August 12, 2018 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Have you ever heard a preacher tell a story or use an analogy that was so entertaining, so compelling, so inspiring that you forgot what the rest of the sermon was about? As a preacher, I can tell when I have spent too much time on the window dressing and not enough time on the content of a sermon because the comments I get from people on their way out of church have more to do with the anecdote than the gospel. The comments themselves aren’t deflating, but the realization that I missed the opportunity to invite a congregation to hear what God is saying instead of what their preacher has to say is.
I suppose, however, that faithful preaching requires both a faithful preacher and a faithful congregation. And I suppose that, in theory, the misplaced focus on an image or analogy could be the listeners’ fault and not the preacher’s. I say that not because I want to defend myself or my preaching but because, in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus used a catchy image that seems to have distracted his audience, and I’m far more likely to criticize our collective listening than Jesus’ preaching.
“I am the bread of life,” he said to them. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We hear those words as if spoken in a gentle, reassuring tone—the words of a savior beckoning God’s people to come to him and be sustained forever. But, when we read them in the larger context of John 6, we discover that Jesus wasn’t trying to encourage the crowd but to refocus their attention on his real message. In what would have been our gospel lesson if we had not celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration last Sunday, Jesus said to the multitude, “You’re only looking for me because you ate your fill of the loaves and the fish that I multiplied for you. Quit searching for the food that perishes, and start pursuing the food that endures to eternal life—the true bread of heaven.” He was talking about himself, of course, but, when they heard him speak of the “true bread from heaven” that “gives life to the world,” all they wanted to know was where they could find that magic bread.
I grew up on the Gulf Coast, and, whenever forecasters predicted that a hurricane was coming, the run on milk and bread left the store shelves empty, and friends and neighbors would tell each other which store still had some. Living in northern Alabama, whenever the meteorologist mentioned the possibility of even a dusting of snow, we experienced the same phenomenon. Given that milk and bread are some of the first things that spoil, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it seems that the survival instinct runs strong in every generation. Jesus mentioned that he could give the people a bread that endures for eternal life, and, after that, the only thing that they cared about was finding that bread. “Sir, give us this bread always,” they said. And Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life, you twits!” (The word “twits” isn’t in the Greek manuscript, of course, but I like to imagine him using a tone that made his intentions clear.) “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” I wonder what tone Jesus uses when he speaks those words to us. I wonder whether we, in our pursuit of Jesus, have become so focused on finding the right bread, the magic path that leads to heaven, that we have forgotten what it means to take Jesus at his word.
Today’s gospel lesson is all about misunderstandings. Notice that the crowd wasn’t the only group that was confused. The religious authorities, whom John unhelpfully nicknames “the Jews,” started complaining when they heard what Jesus had to say. Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they immediately began to grumble among themselves about Jesus’ origins. Unlike the crowd, who got distracted by his words about bread, they couldn’t wrap their minds around where Jesus had said that he was from. “How can he say that he has come down from heaven?” they said to each other. “This is Jesus, Joseph’s son, Mary’s son. We know his parents. We know where he grew up. How can anyone listen to this nonsense?” The crowd couldn’t get past the offer of bread, and the authorities’ couldn’t get over the claim of a heavenly origin, but both, in effect, had the same problem. They all wanted to make sense of Jesus’ words on their own terms instead of accepting the truth that he was trying to give them. Isn’t that our problem, too?
Jesus comes to give us salvation, and immediately we want to know what we have to do and where we have to go to find it. But the truth that Jesus gives us is that the work of salvation isn’t ours to do. That work belongs to God. It isn’t up to us to find the right bread that leads to eternal life or to figure out how the Incarnate One could come from heaven yet be born to Mary and Joseph. It isn’t up to us to find the right path to salvation or wrap our minds around the mysteries of God’s love. It is up to us simply to receive what God has given us and to believe that God’s gift is enough. God makes salvation happen; our job is to see it and believe it.
Jesus tried to tell us that in this gospel lesson. To the crowd, he said, “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.” To the authorities, he said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” Don’t let those sound like off-putting, discriminating words. They are a reassurance. It is God who sent God’s Son into the world, and it is God who draws us to God’s Son. That is among the most threatening and liberating truths of the gospel. We do not choose God; God chooses us. And, until we know that in our hearts and minds, we cannot know the peace that comes from belonging not on our terms—not because of who we are or what we have done—but because of who God is and how much God loves us.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says to us. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” It isn’t bread that we are after; it’s love. Showing up on Sunday morning and eating the Communion bread and listening to the sermon and saying our prayers won’t get us to heaven because, in God, we’re already there. It’s God loving us enough to meet us in Jesus and draw us into God’s self and care for us for all eternity that saves us. And God has already done that for each one of us. That’s what Jesus wants us to hear. Will we take him at his word? Will we believe it? Will we trust it? Will we stop running in search of the thing that is right in front of us? When we take that piece of bread in our hand, will we look at it and know that we have been loved by God beyond measure, trusting in our hearts that there is nothing that can take us away from that everlasting love?