Friday, July 31, 2015

Hungering for the Right Life (John 6:35-50)

           Some shows on television follow what is called a serialized format.  In other words, each week’s episode builds upon a plotline that takes several weeks to tell.  Each individual episode develops the plot, sometimes a great deal and other times, well, the term “filler” comes to mind.
            The worst thing about a serialized show is the last moment, when the story builds to a certain high point, a great big “reveal” you were not likely expecting and then the words come up on the screen that I have yet to like seeing:  “To be continued”, the dreaded cliffhanger ending!  

To this day, I still remember a certain television show getting me on the edge of my seat, my mind spinning with big reveal after big reveal, and then the screen fades to black.  The words “To be continued” flashes across the screen, and I’m now stuck waiting the entire summer to see what happens next!  (Note:  The summer of 1990 could not get over fast enough….)

Reading John 6, we experience a “to be continued” moment, or a cliffhanger, in the gospel reading, yet I imagine not too many folks would have thought it necessarily so.  We read a good portion of John, chapter 6, one of the lengthier passages of the four gospels.  We covered a good deal of ground:  Jesus is healing the sick, and the crowds gather.  Jesus decides to feed the multitudes, the disciples panic, and Jesus shows what is possible with five loaves and two fish.  Jesus even calms the disciples’ boat when the seas get rough at night.  All of this happens, yet the disciples and the crowds around Jesus keep asking questions.   Jesus straightens them out with some teachings about what God is doing in the signs of bread and fish feeding a crowd with loads of food left over.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This might be the highest point of John 6.  Everything has been leading to this moment, even if some of John’s cast of characters does not know it.  These words offer a challenge as well as an invitation. If you wish to be fed, do you settle for mere bread or do you hunger for something greater?  Is it possible to believe in God’s abundance when you are just like the disciples, seeing the impossible task at hand even if they have spent all this time already at Jesus’ side?

Can you really believe these words?  Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

“To be continued.”

Like a good serialized TV show, the gospel reading today reminds us of where things left off.  Verse thirty-five sets up the next “episode” of John 6, building upon what’s gone on previously, though spinning things in a different direction.  Jesus raises the stakes in the conversation.  If you do believe in Jesus, you will not go hungry and you will not thirst; yet it will not be so for those who do not believe.

In John 6, the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes becomes an edgier affair, as the puzzlement of the disciples is joined by the disputes coming from the crowds.   Now remember last time we read this.  There’s some heavy irony at work here.  Bellies full from the meal, seeing the disciples toting the baskets of leftovers (again, five loaves, two fish, and thousands of people later, they count more than enough remaining!), the crowds ask the type of questions that confirm that some people can see just about anything and still look around and wonder what happened.  Jesus presses home a point that says a little less tactful, yet firm:  “You have seen me, yet you do not believe”, and he adds further words that point to such disbelief coming with consequences.

The story begins with Jesus at his most benevolent and welcoming, feeding all who come and insisting that no leftover be wasted, yet he is said to be testing the disciples when he asks them to feed the multitudes without any provisions readily in their hands. Jesus will speak very plainly about his lack of patience for those who keep asking even when the answers are given to them.  What’s going on in this text: time to ring the dinner bell or is it time to talk about a reckoning to be had?

Behind this story of Jesus feeding bread and fish in abundance is the echo of a much older story of ancient Israel when the people wandered in the wilderness.  When they hungered, God provided manna.  When they ate it, they grumbled about its sufficiency.  Like children, they were given food to nourish yet they wanted something better and tastier.  Both the manna and the feeding of the multitudes remind that humanity has an infinite capacity for complaint and self-serving desires, yet very little patience for what God has to offer, even when it’s the better choice or path.

Jesus offers more than the moment’s need, a daily bread of a different kind, one that shall not perish.  Taking what Jesus offers with trust and gratitude is more than just satisfying the belly.  It is a way of living your life differently, giving yourself over to what God offers rather than the vague stirrings we tend to harbor otherwise where we crave something “more” than what we really need.
As I read John 6 and get into the drama of the teaching, I recall the lyric of a worship song from the Iona Community of Scotland.  They capture this sort of discipleship well in the lyrics:
“We will take what you offer, we will live by Your Word,
We will love one another and be led by You, Lord.”

In these words meant for the gathered people to sing together, we get a glimpse into the type of followers John 6 presumes.  Jesus is calling on people to trust in God’s provision.  No wonder we have the line in the Lord’s Prayer where we are asked to pray to God for our daily bread, trusting that which sustains us (be it our version of five loaves and two fish or an outright abiding belief) shall come from God.  Such words said in prayer are not to be taken lightly or trusted tritely.  The Christian does not complain or dismiss what God offers us.  In our passage this morning, we see the stakes in this line of thinking when the complaints arise from a particular group within the crowd.

Here, I have to stop and give a warning that I often give when teaching from John’s gospel.  In the New Revised Standard Version in the pews as well as the majority of English translations, the translation falls flat on its face and really should be emblazoned with “Caution!” stickers until we get to a New Testament translation that is far more sensitively prepared.  As this sub-section of the crowd steps up, the NRSV and other English translations label this group “the Jews”.  (Cue well deserved theological heartburn here!)

The better way for this phrase to be translated is to examine the Greek word actually used in the text.  The Greek word describing this group of complainers is rendered better as “Judeans”.  By this term, the gospel of John means to talk of a certain mindset and ideology within the Judaism of the day.  Judeans are those who live in Judea, where Jerusalem and more importantly the Temple are located.  In John’s gospel, these complainers are those closely tied to the powerbase of the religious establishment.  The Judeans appear in John’s gospel as those who place their trust in the status quo, who do not take kindly to Jesus’ criticisms of the Temple and the religious ways advocated by those with power and privilege.  Peek ahead to John chapter 7, and it is this group plotting and planning Jesus’ demise.

In other words, the critical edge to Jesus’ teaching here becomes clearer.  Just like when people receive more than enough food yet refuse to believe it is satisfying, so are those who claim to seek God’s ways yet do not believe in the claims of Jesus, the One sent by God to dwell among us.  Discipleship is not about receiving what God offers and rejecting it.  By their complaints and their keeping to the ways of the Temple (certainly questioned by Jesus in his words and ministry), the Judeans grumble just as the ancient Israelites receiving God’s provision yet wanting something of their own choosing.

The argument being made intensifies.  Those who eat the bread that perishes will perish.  Those who eat the bread of life shall not perish.  So it shall be with those who trust in the religious institution more than the faith that inspired it.  So it shall be with those who hunger and thirst for the convenient or the “right now”.  So it shall be for those who take what Jesus provides and take what God offers.

Curiously, the end of the story this week is not that much different from last week’s ending.  John 6 is one of the longer chapters of the four gospels and certainly one of the most complex, laden as it is with such theological language.  Yet, the same question lingers no matter where you read John 6’s narrative.  The question is the ending of every “episode” of this long chapter.

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