Weeks of Bread, #3
Aug 08, 2021
11th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: John 6: 35:41-51
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Let the Weeks of Bread continue! Indeed, that is what is happening. Each week, the reading from John 6 gets more complicated and our ability to understand it is more challenging.
We started two weeks ago with what has become a well-known account; it’s the stuff of children’s stories and VBS skits. Jesus takes a boy’s lunch: two fish and five barley loaves, blesses it, and it becomes food for thousands. The Gospel of John refers to this event as a sign; it points beyond itself to how God is working through Jesus. However, many in the crowd see a different kind of sign, one flashing “FREE FOOD” above Jesus’ head; they want more and seek Jesus out to get it.
But, as was noted last Sunday, Jesus was not inclined to grant them an unending supply of food, and least not of the physical variety. He was offering spiritual satisfaction, and in doing so, promised to meet their greatest need, for spiritual food, that would empower them to face all other needs. This was, Jesus said, God’s gift for the sake of the world.
So, last week’s reading ended where this week’s reading began, with these words of Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
There was some tension between Jesus and those seeking a continuously full belly in last week’s reading; today, it builds as the conversation gets more difficult. (Spoiler alert: the level of this challenge is nothing compared to what it will be next week.) The conflict is building.
Some of those listening – probably the religious leaders - begin to grumble. How could Jesus say, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” when they know his parents and family? He has been among them; they know who he is. The complainers are so sure of this that it stands in the way of their seeing the truth.
That’s a common problem: it is difficult to look beyond what we “know” to be “true” in order to see the Divine truth, especially when it is in our midst. This is why it is necessary for us to be drawn into faith; believing is not simply a matter of human choice, but an action of the Divine. Jesus says, in this passage, that people are drawn by God to him. And, in an interesting twist, the word that is translated “drawn” in verse 44 is used to describe how fishing nets are hauled into a boat. Certainly, the fish do not have much to do with that process of being caught.
Commentator Brian Peterson says that we must be dragged into faith by God. Of course, he notes, we wonder about those who seem to have not been drawn to Jesus and the ones who are out and out resistant to faith. “There are no easy answers to such questions,” he writes, but there is promise and hope in the text’s declaration that God does in fact draw people to faith in Jesus. Even to the grumblers, Jesus comes as the bread of life, opening our eyes and hearts to new possibilities.” (1)
Might it have been better if Jesus had stopped the conversation right there, with that word of hope? Probably that’s the case (from my limited point of view). Instead, he continues to complicate matters with his comments. Father David Smith writes that, at this point in the narrative, Jesus was probably seen as presumptuous by the crowd. Let me quote him: “Jesus was saying something deliberately extreme about his own significance. Moreover, though, the language Jesus was using made him sound not just presumptuous but somewhat crazy, as Jesus was depicting himself as food that needed to be eaten. I am the bread of life, Jesus says, and that seems bizarre enough. But then he goes on to say that the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh, which sounds not just bizarre but almost perverse!” (2)
That’s the place where this week’s installment pauses, on the edge of bizarreness, which becomes even more so next week. It’s as if a question is hanging in the air, “What might being a follower of Jesus involve (and do I want to do it)?” We will pick that up next week.
For now, though, let’s go back to reflect on experiencing and recognizing Divine truth among us, which Jesus’ neighbors did not do. St. Francis was credited with saying that every person has a God-shaped hole in his or her own soul. Jesus is saying that he is the one to fill that hole, to feed that hunger, and that God draws us to Jesus so that can happen. It seems as if some people are more open to that happening than others.
I was thinking about that this week after reading an article in the Christian Century about St. Francis and St. Clare of 11th-century fame. It was written by Wendy Murry, who tells how, at a traumatic time in her life, she wandered through the town of Assisi in Italy and began to be inexplicable drawn to St. Francis. (I’ve been there; it is a beautiful and serene community.) Anyway … Ms. Murry writes that St. Francis told his followers: “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart and to bring home those who have lost their way,” all of which she needed, and her focus on him gave her a reason to keep living and to keep believing, she said.
In the process of studying St. Francis, she discovered St. Clare, a life-long companion and contemporary of St. Francis. It is said that you cannot talk about one without the other. Ms. Murry became intrigued by St. Clare’s reported dying words: “And you, Lord, are blessed because You have created me.” The author just could not fathom the boldness of a medieval saint, suggesting that God blessed himself by having made her and the audacity of actually saying so. Add to that the fact that St. Clare suffered one loss after another in her life and did not seem to be at all among the blessed.
BUT…Clare was one of those rare people, it seems, who was completely spiritually satisfied by Jesus, the living bread that came down from heaven. The God-shaped hole in her soul was filled. Listen to Ms. Murry’s description: “Not many of us reach the place in our spiritual journeys where our testimony is about the singular glory that God imparted to himself by creating us. Not many understand that our true mission is to give back to God this unique glory and to bless God by it.” (3)
We get to that place when we realize that God is hauling us in, and our spiritual hunger is filled by Jesus. It’s ironic that after I had read this article about St. Francis and St. Clare, I visited a couple that has one of the most beautiful gardens in the area. I see it at least once a year and always am overwhelmed, but this year there was a new addition – a nearly life-size statue of St. Francis. He was sitting on a bench, surrounded by life-like statues of animals and birds but framed by a living, graceful tree and lush plants. The serenity conveyed took my breath away, and I thought, “That’s what being spiritually satisfied, to be filled by the living bread that came down from heaven, looks like.” Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, Jesus said,…and, indeed, St. Francis and St. Clare live on.
Let the Weeks of Bread continue! AMEN
(1) “Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Commentary on John 6:35, 41-51” by Brian Peterson, www.workingpreacher.org
(2) “Eating the Flesh of Jesus! A Sermon on John 6:41-51” by the Rev. David Smith, August 31, 2011, www.fatherdave.com
(3) “An Empty and Full Life” by Wendy Murry, Christian Century, July 28, 2021, pgs. 22-25