’s a recipe for trouble.

Such a mindset is certainly not the intellectual property of the Pharisees alone.  This is what happens in all fundamentalist communities, where the sayings and customs and traditions of that community become so commonplace over time that people forget where they came from at all.  When this happens such sayings and customs and traditions morph into something that resembles divine mandate.  We see this in every religion and every culture—from Muslim radicals in the Middle East to fundamentalist Buddhists in Myanmar, all of whom uphold ancient traditions while ignoring what their actual sacred texts and teachings say. And, of course, Christianity itself has fallen prey to this behavior.  Customs like forbidding clergy to marry and the exclusion of women from positions of leadership are just a couple of the so-called traditions of Christianity that are so old that people cannot remember a time when the church did not uphold them.  But if we ask Tevye’s question—How did these traditions get started?—and we dig deeper into them then we learn that these are not divine mandates but simply very old traditions.  The practice of forbidding priests to be married, for example, did not arise until the 12th century, when the church was faced with the difficult challenge of what to do with its property when a priest had a child—What if the child is not going to be a priest, then what happens to the property?  The solution was to forbid clergy from having children by keeping them from being married at all, a tradition that now is so old most think it’s been around since the foundation of the Church itself.  And as for the exclusion of women, it is clear from the writings of St. Paul that women like Phoebe, Prisca, and Thekla were all leaders in the early Church, but in the patriarchal Roman society, which Christianity was brought into in the 4th century, women were of little more regard than cattle, thus resulting in their voices being silenced and their witness being blotted out for so long that, again, such a tradition got conflated with divine Law.  It is this conflation, this clinging to traditions so tightly and placing them so high as to rival the Law of God, that Jesus undercuts.  He himself is not anti-tradition—keep in mind that he observes all of the Jewish holy days and does his rabbinical duty of teaching in the synagogues on the sabbath—but he does call out those who would be so devoted to tradition that they cannot even say how it got started, nor why it matters at all.  Traditions are good and joyful things, so long as we understand them and uphold them responsibly.  This is the conversation Jesus is having with the Pharisees, one that he invites us to have with our own traditions.

Spoiler alert for those who have not seen it, but things don’t end so well for Tevye, as the final moments of the story show him looking around and lamenting that his traditions could not save him and his town from inevitable change.  Traditions alone will not save us.  If we cling to them and stubbornly utter that famous line, “We’ve always done it this way!” then both we and our traditions will cease to be; for those are the last six words of a dying community—church or otherwise.  We must understand our traditions, ask where they came from, wonder why they matter and if they are still important.  But above all we must remember that traditions are not divine mandate, and that like all human-made things they can change and will eventually fade away, but God will not.  Faith will not.  This is what Jesus calls us all to hold onto more than anything:  our faith, not in tradition, but in a life-giving, liberating, and loving God.  Our traditions can point us to God, can shape and enhance our experiences of the holy, but they cannot be the things to which we cling so tightly that we forget where they come from or why they matter.  To do that is to just be playing a part, acting like righteous people.

Do you understand your traditions and why you do what you do?  As a Christian?  As an Episcopalian?  If not, that’s ok, but don't blindly follow them without trying to understand.  Don’t be afraid to ask those questions.  Finding the answers may be difficult, but we can do so if we remember that true faith lies not in how strictly we maintain and elevate our outward appearances and traditions but in how much our hearts and minds are fixed on the actual divine mandates to love God and one another.  For no matter what our tradition, that is Good News for all people in all places and at all times.


Monday, August 27, 2018

Tackling the Hills of Faith

'Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”


Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”'
--John 6: 56-69

In the first chapter of his book Chase the Buffalo:  A 25-Year Odyssey of Discovery and Awareness, my Dad, Preston Mitchell, chronicles the first of his many bicycle trips that eventually would take him through all 48 continental States in a continuous loop.  That first trip was from our house in Flat Gap, VA to St. Louis, MO in July of 1982.  After coasting down the road from the house he hit his first major hill a mile and a quarter from the VA-KY line.  As he slowly peddled up that hill an old man was sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of a house on the right.  He hollered at Dad, “How’s it going?” to which Dad replied, “Ok, although these hills are a little tough.”  The old man paused for a second and responded, “Well, if it was all downhill everybody wold be biking.”  As Dad put it in the book, “truer words could not have been spoken.”

The cover of my Dad's book, Chase the Buffalo.

What if my Dad had turned around that day?  What if he had said that it was just too hard, that he couldn’t go on, that he didn’t see any point?  He certainly would not be the man that he is today had he not pushed through that first tough hill.  He just kept on peddling.  Many of you have even read his book or heard his stories.  If you've met my Dad or read his book you know how impactful those bike rides have been, but it all started with one tough hill, the sage words of an old man in his rocking chair, and the determination to keep moving forward.

Faith, I have found, is a lot like that.  Following Jesus is a lot like that.  Being a disciple of Jesus can feel like one uphill climb after another for us now; imagine what it must have been like back then.  For the past month we have been listening to Jesus give what is known as the Bread of Life Discourse.  After feeding 5000 people, who then try to make him their king and get him to perpetually provide them with enough bread and fish to make sure they’ll never go hungry again, Jesus has spent the last three weeks explaining to them that he is the Bread of Life, not the bread of mere sustenance.  The Bread he offers is his very self, his life, his love, his teachings, his divine nature.  If one were to cling to him, if one were to eat of his bread, that person would never hunger for power, privilege, or possessions ever again.  Last week he commanded the people to eat his flesh and drink his blood, to share in his very life-force.  We know this to be connected with our celebration of Communion, where we meet Jesus at this table and take him into ourselves, so that we may be the Body of Christ when we go back into the world from this place.  But, we are told by the Gospel writer, that this teaching was exceptionally hard, harder than any of the rest, harder than selling all of one’s possessions and giving them to the poor, harder than being told to take up the cross and following Jesus.  This is the straw that breaks the backs of many of the camels following Jesus, and so they turn away from him because, as they put it, “This teaching is difficult.”

The Greek word is skleros, which is best translated as “hard to accept,” rather than “hard to understand.” It wasn’t that the metaphors he used were too tough. They knew what Jesus meant, that to follow him meant surrendering completely and totally to him, but accepting that surrender and allowing themselves to go through with it was a different matter entirely.  He was not there to be a cosmic vending machine that would give them whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it.  Instead, he was inviting them into a relationship that was lifelong and life-altering.  And there wasn’t anything about it that was supposed to be easy.  The beauty of this passage is that it makes no effort to hide how hard people felt Jesus’ teachings were…still are, for that matter.  The fact that those who leave Jesus are disciples themselves (like all of us), not simply members of the religious authorities, brings the issue close to him for those of us who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and believe in his salvation and his love, but who still have a hard time accepting some of those more difficult teachings that push against our social, political, and personal preferences.

Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, the message of Jesus is tough, and anyone who has had a true conversion experience and wrestled with Jesus over that message can tell you that it would have been a lot easier for them had they said no.  And once they accepted that invitation into a relationship with Jesus they found themselves climbing some pretty steep hills, sometimes wishing they could just turn back.  Because the fact is that Jesus demands full participation in his life, death, and resurrection, all three.  We are to share in his message of love and liberation for all God’s people, but we must also be willing to share in his death, the death to self that we are meant to die each day, and then to share not only in his promise of resurrection on that great Last Day but to experience resurrection on a daily basis all around us and practice resurrection ourselves.  As the scholar Walter Bruegemann put it in his commentary on this passage:  "the Jesus to be followed is no docetic figure whose teachings, arrest, trial, and crucifixion were rounds in a game of charades."  Truly embracing Jesus and following him is no easy feat; after all, his trip also takes us up a hill, the hill called Golgotha. Is it any wonder that people turned back?

Even though this passage today has a somber note of unbelief to it, it also poignantly reminds us of the power of divine grace.  Jesus himself reminds his audience in verse 65 that no one comes to him except by the divine grace of God.  No one is ever forced to do it.  Jesus offers the Twelve a chance to get out as well, saying, “Do you also wish to go away?”  If we don’t wanna climb that hill we don’t have to.  But could you really imagine a life where you didn’t accept that invitation?  Yes, it’s hard.  Yes, it will lead to arguments and possibly estrangement from folks we know and love.  Yes, there will be times when we will want to throw our hands up and quit.  But somewhere deep down there is a voice, the same voice that Simon Peter spoke with, that says, “Where else are we to go?”  Jesus is our home.  He marked us as his own forever.  He is the one with whom we belong, the one who has the words of eternal life and who invites us to share in it with him.  To follow him truly and utterly means facing a great many challenges, but it also means being more fully alive than we ever were before.  The earliest followers of Jesus were called The Way because claiming Jesus as Lord meant an entirely new way of being, whether you were Jewish, Greek, Roman, or otherwise.  It was about reorienting one's whole self toward the way of Jesus, the way of love, the way of self-sacrifice, the way of light and hope in the midst of darkness and despair.

If following Jesus were easy, everybody would be doing it.  And while it sometimes looks like we all are—especially when we drive down the road and see 10 different churches within a mile of each other—the truth is that we aren’t all doing it.  We aren’t all willing to love our enemies or give to anyone that asks.  We proclaim Jesus as Lord with our lips, but in our hearts we still act as if we've got it figured out, that we are the ones in control.  We call this functional atheism, professing we believe while our actions say something else, and Christians of all kinds fall into this modality because, at the end of the day, it’s easier to follow our own hearts and desires than it is to follow Jesus.  But blessedly, by the grace of God and nothing else, we have been called to do just that! We have been called to know and love Jesus more fully and to follow his way. We have been called to love in the times when it is hardest to love, to give when we so desperately want to retain, to keep climbing the hill when it would be easier to give up and go home.  Even when Jesus’ teachings offend us (and many times they certainly do that), we listen, we learn, we grow, and we not only become more Christ-like ourselves but we sow the seeds of the kingdom.  For that is what it means to be a disciple, to be one who follows along the often hilly path that we call The Way.





Monday, August 20, 2018

On Transubstantiation

'Jesus said, “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 Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”'
--John 6: 51-58

Let’s unpack one of the most difficult passages in all of the Gospels, shall we?  How difficult is it?  So difficult that next week—yes, we’ve got one more week of this Bread of Life stuff—many of Jesus’ own followers will abandon him because, they say, it’s too hard for them to understand.  Well, we don't shy away from the hard stuff. So let's dig in! 

The language that Jesus uses about eating his flesh and drinking his blood might sound familiar because it reflects the language we use at the altar in our prayer before sharing Holy Communion—or Holy Eucharist, or the Great Thanksgiving, or the Mass, or the Lord’s Supper, whatever you want to call it.  Take, eat, this is my body; drink this all of you, this is my blood.  The Gospel of John is unique in that it doesn’t have a story of Jesus saying these words at the Last Supper with his disciples—something that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have and that Paul even recounts in his First Letter to the Corinthians—but this moment, the Bread of Life discourse that follows the feeding of the 5000, serves the same purpose.  If you are to be full participants with me, Jesus is saying, you must eat my flesh and drink my blood.  The point being made is the same one that he gives in the Last Supper, the same one we recount each time we share Communion together.  

But here is where the teaching gets difficult, the piece that drives some of those followers to leave.  Many in that crowd that day heard Jesus say eat my flesh and drink my blood and thought CANNIBALISM!  One of the most common criticisms of early Christians, which set them up against virtually every other faith-based group, was that folks thought they were actual cannibals.  "They eat flesh and drink blood," others whispered.  That belief stuck with most non-Christians until the 4th century when Christianity came out of the shadows and was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire.  But there still remained a lingering question:  if Jesus wasn't talking about literal cannibalism, what then was he talking about?  The church’s answer was a doctrine we call transubstantiation.  Stay with me now (especially if you're a Protestant)!

I suspect most of us have at least heard the term, but there is a good chance that we don’t fully understand its meaning or that what we think we know is actually incorrect.  Since the 2nd century, with works such as the Didache—which is the earliest non-biblical Christian text and something of a proto prayer book—and the writings of Justin Martyr and St. Ignatius of Antioch, Christians affirmed that Jesus was present in the bread and wine of Communion.  It was just a given fact about the faith. But, it wasn’t until an argument between two monks in the 9th century named Radburtus and Ratramnus—yes, those are their real names—that the question of how exactly Jesus’ presence was possible came to the forefront of Christian conversations.  

Radburtus and Ratramnus....maybe.


Radburtus said that Jesus actually replaced the bread and wine, while Ratramnus said that he was only figuratively in present.  So the church dug deeper into this question. By the time of the Great Schism in the 11th century, the term transubstantiation was in full use.  The doctrine was born out of the predominant worldviews of the time, particularly how people thought about matter.  Those thoughts could be traced back to Aristotle, who, as you may recall, declared that all matter is composed of two characteristics:  its accidents and its substance.  Accidents are outward signs that help us recognize a person or object, but these outward signs can be changed; for example, eye color, hair length, or height.  Substance, on the other hand, cannot be changed and is the thing that we cannot see, that which is deep down at the core that makes a person or a thing who or what they are, like the soul.  Accidents change, but substance does not. This was a very common, normal thing that everyone understood. The miracle of Communion, therefore, is that the opposite happens, and it is the substance that is changed.  In our prayer, through the participation of both the priest and people and with the power of the Holy Spirit, the substance of the bread and wine are changed into that of Jesus, while the accidents remain the same, turning the natural order of matter on its head.  In other words, we are still beholding the accidents of bread and wine (the look, the taste, the smell), but rather than taking in the substance of bread and wine we are taking in the substance of Jesus himself  That is transubstantiation, the changing of one's substance, and to affirm that doctrine is to affirm an active engagement with the living Christ in this Sacrament.

For our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, this doctrine is a firmly held piece of their faith, as well as for many Episcopalians, even though  the Episcopal Church does not officially use the word transubstantiation and instead, like Justin and Ignatius, simply affirms Jesus’ real presence in Holy Communion without having a dogmatic why for how that presence is conveyed—how very quaint and Anglican  of us!  Still, there are some churches born out of the Protestant Reformation that not only vehemently oppose the doctrine, but have gone so far as to demonize and viciously persecute those Christians who have held to it.  In England alone some 300 individuals were killed for practicing Catholicism from 1534-1681, and even today there are members of the Body of Christ who believe that those of us who believe Jesus is actually in the meal—rather than simply seeing it as a memorial—are promoting a form of cannibalism.  It’s sad. It's a complete misunderstanding of transubstantiation.  And it's not what Jesus is teaching in his Gospel. 

Saint John Southworth, an English Roman Catholic priest killed in 1654 (my wife's great-great-great-great-great-uncle)

From the earliest days of our faith, followers of Jesus heard these words about flesh and blood and knew them to be connected to the practice of Holy Communion.  John's own community would've been steeped in the practice of Communion, seeing as how this Gospel is written some 70 years after Jesus' Resurrection.  They knew, as we do still, the significance of calling this meal Communion, for it is in this meal that we commune with Jesus himself, which is why Christians have been participating in this Sacrament, this sacred meal, for 2000 years.  

If we know anything about John's community and the Gospel it produced, we know that it does not use any of its words haphazardly. When we dig deeper ourselves and do a little biblical scholarship, we can see just how important active participation with Jesus really is in the Bread of Life discourse. Looking  back over the last three weeks we see that the dominant verb within the discourse has been “believe,”a verb that does not imply actual, active participation.  "Believe in me," is Jesus' response when the crowd asks what they must do, for example.  But that changes here, where the dominant verbs are “eat” and “drink,” and "abide," action verbs, which call the people into an active participation with Jesus.  It is not enough to believe that he is the bread of life, we must participate in the bread of life.  It is not enough to believe Jesus' flesh is true food and his blood true drink, we must participate in them. And how do we do that?  We do it through the Sacrament, where his substance, his life, mingles with our own. 

Putting on our biblical scholars' hats again we notice something significant in Jesus' intentional instruction to drink his blood. By calling his followers to drink his blood Jesus is using an old Jewish metaphor that goes all the way back to the 9th chapter of Genesis; that is, that the blood of a creature represents its very life-force.  This is why Jews are forbidden to ingest the blood of an animal, for to do so would be to mingle their lives with that of the animal.  And so Jesus, using that metaphor and changing his verbiage is inviting the people there in Capernaum, and indeed us as well, to actively participate, by coming to the table and eating the bread of heaven and drinking from the cup of salvation, wherein we take in his very substance, his very nature, mingling his life, his flesh and blood, with our own.  This is not to say that those who do not receive Communion cannot possibly know and love Jesus, but partaking of this holy meal binds us to Jesus in a unique way, and it is in this active participation that we abide in Jesus and he in us.  As the Prayer of Humble Access reminds us:  

"Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us."
--Book of Common Prayer, p. 338 

Believing is important, but participation is what Jesus calls us into, participation in a relationship with him that begins in the waters of our baptism which graft us onto the Body of Christ, that is renewed each time we take in the body and blood of Christ in Communion with him, and that is continued each and everyday as we work together with Christ and one another to build up the Kingdom of God.  
Perhaps you learned something about transubstantiation today that you didn't know before.  Maybe you'll share that knowledge the next time someone gets their facts wrong on the subject!  Regardless of where you stand on that doctrine, however, I pray that whenever you commune with our Lord in that sacred meal, that you will feel his presence mingle with your own, strengthening you to go and proclaim his Good News of hope and salvation to this broken world.  Saint Ignatius called Holy Communion "the medicine of immortality."  It is indeed that, for it is the Great Physician himself who invites us to the table to meet him and abide with him in this blessed Sacrament. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Not a Cosmic Vending Machine

'The next day, when the people who remained after the feeding of the five thousand saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”


Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”'
--John 6: 24-35



Following the miraculous Feeding of the Multitude from last week, we enter a section of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John that we call the Bread of Life Discourse.  We can’t really begin to talk about the Bread of Life, though, without recapping where we were a week ago.  Through the faith of a young boy who offers his five loaves and two fish Jesus manages to feed a crowd of 5000 people out in the desert.  You might think that Jesus would take a moment to bask in the accomplishment, but if you remember last week’s Gospel, he heads to the other side of the sea under the cover of darkness and does so by walking on the water—I guess grabbing a boat would have drawn attention.  He does the deed, and then he moves on.  Our modern, celebrity-obsessed culture would not take so kindly to Jesus’ insistence on being so discreet!  

Not that much has changed, as that crowd was also rather obsessed with this particular celebrity in their own day, and so they chase after him, eventually catching up to Jesus on the other side of the sea in the town of Capernaum, which is where we pick up the story today.  Picture, if you will, that you are part of that crowd.  You have just witnessed something that is beyond explanation.  Each and everyday you and your family and friends experience real, painful hunger, and you have just seen a man feed more people than the population of Capernaum itself!  How might you react to him?  Would you try to get him to come back and stay in your town across the sea?  Like, forever, so that he can make sure you and your family never go without food ever again?  Would you try to get him to help with other problems in your life—a sick parent or lack of income?  Or perhaps overthrow the local politician and establish a better government?  If you find yourself agreeing with this questions then you have an idea of what is going on for that crowd when they finally catch up to Jesus.

When they find Jesus, the first thing they ask is:  “When did you come here?”  In other words, "When did you leave us?"  They’re persistent in tracking Jesus down, having tried the day before to make him king after he looked like he could be a perpetual food supplier.  Yet their persistence is misplaced, even self-serving, and Jesus knows that and calls them out on it.  They are preoccupied with the literal loaves and fish, the food that has just perished, and they’re looking for Jesus for all the wrong reasons.  Their primary motivation for going across the sea to find him is that they want him to do for them exactly what they want, and what they want is more bread for their hunger.  They want Jesus the Cosmic Vending Machine!  But Jesus points out to them that while satisfying their physical hunger is important—after all, he did feed all of them—they must not let that be their driving force.  The desire to satisfy an earthly need, even one as basic as hunger, should not be what compels a person to seek out Jesus. For this crowd, however, the appetites of this world, the desire to get more and more of those things that wither away, motivates their actions, and if they can get Jesus to do some more miracles he can satisfy all of those needs.  Show us some more miracles, Jesus, and fix all of our problems for us!  And while Jesus’ miracles are extraordinary deeds that rectify the situations of those in need, the results are not lasting unless the miracles are also perceived as signs pointing to something deeper and longer lasting than the satisfaction of earthly needs.  Much more so than the physical, Jesus is here to satisfy their spiritual hunger and show them the works of God.

NOT how Jesus works!

OK, they can get behind that.  So what must we do, they ask, to perform those works?  Again, their concern is surface level, it’s self-serving.  They only want to know how to perform the works of God in order to please Jesus, hoping that he will then do for them whatever they wish.  They are like modern church-goers who just want the preacher to tell them what to do so that they can make Jesus happy in order to get their Get Out of Hell Free Card, again treating Jesus like that Cosmic Vending Machine that’s there just to satisfy them. However, instead of giving them an explicit thing to do Jesus tells them that performing the works of God means believing in him; that is, paying attention to him, emulating his actions, and listening to his words.  If they can allow God through Jesus to break down their misconceptions of how the whole of existence functions, then they will be performing the works of God.  

This is where the crowd gets anxious.  Their hunger has returned, and it's clear Jesus is not going to just give them what they want.  So they ask what they must do to perform God's works, hoping if they do those things he will give them the thing for which they ask.  He tells them to believe in him.  Fine!  What signs, they ask, can Jesus give them so that they may believe??  Seriously?  Were they not just paying attention?!  He just fed 5000 people!!  But that’s the power of their earthly hunger, the power of the Gospel of scarcity that they have preached to themselves.  So they resort to Scripture, telling Jesus that Moses, after all, fed the people everyday with manna, gave them just enough to survive, so surely, Jesus can do that, can’t he?!  Jesus once again doesn't bite and instead puts on his biblical scholar’s hat and reinterprets this passage that they have obviously taken out of context. Jesus points out that Moses didn’t give it to them, God did, and what’s more, Jesus intentionally changes the tense of the verb from ‘gave’ to ‘gives,’ reflecting to them that God is a present reality, still giving freely and without limit.  God still satisfies the needs of every living creature, but the hunger that they need to be satisfied is deeper than that, so God has given them Jesus himself to be their bread.  By the end of today’s passage any ambiguity is gone:  Jesus is not like bread, Jesus IS the Bread of Life, the one who can satisfy their deepest hunger.  But they remain confused, which is why our Sunday lectionary stays with the Bread of Life discourse for the next four weeks!

We might look at this exchange between Jesus and the crowd, and through the lens of time and with hindsight wonder how they didn’t believe him.  But that’s how strong their earthly hunger was and how loud they preached the Gospel of scarcity.  To be fair, those same hungers are felt, and that same Gospel is preached today. The world dangles all sorts of things at us, taunting us, telling us that we NEED this or that in order to survive, and if we don't get more and more we will run out and ultimately die.  We become like a kitten pawing after a piece of yarn, but even if we catch the whole ball, it will eventually unravel, and then what are we left with?  Nothing!  That's when our temporal appetites become so insatiable that we get desperate to satisfy them—with physical food (like the folks in the Gospel today), with money, with drugs, alcohol, and lust.  Give us these remedies, and all will be well, and we will be satisfied!  




What we forget is that the longing we feel is not shaped like any of those things, but rather it is shaped like God.  Augustine of Hippo, himself a sufferer of earthly physical hunger, tried to satisfy himself with one of those aforementioned remedies:  lust.  He came back to it over and over again, famously praying once, "Lord, save me from temptation, but not yet!"  Eventually, though, he found himself literally face down in the mud and came to realize that only God could fill the void in his being.  The crowd that day in Capernaum wanted Jesus to do something for them, to fill their void with whatever they asked, but Jesus doesn’t play that game.  He is NOT a Cosmic Vending Machine that we come to from time to time to get a snack that will satisfy us.  He doesn't do what we want so long as we punch in the right code!  What he offers is deeper than that, it is a relationship that truly does save us.  He is the Bread not of mere sustenance, but the Bread of Life.  Such Bread saves us from the lies that our consumerist culture tells us, that we NEED this or that to make our lives meaningful, and it saves us from that Gospel of scarcity that says we need more and more.  It saves us from believing that our salvation lies in anything out there except our all loving, all knowing, and all powerful God!  We are no different, brothers and sisters, than that crowd who wanted Jesus to stay with them just so he could feed them bread and fish everyday because they thought that’s what would satisfy them, what they needed, in spite of the fact that what would really satisfy them was standing right in front of them.

Augstine of Hippo, a man who knew earthly hunger very well.

But while our earthly appetites rage, he is still standing there in front of us, inviting us into relationship with him.  No, the remedy he offers will not satisfy us the way those other things will.  His remedy, his very self, unlike those others, is not a quick fix, but a life-long, life-changing experience.  At the Eucharistic table we meet him in bread and wine made holy, and we mortals taste the bread of angels.  That table prepares us to meet him in the world, and with every day and every person we meet the opportunity is there to re-enter into that experience with him.  As you head into the rat race of your day-to-day lives this week, into that consumerist culture that will preach that scarcity Gospel, may you see him inviting you into that relationship, that experience, in the face of the poor, in the laugh of a child, in the beauty of creation, and in that moment may you taste the Bread of Life and know that every hunger that you have ever known can and will be filled by him, and may you be satisfied.