When a parent has a child, he has probably several ideas about what they want for their child’s future, what kind of personality they want for them, and what their child to be like.
I don’t know for sure, but I can hazard a guess that I probably didn’t turn out exactly the way my dad expected me to. Now, that isn’t to say that my dad doesn’t love me the way I am–he absolutely does!–but knowing my dad, he probably wished his son turned out a lite bit differently. He probably wanted me to like more of the interests that he does, or perhaps have more athletic aspirations, or heck, at least know what’s going on under the hood of his car. He probably didn’t hope for a bookish, pop-culture-obsessed aspirational writer-turned-pastor.
That being said, I know that though I didn’t become the starting pitcher for the Texas Rangers, my dad is proud of me and loved me. Parents have the capacity to love their children through extraordinary circumstances, and in the face of tremendous adversity. However, the communities one raises their children in can often be a different matter entirely.
I’m pretty sure my dad made peace with my own weirdness early on. But, being the pastor’s kid is a very different experience than even his own. I grew up just outside of the spotlight, on the stage behind the pulpit in a way. He was the pastor. I was the pastor’s youngest son. And each communities’ values were projected onto me and my brother constantly.
It’s easy to get caught up in someone else’s vision of who you are, and what you ought to be about. The projections of a community can be incredibly important to us. At the same time, they can also be incredibly harmful to us, depending on their reaction to who you are and how you measure up.
Neither Charles nor I often fit the bill as to how a pastor’s kid is “supposed to act.” Newsflash: there has never been nor will there ever be a perfect pastor’s kid. They are kids. They are what they are. We simply have to be careful of our own reactions to who they are.
Reading this passage from John, we come to a lengthy discourse on Jesus calling himself the “bread of life.” There’s a lot to discuss, and a lot to absorb. However, when I read it, I focused in on one factor in particular: this is a passage about origins. What do we make of Jesus, who’s past is as mysterious and as scandalous as we can imagine? How do we react to our own past? And how do we go forward knowing what we know through Jesus’s teaching?
Going All the Way Back
So what do we make of this Jesus and his strange teachings on this day? When Jesus speaks in John, he does so much differently than in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. Though he tells no parables, he nonetheless speaks in riddles and mysteries. Mysteries, though we may want to solve them, are mysteries because they are in a way unlockable, and we marvel at their unlockable-ness.
What prompts him to speak this mystery? Why nothing less than the maddening crowd, rushing him at the side of the seas. Days earlier he had provided for the masses bread and fish, and these masses hounded him even afterwards because they desired what else but more food. These were people who may have been spiritually hungry, but they simply didn’t know that yet. What they did know was that they were actually hungry. The poor and the hungry–they have always had a need.
However, Jesus was not simply a provider of physical nourishment. Though he could provide such means, that was not the ultimate purpose for which he came to us. So, in addressing a hungry crowd, he began to speak about a different kind of bread. This Bread? This is the Bread of Heaven.
Thus begins the sermon about the bread of life, and there is much to be said about it–too much, actually for one sermon to handle, which is why the lectionary has it split up.
That said, our focus is rather on a specific facet of the sermon, and that being this one particular portion, starting in Verse 35:
‘Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I told you that you have seen me and still don’t believe. 37 Everyone whom the Father gives to me will come to me, and I won’t send away anyone who comes to me. 38 I have come down from heaven not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me.”‘
The people were clamoring for “bread from heaven” as in the days of Moses in the wilderness, which sounds ironic to me. Why is that? The Israelites HATED the bread from heaven, because miracle as it was, it didn’t sate their desires completely. They wanted ever more than what was given to them. So the cries for “bread from heaven” ring false in Jesus’ ears. So he offers a permanent alternative: Himself.
He himself is the alternative. All the material desires we have in our lives, all our hungers, all our thirsts, our temptations, our inner misguided loves–he is the alternative.
Notice, he’s not saying that his words or his teachings are the bread of life. No, he’s saying that he himself is the bread. His bones. His flesh. His blood. He is the answer. Not a teaching, not an action, but a person. What a mystery it is that the key to everything is a person.
Jesus calls us here to believe him. This is not simply about intellectual agreement. To believe is to belove, and if we belove Jesus, we partake of the bread.
Now this is all heady, but beautiful, stuff. When Jesus got to that last line though, the “I have come down from heaven” part, that caused people to pause. Wait, what? What did he say? And then, the grumbling began.
Why the grumbling? Because the people he was talking to, people from Galilee… they knew him growing up. They knew his Dad and his Mom. They know where he came from, what he was like, and what he did. Jesus of Nazareth was a known quantity, or so they said. So why is Jesus, son of Joseph, the builder from Nazareth, now saying that he “came down from heaven?” Is he a screw loose? Has he lost it? This is not what they expected out of the son of Joseph.
That, brothers and sisters, are the expectations of a community being projected onto a man with a much more mysterious history than they bargained for. This Jesus, whom they know, is so much more than they can imagine.
This is the man, Jesus, born of Mary, but born not by a man but by the very Spirit of God. This Jesus was at the beginning, has always been, and now stands before them. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This word took on humanity and became like us so that we not only would learn from him, but also love him as he loves us.
This is a mystery the masses could not grasp. They could not reconcile with Jesus’s origins, so how could they take part in the Bread of Heaven?
When Histories Collide
Perhaps this is a discouraging aspect of it all, but when we interact with Jesus’s origins, with the fact that he is not only the son of Mary and Joseph, but also the very son of God, things get… complicated. Because our histories dictate a great part of how we process that news.
The people of the masses following Jesus had countless stories, but as a collective, they had a history. They were ostensibly Jewish, and therefore knew the Jewish faith, laws and culture very well. They have the past down. They know who they are, and are proud of such. History was the very air they breathed, which is why they yearned so much for a miracle like the ones Moses performed–they wished to know God more closely, but also to be taken care of by God in a way they can understand.
When they run into Jesus, they hit a roadblock. All of a sudden, here’s a guy who’s changing the story. Here’s a guy saying He is from heaven? That he’s the Son of God? That he IS God? And yet, they know that he grew up just down the road! There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance there that’s hard to overcome. Is he the real deal?
The people following Jesus back then aren’t the only ones having to face their history and having it collide with Jesus. We, too, have our own stories, often at odds with the truths of Jesus, the Bread of Life.
We are not so different from the people back then. We too seek “bread” in our own ways, and are willing to follow someone’s advice if we can get that “bread” as easily as possible.
Then, we run into Jesus, who says that if you’re looking for bread, look for the bread that’s Everlasting. Where is it? Right in front of you. It’s through a relationship with Jesus, through in fact eating the bread and drinking the wine of communion that we truly encounter the living God.
For some, that’s a bridge too far. Jesus is not an easy taskmaster in many ways, least of all in the Gospel of John. He pulls no punches. First of all, to understand Jesus, you need to be able to believe in something bigger than yourself. Then, you need to go a bit further and believe in something bigger than even the visible, knowable, measurable universe. And then, only then, do you begin to even grasp what’s going on here, because this is metaphysical in a way that isn’t often talked about.
Jesus was in the beginning, and knows us better than we know ourselves. Jesus is truth and light. And because he knows us, we fear that light, for Jesus is a light in dark places, even in our souls. We fear what he might uncover there.
However, it is for this purpose the light comes. It is in the light of day we realize our sins are small in comparison to the healing power and resurrection that Jesus can offer.
Reconciling with a Mysterious Savior
In the end, all we can do is be honest with ourselves. Can we accept the bread of life? And can we accept that Jesus is that very bread? That Jesus can sustain us, revive us, renew us, heal us, change us, unify us with God in a mysterious and wholly holy way? Can we accept that our preconceptions of who Jesus is and who we project onto him aren’t always going to match up? And can we live in that tension, knowing and finding solace in the fact that belief in Christ can support us in that tension? Can you do that? That, brothers and sisters, is something only you can answer for yourself.