The Power of One

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On May 13, 2018, we considered the reunion that Jesus had with his disciples after their “mission trips”, the feeding of the 5,000, and the power of one individual to make a difference.  Our texts were Mark 6:30-44 and Colossians 4:2-6.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media browser below, or past the following URL into your browser: https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/scene1_2018-05-13_11-28-11_t001_in1.mp3
Those who listen to the sermon will hear a special introduction about standing on tiptoe whilst reading scripture.

As we begin the next installment of our walk through the Gospel of Mark this morning, let me tell you about two men of whom you’ve probably never heard.  Each is an amazing testament to the power of the individual to accomplish that which we might think to be impossible.

Dean Karnazes is a 55 year old man from California who likes to run.  A lot.  I know that many of you in the congregation this morning took part in some part of last week’s Pittsburgh Marathon, and so you might be impressed if I told you that in 2006, Mr. Karnazes ran 50 complete marathons.  You might be more impressed if I told you that he ran those 50 marathons on 50 consecutive days, and each was in a different state.  And yet what cements this man in my Hall of Fame for individual achievements is the fact that on Wednesday morning, October 12, 2005, he dropped his kids off at school in San Francisco and started running.  He ran and ran and ran – for 80 hours and 44 minutes, without sleeping, weaving his way through Northern California, until he arrived at Stanford University in Palo Alto, having covered 350 miles.

On the other side of the world, a gentleman named Dashrath Manjhi tells us a different story of individual achievement.  In 1959, this landless peasant farmer’s wife, Falguni Devi, died because she was unable to obtain medical care. People in her village had to follow a path that wound for 70 kilometers (43 ½ miles) to get to the clinic.  In 1960, Mr. Manji took a hammer and a chisel and started to attack the rock hillside that separated the village from the clinic.  He worked by himself until 1982 to carve a path through the Gehlour hills.  When he was finished, he’d reduced the distance from 70 kilometers to one – just over half a mile.

I’m telling you these stories because I want you to think about the limits of possibility for one person.  What can one man, one woman, do?  And what difference does it make?

At this point, I’m going to interrupt this sermon for a geography lesson, because understanding the whereof today’s Gospel is crucial to our ability to process the whatand the how.

If you’ve ever traveled, you’ve probably had a conversation with someone that goes something like this: “Oh, you’re from Pennsylvania? My cousin lives in Pennsylvania. His name is James… Maybe you know him?”

When this happens, we roll our eyes and quietly judge that person for being a complete moron, and then three days later we meet someone from Malawi and say, “Oh, Malawi? Yeah, I’ve got friends there, and my pastor goes there all the time.  Do you know a guy named Fletcher?”

Here’s a quick review of the geography of Mark’s gospel.  Jesus began his ministry in that part of Palestine known as the Galilee. This was a strongly Jewish-influenced area that was north of the capital, Jerusalem, and west of the Jordan river.  Nearly all of the significant action in the first three years of Jesus’ ministry takes place in Galilean communities like Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Cana.

Even though it was removed from the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem, Galilee was a stronghold of the faith.  It was surrounded by non-Jewish areas like Samaria, Phoenicia, and the region of the Decapolis.  These names don’t sound much different to you and to me than the towns where Jesus worked, but I’m here to tell you that if I was a good little Jewish boy driving through the Decapolis at that time, my mother would tell me to lock the doors and avoid eye contact.  Good and faithful Galileans did everything they could to stay in Galilee, and when they had to go to Jerusalem to worship, they stayed close to the Jordan River and went that way.

Most of Jesus’ ministry, in terms of time and area, took place in and around the Galilee. The deepest parts of Jesus’ ministry, including his crucifixion and resurrection, happened in Jerusalem.  And yet some of the most amazing testimony to the power of Jesus’ comes to us from the detours he made to “the other side” – those regions outside of either Galilee or Jerusalem.

Today’s reading picks up a narrative that was left off earlier in Chapter six.  Jesus is hard at work in his ministry with the disciples in the Galilee.  You might remember that he’d just finished a visit to his own hometown in Nazareth when he sent the twelve disciples out to visit the other communities in that region. There’s an interlude during which Jesus reflects on the suffering and death of John the Baptist, and then the twelve return to him, eager to report on what they’d seen and done.

The Exhortation to the Apostles, James Tissot (c. 1890)

He sees their enthusiasm, and suggests that they all go on a retreat.  Various translations tell us that they’re looking for a quiet, or a solitary, or a deserted place.  They get into the boat and sail across the Sea of Galilee into the Decapolis.

So far as we know from Mark, the team had been there at least once before.  You might remember that back in Chapter 5 they went and visited the graveyard and met the man who was beset by demons.  Jesus healed the man, but in the process wound up sending a couple of thousand pigs off the side of a cliff and the local authorities came out and asked him to take his religion back to his side of the sea.  The only man there who actually wanted to be with Jesus at that point was the man who had been healed, and Jesus didn’t allow him to join the mission; instead, he told the man to “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

So it might seem to the disciples that this was a fair presumption – if they were looking for a little “down” time with Jesus, if there is anyplace that they could go to be alone, well, it’s there.  The people in that part of the world hated Jesus last time he was here.

Except that’s not exactly how it works out, is it? We read in verse 32 that as they were arriving in this “deserted” and “solitary” place, they were recognized.  In fact, Mark tells us that “a large crowd” gathered there. The disciples, who were irritated and hungry to begin with, take this as long as they can, but finally interrupt Jesus and say, “Send these people away.”

Jesus responds, as you’ve heard, by saying, “We’ll do no such thing.  In fact, why don’t you go ahead and feed them.”

The Twelve are incredulous at this point. “Us? Here? How? It’s not likely – no, it’s not possible, Jesus.”

Christ Feeding the 5000, Eric Feather (http://ericfeather.com/index.html)

[3]And Jesus says, “Here, hold my wineskin…”, and the result, as you’ve heard, is the feeding of the 5,000 – the only miracle to be mentioned in all four of the Gospels.

I’m here to point out that this miraculous feeding of the nearly-uncountable throng was all made possible because one person did what Jesus had asked him to do.  It was not, apparently, what the person had wantedto do; we’ve already acknowledged that the man who seemingly told everyone he knew about what Jesus had done for him would have preferred to become the 13thdisciple.  Yet when Jesus told him to stay put and offer testimony to the work of the Holy One in his life, well, that’s what he did.

I don’t want the significance of this event to be lost on us.  I mean, we don’t even know this person’s name – but somehow, his presence in that region allowed for a transition from “Jesus! Will you please get out of there now, and take your disciples with you!” to “Oh, wow! Thank God! You’re here.  Jesus is here.  He’s really here!”

What is the vehicle for that transition?  What allowed that to happen?  Go back and scrutinize the events that took place between Mark 5:19 and Mark 6:30, and you’ll see that Jesus’ ministry of teaching and miracle-working was essentially unchanged.  He didn’t do anything after 5:19 that he hadn’t already been doing.

But the behavior of those who followed him hadchanged.  The one man who had been healed had gone “to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him…and all the people were amazed…”  The twelve whom Jesus had kept with him had walked through their fear in order to bear witness to the power of the Christ in their own homes and communities.

Do you see what’s happening here?  In this section of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is talking about crossing boundaries and is calling his followers to do so; once they are on “the other side”, he simply urges them to “tell… how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you…”

The one man in the region who had been healed had quite a story to tell.

So do you.

In what ways has the life, death, resurrection, love, and presence of Jesus of Nazareth touched your life?

I know that some of you have had some really splashy healings from addiction, or depression, or abuse, or other form of brokenness.

And I know that others in this room have experienced significant shifts of the heart as the power and presence of the Lord has grown in your own lives.

In any case, the core narrative of the follower of Jesus who has experienced any growth in her or his own life is pretty much the same: at the end of the day, we can look in the mirror and say, “You know, I used to be that way…but now it’s more like this…”

To put it another way, each of us has a narrative that could be expressed by filling in these blanks: “I once was _____, but now I’m ______.”

If you were asked what words you’d use in that phrase, which would you choose?  In what ways has God positioned you to speak of your experience in the places where you’ve been?

And you say, “Yeah, about that, Pastor Dave.  Look, I’m not really much of a speaker.  And I’m not one of those zealots, fundies, or born-agains.  I hate to speak in public…  I just don’t think I can tell a story like that.”

Listen: bearing witness to the ways that you have grown and changed is not a super-human feat of individual strength and perseverance akin to running 350 miles without a nap or building a road through the mountain with a hammer.  You don’t need special training.  More importantly, you are never, ever alone.

The charge for today is for you to consider how you have experienced the power of the risen Christ. You, in the midst of your community, surrounded by others who have stories that are similar to, yet not the same as, yours – have had the opportunity to grow in faith.  This week, will you take an hour or so to contemplate the ways that your experience of this life is richer, deeper, better, or has more integrity because of the presence of Jesus in that life?

And then, will you find a way to bear witness to that enriching, deepening, improving, or empowering in your daily life?  Can you do as Jesus asked that man in the Decapolis two thousand years ago: can you “tell… how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you…”? Share your reflections with someone who is close to you.  Be present in the life and worship of this and other communities.  Look for ways in which you can take part in new ministries in ways that shape and stretch you.

My sense is that when we are able to do this, we will find that we, no less than the bread that Jesus broke on that hillside, will be far more nourishing and effective than any one of us might have predicted.

What is your story? And who have you told?

You Do It

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 8 came from Mark 6 and focused on the story of Jesus’ sending out the twelve and then the feeding of the 5000. 

I’d like to ask you to make a mental list. Don’t shout out the answers, but just think for a moment: what are some amazing things that Jesus could do?

I bet that even in a few seconds, you got a bunch, didn’t you? Water into wine, healing the sick, walking on water, walk through locked doors… Pretty amazing stuff.

Now, another list. Think for a moment about stuff that Jesus cannot do.

Hmmm. That list is, I would suspect, a little shorter. A little harder to come by. Especially if I were to ‘refine the search’ by asking you to list things that Jesus can’t do that are mentioned in the Bible.

Jesus is Driven from Nazareth (unknown artist)

Jesus is Driven from Nazareth (unknown artist)

In the beginning of Mark 6, however, we encounter something that Jesus can’t do: in that chapter, we see where Jesus has come back to Nazareth, his hometown. He shows up in the synagogue and does what he usually does, only the response is so icy that the Lord of life freezes up. Mark 6:5 tells us that “he could do no mighty work there…” And, in another twist, we learn in verse 6 that Jesus literally can’t believe the fact that his childhood neighbors won’t accept him for who he is. Jesus can’t do those things.

That’s important background for the reading that we’ve had today – the sending out of the twelve apostles and the things that came afterward. Let’s consider this passage for a few moments.

First, Jesus sends out his disciples and specifically instructs them to go empty-handed. I don’t know about your family, but I am here to tell you that this would get Jesus scolded in my family. I mean, my mother-in-law would lay into Jesus right about now: “Are you serious, Jesus? Do you mean to send those poor young men out there with nothing? No snacks? No juiceboxes? What are you thinking, Lord?”

But that’s what he does. He tells them to leave behind their money, their luggage, their extra bread – everything. The only thing that they’ve got is a walking stick and outlandish trust.

And you heard what happened: they did it. They preached that all should repent. They cast out many demons. They cured many who were sick.

Do you see the contrast there? Jesus, playing a home game, with all the resources at his disposal, basically strikes out. And the disciples, playing an away game with nothing in their hands, hit a home run. They have a better day than does Jesus. They do more than Jesus does.

And while the twelve are out there doing amazing things, it’s not getting any better for Jesus. He learns about John the Baptist’s death. John, his cousin. John, the forerunner of the Messiah.

Now Jesus had always known how the world treats truth-tellers. It had to be increasingly clear what lay ahead for him, personally. I believe that it’s fair to say that as Jesus heard about John’s fate, he had a bit of insight into his own future.

The Disciples Return to Jesus (Unknown artist)

The Disciples Return to Jesus (Unknown artist)

And while he’s thinking about that, the disciples return. That’s our theme, right? People who come back to Jesus after having been with him previously. And the disciples can’t wait to get back to the Lord. They are flushed with success and eager to tell him everything. And Jesus says, “That’s a great idea. You folks have had a tough week – let’s go spend a little ‘us’ time and you can let me know what happened.” The idea of a small group retreat sounds good to everyone…until they realize that, well, everyone is interested in showing up. I mean to tell you, the masses show up!

When I first read this, I thought that maybe Jesus was pulling the old ‘bait and switch’ on his friends, suckering them to go out into the wilderness and then springing a big old crowd from the Jesus fan base on them. However, I noticed one little word that changed my perception. The word is “them”, and it appears three times in verse 33: “Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them”.

Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48287

Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48287

You see what I mean, right? I always thought that the crowds were eager to see what Jesus was up to. Turns out that it’s the twelve that the crowds wanted to see. The “lonely place” isn’t so lonely because the disciples have done such an amazing job of preaching, teaching, and healing that the locals just can’t get enough – and so they hound them out to the wilderness. The disciples are sought out because they are effective in this ministry.

The crowds prove too much for the disciples, though, and they come back to Jesus and say, “Come on, Lord, get rid of these guys. We’re bushed. Take care of them, Jesus.”

And Jesus looks at the twelve and says, “You know what? You guys are on a roll. You take care of this one.”

They look at Jesus and do that, “You’ve gotta be kidding me, Lord” thing that they’d done so often. That’s impossible, Jesus. That’s just crazy talk.

And yet he instructs them to see what they do have and, lo and behold, after taking inventory, they discover that they’ve got enough to feed 5000 men and their families.

When you read the Gospel of Mark, you discover an interesting feature of his writing style. Some scholars actually call it “the Marcan Sandwich”. Mark will start a story, and then interrupt it with another drama, and then come back and finish the first one. Almost always when this happens, we see that the meaning of the one story is heightened or deepened by the insertion of the other. In Mark 6, the “middle” of the sandwich is the death of John the Baptist and Jesus’ glimpse of his own future. That would suggest to me that a significant part of the other story has something to do with Jesus’ vision of what is to come.

I have long believed that on the day that the 5000 were fed, there were only about a dozen people there who knew what kind of miracle was going on. I’m convinced that the people who received the miraculous lunchables that day had no clue as to the source of their food. After all, we read that “they all ate and were satisfied.” That is to say, at the end of the meal, they got up, burped politely, and headed for home. There were no questions. There was no clamor for more. In fact, they even left the extra bread laying around.

Don’t you think that if for a moment you suspected that this bread was miraculous you’d have taken a biscuit home for your brother, or to put up for bid on e-bay? If you thought that there was an endless supply of sustenance at hand, a miraculous source of food, would you just zip up your windbreaker and go wait for the bus? But that’s what everyone did – they left unremarkably. The disciples and Jesus knew what was going on, but everyone else thought that the meal was simply provided. Thanks very much. Gotta run.

orthodoxy-icon-feeding-5000But Jesus knew that he was using the disciples to accomplish this miraculous feeding of the 5000. Check this out: in sending out the twelve, I believe that he was actually preparing them for the feeding of the 5000 and, more importantly, for the ministries that they would undertake after his death – ministries that would be, in terms of the number of people directly affected, far bigger and with a much deeper impact than the miracles he’d done. He sent them out on the road with nothing but a walking stick and a pair of Nikes so that they could experience the fruit of radical trust in him. He wanted them, in those days on the road, to see themselves as those who were capable of being used by God for significant purpose.

That time in the villages, away from him, allowed them to grow in their faith as well as in their ability to be effective in ministry. But when they return to Christ, we see that they’ve lost some of what they had learned.

Listen: when they started preaching in the towns and villages, what did they have? Nothing – just the walking stick and a pair of shoes. But what did they do? Amazing things!

And when they got to the “lonely place”, what do they have? Presumably, they have the same sticks and shoes, but they also have five loaves and two fish…and, of course, Jesus himself. They have much more here than they had a week ago – but they claim to be powerless.

Jesus chooses to work through them anyway.

Let me ask you: do you think that it’s only the twelve whom Jesus came to prepare and equip?

Do you think that Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, the other James, Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot – yes, even Judas – are the only ones into whose eyes the Lord looks and says, “I dare you – trust me on this one. Let’s see what can happen here…”?

Do you think that Jesus has stopped looking at the people who claim to be his followers and saying, “Hoo, boy, that’s a huge need right there…you know, y’all might want to do something about that situation…”?

Me neither. I know for a fact that Jesus still sends out people empty-handed to tackle impossible jobs and calls those who claim to be his followers to act in trust and faith.

These passages are in the Gospel of Mark to tell us what happened on that day to those guys – and to prepare us for the knowledge that the Christ who knows us is the Christ who calls us is the Christ who equips us is the Christ who is using this part of your story to prepare you for what is coming in the days ahead!

How does this work? I don’t know, to be honest. But the truth is that you are not ‘in between’, you are not standing idle, you are not stuck.

The God who created you is at work in you and longs to be at work through you.

This Lent, can we follow the example of the disciples and look around at the places in which we find ourselves. Where do we see need? Where do we see an emptiness?

Then, just as he asked them to take an inventory, can we look within ourselves and ask what resources we have at hand? Are we holding onto a few loaves, a couple of fish, or some other things that we don’t think are worth too much, but if placed in the hands of Jesus might just be miraculous? I am fairly certain that we are – that we, like the twelve, are too often content to sell ourselves short so that we don’t have to bother with that ministry business.

But Jesus keeps looking at us thinking that maybe, just maybe, we’re capable if we’ll just give it a try and trust him too.

Let me ask you, dear friends, to look at the little you’ve got, and go to Jesus, and say, “All right, Lord. Here’s this huge need. And here’s this little loaf. How in the heck do you think we can take this to do that? How do we proclaim your kingdom, your love, your mercy, your hope – here and now, with who we are and what we have?”

That’s our calling. Because I’m pretty sure that he’s going to look at us, as he did Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, the other James, Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot, and say, “You do it.”

And you can. And you will. Because he is shaping you right now for the next thing in your life – whatever that is. Right now – even now, he is preparing you to do amazing things. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Bread and Life

Eight times in the Gospel of John, Jesus looked at folk around him and said, “I am.”  Bread of life.  Light of the world.  The Gate.  And so on.  As we journey towards the garden, the cross, and the grave, we want to stick close to the Lord to learn more of who he is in order that we might discover that which we are called to be.  This is the message from March 16 as heard at the Crafton Heights Church.  Our scriptures included selected verses from Exodus 3 and John 6 (quoted below).

What really frosts you?  I mean, what gets on your last nerve, and just makes you see red?  Don’t feel like you have to shout out answers during the message…

Someone might say, “When I’m cruising down the parkway and traffic just stops…because no one seems to know how to drive through a stinking tunnel!”  And that’s true.  That really chaps my hide…but I was thinking a little more ecclesiastically.  What bothers you spiritually?

Several times in recent weeks I’ve thought about one of the first times I ever went to share communion in a nursing home. I was the associate pastor, and the senior pastor had said to me, “I’m glad you’ll be going out there.  Try to visit with Esther.  I think she might connect better with you than she does with me.”  This is, of course, pastor’s code for “She really doesn’t like anyone, but why don’t you give it a shot?”

So I went out to the home, and was told that Esther was indeed there, and that she was the blind lady in the wheelchair over in the corner.  I approached, and our conversation went something like this:

“Esther?  Hi!  My name is Dave Carver, and I’m…”

“I know who you are.  You’re the new preacher, aren’t you?  I don’t know if we’re going to get along.”

“Esther, why would you say that?”

“Well, they tell me you’ve got a beard.  Do you have a beard?”

“I do.”

“Well, let me feel it then.”  And she reached her hand up and touched my face.  “Yeah, that’s what I thought.  I don’t think I can get used to the idea of a preacher with a beard.  It’s just not right.”

“Uh, Esther?  Can you see me?”

“Of course not!  I’m blind!”

“Well then, if you can’t see my beard, how can it bother you?”

“I can think it, can’t I?”

Esther was offended by the idea of a preacher with facial fondeur.  What about you?  What offends you in church?  If we allow it, that could be a long list – and a subjective one, too: what offends you now might not offend you in ten years; what offends me might not offend you.

But looking past the things that you encounter when you show up here – where do you find Jesus to be offensive?

“Oh, Pastor!  Jesus? Offensive?  No, no, no…Jesus and me?  We are good!  I love my Jesus, my savior…”

Really? Nothing about what Jesus said or did rocks your boat, even a little bit?  Because it seems to me that the people who took him seriously, who really let him in, who were there to pay attention – well, they found him to be at least intrusive, if not offensive.

In fact, our Gospel reading for this morning is about a time when Jesus managed to offend a whole lot of people, including some who thought of themselves as his friends.

jesus-teachingJohn chapter six opens with the story about how Jesus and the disciples were looking for a break after a pretty rough stretch of ministry.  They went out into the boondocks in search of a little peace and quiet, only to be followed by great crowds – crowds that had needs that the boondocks were not equipped to handle.  So what started out to be a little retreat wound up to be an all-day teaching session that led to the feeding of the 5,000.  John tells us that after that happened, they tried to make Jesus into a king, and he didn’t want any of that…so he and the Twelve set off again – to someplace even boondockier –  in search of some R & R.

Yet the crowds found them again, and Jesus called them out, saying, “Look, we all know you’re not here for the Bible Study – you just remember the bread and the fishes from yesterday.” Then he threw out a little teaser, saying that they ought to really want the food that would allow them to live forever.  Well, they fell right into that one, and said, “You bet! Give us that!  That’s the stuff we want!”  Listen:

So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” (John 6:30 – 34, NIV)

Sharing Bread (Sieger Köder, German, 20th c.)

Sharing Bread (Sieger Köder, German, 20th c.)

If you’ve read much of John before, you could see this coming.  Time and time again, John presents us with a Jesus who talks about things on an intensely spiritual plane, while mere mortals are thinking that he’s talking about the mundane stuff of human existence.  So when they beg him for some of this bread, Jesus gives them the theological knock-out:

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:35-40, NIV)

There are two things going on here.  First, Jesus uses two little words that sound so inoffensive in English, or even in Greek.  He says, “I am”.  “Ego eimi”.  We say that all the time, don’t we?  “Who’s in charge here?  Who is going for ice cream? Who’s ready for Spring?”  I am!  That’s me!

But for Jesus and the rest of the faithful in his time and place, saying “I am” – particularly in a theological context – was a loaded proposition because, as you have already heard in the reading from Exodus, “I am” is more than a simple declarative statement.  “I am” is the Divine Name.  “I am” is who God revealed himself to be.  And Jesus here, for the first of eight times in John’s Gospel, uses that phrase to refer to himself.

images-of-jesusFor a carpenter’s son to use the Divine Name was wildly offensive to his hearers.  “Who do you think you are?  Do you know what you’re saying?” When Jesus said, “I Am” so often in that context, it was an unmistakable sign that he was equating himself with God’s presence and God’s purposes.  Listen:

At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?” (John 6:41-42, NIV)

And while this is going on, you can just about feel the disciples cringing.  “Oh, come on, Jesus!  You have just cracked the top ten!  People are really paying attention to you now!  Don’t offend them with this stuff!  Give the crowds what they want, and don’t rile the authorities.”

But he doesn’t stop.  In fact, he goes deeper:

“Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:47-51 NIV)

Jesus says that God, through Moses, directed the faithful to manna – the bread that would help them get through another day in the desert.  And now the same God, through Jesus, offers the true bread from heaven.  And what is that bread? Jesus says, “That’s me.  I am.  I am the bread of life.”

And then Jesus takes it a bit further.  He says that he’s better than the manna that the ancestors ate, and, in fact, the bread that he is is bread for the life of the world.  “If you want eternal life, then you’ve got to eat my flesh.  If you want eternal life, you’ve got to drink my blood.”

And when he said this, some of the people who had been following him looked around at each other and said, basically, “Eeeew, that’s nasty.  I don’t know if I can get into that…”

Jesus presses the point:

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?” (John 6:60-61, NIV)

Jesus is saying, “You need me.  I am the basic stuff of life.  If you don’t have me, you can’t experience life.  I am what sustains you.”

And then we get to one of the most curious parts of this story:

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:66, NIV)

Sometimes in scripture, we see things in black and white; as good and evil.  When someone opposes Jesus, we want to think right away that it’s the bad guys.  “If I was there…” we think, “I wouldn’t question anything that Jesus said.”  But friends, you see the truth.  Here, in this passage, it is the good guys – the followers – disciples of Jesus – who turn away and can no longer follow him.  Why is that?  Because Jesus, talking about the body and the blood, claims to be the sustaining, equipping presence that we need each and every day.

Bread has taken a bit of a bad rap in our culture lately.  You may have seen articles like, “Why Bread Is Bad for You: the Shocking Truth!” or “Cutting Bread From Your Diet”.  Many of us are being told that we shouldn’t eat bread, or that we eat too much bread, or something like that.  And, thanks be to God, most of us are in a position where we have a lot of options when it comes to food.

breadYet the reality is that for most of the world, there is a dish that sustains us.  Come with me to Malawi, and watch women standing for hours around the big pot of nsima, the staple food on which most Malawians rely for two meals a day.  I remember walking the streets of Cairo and seeing men with giant platters of bread, selling the small loaves for two pennies each.  Most of the people on this planet rely on a simple combination of grains to keep them going day after day – it is bread, or nsima, or pap, or funche, or polenta… it is what we need to live.

And here in today’s Gospel, Jesus looks at those who would follow him, and say, “Yes.  That’s me.  I am what you need.  I am that for which you were created.  I am.”  And that notion of exclusivity offends people – and they want to leave.  Because they are not in the business of depending on Jesus.  Of needing him.  Of thinking of him as the way to live.  He’s a nice guy.  A great man, even.  We ought to pay attention to him.

But is he God?

I wonder if we really appreciate what a leap it is to go from thinking that Jesus is a good man – even a great man, like Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, Jr. – to believing that Jesus is truly the bread of life.  To tell you the truth, I’m not surprised that people are offended.  It’s pretty tough to comprehend, isn’t it?

But not everyone turns away:

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69, NIV)

The twelve stick around.  They’re invited to leave, but Peter matter-of-factly says, “Seriously, Lord, where can we go?  Because we KNOW you.  We were so hungry yesterday – and you fed us.  We were so scared in the boat last night – and you were there.  We have seen you.  We know you.  And we cannot leave.”  And the twelve, save Judas, all end up spending the rest of their lives pointing other people towards the things that Jesus said and did – because they believed that he WAS the essence of life.  The difference between the people who were offended and those who were not was not that somehow the apostles “got” what Jesus was saying any better.  They were lost, too.  But they had seen him and known him and experienced his power – and they knew they needed to stay with him, even if they didn’t understand everything at the time.

The Lord's Table in Crafton Heights, complete with our itty-bitty, really hard bread and empty cup.  Shallow? Perhaps, but symbolic nonetheless.

The Lord’s Table in Crafton Heights, complete with our itty-bitty, really hard bread and empty cup. Shallow? Perhaps, but symbolic nonetheless.

Look at that table before you. It’s a rich, sturdy, oak table.  They don’t make ‘em like that any more.  It’s quality furniture.  And look at what’s on it.  An empty cup and a small loaf.  It’s just a reminder… It seems so, normal.  It’s almost … harmless the way that we remember that Jesus is the bread. Like we have “tamed” him, somehow.  Made him less offensive.

We have to remember that Jesus is the bread.  We don’t remember that Jesus and something else is what we need.  We don’t claim that our lives are pretty good, pretty whole, and then we sprinkle a little bit of Jesus on top just to round things out, as though Jesus was a special additive that makes our lives sparkle a little bit more.  This little loaf and empty cup, as shallow as they may be, remind us that Jesus is all of what we need.  They are here to serve as symbols, pointing us to what we really need.

It is a statement of belief:  in coming to the table, you say, “I believe that I need Christ and his power in my life, and I believe that he is there and is sufficient to reign.”  And it is a statement of intent: in sharing the cup and the loaf, you say, “I will follow where he leads me.”  And it is a statement of testimony: in our worship, you say, “Yes, I could have gone.  I might have gone.  But there have been times in my life when he has fed me.  I don’ t know how he’s done it – but I was fed.  There have been times in my life when he has calmed me, and been present to me when I was scared, or frightened, or in need, and he walked out to me and comforted me.”

Do you see, you lovely people of God?  Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.”  And now he’s asking you to believe that that is the case.  He is not an additive; he is not an enrichment.  He is life.  And he invites us to follow him.  And to tell the story that has changed our world.  For some, that is offensive.  For us, it is life.  Let us live it as though we counted on him to nourish us today and always.  Amen.