“I AM the Vine”: Sermon by Keith, 6.1.14, Easter 7

Scriptures: John 15:1-17

This is the Sunday before Pentecost, so it is the last Sunday that we will look at Jesus’ last I AM statement in John.  So, for just a little quiz.  Let’s start naming some of those I AM statements that Jesus said.  Now, we didn’t preach on every one of them, so if we miss one or two, that is ok.  Who can name one?

Great!  Now remember, each and every time Jesus used one of these statements, he connected it to something going on around him.  Most tie an image of Israel’s past to something the disciples are looking at or experiencing at that moment.   And Jesus uses that image and experience to teaching about who he is, who God is, and who we are in relationship to God in Jesus Christ.

And this is so true in this morning’s passage, which is part of Jesus’ long farewell discourse he gives his disciples right before his arrest and crucifixion.  It is the Passover festival and the disciples and Jesus have just left the temple and are on their way to the upper room to celebrate the Passover meal.  In leaving, they pass by a prominent symbol of Israel that hung over the entrance of the Temple.  This symbol was made of gold wire and beads, delicately twisted to look like a huge golden grape vine.  It was huge, intricate and beautiful, overflowing with golden grapes.  The reason this symbol was so important and placed in the entrance to the temple is that within Jewish tradition, the vine was a picture of Israel.  God had plucked Israel the vine out of Egypt and planted it in the promised land.  Psalm 80 uses this imagery when it says, “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.”  Scripture paints the picture of God as the protector of this choice vine, keeping it safe from wild animals, tending to its growth so only the best grapes are produced.  The vine represented the covenant people of God, planted, and tended by God so that Israel would bear fruit for the world, spreading God’s love into all the nations of the world.  It represents all that Israel is to be and do.  God has a plan and a purpose for Israel to be the light of salvation to the world in and through his care and nurture.

But, there is another image of the grapevine in scripture when Israel doesn’t fulfill that calling.  It is the image of the wild grapevine, vines that have grown reckless, sprawling over the grown and producing either little good fruit or sour fruit.  I don’t know much about grape cultivation, but in studying this passage I learned that the best grapes grow close to the vine.  When the branches are not controlled, the shade of the branches stunts the growth of the grapes and production actually decreases.  Both the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah have God lamenting the growth of these wild grapes.  Jeremiah says, “I have planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock.  How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?”  It is kind of like a tomato plant.  The biggest, bushiest plants don’t produce the best fruit.  There are these little sucker leaves that grow out of splits in the leaves that steal nutrients from the fruit.  They need to be cut.   So, for the disciples, there is the image of the beautiful, choice vine that has an over abundance of grapes, an image of all that Israel was to be and become in the hands of God, and then the image of the wild vine when they turned from God’s care and protection.

Now, Jesus turns this imagery on its head when he says he is the ‘true vine.’  The vine is Israel.  This can only mean that he is, in himself, the true Israel.  This would have been shocking to the disciples ears.  All that God planned for Israel and Israel’s calling in the world now rests in Jesus.   He is God’s true planting and God was and is always eager to see fruit come from his garden…and the true vine produces branches.  Jesus’ followers are members of God’s true people.  His followers are the branches.  The image of the vine is about who Jesus and his people really are, and what is now going to happen to them as a result.  Remember, the first people that would have heard these words from John’s gospel had been kicked out of the synagogues and told they were no longer a part of covenant people.  They would have found comfort from Jesus in knowing that yes, even though they are no longer part of that community, they are a part of a bigger community known in Christ, the true vine.

Within the farewell discourse as a whole, Jesus’ words about being the true vine opens up a whole new dimension of what Jesus wants to say as he takes his leave of his closest friends.  He has already talked about being in the Father and the Father being in him.  Now we see what that means, not only for Jesus, but also for his followers.  On the one hand, it is a way of speaking of himself as Israel-in-person, and of his followers as God’s true people because they belong to him.  On the other hand, it is a way of speaking of the intimate relationship with him that they are to live into and enjoy.  Branches that decide that they can live a life separate from the life of the vine wither and die.  They are good for nothing but the fire.  Branches that remain in the vine and submit to the pruner’s knife when necessary, live and bear fruit.  That is the prospect that Jesus holds out to his followers, to all of us.

Jesus as the true vine and this imagery as the Father as the master gardener raises some important questions.  How do we remain and abide in him?  What does it look like to abide in him?  Abiding is intimate state of being.  And we have to realize that abiding is an intimate choice, a choice on God in Christ’s part and a choice on our part.  Now, I firmly believe that in Christ, God has said yes to every human being.  But not all will say yes back.  And when we do say yes, “I choose to abide in Christ,” it is a lifelong commitment that we have to remind ourselves of everyday.  Two ways we do that are by being a part of a community that knows and loves him and celebrates Jesus as Lord and Savior.  There is no such thing as a solitary Christian.  I remember meeting a young man in Alaska who said, “I don’t need a church, I have Jesus.”  But Jesus is the church.  Despite all the brokenness and disagreements, it is in and with the body of believers that Christ is experienced and found.  We abide in Christ by actively being part of something bigger than ourselves, his community of faith, the church.

But the other part of abiding in Christ comes about as we become people of prayer and worship in our own intimate, private lives.  We must make sure to be in touch, in tune, with Jesus, knowing him and being known by him.  Will we spend time in prayer?  Will we open the Bible and encounter the living Word there?  Will we be focused on Christ?  How will we spend our time and our money?  There is an extraordinary promise about prayer with a sharp warning in these words about being part of the vine.  If we abide in him, Jesus will give us whatever we want!  Then, why wasn’t my prayers answered?  I recently came across a cartoon from agnusday.org of two sheep who talk religion.  Now, I had never seen this cartoon before, but the one I found has them talking about prayer.  The first sheep says, “I used to be frustrated when Jesus didn’t give me everything I prayed for.”  The second sheep responds, “But now?”  The first sheep says, “I realized that we don’t give Jesus everything he prays for.”  “Ouch,” says the second sheep.  As Christ abides in us, our prayers become his prayers, not our prayers.  They become focused on his will and not what we would want.

But the warning in this passage is also that, though it always hurts, we must be ready for the Father’s pruning knife.  God is glorified, and so will we be, by bearing lots of good quality fruit.  For that to happen, there will be extra growth that will need cut away.  That, too, is an intimate process.  The vine-dresser is never closer to the vine, taking more thought over its ling-term health and productivity, than when he has the knife in his hand.

I think Jesus’ last I Am statement is the most personal, the most intimate, the most loving of them all.  It shows the deep interconnectedness between Jesus and the Father and between Jesus and us.  We are connected to God in a way that is deeper than we can understand or imagine.  Apart from him, we can do nothing.  There is an invitation in his words.  Abide in him and we will bear much fruit.  Amen.

 

 

I AM the Man: Sermon by Laura, 5.18.14, “I AM” sermon series, Easter 5

Scripture: John 9:1-41

Today I want you to imagine yourselves in the experience of the man born blind. Most of us will find this pretty difficult, because we were born seeing. Some of us can no longer see as well as we used to. There is a sadness in that loss, yet we still have the memory of seeing clearly.

But it’s not so much a state of “loss” for this man as it is an entirely different way of life he must inhabit from those around him. He has had to adapt to a world arranged for sighted people. And in the ancient world, the man’s vocational options are even more limited than they would be today. So, he begs for a living.  It’s how he deals with the life he’s been given.

Let’s imagine him sitting at his usual post, begging cup in hand. He’s using his other four senses to perceive what’s happening around him. The sun feels warm on his face. He hears the footsteps of people walking the dirt path, maybe the sounds of animals. He smells the dust on their clothes and skin.  There are some voices of people approaching. They are talking about him. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

This is another part of his adaptation to a sighted world. There are always people who think his reality is the result of punishment for errant ways. He copes with a strange mix of pity and judgment from people who don’t know anything else about him. All they can see is his blindness. They don’t even know his name. He is used to it, and he doesn’t expect things to change. He patiently anticipates the clink of coins in his cup.

But just then, there is different kind of voice. “So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day,”[i] says a voice with authority, and then there’s the sound of someone spitting. Unexpectedly, the man smells mud, feels warm fingers, gently placing it on his eyes. “Go wash in the pool of Siloam,” says the voice. The man hears and obeys; he goes where he has been sent.

Can you imagine what it was like for him to wash that mud off and be able to see? How dazzling, how overwhelming, to experience light and color for the first time!

In The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, author Annie Dillard is enthralled by a book about the healing of congenitally blind people. Recounting what she learns, she notes, “The mental effort…proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceivedas something touchingly manageable…A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision.” A newly sighted twenty-one-year-old girl shuts her eyes to go around the house, and finds her greatest ease by closing her eyelids and relapsing into blindness.[ii]

A whole new reality begins to impress itself on the man. It is a holy moment, a disrupting and confusing one, too.

John’s gospel handles it quickly and matter-of-factly, though. There is much less emphasis put upon this moment than we might expect from our modern medical perspective. But our tendency to focus on the healing formula or technology, what we perceive as the moment that healing occurred, might keep us from attending to the rest of the story, or get us stuck in a narrow focus on Jesus the miraculous physician.

But there is a different purpose to this story. For the man born blind is much more than a moral lesson for passers-by, and he is much more than a “prop” in a scene to demonstrate Jesus’ miraculous powers.[iii] He is a complex human being on a journey of transformation, and the whole journey is the healing miracle.

I think that’s why, after the man goes to wash, Jesus steps out of the scene for a time. For 30 verses, actually. In our class last summer at Tall Timber Ranch, Professor Jeff Keuss pointed out that in no other gospel is Jesus out of the picture for so long. Keuss noted that John’s gospel is probably the latest written, and the gospel-writer lived during a time when Jesus was, in fact, out of the picture. Faith in John’s time, as in ours, meant trusting in a person you’d never actually seen.

But is Jesus completely absent from these verses? Look what happens when the man returns from the pool, now able to see. The people who have known him all his life do not recognize him.  They argue with each other about him, still treating him like a “prop.” Finally he speaks, affirming his identity in spectacular terms: “I AM the man.”

Is this an “I AM” statement? It’s not one we usually recognize as such, because Jesus doesn’t say it. Yet it’s certainly the same language Jesus uses in John to reveal himself as God-with-us. The man uses those same syllables reserved to name the great “I AM.” Could John be telling us that Jesus is not, in fact, absent, but somehow present and exhibited by this man he touched and healed?

It’s clear the man himself received much more than physical sight in his encounter with Jesus. He returns, as one preacher says, “with a sense of mission and self-worth that stuns his neighbors.”[iv] He who was limited to begging has received a calling. This man becomes a seer and a witness, proclaiming the gospel in his own story, as he is called upon to testify again and again. “I was blind, but now I see.” He becomes a “Christian,” a little Christ, as he testifies. “Christians will not be known by their sickness, they will be known by their cure,” said Gregory of Nanzianzus.[v]

Ultimately, the man who can now see also pays the price of being a witness, or to use the Greek, a martyr. His neighbors don’t believe him and take him to the religious authorities at the synagogue, who are themselves divided by his story. His parents testify that he was, in fact, born blind, but they otherwise abandon their child for fear of those religious authorities.

Called in the second time to testify, it seems the man has grown by leaps in his boldness. “Here is an astonishing thing!” he says, and you can almost taste the sarcasm. “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes…Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Confessing faith in Jesus Christ, the man is driven out of the synagogue.

It’s a caution for us. New life, resurrection life, a life in Christ Jesus, brings change. Systems are disrupted as individuals, families, and churches come into new ways of seeing the world, into a new reality of Christian discipleship. You whom Christ has touched and called to new mission, purpose, and freedom must be aware you will encounter resistance. You will encounter it in the cultural systems and politics-as-usual of our world, but even more painfully, you will encounter it in those who are closest to you, who want you to maintain the status quo of your old identity. Change in an individual causes ripples throughout family systems. As a congregation welcoming people who need Christ’s touch, we must also be aware that we are prone to offer that resistance if we are too tightly wedded to doing things “the way they’ve always been done.”

But first and foremost, like those newly seeing folks Dillard wrote about, who refused to use their new vision, we will find resistance in ourselves. “How much easier to live with our defined, even if deformed, sense of ourselves and others than to risk the new identity and abundant life Jesus offers,”[vi] notes one author.  Our fear of rejection, our fear of confrontation with the compulsions of our time, can keep us from embracing our resurrection calling in Jesus Christ.

That’s when Jesus comes back on the scene in John’s gospel. He seeks out the newly seeing man, who has been cast out of his primary communities. Jesus the good shepherd, who seeks every lost sheep, comes and confirming the man’s “healing, new identity, and abundant life”[vii] as the man confirms his belief in Jesus the Son of Man, sent by God.

The man is invited into a new community of discipleship, ushered into the fold of the “sheep” who know the shepherd’s voice. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says shortly thereafter.[viii] And laying down his life for the sheep, Jesus will pay the ultimate price of rejection from the fold. Three days later, he will be raised.

And at first, Jesus’ closest friends do not recognize him. Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the gardener! But they also will be given the grace of seeing in new ways. Outcasts will be gathered into a new community and given a risky, powerful, and life-giving mission to proclaim what they have seen and heard. “I have seen Jesus!”

Friends, the good news of the gospel is that Jesus has touched us and we are healed. Christ heals us, not just one moment in time, but through a lifetime of transformation. He heals us by giving us his very self. Though we sometimes still struggle with the symptoms of our toxic culture, the anxiety and confusion and despair which mark our times, new life has broken into our world. Christ is giving us new eyes to see how God is at work everywhere, bringing healing and wholeness, how we can be a part of that work, exhibiting Christ’s presence in our own lives.

As we allow Jesus to transform our individual lives, our families, and our congregation, opening us up to the spacious place of God’s loving freedom, we are called to bold witness. Let us proclaim, “I AM the man”; “I AM the woman.” Christ has called us to new, resurrection life! I once was blind, but now I see. Alleluia! Amen!

 

[i] I’m using an interpretive suggestion of D. Mark Davis at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/

[ii]Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, New York: Harper & Row, 1985, 30; on http://www.victorianweb.org/courses/nonfiction/dillard/group3.html; Dillard is quoting from Marius von Senden, Space and sight: the perception of space and shape in the congenitally blind before and after operation,

Free Press, 1960.

[iii] Rev. Duane Steele,  http://day1.org/5640-the_blind_man_who_knew_too_much. Rev. Steele himself was born blind, and his sermon on this text is powerful! I’ve been very influenced by his insights.

[iv] Steele, as above.

[v] As quoted by Jeff Keuss at Tall Timber Ranch Family Camp, June 2013.

[vi] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3123

[vii] David Lose, as above.

[viii] John 10: 10-11

I AM the Light of the World: Sermon by Keith, 5.11.14, “I AM” sermon series, Easter 4

Jesus always has a place or situation specific reason for his “I AM” statements that he makes through out the book of John.  Something is happening around him that concretely ties him to who he says he is.  Now, as you might recall, John’s gospel doesn’t have Jesus teaching in parables like the other gospels.  But I think these I AM statements could be considered parables because of who they say he is and who God is in light of the specific circumstance.  If you remember last week, Laura delved into “I Am the bread of life.”  Jesus just feed the multitudes on the shores of Galilee by miraculously feeding thousands with just a little bit of bread.  After the feeding he says, “I am the bread of life.”  We come to a new understanding of who God in Christ is in light of understanding what bread does.  To condense it down, bread sustains physically, but God in Christ sustains us spiritually.   There is a lot more to it than that, but that give us a little nugget of understanding Jesus.

Today’s I AM statement is similar, but I think harder to comprehend because we are separated by 2000 years.  We can’t stand next to Jesus in the temple and see what he is comparing himself to when he says, “I Am the light of the world.”  So let’s paint the picture.  If you go back to chapter 7, you will see that it is the Jewish festival of booths, or tabernacles, and Jesus is in the temple teaching.  This was a time to celebrate the harvest while recalling God’s provision for the people of Israel during their 40 years in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt.   This festival was so popular that the people just called it “the feast” and it was a week long celebration of merriment and excitement.

During each night of the festival, four giant lamps were positioned in the court of the women, which was also the location of the temple treasury, which we see why this is important when we read the passage.  These lamps were huge golden bowls of oil with wicks made from the discarded cloths from priestly garments.  These lamps represented the cloudy pillar of fire that went before the people in the desert.  People would sing and dance all night long in the light of these lamps and they were so bright that it was rumored that every single courtyard in Jerusalem was touched by its light.  And since the temple was basically the highest point in Jerusalem, the lamps could be seen for miles.   When the night was over and the light of the lamps were burned out, two priests would come down the steps of the court of the women, turn towards the Temple and say, “Our fathers who were in this place turned their backs to the temple of God and their faces eastward and threw themselves down eastward before the sun; but we direct our eyes to Yahweh.”  And remember, Yahweh means, “I Am who I Am.”

I think this is the scene we are witnessing.  It is early morning, the sun may not even be over the horizon yet.  Jesus has just had this encounter with the woman caught in adultery and her accusers.  The lamps have burned out and the priests have made their declaration about following the great I AM…(read the  scripture: John 8:2-20)

Now, we all know the power of light.  It is spring time and we can see the power of the light from the increased length of days.  Things grow, we explore, we enjoy the light.  We need the light.  We can’t box it in or contain it.  We are drawn to it.  And there are a lot of references to light in scripture.  But in this moment, Jesus’ hearers would have perceived Jesus talking about light in a way that connects directly to their history.   Their minds would have went immediately to the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that led Israel during their passage through wilderness after leaving Egypt.  That cloud had stood between Israel and Egypt, protecting the people from disaster both day and night, keeping the Egyptian army from attacking while Moses raised his staff and split the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape.

But that same fiery cloud that protected them from the Egyptians also guided them throughout their wilderness wanderings.  When the light moved, they moved.  When the light stated put, they stayed put.  That fiery pillar of burning cloud assured them that Yahweh was with them.  His presence was so bright in that cloud that the people could travel by day or by night and it never departed from them.

Sometimes God spoke from the fiery pillar cloud, other times God addressed the sins of the people, and God even fought against Israel’s enemies in and through this fiery pillar.  But what was evident to Israel is that they could never forget that God was with them as they were able to see the light.

No wonder the priests attacked him when he said he was the light of the world.  Basically Jesus is telling them, “Did you see the light shining from the blaze in this court.  Did you see how it pierced the darkness as it lit up all of Jerusalem and the countryside?  Now, look to me.  I am the light of the entire world, not just of Jerusalem.  Do you remember who it represents?  I am that light.  For the one who follows me there will always be in the light of God’s protection and guidance, not just for one joyful night or week of celebration, but for every step they take throughout their lives.  This light in the temple is brilliant, but at last if flickers and dies.  I am the light that lasts forever!”

So, what does it mean to follow the one who is the light of the world?  First, we have to face the light to follow it.  We have to let the light of the world shine into every aspect of our lives.  We cannot keep anything hidden in the dark, especially those things that separate us from God and our neighbor.  I think that is why the story of the woman caught in adultery is right before Jesus’ proclamation of who he is.  Now, there are a lot of contextual issues with this story, but it makes sense that it is right here.  In the presence of Jesus, all the sins that had taken place were exposed to the light.  Everyone involved in that situation was hiding in the dark of sin.  Now, to have an act of adultery, you have to have two actors.  Only the woman is brought before Jesus.  So there are lots of questions about the scene.  But when the one who is the light of the world asks the entire crowd to face their own sins, most cannot face the fact that their sins are being exposed.  Only the women can.  We have to be realistic in the fact that the light will expose us for who we are, but that light also wants to transform us into his followers.  That doesn’t mean we don’t sin anymore, but that we able to ask for forgiveness and grow into the people of God.

Now the other aspect of following the light of the world is as hard as facing the light.  You can’t be too hasty and follow too close and you can’t lag too far behind.  Here is why, if we follow too closely we can fail to see where the Light is leading.  In the book of Joshua, we find that the people were required to follow behind the fiery pillar by about two thirds of a mile.  This would keep the people from passing the Lord and going the wrong direction.  It takes time to watch where Jesus is going and discern where he is leading us.  Alexander Maclaren said that “It is neither reverent nor wise to be treading on the heels of our Guide in our eager confidence that we know where He wants us to go.”

But we cannot lag behind, either, and get lost in the wilderness without his light.  Again, Maclaren phrases the issue very well when he writes, “Do not let the warmth by the camp-fire, or the pleasantness of the shady place where your tent is pitched, keep you there when the fiery cloud lifts. Be ready for change, be ready for continuance, because you are in fellowship with your Leader and Commander; and let Him say, Go, and you go; Do this, and you gladly do it, until the hour when He will whisper, Come.”  It takes discernment and prayer to follow in the light down the path he is leading.

When Jesus proclaimed, “I Am the light of the world,” he presented himself as the one who saves his people, protects his people, and guides his people through unfamiliar territory.  And we do live in a time of unfamiliar territory, both in our lives, our families, and even in the church.  It doesn’t mean we always stay put, holding on to the things as they always have been.  When the light beckons, we move.  Christ, the great I AM, the light of the world, call us as individuals and as a community of faith to come and follow him.  May we hear his call today and journey following him, out of the shadows of darkness and into the light that only he can give.  Amen.

“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.