Monday, August 27, 2012

Proper 16B. 26 August 2012.

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John 6.56-69


            It is nice to be back with you.  Three weeks can feel like a long time to be gone when you become accustomed to seeing folks every Sunday.   So I'm pleased to be back, and very grateful for the ministry of the fine folks who took care of things while I was away.


            We seem to have found ourselves reading from John's gospel this morning, specifically chapter six.  Chapter six is about bread.  If you would like to pull out your pew bible and find page 867, 868, I'd like to show you the structure of the chapter before I address the text for this morning.


            As you can see from the reference headings that the editors of the NRSV have given, chapter six of John begins with the feeding of the five thousand.  Now, you will recall that the overall structure of John's gospel is the Book of Signs, and the Book of Glory.  The Book of Signs is chapters 1-12, and 13-21 is the Book of Glory.  The "signs" are the deeds that point to who Jesus is, and as chapter 1 reads, there were those who received the signs and believed, and those who didn't see them, and therefore didn't believe.


            So quite often the way John writes his stories, you get the sign, and then you get the explanation of the sign.  The feeding of the five thousand is one of those signs, and then much of the rest of the chapter is a discussion on the deeper significance behind it.  


            John's gospel is loaded with symbolism and deeper significance, but also many, many rhetorical devices that are intended to tease the mind into deeper reflection.  It is in the reflection on these signs that a deeper revelation of Christ is to be found. 


            As you will see from the editors' heading on page 867, Jesus begins to talk about himself as the bread from heaven at verse 22.   The feeding of the five thousand is reminiscent of the manna in the wilderness that God provided the children of Israel during the Exodus.  In verse 31 John records that someone said to Jesus, "Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"  And Jesus responds, "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."  So they said, "Sir, give us this bread always."


            Verse 35, "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.'"


            This becomes our lesson for today—a lengthy discussion on the bread and the Bread.  In the narrative itself, Jesus is trying to explain with symbolism, parable, hyperbole, and exaggeration that God doesn't just provide bread, God provides God. 


            Or let me say it like this... (And by the way, you already know this, most of you.  I'm not telling you anything you don't know.  But there is a difference between what you know in your head and what you know in your heart, and John's lesson is trying to bring about that deeper knowing.)


            Another way of saying it would be to say that the Giver and the gift are one and the same.  The manna in the wilderness was bread.  But the fullest understanding is that God cares about you, and wants you to live and be happy.  The bread is a gift, but what you are really feeding on is God. 


            So when Jesus says, "I am the bread of life," he is using symbolic language to say, "The Father has sent me, like he sent bread to your ancestors.  If you accept me, you will have life.  And not just life now, but life for ever.  Your ancestors ate the gift of bread and eventually died.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  If you eat of me, you will live for ever.  Because I am not just the gift, I am also the Giver of the gift."


            Of course, this begs the question that is not actually addressed in the lesson, which is: How do we eat of Jesus? 


            The community of Christians for which John wrote his gospel had already been gathering together to celebrate the Holy Eucharist.  The Mass is older than the Gospels, so it is likely that part of what we are reading is John's understanding of what the Eucharist means.  To this day, much of our Eucharistic theology is grounded in this early understanding that Jesus is the bread of the Eucharist.  And it's why we regularly celebrate the Eucharist—to feed literally feed on Jesus the living bread.


            But though that answer is symbolically sufficient, "eating of Jesus" literally and symbolically does not always completely satisfy the devout Christian.   For instance, it has become known from the diaries of Mother Teresa that she spent most of her life in a painful kind of spiritual hunger.  She even recorded that she felt no solace at all from receiving the Holy Eucharist.  


            I remember when this news hit the wires that Roman Catholic commentators were very quick to give some historical and theological context.  They said that she had achieved a level of such transcendent spirituality that the Holy Spirit was moving in her without her even sensing it—or that what she was experiencing was what St. John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul" in which God seemed absent to her, but was in fact more perfectly present.


            I didn't buy any of that when I heard it.  And not because I was suspicious of the commentators.  They might have been right, or at least there might have been some truth to what they were saying, but my suspicion was much more about what I saw as the anxious ways that those commentators were trying to rescue someone we all believed to have achieved a high degree of spiritual sanctity.


            In plain words, they didn't want her to be a human being who had her struggles.  They wanted her to be a saint, with a capital S.  Because if Mother Teresa didn't feel anything, then what hope do any of us have?  What incentive can you give the young men and women who are just beginning to think about Confirmation and a life of greater service and devotion, or even the ordained life? 


            If you can't point to Mother Teresa and say—"You will feel God in your soul with such transcendent joy that you won't believe it..."  If you can't point to that kind of spiritual satisfaction, then how are you going to get people to be Christians anymore?   And that's the kind of implicit cynicism that—I think—tried to hide behind the "theological and historical context."  


            Jesus said, "The one who eats me will live because of me."  He said that we who eat his flesh and drink his blood will never be hungry or thirsty, but you and I both know that there have been many, many, many times when the bread has not seemed to satisfy as Jesus said it would. 


            And it's not a lack of faithfulness, or a lack of faith that admits to that; quite the contrary.  It is the plain and honest truth that you can spend hours in prayer and go to every liturgy you can find, and still be hungry.  You can even volunteer hours of your time at the food pantry, the Clothes Closet, or wherever, and you can still be hungry for God.


            People have even been known to give up on church and Christianity entirely because they didn't feel like they could connect.   I remember hearing a story from one of my favorite preachers who said he was making his way back to his office to take off his vestments after the service on Sunday and he passed the choir room and there was a lady taking off her robe, and she told him, "Well, I'm hanging it up."  He thought she meant the robe.  He said, "Yes, you are hanging it up."  She said, "No, I'm hanging it up." She said, "I have been singing in the choir for hundred and thirty-two years, and this morning I looked down on those people out there and thought, `What's the point?'  So I'm hanging it up.  I'm leaving the church."[1] 


            It happens.  Earnest Christians know what it is to be hungry.  They come to church looking for some food for the soul, and maybe they feel like they get a little something, maybe they don't. 


            I know what it's like.  As I look back on it, I can recall many periods of spiritual hunger.  Some of them continue to surprise me. I was probably hungrier in seminary than I have ever been since, despite the fact that I was often in prayer and meditation.  I had Morning Prayer in the morning with the whole community.  We had prayers before almost every class.  I used to go for walks and try to pray. 


            I remember going to the chapel late at night.  It was always open and there were always lights on the Altar inside.  I would go in and sit up in the chancel where the choir sat and look up at the stained glass windows, and the bishop's seat at the Altar, and I would sit there in the silence with my stomach growling.  Hungry.  It was bizarre.  I was surrounded by spiritual food—almost force-fed—and yet I was still hungry.  What I wanted more than anything was some expression of divine intimacy.  Some little something sweet from the candy jar of God.  I'm not sure I ever got it, but I kept going, and kept believing. 


            What is it that separates the person who feels nothing from God and keeps going, keeps giving, keeps serving, and the person who feels nothing and walks away?  I have been asking that question for years, because it's an honest question, and because I believe that God and the Faith we hold big enough to handle it.  And perhaps that's part of an answer to the question, the belief that God and the Faith we hold is big enough. 


            Maybe some of this depends on which part of the Church you come from.  I came from the part of the Church where it was okay to ask questions and probe and prod and say, "This doesn't seem to make sense," and it was understood that that didn't make you unchristian to say that. 


            But there are parts of the Church where asking the questions, or admitting that you don't walk around feeling close to God all the time meant that you weren't as devout as you should be.  That you have to take everything in the Bible literally, or you have to check your mind at the door.


            But the problem with that sort of approach is that it implicitly says that Christianity is not big enough to handle science, exploration, discovery, and scholarship.  Or it says that Christianity is not big enough, God is not strong enough to be wrestled with on matters concerning real people.  And I disagree.  The Episcopal Church has always disagreed with that. (Pause.)


            So I come back around to question at hand.  Jesus said that he whoever eats of him will never be hungry.  What if you are still hungry?  What do you do when the hunger for Jesus, the hunger for God, is not completely satisfied?  


            I can't offer you any guarantees, but I can tell you what I have learned to do.  I have learned quite often that I am hungry because I have not asked for food.  I've expected God to just know when I'm hungry.  But I have learned that I need to ask.


            And so my prayer becomes, "Daddy, I'm hungry."  I don't ask for candy.  I've finally learned not to do that.  Evelyn Underhill, that great Anglican mystic, once wrote, "The Bread of Heaven doesn't come with butter on it." 


            I just admit that I need.  And something about admitting that I can't satisfy my needs on my own, provides the bread.  The bread that is the Bread.


            It sounds like a formula—pray this prayer and get that—that's not what I mean.  The words must be your words, offered from the hungry place inside of you. 


            If you are hungry, be authentic with God about it.  Trust him with it.  Be as open as a child coming to her daddy, and it may be that in that openness and genuine vulnerability a deeper faith will reveal itself.  And you may then have a taste of the living bread, Jesus, who is both the Giver and the gift.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.



[1] A Fred Craddock story from Chapel Sermons: Cloud of Witnesses