Saturday, November 25, 2017

What can we say July 29-August 26 on John 6?

     The lectionary offers the preacher a high unusual chance to spend not one but five weeks on a single story – albeit a long, complex one: The feeding of the five thousand and its immediate aftermath, the only miracle reported in all four gospels. I’ll offer some comments on the chapter as a whole (and you have to grasp the drama of the whole to make sense of the parts!), and then some thoughts on each section of the divvied up lectionary readings for July 29 through August 26.

   Before my ideas, I'd open with 
Thomas Merton's Journal entry on this: "I try to study the 6th chapter of St. John's Gospel, and it is too great. I simply cannot study it. I simply sit still and try to breathe. It does no good to use big words to talk about Christ. Since I seem to be incapable of talking about Him in the language of a child, I have reached the point where I can scarcely talk about him at all." More preaching should be a quiet puzzlement, and our talking an almost apologetic, but loving straining after small words.

     In my late twenties, I was present for an unforgettable sermon on John 6 by the inimitable Fred Craddock. He deftly exposed the plot of the whole chapter: starting with next to nothing, Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 – and they responded with exuberant glee. Happy days are here again! The Messiah has come! He’ll turn out nickels into dimes, make our gardens grow, find beautiful wives for our sons, and rout the Romans! But then Jesus shifted the conversation from bread to bread – as in You shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  The people draw back a little, wondering why he’s heading in this direction. And then he turned on them entirely: instead of bread, as in the Word, he explains that “the bread I give for the life of the world is my body.” Now he’s talking about suffering, dying – and they flee for the exits.

     From thousands, now there is only a handful left. Jesus asked the few, Will you also go away? And as Craddock intoned it, they rather pitifully asked, Where would we go? – as if they didn’t really have any place else to go. His sermon, we then realized, was actually about so many leaving the church. Churches in decline – and we clergy all know those who have abandoned the ministry. Will you also go away? Craddock’s final line? I think I’ll stay. I know others have left, but I don’t know, I think I’ll stay. Those of us watching/listening were annihilated, moved – and inclined to stay.

     Why not talk about the decline of the church? Not to warn, or to demoralize, or to amp up people’s efforts to evangelize. We note the numbers, which are the perfect reason to ask Why be here?

     My fellow doctoral student and friend Marianne Meye Thompson reflects wisely on the full 5 weeks of Gospel lections: “John’s portrait of Jesus in chapter 6 fuses traditional material about Jesus’ ministry; allusions to the Scripture about manna, word and wisdom; practice of the Lord’s Supper; and John’s own deep convictions about Jesus. The events of the chapter are set at Passover. Like the first Passover, there is a miraculous crossing of the sea, followed by a time during which God provides manna in the wilderness.” This Passover tie is huge.

     And then she slants in Craddock’s direction: “After eating their fill, the people now want more: more bread, more miracles, more of what Jesus can offer.” Sounds very American to me! – or reminding me of Oliver (in the musical).
 Thompson again: “They are right to ask for more; but they do not yet understand what Jesus wants to give them.” I love her depth of insight, that we are mistaken to think Jesus is only fixated on higher things: “Jesus does not feed people with bread merely as an object lesson to show that he can give them food for eternal life. Rather, Jesus can give food that sustains human life in this world and that provides eternal life because he is the agent of God’s creation of all life.” Material food still matters – for us and for those who don’t have it. After all, in the Synoptic versions of the story, when Jesus sees the hungry people he tells the disciples, "You give them something to eat" (Mark 6:37). The preacher's way into the deep spirituality in John 6 could do through a food ministry your church is engaged in - and perhaps you find a story there that leans into what John 6 is about.

     Jean Vanier sees chapter 6 (which he says is “as difficult as a storm”) as a long journey “from the weakness of the newborn child we once were to the weakness of the old person we will become – growth from ignorance to wisdom, selfishness to self-giving, fear to trust, guilt feelings to inner liberation, lack of self-esteem to self-acceptance… The feeding itself reveals a caring God… Jesus calls his disciples to move from a faith based on a very visible miracle that fulfilled their needs to a faith that is total trust in him and in his words, which can appear foolish, absurd, impossible.”

     And finally I find the evangelical scholar D.A. Carson’s articulation appealing: “At a superficial level, the signs attest that Jesus has remarkable powers; but the signs must never be assessed as anything more than attesting portents. This particular miracle had filled the bellies of the people, and the crowd loved it and were willing on that basis to sign up immediately.” But there are hidden meanings, and daunting challenges… “It will shortly become clear that Jesus not only gives the food; he is himself the bread of life.”
     I think I might help people see this by explaining how all good gift giving is really a giving of self. My mother-in-law died in November. I am positive that every Christmas, and every year on my birthday, she gave me some carefully chosen, valuable gift, beautifully wrapped. But for the life of me, I can't recall what was in any of the boxes now. What I am sure of is that each one was simply the gift of her self, disguised or embodied in a coat or a clock or something or another. Our people, understandably, and very much like young children just before Christmas, want this or that from God. But maturity is realizing that the gift God gives is... God's own self, Emmanuel, God with us.

     And now for just a few remarks on each section, if you are going week by week.

     John 6:1-21/July 29. Four years ago I preached at Duke Chapel on this and focused on the leftovers. Why so much? No mention of them going to the poor; those who just ate were the poor. We might think a better miracle would be for Jesus magically to have produced just enough – but he overdid it… Was it wasted? So much in the spiritual life is a waste – of time? Sam Wells speaks often of the superabundance of God’s mercy. There’s plenty, more than enough.

     Dorothy Day once received a diamond ring as a donation. Instead of selling it, she simply gave it to the next poor woman who walked in. When criticized, she asked “Are fine things only for the rich?” It was a waste – a beautiful waste. 
The preacher can think of moments of extravagance. I preached in Haiti at an ordination a while back. Three of us took suitcases full of oreos for the celebration. Yes, Haitians need much more than oreos. But the sheer delight at the party mirrored the extravagance of God’s grace.

     If you want to point to a miracle, it’s not the multiplication of the food. It’s this: Jesus “withdrew to a mountain by himself.” Solitude, time alone with God, might be more miraculous for our people (and us!) than any wizardry with bread. And the lunge to crown Jesus as king: echoes of Gideon’s refusal, and then the people’s foolish request for a king (and what it cost them – 1 Sam. 8) – and yet how remarkable of God to accede finally to their request for a king. David and his lineage are the ones God uses (despite themselves), culminating in Jesus, who was the king (yes, the same guy who just refused the crown!). We won’t understand his kingship until the crucifixion.

    One more interesting tidbit: as D.A. Carson reminds us, “Jesus ‘blesses’ God, i.e. he thanks God; he does not ‘bless’ the food.” It’s worth mentioning to our folks at some point that the pre-meal prayer doesn’t change or radioactivize the food; we are the ones transformed. And we have a fair guess at the words Jesus used when he prayed over the food in John 6 (and at the Last Supper!) – the common Jewish blessing, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

     John 6:24-35/August 5.  Jesus offers in effect his own sermon on Exodus 16 – which also directs the people from food (which perishes!) to a higher kind of food, namely trust in God’s provision, and leading from bondage to freedom. And we see deep connections here with the story of the Samaritan woman who wants water and then is given water…

    John 6:35, 41-51/August 12.  We see the first of Jesus’ “I am” statements. Think Moses, burning bush, and God’s merciful provision to us of names, identities, revelations of the character of God. The preacher could seize this occasion to explore all the I ams (bread, vine, water, shepherd, light, door, way) – and perhaps fuse those marvelous identities to our own, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Who Am I?: “Am I really that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I myself know of myself? Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, weary and empty at praying, ready to say farewell to it all. Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today and tomorrow another? Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!”

     Marianne Thompson helps us hear the shock/offense of Jesus’ words in this reading: “Jesus’ claims may sound familiar to Christian readers accustomed both to thinking of Jesus as God’s Son ‘come down’ from heaven and to hearing ‘eat and drink,’ the words of institution at the Lord’s Supper, but John portrays them as divisive when uttered by Jesus’ contemporaries.” How much of our churchy jargon is nonsense not just to outsiders, but to the casual attender, the first-time visitor, the under-theologically-formed?

     D.A. Carson offers a thoughtful observation on the crowd’s reaction to Jesus: “The grumbling was not only insulting, but dangerous. It presupposed that divine revelation could be sorted out by talking the matter over.” It’s not in our skill set to decide what is revelation and what isn’t.

     Jesus “draws” people to himself. The verb (from helko) can mean “pull or drag by force” (in John 21:6 they drag the net loaded with fish into the boat, and in Acts 21:30 they seize Paul and drag him away!) or “attract” – and while John’s context pushes us toward “attract,” the stronger nuance is intriguing. Carson somewhat crassly but clearly puts it like this: “When he compels belief, it is not by the savage constraint of a rapist, but by the wonderful wooing of a lover.”

     John 6:51-58/August 19. Again, Marianne Thompson’s words above on the graphic nature of and unsettling shocking sense of Jesus’ words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood! No wonder critics in the Roman world misconstrued the Christians as cannibalistic, and crazy.

     John 6:56-69/August 26. See above on Craddock’s exposition of the few who are left being asked if they too will exit. This is the only scene in John where Jesus is in the synagogue (in contrast to Mark, where he’s a regular!). D.A. Carson asks who Jesus’ deserters “take umbrage.” “They were more interested in food, political messianism and manipulative miracles than in the spiritual realities to which the feeding miracle had pointed. And, they were unprepared to relinquish their own sovereign authority even in matters religious.” Jesus does not give them a thrashing. Instead he makes himself even more vulnerable, surrendering himself. Verse 64 uses that theologically rich verb paradidomi, “handed over,” which is the key term in the Synoptics for Jesus letting himself be acted upon. The plot of every Gospel is the same: Jesus strides onto the stage of history as a powerful actor, impressing, impactful; but then he turns toward Jerusalem, no more miracles, quieter, increasingly passive. This is his glory. For us, as John 6:61 puts it, this is an offense, a scandal; the verb, skandalizo, drives us to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips. 

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