Monday, August 6, 2018

Origins Matter


We're back in John 6 this Sunday. Again. As a recap, here is how the lectionary breaks up the Bread of Life discourse: 1) Feeding the 5,000, 2) Jesus' exchange with seekers regarding true bread, 3) Jesus' exchange with Jewish authorities over his identity, 4) Jesus' exchange with Jewish authorities over his edible flesh, 5) Jesus' exchange with his disciples over this difficult teaching. That means that this Sunday is the first of two in a row in which Jesus addresses the complaints--the grumblings--of the religious leaders of his day. In this overlapping, repetitive discourse, it's easy to blur the lines between one Sunday's sermon and the next, so, before I paint myself into a corner that requires a sermon on the Old Testament lesson next week, I want to focus narrowly on this Sunday's reading.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the authorities seem to be complaining about the wrong thing. John tells us that "[they] began to complain about him because he said, 'I am the bread that came down from heaven.'" John identifies that as the issue that made them upset, but their actual complaint seems to have missed the point: "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?'" In other words, instead of taking issue with Jesus' claim to be the food that leads to everlasting life ("I am the bread"), they take issue with his origins ("that came down from heaven"). Shouldn't they care more about Jesus' claim to offer everlasting life than what family he came from?

Of course, in the mind of a first-century Jewish authority, in ways I don't appreciate fully, Jesus' origin and his claims are inseparable. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" John records Nathaniel saying to Philip when he heard that he had found the messiah. "My kingdom is not of this world," Jesus says to Pilate in John's version of the passion. Where Jesus is really from really matters, especially to the one who locates the origin of the Word "in the beginning with God." Origin matters. There's a difference between sparkling wine and champagne. I probably can't taste it, but there's a difference, and my grocery store receipt testifies to it. Before they even tackle the substance of Jesus' claims, the authorities are prepared to dismiss it because of his pedigree.

"Don't we know his parents?" they ask those gathered around. "His father is Joseph. You remember that. He grew up not far from here. You played with him when you were children. Don't listen to him. What does he know about everlasting life? He's just a local boy that got the 'big head.'" In one sense, they're right. Jesus had grown up around there, and there were people who knew him as a boy. It did not make sense that he could be one whom God had sent from heaven. If they were going to believe what Jesus was saying about himself, they would have to get beyond his Galilean upbringing.

We have to get past it, too. Maybe not in the same "my-sister-went-on-a-date-with-him" kind of way, but we have to deal with the inherent disconnect between Jesus' historical biography and his identity in the Christian faith. There are a few ways to do that. We can ignore the historical account, pretend that Jesus wasn't at some point a grumpy six-year-old, and ignore the fact that no adolescent with that intellect and those powers was easy to deal with. Or we can try completely to separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus of faith and engage one in our minds and the other in our hearts, leaving either us or Jesus or both with schizophrenia. Or we can let the historical identity overshadow the Christian claims about Jesus and dismiss the christological understanding as myth. Or we can join the crowd in wrestling with that difficult truth. How can it be that the man standing there that day, who had grown up in their midst, could be the bread of life, the one sent by God to sustain the world?

Jesus was from Nazareth. Jesus was from heaven. Jesus was a carpenter's son. Jesus was the Son of God. How can this be? That's not an easy question, but it's easier than trying to figure out how we're going to eat the flesh of Jesus. That's next week's problem.

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