From Pastor Kenny's Desk
August 5, 2018
When the people saw that neither Jesus nor the disciples were there, they got into those boats and crossed to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found Jesus on the other side of the lake, they said, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus answered them, “The truth of the matter is, you’re not looking for me because you’ve seen signs, but because you’ve eaten your fill of the bread. You shouldn’t be working for perishable food, but for life-giving food that lasts for all eternity; this the Chosen One can give you, for the Chosen One bears the seal of Abba God.”
At this they said, “What must we do to perform works of God?” Jesus replied, “This is the work of God: to believe in the one whom God has sent.” So they asked Jesus, “What signs are you going to give to show us that we should believe in you? What will you do? Our ancestors had manna to eat in the desert; as scripture says, ‘God gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus said to them, “The truth of the matter is, Moses hasn’t given you bread from heaven; yet my Abba gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Teacher,” they said, “give us this bread from now on.” Jesus explained to them, “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry; no one who believes in me will be thirsty…” ~ John 6:24-35
How do you feel about surprises? I’ll be honest … I’m not wild about them. In fact, I’ve always been a bit leery of people who love surprises. Call me dull, but, for the most part, I like the predictable, the planned, the ordered. Surprises … good or bad … have this way of upsetting plans and catching you off guard … of making you feel all unsettled and unprepared and insecure. Now don’t get me wrong, surprises in some areas of life are fine, even fun … but I still get rather nervous around people who love to surprise other people. I know, I know, most people are well-intentioned when they plan their surprises which … of course … only makes things worse, because then I really can’t get too mad at them … can I?
All of this came to mind while reading this week’s sacred text. And I have to say that it made me wonder just how I would have taken to Jesus because he seems … particularly in John’s story … to delight in surprising people.
This reading is no exception. Jesus comes and encounters a crowd and surprises them with what he says. And while I know that I am supposed to identify with Jesus and the disciples, I find myself irresistibly drawn to the crowd Jesus fed in the preceding verses of John’s story (John 6:1-21) and who follow after him in this current reading. It appears they too, have been caught off guard, surprised, upset. My hunch is that they don’t like it much either.
It started in the previous passage with the miraculous feeding of the crowd, which, when you think of it, isn’t too bad of a way to be surprised … to get a free and unexpected dinner when you’re hungry. But, right after the miracle Jesus vanishes, leaving them behind feeling rather confused and disappointed. And so they follow … finally finding him on the other side of the lake.
And from here on out, things only get worse. First, Jesus accuses them of opportunism: “Ah, you’re only here because you want another free meal” he scolds. Truth be told, he was probably right. Is that such a horrible thing? But Jesus isn’t content with being right, and so to rub it in a bit he goes on with his lecture: “Do not work for the food that spoils,” he persists, “instead, work for the food that lasts for all eternity.”
Hmm … that gets their attention. Wouldn’t it get yours? Sounds pretty good … a little suspicious, maybe, but tempting. “Okay,” the crowd says, “we’ll go with you on this one, what kind of work do we have to do to get this food?” “Just believe,” Jesus says, “just believe that I am the One God sent.” To which the crowd balks, wondering just who in the world this guy thinks he is. After all, lets be clear about what Jesus is offering. I mean, he’s holding out the shinny apple, the first prize … he’s offering the bread of life … you know, the food of myth and legend, the nectar of the gods, the stuff which grants life eternal.
And so they’re skeptical, and who wouldn’t be! It’s as if, after you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that you have a terminal illness, the doctor tells you the latest tests suggest it might be something else altogether, something more treatable. I mean, you want to believe it, this surprise for the better, more than anything in the world. But, my word, what if they’re wrong, these well-intentioned people who have surprised you with good news? What if they’re just plain wrong?
I believe this … in a nutshell … is what is so hard about grasping the full impact of God’s love for us … no matter what … and the meaning of the sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. For they come into our lives, disrupting the neat order we’ve arranged, and surprise us, even shock us, by making these audacious promises of life, wholeness, hope, freedom and much, much more. And that’s hard. For on a day-to-day basis, most of us have gotten pretty good at defending ourselves from the pain, frustration, hurt, despair we sometimes experience in life. And then these promises of God are announced to us and they only betray the foolishness of our self-reliance and at the same time promise us more than we could have ever hoped for.
I mean think about it: at Baptism we pour water over someone’s head and announce to them God’s promise to be with them forever, to go wherever they may go, to hold on to them through all that life has to offer … including even death … and to give them life eternal. My word, but that’s some promise! And exactly the same happens when we come to the altar and partake in the Holy Meal. For each time you come to the altar you are promised nothing less than forgiveness, acceptance, wholeness … in a word … life … both now and forever.
And the thing about all this … about forgiveness and acceptance and the like … is that such things … as we know … just can’t be gained or earned, coerced or accomplished. Like love, they can only be given as a gift by one person to another.
This, you see, is the sacraments. Communion and baptism are God’s external and objective words of love and forgiveness, given in a form which we can receive … the sacraments are God’s physical, visible words for God’s physical, visible people.
And the thing is, just as with Jesus’ words to the crowd, such a promise is as frightening as it is comforting, for such a promise raises hopes and expectations to dizzying heights. And so John’s story reports that the people naturally ask, “what miracle will you perform so that we may see it and believe you? … in other words, “Prove yourself, Jesus.” And … doesn’t that sound familiar, how much easier faith would be if God would just do what God’s supposed to do and give us a miracle.
But God … our God … rarely does what God is supposed to do. For our God is a God of surprises, of upheavals, of reversals. Rather than do what God is supposed to do, God does the unexpected: instead of pronouncing judgment in the face of our brokenness and selfishness … God offers mercy; instead of justice … love; instead of condemnation … forgiveness; instead of coming in power … God came in weakness; and instead of giving us a miracle … God gives us God’s own self.
This is the heart of faith … the faith we are privileged to proclaim: that the Word who was with God and is God from the beginning and participated in the creation of the heavens and the earth is the same God who cares so desperately for us that he gave his life for ours and gives himself still in the bread and juice … for some, wine … of Holy Communion.
Perhaps this, in the end, is the hardest thing of all for us to accept about the sacraments: that they contain God’s unexpected, surprising, unforeseen gift of God’s own self. For, as we’ve already said, against much of the pain, and disappointment, and grief of this life we can defend ourselves. But against this gift, against this surprising and disarming love, we are helpless, as at the Altar God’s promise comes to us again … and again … and again! .
My hope is that you will profoundly experience this surprising, audacious, some what startling, and ultimately life-giving promise. And as you do … let’s invite others to come to not only hear God’s unexpected word of forgiveness and mercy, but also to take and eat it. Let’s invite them, that is, to come and receive the surprise of their lives. Thanks be to God!