Monday, July 27, 2015

Tricky Bread of Life

Last Friday, my friend and colleague Joe Gibbes mentioned that he was preaching on John 6 for each of the next five Sundays. Personally, I can't imagine anything less exciting for my homiletic focus as I really don't like the Bread of Life discourse--too much talk and not enough action--but Joe made a very convincing point. He remarked that lots of people tell new Christians to go read John as a foundation for their nascent faith, but he disagrees. And why? Because of John 6.

Yesterday, we started a succession of gospel lessons that take us through one of the most difficult, confusing, counter-intuitive chapters in the gospel. John 6. The feeding of the 5,000 was a gentle but central introduction. The rest of the chapter is a rhetorical back and forth between Jesus and the crowd and the disciples about his identity, God's mission, and our response. In the coming weeks, we'll hear Jesus say, "Eat me." (Well, sort of.) He will tell the people they must eat his flesh, and, when they object and ask him to clarify or soften his hyperbolic message, Jesus refuses. It's hard. And I think Joe might be right--this is a time to preach a five-part series on this tough sequence of passages. But our preaching schedule isn't set up that way.

This week, my colleague Seth Olson will have the opportunity to preach on John 6:24-35. I don't know if he'll choose to focus on the gospel, but, as I anticipate preaching the following week, I'm focusing on this particular exchange because I think it's an important framework for the rest of John 6.

The crowd who had been present for the feeding of the 5,000 sought out Jesus. "When did you come here?" they asked, unaware (or perhaps unable to believe) that he had walked across the water. Side-stepping their question, Jesus responded, "You're only looking for me because your tummies were full of bread." For me, their pursuit and Jesus' response is the central theme of this chapter. In John 6, Jesus is being identified as the one who provides for God's people, but the people are only interested in the provision itself.

Perhaps this should passage should inform our approach to evangelism. When we introduce people to Jesus, are we presenting the provision or are we directing them to the one who provides? When we preach forgiveness, are we merely offering absolution or are we presenting a transformative encounter with the one who forgives? When we talk about love, are we giving out hugs or are we inviting people to be embraced by God?

People are hungry. People are poor. People are lonely. They are burdened with guilt. They are confused. As Mark put it (alas, though, not John), they are like sheep without a shepherd. What are we offering? Food? Money? Companionship? Relief? Guidance? But then what? People don't need a Band-Aid, they need rebirth. And we--the church--cannot offer rebirth. That comes only from God.

As I explore the rest of John 6 and suffer through the interminable Bread of Life discourse, I'm trying to avoid the same trap into which the crowd fell. I'm trying not to focus on the bread but on the one who provides life. This isn't a time to preach Eucharistic theology. This is a time to invite people to see the real Jesus--God's ultimate answer for the world's ultimate need.

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