Proper 14 - Year B
In spite of the snippy title for this essay, this passage for the middle of August is quite serious. If you've been following the lectionary readings (if either you or your pastor bothers to follow them), you'll immediately notice that it begins where last week’s passage left off. And that one took up right after the one before it left off. All three weeks have to do with bread. The first week it was physical bread, feeding the multitude. Then last week and this week, it is bread metaphorically, “Living Bread.”
Last week Jesus had said you shouldn’t waste your time on bread that perishes, but should spend it instead on bread that is eternal. God gives you bread that comes down from heaven, it comes in the form of the One whom God has sent from heaven, and it “gives life to the world.” (Jn 6:33)
The people (misunderstanding him again) said, “give us some of that bread,” not realizing that he was referring to himself. So today’s passage begins with Jesus’ response to their demand. He says, “I am the bread, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”’ Again, continuing the thought of last week, don’t spend your time on “bread” that is temporary, and physical, and ephemeral, but on the “bread” that is Jesus and his mission: the things that will last for eternity.
Here the reading skips a few verses because the compilers of the lectionary believed them to be too repetitive.
When the reading picks back up, the people are responding to Jesus’ words and they are clearly a little angry. They start to “complain” about the fact that he says that he is the bread of life, that has come down from heaven at the behest of God and that if people come to him believing that he is that bread, they will never be thirsty (to mix the metaphor a bit). They say, hey, don’t we know your parents? How can you be saying huge cosmic things about yourself like that?
You can understand their concern. If you had a little granddaughter of about five years old and she comes up to you and says, she has come down from heaven, we’d think it was cute, but if a guy aged thirty-five said it, we’d think he needs some serious therapy.
Then he makes the most serious statement of the passage, and the one I want to delve into more fully:
44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.
45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.
No one can recognize that Jesus has in fact come “from heaven” unless they feel “drawn” by God. God “draws” you, and that drawing also draws you to Jesus. And he quotes a line from the prophet, Isaiah, saying that in the time of God’s realm on earth, everyone will be taught by God. (Sometimes better than others, but we all are taught about God, and God was in the teachers, teaching.) And everyone who has “heard” God and “learned” about God, will come to Jesus.
Why doesn’t it work
So, I buy all of that, but I have a question I want to ask, because for some people that simply does not work. They hear about God, they are taught about God, they are even drawn forward by God, but it doesn’t seem to take.
Why is it that some of us get it and others do not?
What are the elements that keep us from responding to God’s “teaching”
[Again, I’m just talking about ordinary garden-variety Christians in Protestant or Catholic churches who raise up good kids, send them off and they drop out of church. Not Jews and Muslims and others. They have their own problems with retention and people slipping away.]
First, sometimes people’s lives just get cluttered.
You used to grow up, graduate from high school and then go work in the local factory, or work for your father, or work at the grocery store down the street. But today, more and more often kids graduate from high school and then go off to college and major in something or other that can’t be marketed back at home. Say, they get a degree in history and want to teach. They can only come back home again when there’s a teaching position in the local high school. Or they get married to some wonderful person who lives in New Mexico (I have a kid that did that, so I know), and soon they’re scattered to the winds.
But the point is that it is extremely hard for a young person to resettle and hunt down a church to go to. It’s easier to stay in a home church than it is find a new church. After a move, with all of the moving and new job and new life responsibilities, it’s really hard to also start looking for a new church. And every year millions of young people drift away because of that. On the other hand, for parents who had once been active church members, if they move away, one of the first things they tend to do is to look for that new church. I know of a big 3,000-member church in Naples, Florida that has a children’s program of about twenty kids. The big majority of the membership are upper-middle-aged transplants from the Northeast who retired there and immediately started to church.
The second is that the culture seems to be increasingly against religion
Two parts to this:
First, some Christian leaders have portrayed Christianity as a narrow, anti-evolution, anti-science, anti-global warming, and anti-gays and lesbians, anti-Muslim, anti-African American, anti-Hispanic, and so on. That kind of thing does not represent the heart of mainstream Christianity, but it is the picture of Christianity that a lot of people see in the news and it drives people away from the church by the millions.
There is an unfortunate group of people in the church who say that religion and science can’t live side by side, and unfortunately that has driven millions of otherwise spiritual people, potentially Christian people, out of the church. They grow up, they go to college, they take a biology class and they think, well, if this science thing is true then that means what I was taught about science in church is not true, and they leave the church. Very sad and very unnecessary. I won’t go into it all now, but I suspect that most of you who are here know that trying to pit the Bible against science is a misunderstanding of the Bible and you will always lose.
(Story of Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, and now head of the National Institutes of Science, and author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.)
Second, it is also true that the media seems to have no positive things to say about religion. Very few have any concept of religion so when they have one it’s negative. We could feed hungry people (or whatever) until the end of time, but the media would never show up. But let Rev. Stan Duncan get caught embezzling a little money from the offering, and we’d be swarming with reporters (a little exaggeration, but you get the point).
So, some of that is our fault and some is the secular media’s fault.
Leaving church when we need it the most:
The tragedy of whatever it is that keeps kids from staying on, returning, re-upping, or first time “upping,” is that we live in an age that is hungering for some kind of community. Something that is deeper than the relationships they build playing “Warzone Earth” on their iPad, or sacking groceries at Dave’s Market. People want a connection that is larger and deeper than that, that connects them to the divine. And when they stay away from churches because they mistakenly believe that churches are bigoted, racist, xenophobic, anti-science places, they not only are wrong, they also cut themselves off from exactly the kind of family and community that their hearts long for.
On the other hand, what does attract people back to church today? There are too many to list, but here are a couple of the biggest:
Invite them to church
All of the gurus of church growth say that You can mail out a thousand flyers and put advertisements in the papers, and they will help your church grow. (So, yes, we do need to do that.) But only by about two to three percent. For every thousand or so mailings you’ll get three or four people to visit, and no guarantee they’ll stick around. On the other hand, the hands down, best, most effective way for churches to grow is if church members and active non-member participants invite people to church. Ask them to come. Tell your friends how great this place is and invite them to come. Offer to pick them up.
The two most important, most critical times in someone’s life when they are most open to an invitation to a church are when they are at a critical place:
· Rite of passage: Baby, wedding, kids leave for college
· Crisis: divorce, cancer, death of spouse, etc.
You can’t guarantee a thing. You may invite people for years and they will always say no, and then one day they’ll say yes. Even Jesus offered his own invitation to some people and they refused. You never know when it’s going to be the right mix for the person you are talking to, but don’t ever give up. Unlike the way we are portrayed in the media, this is a place that is actually good for people. It’s not a museum, it’s not a dinosaur, it’s not a primitive tribe cut off from the modern age and society. The church is the spirit of God, embodied on this corner of the street. It heals and comforts and challenges and strengthens its members and friends and reaches out in love and healing to the community and the world. You never know when that message and ministry will be just what your next-door neighbor or angry brother-in-law needs to hear. Always love them in the name of the savior who embodied a bread that feeds for eternity. Always share with them the presence of a community of God’s Spirit that lives and moves and cares and shares and celebrates and lifts up and empowers members and friends to be one, to be God’s to be abundantly alive.
You never know when they might be interested,
You never know if they have just heard bad news and need a family
You never know if they just lost their job and need some support.
You never know…
(Inspiration for parts of this sermon/essay came from an ancient copy of Homiletics, but it was long ago and I can't find it to cite it accurately today. Also, parts came from "10 Reasons Why People Leave Church," Benjamin Corey, 09/07/18 (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/formerlyfundie/10-reasons-why-people-leave-church. And some came from that big creator/redeemer/sustainer guy in the sky. And very little came from the upper-middle aged, graying, white guy sitting in at my computer.)
The Gospel Reading, with Exegesis and Translation Notes
The Gospel Reading, with Exegesis and Translation Notes
Proper 14 - Year B
1 Kings 19.4-8; Psalm 34.1-8; John 6.35,41-51; Ephesians 4.25-5.2
32 Then Jesus said to them, “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. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, [a] “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35Jesus said to them, “I am[b] the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
41Then the Jews[c] began to complain[d] about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They were saying, “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’?”
43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn[e] by the Father[f] who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.
45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’[g] Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.
46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.
48I am the bread of life.[h] 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”[i]
[a] Preceding this phrase is the word, oun, “so” or “therefore” which is missing in the NRSV. It should read, “They, therefore, said to him…” The missing “Therefore,” points back to 6:33, where Jesus has just said, that “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Their “therefore give us some of this bread,” now makes sense.
[b] This is the first of the “I am” (egô eimi) sayings with a predicate nominative. Twice earlier we have seen egô eimi without a predicate nominative—translated in nrsv with, “I am he” (4:26) and “It is I” (6:20). Other egô eimi verses without a predicate nominative are: 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5, 7. cf. John 6:48,51; 8:12; 10:7,9,14; 11:25; 14:16; 15:1. The egô eimi verses with the predicate nominative are, 6:35 --I am the bread of life (see also 6:41), 6:51 --I am the living bread that came down from heaven, 8:12; 9:5 -- I am the light of the world, 10:7, 9 -- I am the gate for the sheep, 10:11, 14 -- I am the good shepherd, 11:25-26 -- I am the resurrection and the life, 14:6 --I am the way, and the truth, and the life, and15:1, 5 -- I am the true vine. (Adapted from Brian Stoffregan, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john6x35.htm.)
[c] “The Jews.” Hoi Ioudaioi. In John’s gospel, this term typically does not refer to residents of Judea, or who espouse Judaism (because that would apply to both Jesus and his followers as well as “the Jews”), but to particular groups antagonistic towards Jesus (probably reflecting the later animosity of Jewish authorities towards Christian separatists in the day of John the writer). This is the first used of “the Jews,” signifying a shift toward a more negative tone in the people. Prior to v. 41, persons around Jesus are simply called “the crowd” (ochlos—vv. 2, 5, 22, 24). Now they are called “the Jews.”
[d] “Began to complain.” gogguzo—an imperfect, indicating continuous action in the past: They didn’t “begin” to complain, they “Were complaining.” The combination of “complaining” plus Jesus being the “Bread of life,” which “came down from heaven” (John 6:42, 51) is intended to remind the reader of the manna in the wilderness stories (Ex 16:1-36; Num 11:7-9; John 6:31, 49). The kjv translates this as “murmured” (the KJV term for the complaints in the wilderness about manna) to make the symbolic connection even more clear. (Gogguzo is the word in the LXX for “murmuring.”) To the complainers, Jesus’ claim to be the bread that comes down from heaven is absurd. Note that those who complained about the manna were not allowed into the promise land (Num 14:26-30). Is there a parallel here with those who complain (John 6:41, 43, 61) and are then unable to hear the words of eternal life (“promise land”)?
[e] “Drawn” (elkuo).
[f] “Unless drawn by the Father.” (ean mē helkusēi auton) Elsewhere in John, Peter “draws” his sword (18:10), and “draws” in some fish (21:6, 11), and Jesus “will draw” all people to himself (12:32). Luther says on this passage: “The drawing is not like that of the executioner, who draws the thief up the ladder to the gallows; but it is a gracious allurement, such as that of the man whom everybody loves, and to whom everybody willingly goes.” How does God “draw” us to Jesus? In the next verse Jesus quotes Isaiah 54:13a: “And they shall all be taught by God.” He then adds, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” The method is education. It is important to note that the Greek word translated “disciple” (mathetes) is related to the word “to learn” (manthano—both related to “mathematics”). Disciples are learners. (Brian Stoffregan, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john6x35.htm. Retrieved, August 10, 2003.)
[g] “Taught of God” (didaktoi theou). Isaiah 54:13a. Paraphrase of Isa_54:13 in the lxx.
[h] “I am the bread of Life.” “The bread that I will give…is my flesh.” Does this have eucharistic overtones? It certainly has the manna- in-the-desert symbolic overtones, but also the Eucharist? Or the crucifixion? Both are possible, but scholars are divided.
[i] Perhaps as a polemic against the faith of “the Jews,” based on the notion that God saved the Israelites through the Exodus in the past, Jesus presents himself as saving bread in the present. “This is the bread which is coming down from heaven” (v. 50). “I am the bread of life which has come down from heaven” (v. 51).