Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, 19th Ordinary, B, August 12, 2012
John 6:35, 41-51
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.”
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were
saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 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. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 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.”
Scientists tell us that if we eat food which contains just the right combination of salt, fat, and sugar, we will enjoy it, and never feel satiated. We will always want more. Many junk foods contain just that combination. Once we start eating them, it’s hard to stop.
But of course if there is little or no nutritional value in that junk food: eating more does not help us at all. Sometimes, after eating junk food, we sense a craving for other food; healthy food; food with real nutritional value, like protein.
Here for Spirit-food
One of the reasons we are here today, one of the reasons we get up and get out of the house on Sunday morning to gather together for worship is a sense of spiritual hunger. We all feel it. Watching the Olympics is great, going out to eat is nice, recreation is wonderful, but still we have a hunger for food that fills the spirit.
We feel this hunger for spiritual-nutrition both in the broad sense, of needing beautiful music, beautiful places and shared ritual, which we find here, and in the more narrow sense of Spirituality: connection with God, whom we worship, as Jesus said, “in spirit and in truth.”
The text we read from the Gospel of John is all about the subject of spiritual nutrition. Where do we get the bread that satisfies that hunger in our spirits?
Reading the Bible in 90 Days
We are about to embark on the journey of reading the entire bible in 90 days. We believe this project, though not an easy one, will be spiritually nutritious for us. This is a perfect time to think about spiritual nutrition. We all want to have healthy spirits, not diseased ones. We want to be spiritually deep, not shallow; enriched, not impoverished in our deepest souls, so this is an important topic to all of us.
Some of us are going to start reading the bible with the expectation that we will feel blessed right away, but we will, early on, get frustrated with what we are reading. We will read about the creation of the world which is wonderful, but almost as soon as humans appear, things start going downhill. Humans bring into the story pride, envy, anger, deception, fratricide, and vengeance within the first few chapters.
Besides the ugly violent parts, we will read long, boring parts that detail lists of ancestors and unfamiliar place-names that don’t seem relevant. There are some good stories about recognizable characters like: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and his two wives Lea and Rachel, but it’s not all straightforwardly blessing-giving material. The Abraham and Sarah story is complicated by Hagar and Ishmael, the family dynamics issues that lead to expulsion.
There’s the issue of seemingly repeated stories – “she’s not my wife, she’s my sister” – in succeeding generations that strikes us as odd. There is the issue of marital arrangements – this is hardly the place to go to prove that “the biblical marriage” is about “one man an one woman.” There is polygamy and the use of baby-making concubines. The 12 tribes, that came from Joseph’s 12 sons, took four women to produce, only two of whom were wives in the full sense.
In what sense is any of this spiritually nourishing? I predict that many of us are going to be asking that question repeatedly as we read the whole bible. We certainly do not have a book of great examples to imitate – even the main characters do things we find inappropriate.
Bible story books made for children often make these characters out to be models for imitation, but they are only able to achieve that result by cutting out many paragraphs along the way.
And that brings us to a crucially important point. The bible is not a children’s story book. It is an adult book, written by adult writers for adult readers. When we read about people lying, cheating, deceiving and being vengeful, we are meant to be alarmed, even horrified, even without a narrator jumping into the story and saying, “and he should not have done that!” Adults are meant to get it.
Adults Should “get it”
A huge portion of the Old Testament tells one long story about the history of the people who descended from Abraham, became slaves in Egypt, and eventually became the nation of Israel. Much of that story is told with bitter irony, sometimes even sarcasm. We adult readers are meant to get that.
For example, Solomon, we read, “loved the Lord with all his heart, like his father David had done,” only he sacrificed at the “high places” and built shrines for all of the pagan gods of his 300 wives. Only children would miss the bitter irony of that description of his supposed “love for the Lord.”
Another example: King Ahab’s wife Jezebel helped him to expropriated the ancestral inheritance of poor Naboth. If this story was read by an Israelite who was raised with the values and standards of the Torah, the law of Moses in mind, she would be outraged and horrified by what happened, even if Naboth had survived.
In what sense is any of this spiritually nourishing? There are many things that could be said here, but the one, single most important idea to keep in mind as you read the Old Testament is that this is the story of the problem that leads us to Jesus as the solution. And it
only makes sense in that context. Jesus makes little sense outside the context of Israel’s story, and when Jesus is taken out of the context of this story, he is distorted, often beyond recognition.
When Jesus spoke of his “Father” in heaven, everyone knew whom he meant, and no one thought he meant Marduk nor Zeus. When he spoke of words written in the prophets, he was speaking to people who could quote from the prophets and should have known better.
When he spoke to the people of his day about their ancestors eating bread from heaven, he knew that they would be thinking of the story of the exodus from Egypt and the manna from heaven the Israelites ate during their years in the wilderness.
And when he spoke of himself as “the living bread that came down from heaven” he was saying that he was the solution to the problem that all those stories, laws and prophecies did such a thorough job of presenting.
And when he said:
“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”
– he was inviting all of them, and all of us, to find the solution to our spiritual hunger in him.
Why? Because Jesus is the one who can bring us to the source: to God himself. As he said to them,
“the one who is from God; he has seen the Father”
Jesus, the one who “has seen the Father,” has the vocation, the calling, to be God’s way of solving the problem that the whole Old Testament shows us: the problem of our alienation from God and from each other and from the good world God made, which was caused by evil and its many destructive effects. There is the evil that is present in the world around us, the evil that exists in the systems we are born into, and the evil we participate in by our own choice.
Jesus, who was sent from our Heavenly Father to us, is the one who can most clearly show us the Father. In Jesus, we see the rescuing, restoring, gracious love of God at work, mercifully drawing back to God people, like us, who have gone astray. In Jesus we see God.
The Old Testament will show us many versions of a picture of God. These portraits of God and of God’s will that the Old Testament shows us are meant to prepare us for the final, clearest, most adequate view of God; the one we see in Jesus. Jesus is the measure we will use to evaluate all the other perspectives. He is, as the New Testament says, “the image of the invisible God.” (Col. 1:15)
Advice: thank God for Jesus!
Some advice: as you read the Old Testament, when you come to parts that horrify you or parts that bore you or confuse you, say to yourself: “thank God for Jesus!”
Now that Jesus has come, many issues that were crucial in the Old Testament have been solved. The issue of land, the “promised land” has been solved because the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus proclaimed is not a physical space. It has no territorial borders. People of every nation, every race, every language will be together, as John pictures it in the book of Revelation, gathered around the throne on which God himself sits as King.
The issue of purity, or in other words, being cleansed and forgiven, has now been solved. No longer do we need a temple where priests offer animal sacrifices on our behalf. Jesus has come as the great High Priest. He has come as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Through Jesus we have direct access to God the Father, without a curtain between us, as the temple had, without a priestly mediator, and without fear of ritual impurity.
Jesus is, then, our ultimate source. He is the ultimate source of our understanding of God the Father. He is the ultimate source of our relationship with God the Father. He is the ultimate source of our understanding of what God the Father wants from us. He is the ultimate source of our spiritual nutrition. As Jesus said,
“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever”
Our world serves up a lot of junk food for the spirit. Just by living normal days we are exposed to cynical politicians, biased news stories, voices of all kinds, dispensing non-nutritious advice based on everything from fear and disgust to arrogant selfishness and self-sufficient apathy. Like junk food, a steady diet of this only leaves us diseased and unhealthy.
But there is a better way. The bread of life has come. Jesus offers us a rich feast of himself if we are willing to sit at his table and allow him to host the banquet. We will read the bible in 90 days: let it whet our appetites for the main course, the true spiritual nutrition, the one who has seen and who shows us the Father: the Lord Jesus.