by David Baer, August 12, 2018
Text: John 6:35,41-51
Our dog Baxter is a pretty smart dog. He’s figured out that if he’s out of his crate while we’re eating, the best place to hang out is right under my son’s chair. Out of all of us eating at the table, my son is the one most likely to let a bit of food drop, and when he does—zip!—Baxter is right there to snap it up. He knows where to find the goodies. This may not exactly be bread from heaven, but it’s tasty and it’s undeserved (grace!), and so it captures my dog’s full attention.
Two weeks ago we read the story about Jesus feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. And in John’s telling of the story, it’s not just a miracle—it’s a sign. It means something. It points the way to a deeper truth about who Jesus is and what it means to believe in him. Last week we heard about the outsiders—those who had followed Jesus into the wilderness, seen the amazing sign, and followed him back. Jesus wanted them to follow the sign upward, and to see God as the one who gives nourishment and life—years ago through Moses and manna, and now through Jesus, the bread of life.
Today it’s the insiders who question Jesus. John’s gospel calls them “the Jews,” but for us, as twenty-first century readers, those words can be misleading. Jesus is Jewish, and all his disciples are Jewish—everybody involved in this argument is Jewish, even though John only calls one side “the Jews.” You have to understand that this gospel was written by Jews who had been kicked out of their synagogue because they believed in Jesus. They continued to nurse the wounds that came with being separated from families and neighbors who stayed behind, and they blamed the synagogue insiders—the leaders and teachers who were hostile to Jesus and continued to be hostile to his followers. So wherever you read the words “the Jews” in John, do a little mental substitution and say “the insiders,” because that’s what it means.
The insiders scoff at Jesus’ words. “How can he claim that he is some kind of ‘bread’ that has come down from heaven?” they ask. “After all, he grew up just down the road. We know his parents. This kid is from Nazareth, not heaven.”
The logicians have a name for this. They call it the “genetic fallacy.” It’s the notion that because you know the source of a person or idea, you know everything there is to know about it. It’s something you see if you’re watching cable news these days: because you can describe the source as biased, or on the wrong side, that it’s not worth listening to. Sometimes we do it with people too. I’m grateful my Irish ancestors were able to find a home in this country when people in Ireland were downtrodden and starving. I’m grateful my German ancestors were able to come here when Germany was being torn apart by war and revolution. As I said to a friend, my ancestors didn’t leave the old country because life was especially awesome over there! But these insiders seem to be treating Jesus with the same kind of prejudice: We know this upstart rabbi comes from Nazareth, that no-account town in the hills. Therefore, he can’t be sent from God.
One of the lessons the scriptures teach us is that God chooses, blesses, and lifts up the lowliest, the least, and the left-behind. That’s why when the Israelites are about to cross over into the promised land, Moses reminds them that God chose them and saved them for reasons that had nothing to do with their achievements or greatness as a people:
It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)
So the story of God’s people teaches that you can’t judge based on origins. You can’t say, “This can’t possibly be God’s chosen people, because they are living a miserable existence as slaves in Egypt.” You can’t say, “That young whippersnapper of a rabbi from a grubby little town like Nazareth can’t possibly have been sent from God.” Not if you want to be open and attentive to what the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is doing.
This is a difficult message for insiders, though, isn’t it? Insiders from time immemorial have been exceedingly clever in coming up with explanations for why it is logical and just that they are on the inside, and others are not. The mythology changes: sometimes it’s because of their ancestry; sometimes it’s because of the superior values of their culture or religion; sometimes it’s because (so they say) they work harder and do a better job playing by the rules (which they wrote, by the way!) than everybody else. And this explains why they, the insiders, enjoy the blessings the world has to offer—wealth or safety or opportunity for their kids—and others don’t.
But Jesus turns this on its head when he explains how it is people come to recognize him as the bread of life that satisfies their deepest hunger forever. He says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me…. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” Who draws people to Jesus? God. Who teaches people to see and seek Jesus as living bread? God. Can anyone come to Jesus without being led by God? No. Faith itself is a miracle, a sign.
For those who first read John’s gospel, this teaching spoke to their experience. Not everybody believes Jesus is the Son of God, and some of them will treat you pretty harshly if you do. But given that hostility, isn’t it striking that these ancient believers didn’t take the opportunity to congratulate themselves? Isn’t it striking that, in the face of persecution and exclusion, they could see themselves as children of grace? Isn’t it striking that they could continue to hold out hope that the gift Jesus gives, the bread of his flesh, is for the life of the world, the whole world?
Our faith is a miracle. It’s nothing we can discover or create for ourselves, and so this insight is never anything we can brag about or stand pat on. Think for a moment: Your faith in God, whatever it looks like, has been shaped by ten thousand and one influences you didn’t arrange or provide for yourself. The bread that nourishes, that gives eternal life, may come from Nazareth or Allendale or anywhere else your church school teachers or spiritual friends or other mentors and guides come from. But it’s from heaven, because it comes ultimately from the mysterious providence of God.
The truth is that when it comes to the nourishment that brings everlasting life, we’re a little bit like the dog that sits next to the dinner table. Baxter doesn’t work for the food that comes down from above. He knows where to find it, and it waits eagerly for it. (I say “eagerly,” rather than patiently or politely, because he is prone to try to force things from time to time!) The powerful words of the psalm we sang this morning put it like this: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.”
If the one thing that matters most, the hope that gets us through darkness toward the morning of everlasting life, is a gift, then everything is a gift, isn’t it? And if everything is gift and grace, if we have no more intrinsic right to the blessings we enjoy than the stranger, than our enemy, then it means a different way of relating to them and to all our neighbors, doesn’t it?
We have lifegiving bread to eat… and more than we need, enough to share with our neighbors through the Center for Food Action donation basket in the hallway, or through the school supply collection. We have community… How many times have I seen folks make themselves vulnerable at our time of joys and concerns only to be approached in coffee hour by so many others who had experienced the same thing? This kind of community is a gift, it’s something we need every day on our journey, and it’s bread from God. It’s grace, something we don’t deserve and could never earn. And it’s abundant, enough to satisfy our needs and much, much more—it demands to be shared.
So take and eat what you get in prayer, in hearing the words of life in scripture, in fellowship with Christians, and understand that it is gift and grace. And let the gift nurture you as a grace-filled and generous child of God, present in this life but rooted in the life everlasting. Amen.