“I AM the Bread of Life”: Sermon by Laura, 5.4.14 Easter 3, “I AM” series

Scriptures: John 16-35, Psalm 34

This Easter season, Keith and I are exploring Jesus’ “I AM” statements in the gospel of John. All four gospels show Jesus using figures of speech inviting his listeners to experience God’s kingdom. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, he uses parables, but in John’s gospel, we have these statements instead. John’s gospel also differs in that Jesus’ divine origins and identity are openly revealed.

That’s where the “I AM” statements come in. Remember God telling Moses at the burning bush, “I AM who I AM?” That is a translation of the literal meaning of God’s personal name, Yahweh. In Greek, these words are “ego eimi,” words Jesus uses in every “I AM” statement.

Whenever those words appear, it is an announcement of the fully divine presence incarnate in Jesus Christ. Usually Jesus also links the divine name with a word image, so we get a picture of what God is like. This Eastertide, we are exploring these statements, asking, just who is this Risen Christ, and why does believing in him matter?

There are two “I AM” statements in the scripture I am about to read. Listen carefully—there will be a quiz! (Read scripture: John 6:16-35). Okay, who heard both of them? Raise your hands…The obvious one is “I AM the bread of life.” But did you catch the other one? It’s a little disguised—it comes when Jesus says, “It is I; do not be afraid.” He’s really saying “I AM; do not be afraid.”

Now if you are used to how the other gospels’ tell Jesus’ story, John’s seems a bit like a “mash-up,” combining bits and pieces in different ways.[i] The story of the feeding of the 5000 comes just prior to where I began in Ch. 6. John adds that the crowd Jesus has fed wants to make him king. But that is not Jesus’ mission, so he escapes. Later he walks on the sea and approaches a boat the disciples are rowing through rough waves and wind, and they are terrified. They must have thought he was some sort of demonic apparition, an embodiment of the sea’s mythic chaos and disorder. At that moment that Jesus says, “I AM; Do not be afraid.”

The second “I AM” comes a bit later. The crowd Jesus fed pursues him across the sea. He enters into a back-and-forth dialogue about their perceptions, their motivations in seeking him, and their belief in his true identity and mission. “I AM the bread of life” concludes their dialogue.

So we have here two announcements of God-with-us. One comes to the disciples, Jesus’ handpicked few, alone on the sea. On the surface, Jesus’ words are a simple self-identification—it’s just me, don’t worry. But Jesus’ words also echo with scriptural meanings. “Do not be afraid” is regularly spoken in the stories of theophany, when the holy living presence of God appears to a human being. The vision of Jesus trampling the sea is exactly that, and we are reminded of Genesis, the Spirit of God creating over the chaotic waters. In a fearful time, when everything around them seems out of control, it’s as if Jesus is saying to the disciples, “I know your fear. It’s okay—you are not alone. God in the flesh has come to be with you.”

The other announcement, however, comes to a crowd whose motives in pursuing Jesus are mixed at best. When they find Jesus, they interrogate him about his transport across the lake. Scholar Brian Stofreggen suggests they are seeking to control Jesus and his food-producing power. [ii] First they wanted to make him king. Now they want to control his movements.

But Jesus sidesteps that question, aware they are motivated by their bellies, not their hearts. Later they declare, “Give us this bread always!” and to my ears, they don’t sound like grateful recipients, but like a toddler trying to control a parent: “I want what I want when I want it, so give it to me now!” (I have lots of current experience with such things!).

Could it be that the human craving for control is at stake in both of these stories? On the one hand, there is encouragement when our control is lacking: a close community of people, having taken the risk to follow Jesus, in a moment of uncontrollable terror are invited to trust that the power which made the universe is at their side.

On the other hand, there is a warning not to presume we can control that power: the bread Jesus gives is not meant to satiate the selfish hunger for security. We are invited to awareness of a hunger much more profound than self-centered belly cravings. What we really crave is life.

All our attempts to manipulate and control are ultimately about securing life for ourselves. If I just work hard enough, we think, I’ll have enough money or status, and I’ll finally live the good life. If I just eat the right foods, exercise often enough, or find the right medication, I’ll finally live the good life. If I just build up enough weapons or put up enough fences,my house—or our nation—will keep out intruders, and the good life will be secure.

In relation to some other “I AM” statements—extra points at fellowship time if you can tell me one of them—Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[iii] But what, exactly, does Jesus mean? What is “life?” We think of life as the ongoing function of an individual organism, and death as its end. But the Bible’s notions of life and death are quite different. The people of scripture understood life and death in terms of their covenant with God.

Walter Brueggemann writes, “Life means to be significantly involved in a community of caring, meaning, and action. Death means to be excluded from such a community or denied access to its caring, meaning, or action…Life and death do not have to do, in biblical perspective, simply with the state of the individual person but with the relation between the person and the community that identifies that person and that gives personhood.”[iv]

Life, in other words, is having our being in loving relationship with God, and through God, with other people and creatures God has made. This life, the life Jesus offers, is a task for which the community has responsibility. We are called to work together to make a society characterized by peace and justice, in which we value one another and take caring action.

But this life is also a free gift, a grace from God that we cannot presume to manipulate for our own purposes or deny to anyone else, even to those who do not seem up to the task of community. [v] Jesus holds in balance the realities of community life as both task and gift.

Can you hear this understanding of “life” in what Jesus tells the pursuing crowd? “Do not work for the food that perishes, but the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you,” he says, and when the crowd asks how to accomplish this task, Jesus tells them their work is “to believe” in the One God has sent. “I AM the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Ground everything you do in the confidence of God in Jesus Christ, and you will never be excluded from the relationships that matter.

These words take on a greater poignancy if we hear them in the context of the Christian community which was the primary audience for John’s gospel. John elsewhere mentions ‘being expelled from the synagogue,’ and scholars think it was something his people were experiencing. For their belief in Jesus, they were being cast out and excluded from the community which had defined their identity and security. Much like those disciples in the rough wind and waves, they were fearful of engulfment by demonic forces. They needed the gift Jesus gave—the confirmation that God held their life secure and would never “drive them away” or desert them.

Sometimes we feel like them, when we recognize the challenges we face in the task of community life in Christ. There is nothing easy about discipleship in our day, though our challenges are quite different. We may not risk expulsion from our homes and families, but we often feel displaced in a rapidly changing world. We find ourselves starved for substance in our larger culture, which glorifies superficial values of “material wealth, sexual attractiveness, physical prowess, and social status,” what Marjorie J. Thompson calls, “the spiritual equivalent of empty calories.” [vi] Fear dominates our airwaves and our psyches, and we are pessimistic that human beings can truly make “just and secure orders of life.” When we are tempted to despair, Jesus says, “I AM; do not be afraid!”

But other times, when life seems to be going well, we are tempted to put our security in our own abilities. We begin to think we can make and discern the good life for ourselves. Where food is so readily available and convenient, few of us experience true hunger. We don’t know if we are eating for sustenance or just to dispel boredom. We get complacent about the needs of others because our own needs have been met. We begin to think our individual well-being is the sum total of life’s purpose. And yet, even with overstuffed bellies, we experience emptiness and isolation. We hunger for the life abundant, and Jesus says, “I AM the bread of life,” calling us again to the task of community grounded in the nourishing relationships with God and others only Jesus Christ can give.

My friends, the good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ lived, died, and was resurrected. The One who was banished and destroyed, cast out of “life” itself, rose again, creating a new community where we may abundantly partake of nourishing relationships. Grounding everything we do with confidence in Jesus, we can take courageous action, each of us and all of us together, building a community of grace, and welcoming everyone we encounter to experience the life abundant only he gives.

All glory, honor, and praise be to you, O Christ! Amen.

 

[i] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1504

[ii]Stofreggen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john6x24.htm

[iii] John 10:10—I am the gate for the sheep; I am the good shepherd.

[iv] Walter Brueggemann, The Bible Makes Sense, revised ed. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2003, 89.

[v] Brueggeman, 90, 92-93.

[vi] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast, 3.

Giving Up Death: Sermon by Keith, 4.20.14 Easter A

Scripture: Colossians 3:1-4Matthew 28:1-10

Every year, Laura and I have some very important discussions about the Easter service.  This is the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the biggest day on the calendar for Christians.  And since we are Presbyterians, we are going to celebrate decently and in order.  Every line of every hymn and song is reviewed for the right theological message, prayers are scrutinized for detail and placement in the service, even, “how does this prayer connect to that banner.”  Everything has its place and time in the service, and by golly, it just better stay that way.

But then there is that (see photo below).

decorating the blooming cross
decorating the blooming cross

That cross is chaos.  I remember standing in front of it the first year we decided to do it thinking, “Now, how will we manage this.”  We talked about inviting children up by age groups.  No, that would take too long.  Maybe we do sections of the sanctuary during verses of a song.  No, that would be too complicated.   How about a lottery?  Numbers 1-20 go first and so forth and so on.  But, who would want to be handed a lottery number when they came in for worship, especially on Easter?  Then I remember saying with great hesitation, “Maybe we will just have to let the congregation have at it.”  And what we saw this morning was crazy: kids shoving and pushing, people trying to sing while flowers are flying.  It was noisy and unruly, very un-Presbyterian.  But look at it.  It is beautiful, more beautiful than I ever could have imagined, more beautiful than I could have done on my own.  Every year, I approach that cross with fear and joy.

And I think our cross helps us get a slight glimpse of what happened that first Easter morning as the women approached the tomb.  Matthew’s version of the empty tomb is filled with the most drama, the most chaos, of all the gospels.  It would be the version with the most special effects if it was a movie.  The earth shook and so did the guards.  Flashes of light more spectacular than the grandest 4th of July fireworks filled the sky as the angel descended.  The women watched in awe as this angel pushes the stone away from the sealed but now empty tomb.  And then he sits atop the stone.  Can you picture him? I picture him excited; more excited than the kids pushing their way to put in a flower on the cross this morning.  “Don’t be afraid!” He says, “Come look!  Something more beautiful than you can imagine is here, something more wonderful than you have ever experienced.  An empty tomb!  Go tell the others that Jesus has been raised from the dead!  He is waiting for you!  He is waiting for them!”

And they ran; they ran with fear and joy from this chaotic scene of lights and angels and earthquakes.  But that fear and joy is good news.  The fear comes from encountering something outside of what’s expected, while the joy comes when that something is so much better, more wonderful, than what was expected.  God had done something huge that day.  In a world that says the dead stay dead, God said, “Enough.”  And the whole fallen cosmos shook.  This wasn’t a scene of chaos for God.  Chaos is no match for God.  In the beginning of Genesis, God breathed the Holy Spirit over the chaos and brought forth life.  From the beginning, our God is a God of life.  And, on that first Easter morning, God brought the cosmos back into the way he had created it; back to the way he had intended.  Truly alive and truly free in resurrection of Jesus Christ.  No wonder the earth shook!  It had been created as a garden where life could flourish, not a cemetery to bury the dead.

But God doesn’t just leave us at the empty tomb.  We have to turn away from it and face the chaos and craziness of our daily existence.  And that is where we find him.  Or, I should say, he finds us.  There is the risen Lord, waiting for us.  That’s the second wonderful part of the resurrection.  We have a God of life and love.  God just didn’t raise Jesus from the dead to show off his power to two innocent bystanders, but gives the resurrected Lord so that we can live our daily lives in a new, loving relationship with him, each other, and all of creation.  He is there.  In the midst of broken relationships and families, there he is, offering forgiveness.  In the shadow of addiction, he is there, offering hope and wholeness.  In the middle of sickness and cancer, there he is, offering healing.  In the middle of war, he comes bringing peace and reconciliation.  Christ is there, drawing us towards God and molding us in his Spirit to be the people we were created to be, truly alive and truly free in him.

Friends, Christ is risen.  And his resurrection was more than a miraculous light show to shock and awe those who had him crucified and those who were his followers.  When Jesus rose, he turned the entire universe on its head.  In his resurrection, death is silenced and all creation is made whole and restored.  God has the final word, and that final word is Jesus.  And it is in Jesus the entire cosmos celebrates.

 

 

Mary and the Gardener: Easter Meditation by Laura, 3.31.13

Texts: John 20:1-18, Isaiah 65:17-25

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” Those are the first words in the story of Resurrection morning. It could be that the narrator of John’s gospel only uses them to set the scene and move the story on to the next event. Truth be told, it’s astonishing that there is a next event, given the last we’ve heard of Jesus, he’s been crucified, died, and laid in a tomb.

But perhaps there’s also a deeper significance in these words. There is another “first day” in scripture, when God spoke a Word into the darkness that covered the face of the deep:“Let there be light.” And there was light. There was evening and there was morning, the very first day.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” the Easter story begins, but this time the darkness is the formless void, the watery chaos, of grief and despair. It clings thick around Mary Magdalene, the first person to show up at the tomb, seeking to honor her beloved teacher’s body. And when Mary sees the stone removed from the tomb, the darkness seems even deeper, insult added to the awful injury of Jesus’ unjust and untimely death. In a pre-resurrection world, the only logical reason for the tomb to be open is grave robbery.[1]

In a panic, Mary runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple, “They have taken the Lord!” Suddenly there is a lot more running, as the two men race back and forth to the tomb. But there is a stillness in Mary, who stays, weeping, after the disciples have investigated the tomb and the clothing lying around inside.  The beloved disciple “believed,” but we have to wonder, what? Neither he nor Peter has any clearer understanding of what happened in that place. They go back home, saying nothing.

Mary’s stillness is the paralysis of continuing shock and grief. When she finally peers into the tomb herself, even a conversation with angels has little impact. The tomb is still empty of any answers to the mystery. But someone outside in the garden speaks a word, so Mary turns to see who is speaking.

The narrator tells us it is Jesus, so we can smile that Mary thinks he’s the gardener. But then we realize Mary’s made a pretty good guess. The one standing before her certainly knows a few things about the ways of life and death, the cultivation of birth and growth, the mysteries of decay and restoration.[2] And we remember again, back through scripture, to another garden, a place where the first human beings created walked with God in the cool of the evening, before they were turned out for their disobedience. The “gardener” standing before Mary was there in the beginning, according to John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God…All things came into being through him. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

Jesus was with God at the beginning of all things, and now, in this garden outside an empty tomb, we have come to a new beginning. God’s Word spoken anew in the risen Christ, and a new world, a new life, and a new creation have now come into being.[3] Preacher Bruce Prewer likens it to the Big Bang, the scientific theory in which “all time and space began with one unimaginable explosion from a singular, infinitively small point.” “…This time,” he writes, “it was a massive explosion of love-life. Easter is Big Bang, mark II!” [4]

I don’t know about you, but my brain begins to stall out when I try to comprehend the first creation, let alone try to fathom resurrection’s radical reorientation of the cosmos! For that’s what’s happened, you know, and it should be unsettling to us. As one preacher put it, if dead things don’t stay dead, what can you count on?[5]

So I can understand why Mary still doesn’t get it. She just wants the gardener’s help in getting things back under control. If he would tell her where the missing body lies, she can get on with her grim task. It turns out that a special word is needed to break into the shuttered darkness of Mary’s heart and mind, a particular word, in which the cosmic and the intimate come crashing together: “Mary!” At the sound of her beloved teacher’s voice speaking her name, she turns around again into the dawning recognition of a whole new world. Jesus is fully alive and present before her.

But here’s the hard part of the story, for when Mary responds, “Rabbouni!” We can just see her longing to throw her arms around him with tearful relief and incredible joy there in the midst of the garden which seems, for a moment, like a return to Eden.

But Jesus says, “Do not hold onto me.” For resurrection is not a return to the dead past. Our Risen Lord will not be captured or contained by any previous experiences or expectations. We cannot return to Eden, because a new heaven and a new earth are coming into being. From the tiny point of the empty tomb, from the infinitely personal word of Mary’s name, of our names, called out by the Risen Savior, the new creation must expand out and spill from the garden, ripple by ripple, layer by layer, filling the universe with God’s newness.

And so we are, like Mary, sent out of the garden, but this time we do not go, weeping, but rejoicing, going to tell our brothers and sisters a new day has dawned. The Word made flesh in Jesus Christ lives among us still: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Hallelujah, Amen!


[1] Gail O’Day, Commentary on John in The Women’s Bible Commentary, 389.

[2] Jan L. Richardson, Garden of Hollows, 22.

[3] Lucy Lind Hogan, Commentary at Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=4/8/2012&tab=4

[4] Bruce Prewer, “The New Big Bang,” http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C28eastd.htm