A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 9, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 6:35, 41-51
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Think of one of your friends from childhood who you lost track of soon after high school if not earlier. Or, if you’ve raised kids into adulthood, think of one of their friends who disappeared from your radar around junior high. Do you have someone specific in mind?
Now imagine that you heard a rumor that this kid just won the Nobel Prize in Economics or was just elected Senator. Would you believe it?
Scott Moskowitz was in school with me. His father was my orthodontist. I have no clue what happened to him after high school. In fact, I really have no idea what happened to him after junior high. He wasn’t a particularly remarkable kid – one way or another. He wasn’t a leader; he wasn’t an academic stand-out; he wasn’t in trouble. Now, if I heard a rumor that someone named Scott Moskowitz was being elected a Senator or was winning the Nobel Prize in any field, I would google the news because I would want the confirmation that there is no way it could be the Scott Moskowitz from my elementary school.
This is the scene John sets for us in our Gospel lesson. You’ll remember what has happened so far. At the beginning of chapter 6, John tells us his version of the feeding of the multitudes. After feeding everyone, Jesus and the disciples go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, to Capernaum. The crowd follows them, follows him. They ask him why he took off. He says that they’re only following him because they ate their fill and are hungry again. He says that God gives a bread that will fill them, fill us, in a totally different way, in a way that doesn’t leave us hungry later on. They ask for this bread, and Jesus says the line that we heard at the start of today’s reading: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Now, it’s unclear to me where we are when we get to verse 41. Verse 25 sounds like we’re somewhere in Capernaum, maybe on the beach or somewhere in town. But John starts off verse 41 with “Then the Jews began to complain …” The crowd who were fed by Jesus and who followed him to Capernaum were Jews, and they weren’t complaining. We need to remember that when John uses “the Jews,” that’s code for the religious elites, the people in the synagogue who have power. And, sure enough, when we get to verse 59, John tells us that Jesus has been saying these things in the synagogue in Capernaum.
Because of how John starts verse 41, I think we’re in the synagogue now, but like I said, it’s not clear. The religious elites are complaining about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” I am amused by their complaint. They “know him as one of their own. That is, they knew his parents and his brothers and sisters, they watched him play and learn his trade, grow up and eventually leave home. In other words, they know him, just like they know all the kids from their old neighborhood. And for this reason, you see – because he is just like them, because he is common – he can’t be all that special, and he certainly can’t be the one God sent …”
I can hear their doubts: He’s not … I don’t know … big enough. The guy that God sends has to be someone I can rely on, who’s always there. And this guy, he’s just … Scott Moskowitz. “Little wonder, then, that [they] are put off, offended, angered even, by Jesus’ suggestion that he, a [hu]man just as they are, is the answer to their deepest longings and greatest needs.”
David Lose invites us to think “of the audacious claim that Jesus is making. Who ever heard of a God having anything to do with the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane, the dirty? Gods are made for greatness, not grime; they [are] supposed to reside up in the clouds, not down here with the commoners. I mean, who ever heard of a God who is willing to suffer the pains and problems, the indecencies and embarrassments of human life? It’s down right laughable. No wonder the crowd grumbles against Jesus’ words, for such words seem to make fun of their understanding of God’s majesty and, even worse, to mock their own deep need for a God who transcends the very life which is causing them so much difficulty.
“No wonder they’re upset. They know, first-hand, of their own flaws and shortcomings, of their own faithlessness and failures. They know of their doubts and fears, too, of their betrayals and broken promises, their petty grudges and foolish prejudices. They know all the shame and disappointment and regret which each person carries around on his or her back like a snail carries its shell. And so if Jesus is really like they are, then they are doomed. For how can someone who is like them save. How, even, can one like them be saved? And so they grumble because they are angry, yes, but even more because they are afraid, afraid that, in the end, they’re really not worth saving.”
Is that, perhaps, part of our resistance to what we hear in this passage? Might we, too, be afraid that, in the end, we aren’t worth saving? And even if we are worth saving, do we think ourselves too far gone to be able to be saved by one who is like us, someone who is just another human being? Or perhaps it is our modern minds, which are too prone to take things literally. Perhaps that is what makes it so hard to hear the audacious claims Jesus makes.
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life,” this Jesus says. “I am the bread of life.” “Believes what?” our modern minds reply. Oh how easily, especially with the gospel of John, we hear what Jesus is not saying and don’t hear what he is saying. If only we could reclaim a pre-modern understanding of “believe.” “Believe did not originally mean believing in a set of doctrines or teachings; in both Greek and Latin its roots mean ‘to give one’s heart to.’ The ‘heart’ is the self at the deepest level.”
Marcus Borg wrote, “Believing in Jesus in the sense of giving one’s heart to Jesus is the movement from secondhand religion to firsthand religion, from having heard about Jesus with the hearing of an ear to being in relationship with the Spirit of Christ. For ultimately, Jesus is not simply a figure of the past, but a figure of the present. Meeting that Jesus – the living Jesus who comes to us even now – will be like meeting Jesus again for the first time.”
“Moving from secondhand religion to firsthand religion.” I think that’s what John is getting at. Don’t believe about Jesus. Give your heart to Jesus. Step into deep relationship with this human and have eternal life.
Late last night while I was banging my head against the desk trying to figure out how to say what I wanted to say today, a saw a Facebook post by a friend. He posted a picture with this quote, “Blessed are those who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.” My friend wrote this comment: “[This quote] basically sums up my whole understanding of, and the purpose for, religion in the 21st century. Salvation is about living most attentively in this world, not waiting around selfishly for the next.”
“Yes!” I thought. Eternal life is here, right now. But only if we see it, if only we give our hearts to it.
“I am the bread of life.” John the mystic is inviting us to see the holy in the ordinary.
When we get our baptistry (yeah, there are still a few things left to do as we live into this wonderful worship space) and have our first baptism in it, I imagine us, gathered out on the patio around the bell. Our little tank will have been filled with water, probably from a garden hose. How mundane can you get? The Alameda County Water District water mains that carrying water for me to brush my teeth, will carry the water that will come through a garden hose into a tank. And we will call it “holy.” Because it will be holy. Because it is holy.
In the same way the ordinary bread and juice we serve at communion are ordinary. The wheat isn’t ground in some special way; the grapes aren’t pressed in some special way. Someone went to the grocery store and bought a bottle of Welch’s. And we call it “holy” because it is holy.
“Believe,” Jesus says, “and have eternal life.” Give your heart and you will see the holy in the ordinary. Give your heart and you will see how this moment and eternity are not so different. “[T]his is the promise that rests behind the sacraments. For as God does not despise water, bread, or wine, such ordinary, common things, so we also know that God does not despise or abandon us, who are similarly such ordinary and common people. And so in the sacraments we find God’s promise to take hold of us and make us God’s own, to remain with us and to never let us go.”
Like water running through the water district pipes and bread from the grocery store shelf, we are holy. That Jesus guy – Mary and Joseph’s son – is the bread of life. And you and I and Scott Moskowitz are all as radiant as a thousand suns.
There is another promise that God makes to us that we can find in the sacraments. It is the promise not only to help us see eternity in each other and in ourselves, “but also to use us – to make use of our skills and talents, inadequate or insufficient though they may seem, to continue God’s work of creating, redeeming, and sustaining all that is.”
David Lose muses: “Over the years, I’ve wondered if, after praying with someone in the hospital, they were disappointed when I gave God thanks for the machines and instruments to which they or their loved one is attached, for the pharmaceutical companies which make the drugs and for the trucks which deliver them, for the people who keep the hospital clean as well as for the nurses and doctors who attend to them. I wonder, at times, if they would rather have me pray simply for healing, or for a miracle, or for something more dramatic.
“And yet I do find it so very dramatic, surprising, and encouraging that God would work through technology and instruments, through bottom-line corporations and imperfect labor unions, through ordinary, human, doctors and nurses with short tempers or poor bed-side manners. Just as I find it amazing and miraculous that God works through flawed pastors, jaded teachers, worn-out secretaries, over-worked government officials, exhausted parents, and the like – that God would choose these and so many other unlikely candidates through whom to work, even when they don’t suspect it.”
The holy is all around us, my friends. Infinity is within us. Give you heart to God and have eternal life so that you may see the miraculous in the ordinary, the miraculous in you and me.
 Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 137.
 Quote attributed to Camille Pissarro.
 David Lose, op. cit.