“Leftovers” John 6:1-21 — RevMerle

The multiplication of food happens all the time in our kitchens.  I am the chief cook at home, and one of my favorite things to do is to go the refrigerator and see what is there for leftovers and then concoct a way to make something completely new and different from them. A bit of […]

“Leftovers” John 6:1-21 — RevMerle

Text Study for John 6:22-34 (Pt. 1); 10 Pentecost B 2021

We now move into the Bread of Life Discourse proper in John’s account. The discourse runs through the balance of chapter 6. Karoline Lewis suggests that the Gospel of John demonstrates a pattern of sign(s), dialogue, and discourse. In general, that’s a helpful schematic. But it’s clear that the dialogue and discourse elements alternate somewhat here in chapter six. Both the Jerusalem authorities and Jesus’ disciples raise objections to Jesus’ assertions of divinity at various points in the chapter.

Even as we move into the Bread of Life Discourse proper, we dare not lose track of the signs that precede it and which the Discourse unfolds. The Discourse reaches back to the signs for anchoring in concrete reality and forward into the main themes of John’s Gospel. Lewis notes, “the discourse that follows can be recast as not simply an explanation of the sign but an invitation to abiding in the relationship that Jesus is offering” (page 84).

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Lewis also reminds us that this grounding of the Discourse in physical bread maintains the incarnational focus of the gospel account. “To stake an entire theology and Christology on God becoming human requires that at every turn the incarnation is completely present,” she writes. “As a result, Jesus as the Bread of Life, first and foremost, before rendering its interpretation through the lens of the Old Testament or eucharistic liturgical practices, must be grounded in bread as a necessity for sustenance as a human being. Anything less,” she argues, “could very well undermine what is at stake in the contention that the Word became flesh” (page 84).

So, the task for the preacher is, perhaps, not to “move on” from the signs in the first part of John 6 but rather to continue to unfold their meanings just as Jesus does in the Dialogue and Discourse. Lewis writes, “no section of the discourse can be understood or interpreted without recognizing its complete reliance on the feeding of the five thousand. The Bread of Life discourse,” she concludes, “is first and foremost Jesus’ interpretation of this sign” (page 86).

This should relieve preachers, Lewis suggests, of the anxiety of having to say something “new” each of the five weeks of this section of the calendar. “For a preacher to approach each pericope, each section of the Bread of Life discourse as expecting a fresh perspective works against the theological nature of the Fourth Gospel,” she cautions, “that the intent of the discourse is a desire to pull the believer deeper into abiding with Jesus, not to gain some further knowledge or insight” (page 86). So, we seek to go deeper with the Discourse, not wider.

The lectionary selection omits verses 22 to 24, but I would include them in the reading. The crowd doggedly pursues Jesus until they find him. He is no longer at the place where he had “given thanks.” The verb used there is the root for our word, “eucharist,” so that is of some significance. The place is not noteworthy merely because a mass feeding happened there. It is an important spot because the Lord did something eucharistic in that place.

Karoline Lewis urges us to include these verses in the reading for several reasons. The searching and seeking show that the relationship between Jesus and the crowds is not one-sided. She reminds us that looking for Jesus has been a mark of potential disciples from the very first chapter of the Gospel account, and it will be a question of Mary Magdalene in the Easter garden.

The crowd seeks more bread. Jesus offers them abundant life. As is so often the case in John, this sort of disconnect will produce a fruitful and extended discourse. “That the crowd wants or needs a sign exposes their inability to recognize the meaning of the sign and therefore the necessity of Jesus’ discourse,” Lewis writes, “Even witnessing the sign itself will not necessarily result in belief” (page 87).

The gospel writer continues to focus on the disordering of desire. In John 6, the problem is not “too much” desire. The problem is too little desire – settling for physical bread as an end in itself. Jesus tells the crowd that they are seeking him because they want to have their bellies filled once again, and nothing more. That is the food that perishes, he tells them. It’s not worth the effort by itself and of itself.

I think this stretch of texts begs for stories of shocking, life-transforming abundance. There is Johan Bojer’s final chapter in his work, The Great Hunger. Peer Holm, the main character, has spent a lifetime pursuing his specific and concrete desires, only to discover that he remained unfulfilled. He returned home to his village, found a wife, named Merle, and together they had a daughter, Asta. The little girl, now five years old, was the light of his life.

Holm and his family had neighbors who owned a large, brutal, wolfhound named Tiger. The wolfhound was trained to attack anyone who happened into the neighbor’s yard. “A couple of days later,” Holm writes in a letter to a friend, “I was standing at the forge, when I heard a shriek from my wife. I rushed out—what could be the matter? Merle was down by the fence already, and all at once I saw what it was—there was Asta, lying on the ground under the body of a great beast” (Kindle Location 2828).

The wolfhound had torn open the little girl’s throat. The local doctor battled to save her, but there was no help. “Now it was that I began to realize,” Holm continued to write, “how every great sorrow leads us farther and farther out on the promontory of existence. I had come to the outermost point now—there was no more” (Kindle Location).

As a result of his cruel carelessness, the neighbor was shunned by the villagers. The village was suffering through a terrible drought. The neighbor’s barley planting had died from lack of water. No one in the village would sell or give him the seed for a second planting. The neighbor was the object of public scorn and ridicule. There was talk of driving him and his family out of the village.

Even as the villagers plotted their social punishment, Holm had a different experience. He discovered that his desires in life had been misplaced. “And I knew now that what I had hungered after in my best years was neither knowledge, nor honor, nor riches; nor to be a priest or a great creator in steel; no, friend,” Holm continued to write, “but to build temples; not chapels for prayers or churches for wailing penitent sinners, but a temple for the human spirit in its grandeur, where we could lift up our souls in an anthem as a gift to heaven” (Kindle Location 2851).

In the light of that realization, that he desired something deeper, Holm could not sleep as his neighbor suffered. In the middle of the night, he got up from his bed. He went to check his granary so see if he had half a bushel of barley remaining. “Barley – what do you want with barley in the middle of the night?” asked his wife.

“I want to sow the neighbor’s plot with it,” Holm replied, “and it’s best to do it now, so that nobody will know it was me.” His wife stared at Peer Holm in disbelief and then got dressed to come with him. The dog was no longer a threat – shot by the sheriff’s officer.

As he sowed the barley, a kind of light dawned on Holm. “And more and more it came home to me that it is man himself that must create the divine in heaven and on earth—that that is his triumph over the dead omnipotence of the universe. Therefore, I went out and sowed the corn in my enemy’s field, that God might exist” (Kindle Location 2875).

Bojer was not writing as an apologist for Christianity. He argues that Holm did not act for the sake of Christ or for love of enemy. Instead, Bojer asserted, Holm had hungered a lifetime for an authentic and meaningful existence. He discovered that this desire would not be satisfied simply by demanding more bread. It was, rather, a desire to be met only by deep participation in life – both joy and suffering, both gratitude and sacrifice.

A thought strikes me at this moment. We hear repeated calls for workers to return to the employment rolls. Help Wanted signs are ubiquitous. Yet, jobs go wanting while fewer people are employed than before the Pandemic. Why? Is it perhaps that some people are re-evaluating the content and focus of their desires? During the time away from work, have they discovered a longing for the Bread that does not perish? Have they explored what it means to receive that for which one cannot work?

Some thoughts worth exploring further, perhaps.

References and Resources

Bojer, Johan. The Great Hunger . Kindle Edition.

Hylen, Susan. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18-2/commentary-on-john-624-35-3.

Lewis, Karoline M.  John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Peterson, Brian. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18-2/commentary-on-john-624-35-2.

Sourdough Spirituality — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read John 6:1-21

Five weeks of the Bread of Life – here we go again! “There are perhaps few texts that strike trepidation and exasperation in the hearts of preachers,” Karoline Lewis writes, “more than the five consecutive Sundays in the season of Pentecost, Year B. How much can you preach on Jesus as the Bread of Life?” (Page 83).

No matter what we say about the spiritual and theological depth and complexity of John 6, the story begins with a large crowd of hungry people and real bread.

Like so many other people during Covid-tide, we got into the production and consumption of sourdough bread, biscuits, and muffins. My spouse set aside a jar, put in the appropriate ingredients, and waited for the yeasty magic to happen. We must have a good sourdough environment because the process took off almost immediately. The starter was so active that it seemed like another family member. We named it “Elsie” in honor of Brenda’s bread-making grandmother.

Photo by Marta Dzedyshko on Pexels.com

We all discovered two things. Sourdough is a committed personal relationship – not merely a mechanical transaction. The starter requires care and feeding. It can get sick and even die. We’ve had to begin again a few times for reasons that remain mysterious.

Yet, when the relationship is right, a second reality becomes apparent. Sourdough gives more than it takes. The terminology is fascinating to me. We use the “discard,” the excess from the growing process in order to make our lovely bread, biscuits, and muffins. In fact, our food comes from the leftovers, the excess, the leavings of the process.

If that creates reverberations with the story in John 6, then we’re thinking along the same lines.

In his 1997 article, David Fredrickson challenges the notion that the Feeding of the Five Thousand leads to a metaphorical feeding in John’s understanding. Fredrickson argues that the report in verses 12-13 “is an anticipation of the true bread, Jesus, who is not diminished as he is consumed” (page 41).

This is a point that is worth some reflection. Regular food decreases as it is eaten. While the laws of matter and energy conservation are not violated, the actual food doesn’t, in our regular experience, increase as we eat. Fredrickson argues that this increase is a sign of Jesus’ divinity. “Jesus can give his flesh to be eaten and yet continue to exist,” Fredrickson concludes, “because he is God” (page 41).

The problem was scarcity – not enough. It seems there was not enough bread to feed the large crowds. There was not enough money to buy more bread. There was not enough of the small boy’s lunch to even make a start at the banquet. There was not enough vision on the part of the disciples to see what Jesus might do (have they forgotten the water into wine?). In the face of such massive need, what is the use of our meager resources?

“Lack of food was a dominant concern in Jesus’ day,” Bryce Johnson writes. “Sufficient grain was raised in Jesus’ day, but people did not have access to enough grain or bread,” he continues. “Rome took 25 percent of the crop because there were more important mouths to feed elsewhere in the empire,” he notes. In an era of increasing wealth disparity and food insecurity, this stress about scarcity in John 6 is a place where we must begin our reflections.

“Jesus’s earthly ministry explicitly recognizes the potentially corrupting power of our desire to control the bread supply,” Judge and Taliaferro argue. “In calling himself the ‘bread of life,’ Jesus deliberately confronts this desire to control access to and supply of the source of human sustenance, and in doing so, he sets himself up as a target of the secular authorities whose power is in part derived from their ability to control the bread supply” (page 371).

For most of us white, affluent, North Americans, however, scarcity may not be the issue facing us. In his article entitled “Enough is Enough,” William Cavanaugh helps us see that the issue for most of us in a consumerist society is not about having too little but rather about knowing when we have enough.

“Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else. It is not buying,” he argues, “but shopping that captures the spirit of consumerism. Buying is certainly an important part of consumerism, but buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies it. It is this restlessness,” he proposes, “the moving on to shopping for something else no matter what one has just purchased—that sets the spiritual tone for consumerism.”

The contemporary issue with stuff, Cavanaugh argues, is not that we neoliberal, individualist, consumers think we have too little. The contemporary issue with stuff is that we worship the “churn,” the turnover of stuff from what we have to what we want. He names it “the satisfying nature of dissatisfaction.” We are less in bondage to things themselves than we are to the stimulus of disordered desire.

“What has happened in consumer society is that dissatisfaction and satisfaction have ceased to be opposites,” Cavanaugh contends. “Pleasure resides not in having but in wanting. Insofar as an item obtained brings a temporary halt to desire, it becomes undesirable. This is why shopping, not buying, captures the spirit of consumerism, and why shopaholism is being treated as an addiction. Consumerism,” Cavanaugh concludes, “is a restless spirit, constantly in search of something new.”

All that being said, even though the mechanism is different in a consumer economy, Cavanaugh asserts that the issue remains scarcity. It is, however, not a scarcity of stuff in the consumer economy. Rather, it is a scarcity of new stuff, different stuff. “Consumerism is typified by detachment, not attachment, for desire must be kept on the move. Consumerism is also typified by scarcity,” Cavanaugh argues, “not abundance, for as long as desire is endless, there will never be enough stuff to go around.”

The solution to this contemporary consumerist condition is, as it was in the beginning, properly ordered desire. “True abundance is never realized by the competition of insatiable desires for scarce goods,” Cavanaugh suggests. “It is realized by emptying the small self into the larger reality,” he continues, “of God’s superabundant life.” That framework will be expanded in the balance of the Discourse.

Every Christian congregation should be engaged in a physical feeding ministry of some sort. Many, many congregations are engaged in precisely such ministries. If, however, that feeding ministry is separated from and in the absence of advocacy for the hungry and critique of the systems that make people hungry, then those feeding ministries are deficient and one-dimensional.

If physical feeding and political advocacy are cut off from a community of eucharistic piety, then the deficiency remains. Our text grounds our local serving and our systemic advocacy in the mission of God to a hungry cosmos.

All of life is intended to be communion with God. That is the “natural” state of things, the way God created the cosmos to be. Abundance, therefore, is the default condition of Creation according to God’s intention, not the exception to a hard and hungry rule. Schmemann puts it this way (apologies for the non-inclusive language):

“All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation…” (Kindle Location 135).

In a cosmos in bondage to sin, death, and evil, scarcity is the order of the day, not abundance. But we should be clear that this is not how the Creator intends things. The feeding miracles in the gospels are not exceptional one-offs or mere magic tricks. Instead, these feeding miracles are signs of the way in which the Creator intends for us to live. They are not the exceptions. They are the rule – God’s rule.

Jesus restores abundance to its proper place. There’s lots of green grass. There’s plenty of room for seating. He can get the food distributed all by himself, thank you very much. The people could eat as much as they wanted. The fragments fill twelve backets, the leftovers of all who had eaten their fill. This is what Creation is supposed to look like – filled to overflowing with the loving presence and power of God, offered to people without price or limit.

“The world is a fallen world,” Schmemann argues, “because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. The accumulation of this disregard for God is the original sin that blights the world” (Kindle Location 168). This argument can allow us to connect our text with the ongoing discussion in Ephesians on the role of Creation in expressing Divine love, grace, and mercy for a tragically disordered and de-centered cosmos.

“When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value,” Schmemann continues, “because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the “sacrament” of God’s presence” (Kindle Location 178). The commodification of everything and everyone as the basis of neoliberal late-stage capitalism is perhaps the parade example of human desire disordered almost beyond repair.

Abundance is the default, not scarcity. We are created hungry – but hungry first and foremost for relationship with God. We reach out for other objects to satisfy that desire, but those other things have no life in themselves. “[T]he ‘original’ sin is not primarily that man has ‘disobeyed’ God,” Schmemann argues, “the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God” (Kindle Location 194).

Jesus comes to restore the cosmos to the path of Abundant Life.

References and Resources

Cavanaugh, William T. “The Body of Christ: The Eucharist and Politics.” Word and World, Volume 22, Number 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 170-177. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/22-2_Body_of_Christ/22-2_Cavanaugh.pdf.

Cavanaugh, William T. “When Enough is Enough.” https://biblestudy.definingterms.com/Readings/Cavanaugh_When_Enough_Is_Enough.pdf.

Fredrickson, David E., “Eucharistic Symbolism in the Gospel of John” (1997). Faculty Publications. 85. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/85

Johnson, Bryce. “The Bread of Life.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 382-388.

Judge, Rebecca, and Taliaferro, Charles. “Companionable Bread.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 367-372).

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Letter Fourteen — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

I don’t know why this didn’t dawn on me until now, but clearly, I’m not (as we say in our time) always the sharpest tool in the shed. You noted in passing that Tychicus read Paul’s letter to you and the Colossian assembly the first time you all heard it. I had assumed that perhaps you, as the “president” of the assembly would have read such important correspondence the first time. I also wondered if Paul took the risk of having Onesimus himself read the letter aloud to you, uncertain as he might have been of your response.

Of course, the normal method in the Pauline assemblies was to have an appointed, trained, and gifted reader perform the task for the assembly. That has been made clear to me through the work of a number of our contemporary scholars. Your mention of Tychicus confirms for me what these scholars have proposed over the last decade or so.

This makes perfect sense in a number of ways, I now see. The letter was addressed primarily (although not exclusively) to you, and it certainly would have been painfully awkward, I imagine, for you to have to read that letter for the most part to yourself. It was intended to advocate for and defend Onesimus. It would be nearly as awkward for him to plead his own case in the words of the letter – some of which might have provoked an aggressive response from you. In hindsight, the use of a lector was the only reasonable approach.

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Having Tychicus read the letter, I’m sure, provided Paul with the opportunity to coach Tychicus on the finer points of inflection, gesture, emphasis, and pauses in the reading. “If the contents of the letter were to bring about reconciliation,” Adam White notes in a recent article, “then the letter would need to persuade Philemon not only in its content, but also in its performance.”[i]

The thing is, Phil, our weekly Sunday morning worship services are probably pretty tame affairs when compared with the drama of your house church assemblies. I can imagine your household and other Jesus followers gathered in the dining area of your home on a Sunday evening. The scene was lit by torches and a hearth. A meal was set for all. There must have been an air of expectation that night – a letter from Paul, imprisoned in Ephesus (or was it Rome?), and the return of the escapee, Onesimus.

Phil, did you know the contents of the letter before it was read aloud in front of the whole assembly? Had you seen or talked with Onesimus before that worship service in your house? What kinds of diplomatic maneuvers did Tychicus execute in order to keep you from executing Onesimus on sight? If we had drama like that in our services, we probably wouldn’t have to beg people to attend regularly.

So, you sat at the head of the table and the room, in the place of honor. Were you flanked by Lady Apphia and Master Archippus, also addressed in the salutation of the letter? I imagine so. Tychicus probably stood facing you as he read. I wonder if Onesimus stood behind him as the one on whose behalf the letter was presented. The rest of the assembly were seated or standing around the space in readiness for the letter and the meal. That circle of witnesses included, I imagine, those enslaved in your household and perhaps those enslaved persons from other households as well.

“The performance itself was an event that involved several people: the lector presenting the text and the audience listening; all these present in the room,” writes Adam White, “were collectively involved in generating the meaning of the text that had reached them.”[ii] The tension in the space must have been so thick you could cut it with a knife.

I imagine you welcomed the assembly, as you had several times before. Then I suspect you invited Tychicus to read. Nothing else was going to happen until that letter was out in the open. Tychicus stood up in the middle of the space, in the place representing Jesus, and likely in the very space that Paul had occupied if and when he had come to the assembly in your home to preach and teach. Tychicus was required to “imitate” Paul in a quite literal fashion.

Our scholars propose that this reading was not a flat recitation of words on scroll. That was not the practice of lectors in your time and culture, as far as we can tell. Tychicus needed to convey the same gestures, emotions, attitudes, and emphases that Paul would have presented if he himself were present. The letter was not read, it was performed. “The task of the lector was to represent the voice and persona of the author,” Adam White suggests, “he was expected to re-enact and bring to life the original performance of the text through appropriate facial expressions, gesticulations, and vocal inflections. It was his task,” White continues, “to read the letter in the way Paul wanted it to be read.”[iii]

I imagine that this is what happened in your home that evening. Even though the letter was addressed to you, it was performed for the whole assembly. The responses, and perhaps the final decision, were not yours alone. I imagine, Phil, that all eyes were trained on you during the performance of the letter. And I also imagine that you felt a great deal of pressure from the assembly to render an appropriate judgment in the case.

For, it would seem, you were the “judge” in this situation. White uses that imagery to describe your position and role. I wonder if you find that to be an accurate description of how it was for you. White explores the conventions of rhetoric of the time for clues in this regard. It was up to the reader to persuade the judge toward a favorable decision.

The reader needed also to be sensitive to the emotions and responses of the assembly, since that was often a factor in the decision as well. “In other words,” White argues, “the content of the letter, as well as the performance of the lector need to pull all the stops. The letter needs to draw on all the rhetorical resources available and these need to be performed well to move Philemon,” he continues, “to the audacious decision of welcoming Onesimus back.”[iv]

White analyzes the letter to you as a performance piece with several intentional elements. First, Paul described your loving and generous character in the past. That already began to set you up for loving and generous actions in the future. Paul noted that he often remembered your love for all the saints and your faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. Paul praised your partnership in the gospel and then suggested that all these good characteristics would lead to a productive decision in the case at hand.

Paul lifted up your gifts for refreshing the hearts of the saints. Many in the assembly, perhaps, had benefitted from your gifts. Paul portrayed you as a brother, a partner, an honored giver of care, and one who lived out the love and compassion of Jesus. “Paul brings to the attention of those assembled in the room the very characteristics that he will shortly call on in dealing with the case,” White observes, “It would be impossible at this point for the audience to see Philemon in any other light,” he concludes, “moreover, the gathering would now be expecting him to act in a way that preserves this reputation.”[v]

When we read the letter in our own cultural setting (and in English), the letter sounds like a fawning attempt to butter you up with flattery and manipulate you into the behavior Paul wants from you. But that’s importing our cultural assumptions into a very different setting. Reminding you of your loving and honorable character was precisely the expected path that this letter should take. Paul was not, if I am correct, manipulating you. Paul was simply asking you to be who you truly are in Christ. I wonder if I have that right?

Paul was not at all above tugging at the heart strings of all the listeners. He described himself as an old man, suffering in prison, for the sake of the gospel. And he makes sure that everyone remembers who is speaking – “This is me, Paul!” Just when that emotional appeal was ringing through the room, the reader returned to and for the first time named Onesimus.

Perhaps Onesimus stepped out of the shadows at this point in order to emphasize what was happening in the letter. I wonder if that was part of the performance, a set piece not written down on the scroll. I could go on for a while regarding Paul’s description of Onesimus. Suffice it to say that Onesimus was presented as a brother in Christ, a humble member of the body seeking reconciliation, and a necessary part of the ministry of Paul in prison.

Then comes the “ask.” By the end of the letter, it would seem that you were left with no alternative but to receive Onesimus as a beloved brother in Christ and “even more than a brother.” Did you do so joyfully, tearfully, with the Eucharist waiting in the background? I wonder. I’d be interested in your recollections of the night.

Phil, thanks as always for taking the time to instruct me and to correct my foolish assumptions. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours in Christ,

Low


[i] https://journals.co.za/doi/abs/10.25159/2309-5792/3260.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., p. 6.

[v] Ibid., p. 7

“Now That’s a Prayer” — Throwback Thursday, Ephesians

Ephesians 3:14-21

In the 2003 movie, Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey plays TV reporter Bruce Nolan. Bruce takes over for God while God (played by Morgan Freeman) enjoys a vacation. Bruce fails in his omnipotent role. Worst of all, he damages his relationship with Grace, his sweet fiancé (played by Jennifer Aniston).

Just when Bruce gets his faith act together, he kneels down in the middle of a highway and gets hit by a truck. He finds himself in “heaven” with God. God wants one thing from Bruce—a real prayer. Bruce’s first effort is filled with clichés and boilerplate lines. God presses Bruce for what Bruce really wants. Bruce says, “Grace.”

“Grace,” God replies. “You want her back?” “No,” Bruce says. “I want her to be happy, no matter what that means. I want her to find someone who will treat her with all the love she deserved from me. I want her to meet someone who will see her always as I do now, through Your eyes.” God is the one who smiles. “Now THAT’S a prayer.”

In Ephesians three, verses fourteen to twenty-one, Paul prays for his readers. He starts with the riches of God’s glory and asks that they “may be filled with all the fullness of God.” That’s a pretty good prayer. Paul finishes with the best benediction in the Bible. “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

Now, THAT’S a prayer! God’s abundance is astonishing! That’s the main thought today, so let’s hear it again. God’s abundance is astonishing!

Abundance is not the world’s way. The world’s way is scarcity. In scarcity there is power. I can control you by withholding or dispensing something. If there is enough for all, I lose my power over you. Paul’s prayer subverts our political and economic and emotional assumptions about life.

I love the pointed description of our culture offered by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. We live. Williams says, in “a prosperous culture in love with the fantasy of absolute individual security and protection against anything that might frustrate the projects of the solitary self.” In other words, we live in a culture that celebrates selfishness and idolizes individual privilege.

Scarcity sustains privilege. Privilege manages and distributes scarce resources to the advantage of the privileged. Then the privileged experience material abundance, use it to ignore the needs of others, and do everything possible to defend that privilege.

It’s no accident that at times of economic uncertainty, organizations like the Ku Klux Klan reappear in force. Whenever white male privilege is threatened, hate groups become popular again. Living from God’s abundance is a form of countercultural resistance. If God is the provider, then humans can’t control us.

God’s abundance is astonishing! God is the Owner. God does not transfer ownership to us. There is a delegation of authority, not a transfer of title. It all belongs to God. We are created to be stewards of God’s abundance.

Good stewardship makes us truly and fully human. Good stewardship equips us to be what God has created us to be. In the course of this study, we have been reminded that God’s gifts always come with a vocation. So stewardship is how we respond to our call to follow Jesus with our whole lives.

We think we can rely on our own resources. But that’s such a narrow life, such a finite resource, such a shallow well. Jesus leads us to an enlarged and abundant world. God offers far MORE than we can ask for and imagine—not less. God calls us to use our gifts for the power of love, not the love of power.

God’s abundance is astonishing!

Why does Paul pray for his readers? He knows they are discouraged because he’s in jail. Paul’s fate (execution) seemed like a certainty (which it was). How could his readers be anything but discouraged? They are sinking into a scarcity mindset.

Paul reminds them of their vocation. The church speaks the variegated wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities. The rulers and authorities don’t respond well. But it’s all part of God’s plan. So we can speak for God “in boldness and confidence through faith” in the Messiah.

Paul expects his readers to suffer for being Jesus followers. He does not pray for them to be protected from such threats. He prays for them to see beyond the suffering, “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” He prays for them not to be spared but rather strengthened. He invites them to ask and dream big.

Paul invites us to ask and to dream big. Even though God can and will do more than we can ask for or imagine, that shouldn’t keep us from either asking or imagining. Often, we fail to make changes because we simply cannot believe that such a thing could ever happen. My experience is that big things are often resting right under the surface if we have enough patience and trust to see them.

God’s abundance is astonishing!

For example, I didn’t whip up the idea of a child care center or the notion that we could have walking paths and a labyrinth and a retreat center or the idea that we should support mental health issues. Those things were sitting here waiting to be noticed. What is sitting there, waiting to be noticed in your life? What is it that is more than you could ask for or imagine that God wants to do for you, in you, through you by the power of the Holy Spirit?

God’s abundance is astonishing! Next week we will celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit God gives to the church for our mission in and for the life of the world.

“The Living Tapestry” — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Ephesians 3:1-13

 “My life has been a tapestry,” sang Carole King. I first heard that song as a college freshman. A dear friend introduced me to the magic of King’s artistry, and I treasure the song (and the album) to this day.

A tapestry is a good picture of Ephesians three. God pulls it all together in Jesus. In love and by grace we are the one people of the one God.The church filled with the Holy Spirit is now the “holy temple in the Lord.” Through us, this good news confronts the powers of this world. We do that by living as God’s work(s) of art. We see the purpose of that artistic work in these verses from chapter three. We are God’s living tapestry.

The mysterious message of God’s inclusive love comes “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” The phrase “rich variety” translates a wonderful Greek word–“polupoikilos.” It’s fun to say! It means “many-colored” or “variegated.”

Photo by Sophie Louisnard on Pexels.com

Including everyone was always God’s plan. God’s one big family shows the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places who’s in charge. These rulers and authorities “in the heavenly places” represent the powers which stand against God in the cosmos. And these powers are done for.

We confront the rulers and authorities when we are one in the Messiah. In Jesus’ name and through his Spirit, we tell the powers that Jesus is Lord and no one else is. We speak truth to power by being an authentic community, united by the Spirit rather than by a common enemy or by using one another to deal with our own self-interests.

We are the Church—the one people of the one God. We are the Church—filled with color and diversity. The very existence of such a community is fair warning to the rulers and authorities that something new is on the way. Our young people are experiencing that in a powerful way this week at the churchwide youth gathering. We are God’s living tapestry.

Here’s an example. Recently, we partnered with Mosaic in Western Iowa to hold a Mental Health Awareness Sunday. The highlight of the day was called “Kicking the Stigma of Mental Health.” We used our church parking lot to hold a game of kickball. If you didn’t stick around to kick around, you missed something special.

Youth and adults from our congregation, people from our neighborhood and community, people served by Mosaic, and Mosaic staff spent an hour of kicking and catching (or not), laughing and teasing, and just being God’s people together for all the world to see. We resisted a culture that wants to hide people away and ignore our needs for quality mental health services and support. As we played together, we gave evidence of another way to live and love.

I watched our young people enjoy being church together in many-splendored diversity. I was a bit teary as some of our younger folks also learned how to use the experience to serve and learn, to grow and mature in the context of Christian community. This was just one example of the variegated vitality that Paul urges upon us. We are expanding that welcome as we begin a support group for those who wrestle with issues related to mental health.

We are God’s living tapestry.

We are at our best as church when we are multi-colored, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-talented. Because we are God’s work(s) of art, we live out the beauty of this tapestry in our witness and work as the Church. We do this as well in our lives as individual followers of the Messiah. We do it to be a sign of what God wants for all of Creation.

It’s important that we make that radical inclusion real in our own congregation and denomination. It’s hard to call the world to account if we can’t even make it happen in our own house. That’s why we are practicing inclusion here.

Start small. Sit next to someone at worship you don’t know well. Talk to someone at coffee you don’t know well. We don’t do this on our own. The Holy Spirit equips you and me to be the church. “This was in accordance,” Paul reminds us, “with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”

We know all human beings bear the image of God. We celebrate diversity as God’s gift to us and not a threat to our own existence. We rejoice to be part of a country whose ideal includes welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse” of distant teeming shores. We are called to raise questions when the values of radical inclusion are suppressed.

The church lives as an alternative to fear and exclusion. By our very existence as an inclusive community, we remind the rulers and authorities that they answer to a higher power. Sometimes we will suffer as a result. We are not going to be protected from persecution, nor should we expect that. But when we live as God’s one big family, embraced by grace and empowered by love, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s God’s work of art.

In early June, 2018, our churchwide Bishop Eaton issued a letter along with twenty other religious leaders urging the current administration to stop the forced separation of migrant families at our borders. I’m grateful for that statement and to be part of a brave and relevant church. It’s hard to be a sign of God’s love for all people and to be silent in the face of such practices. Our bishop spoke up for us, and I’m thankful.

We are God’s living tapestry. Next time we’ll hear about God’s abundant power to get the job done in us, among us and through us.

Text Study for John 6:1-21 (Pt. 4); 9 Pentecost B 2021

Sourdough Spirituality

No matter what we say about the spiritual and theological depth and complexity of John 6, the story begins with a large crowd of hungry people and real bread.

Like so many other people during Covid-tide, we got into the production and consumption of sourdough bread, biscuits, and muffins. My spouse set aside a jar, put in the appropriate ingredients, and waited for the yeasty magic to happen. We must have a good sourdough environment because the process took off almost immediately. The starter was so active that it seemed like another family member. We named it “Elsie” in honor of Brenda’s bread-making grandmother.

We all discovered two things. Sourdough is a committed personal relationship – not merely a mechanical transaction. The starter requires care and feeding. It can get sick and even die. We’ve had to begin again a few times for reasons that remain mysterious.

Photo by Geraud pfeiffer on Pexels.com

Yet, when the relationship is right, a second reality becomes apparent. Sourdough gives more than it takes. The terminology is fascinating to me. We use the “discard,” the excess from the growing process in order to make our lovely bread, biscuits, and muffins. In fact, our food comes from the leftovers, the excess, the leavings of the process.

If that creates reverberations with the story in John 6, then we’re thinking along the same lines.

Is John 6 the “missing” meditation on the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Gospel of John? Or is it another kind of discourse? This is a subject of ongoing debate in the literature. I will operate on the assumption that John 6 is indeed the eucharistic meditation in this gospel account and is, therefore, one of the most extensive such meditations in the Christian scriptures. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10-13 are certainly in this league but have a different character.

The eucharistic overtones begin, of course, in the act of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Jesus takes the loaves. He gives thanks (eucharisteo) and distributes the bread to the people as they are seated. Likewise, he distributes the fish. It is impossible for me, as a person formed by eucharistic liturgy and piety, to hear this as anything other than a “Lord’s Supper.”

Of course, the question is which came first – the piety or the practice? Is it the case that we have John’s meditation on the Eucharist here? Or has John’s text been used – regardless of the author’s intention – to form eucharistic piety for so long and so well that we see what perhaps was not there? Certainly, this text forms the eucharistic practice and piety of many Christians. But the eucharistic vibrations just seem too strong in the text for me to believe that we have imposed a meaning that the author did not intend.

There is that little note at the end of verse eleven – “just as much as they wanted.” The emphasis on abundance continues at every stage of the conversation.

In his 1997 article, David Fredrickson challenges the notion that the Feeding of the Five Thousand leads to a metaphorical feeding in John’s understanding. “At stake in the eucharistic interpretation of John 6,” he writes, “are the following items: the relation between Jesus’ divinity and his ability to impart himself to others; Christ’s redemptive work as communication of divinity; and, finally, the meaning for God of the mutuality of Christ and the church” (page 41). He pursues this argument first by examining the leftovers from lunch, the twelve baskets of fragments.

Fredrickson argues that the report in verses 12-13 “is an anticipation of the true bread, Jesus, who is not diminished as he is consumed” (page 41). This is a point that is worth some reflection. Regular food decreases as it is eaten. While the laws of matter and energy conservation are not violated, the actual food doesn’t, in our regular experience, increase as we eat. Fredrickson argues that this increase is a sign of Jesus’ divinity. “Jesus can give his flesh to be eaten and yet continue to exist,” Fredrickson concludes, “because he is God” (page 41).

The problem was scarcity – not enough. It seems there was not enough bread to feed the large crowds. There was not enough money to buy more bread. There was not enough of the small boy’s lunch to even make a start at the banquet. There was not enough vision on the part of the disciples to see what Jesus might do (have they forgotten the water into wine?). In the face of such massive need, what is the use of our meager resources?

“Lack of food was a dominant concern in Jesus’ day,” Bryce Johnson writes. “Sufficient grain was raised in Jesus’ day, but people did not have access to enough grain or bread,” he continues. “Rome took 25 percent of the crop because there were more important mouths to feed elsewhere in the empire,” he notes. In an era of increasing wealth disparity and food insecurity, this stress about scarcity in John 6 is a place where we must begin our reflections.

“Jesus’s earthly ministry explicitly recognizes the potentially corrupting power of our desire to control the bread supply,” Judge and Taliaferro argue. “In calling himself the ‘bread of life,’ Jesus deliberately confronts this desire to control access to and supply of the source of human sustenance, and in doing so, he sets himself up as a target of the secular authorities whose power is in part derived from their ability to control the bread supply” (page 371).

For most of us white, affluent, North Americans, however, scarcity may not be the issue facing us. In his article entitled “Enough is Enough,” William Cavanaugh helps us see that the issue for most of us in a consumerist society is not about having too little but rather about knowing when we have enough.

“Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else. It is not buying,” he argues, “but shopping that captures the spirit of consumerism. Buying is certainly an important part of consumerism, but buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies it. It is this restlessness,” he proposes, “the moving on to shopping for something else no matter what one has just purchased—that sets the spiritual tone for consumerism.”

The contemporary issue with stuff, Cavanaugh argues, is not that we neoliberal, individualist, consumers think we have too little. The contemporary issue with stuff is that we worship the “churn,” the turnover of stuff from what we have to what we want. He names it “the satisfying nature of dissatisfaction.” We are less in bondage to things themselves than we are to the stimulus of disordered desire.

“What has happened in consumer society is that dissatisfaction and satisfaction have ceased to be opposites,” Cavanaugh contends. “Pleasure resides not in having but in wanting. Insofar as an item obtained brings a temporary halt to desire, it becomes undesirable. This is why shopping, not buying, captures the spirit of consumerism, and why shopaholism is being treated as an addiction. Consumerism,” Cavanaugh concludes, “is a restless spirit, constantly in search of something new.”

All that being said, even though the mechanism is different in a consumer economy, Cavanaugh asserts that the issue remains scarcity. It is, however, not a scarcity of stuff in the consumer economy. Rather, it is a scarcity of new stuff, different stuff. “Consumerism is typified by detachment, not attachment, for desire must be kept on the move. Consumerism is also typified by scarcity,” Cavanaugh argues, “not abundance, for as long as desire is endless, there will never be enough stuff to go around.”

The solution to this contemporary consumerist condition is, as it was in the beginning, properly ordered desire. “True abundance is never realized by the competition of insatiable desires for scarce goods,” Cavanaugh suggests. “It is realized by emptying the small self into the larger reality,” he continues, “of God’s superabundant life.” That framework will be expanded in the balance of the Discourse.

Every Christian congregation should be engaged in a physical feeding ministry of some sort. Many, many congregations are engaged in precisely such ministries. If, however, that feeding ministry is separated from and in the absence of advocacy for the hungry and critique of the systems that make people hungry, then those feeding ministries are deficient and one-dimensional.

If physical feeding and political advocacy are cut off from a community of eucharistic piety, then the deficiency remains. Our text grounds our local serving and our systemic advocacy in the mission of God to a hungry cosmos.

I will confess to have succumbed to the temptation of drifting into the ether of dualistic eucharistic piety as the weeks of this stretch of John’s gospel wear on. The text we have this week anchors to both dimensions of the Feeding. On the one hand, Jesus feeds real people with real bread. On the other, he is the one who commands the wind and the waves to be calm. The challenge in our preaching this week and in the weeks to come is to hold those dimensions together and make them stick to our contemporary moment.

References and Resources

Cavanaugh, William T. “The Body of Christ: The Eucharist and Politics.” Word and World, Volume 22, Number 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 170-177. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/22-2_Body_of_Christ/22-2_Cavanaugh.pdf.

Cavanaugh, William T. “When Enough is Enough.” https://biblestudy.definingterms.com/Readings/Cavanaugh_When_Enough_Is_Enough.pdf.

Fredrickson, David E., “Eucharistic Symbolism in the Gospel of John” (1997). Faculty Publications. 85. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/85

Johnson, Bryce. “The Bread of Life.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 382-388.

Judge, Rebecca, and Taliaferro, Charles. “Companionable Bread.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 367-372).

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for John 6:1-21 (Pt. 3); 9 Pentecost B 2021

Gather Up the Fragments

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” John 6:14-15, NRSV).

Did the crowd misunderstand the meaning of Jesus’ action in feeding the crowds? No. And yes.

No, they didn’t misunderstand. Feeding the poor, the powerless, and the put-upon is always a political act. It is a political act whether we intend it or not. Feeding the poor is a political act just as visiting the prisoner, comforting the sick, housing the homeless and clothing the naked are political acts.

You can’t (or at least you shouldn’t) engage in such actions without wondering how people got into such situations. Wondering leads to investigating. Investigating leads to information and insight. That information and insight reveals the systems that make people poor, powerless, and put-upon.

Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

“The social structures shaped by bread,” Judge and Taliaferro argue, “are themselves directed towards the attainment of a single goal: control” (page 370). They note that agriculture itself was invented to domesticate and improve grain stocks as a way to have reliable food sources. Control of cereal stock drives construction projects and environmental destruction. Colonization, whether ancient or modern, is motivated in part by the hunger for productive land.

“Massive tax and subsidy programs have been levied and supported by governments across space and time in attempts to meet national goals of adequate control of the bread supply,” they continue. “Riots and revolutions have been instigated by a desire to control access to the supply of bread” (page 370). The fact that the crowd, in John’s account, wants to make Jesus a “bread king” may be one of the most realistic and recognizable observations in the whole text.

Did the crowd misunderstand the meaning of Jesus’ action in feeding the crowds? No. One of the main themes in the Gospel of John is the kingship of Jesus. That is the central focus of his debate with Pilate in John 18. The good king in the Hebrew Scriptures is responsible for the health and well-being of God’s people. Jesus comes to be that sort of king – the opposite of the emperor that Pilate serves.

Thus, the crowd understands and misunderstands. They know that Jesus is the prophet that was promised. They know he is the sort of king that God would send. But they don’t see beyond the bread. That is the burden of the discourse to follow – to see beyond the bread. But in the meantime, we should not lose track of the real and concrete basis for the discourse – hungry, poor, disenfranchised people are fed with abundance.

The result of the feeding is a kind of political organizing. The crowd begins as a collection of individuals and family groups who seek what they can get from Jesus, based on his reputation. After they are fed with abundance, they organize themselves sufficiently that Jesus has to flee their efforts to make him the Bread King by acclamation.

The crowd has been transformed from an atomized collection of desperate individuals into an ecclesia, a public assembly of citizens! It was Jesus the host and substance of the meal who did this. It was the presence and power of Jesus that turned this ragtag rabble into a potentially revolutionary brigade. If this is a prefiguring of how the Eucharist should work in the Church (and I think it is), then we have degraded our political expectations of the Eucharist almost beyond recognition.

William Cavanaugh has written extensively on the relationship between the Eucharist and politics within and beyond the Church. He was formed by work on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church in Chile under the brutal and authoritarian Pinochet regime. In his 2002 article, Cavanaugh notes that the primary strategy of the regime was to reduce organized collectives (including the Church) into crowds of atomized individuals who were left naked to the power of the State. By privatizing Eucharistic piety, the Roman Church locally participated at first in this atomization. We Lutherans, for example, should take note that the privatization of Eucharistic piety is precisely what authoritarian forces seek in order to take the political bite out of that piety.

“Fortunately, a significant portion of the church was able to break out of this paradigm and, drawing on the theology and practice of the eucharist, made the church a visible body in direct contradiction to the regime’s strategy of atomization,” Cavanaugh writes. “The church reappeared by excommunicating torturers, providing a space for grassroots groups to organize, and participating in street protests against the regime and its policy of torture. If the regime’s strategy was one of scattering,” he argues, “the contrary Christian strategy was one of gathering, what I describe as the eucharistic counter-politics of the body of Christ” (2002, page 172).

Cavanaugh’s observations put an interesting spin on the report that the fragments of the feast in the wilderness were gathered up “in order that none may be lost” (John 6:12, my translation). The verb for “gathered up” is synago. This is the word for calling together an assembly, for welcoming a guest or stranger to the community. It is the verb form of the Greek word that gives us “synagogue,” which really refers to a gathering of people rather than merely to a place or building.

The purpose of the gathering is in order that none may be lost. The syntax is ambiguous, although the NRSV decides that it should be translated as “nothing.” It could just as easily be translated as “no one.” I think it is better left in the multivalent mode of “none.” We can already hear vibrations of Jesus’ prayer later in the Gospel, where he gives thanks that none of his were lost, except for the “son of lostness.”

The Eucharist is given in order that none may be lost. To digress a bit, this gives us a different understanding of so-called “worthiness” as a standard for admission to Holy Communion. Some parts of the Christian family put a great deal of emphasis on standards of “worthiness” in their Eucharistic piety. We see none of that in this account. The concern is not to keep out the unworthy but rather to gather together all. The community does not define the Eucharist. The Eucharist creates the community.

To return to Cavanaugh’s reflections. He argues that the torture regime of Pinochet and the individualism of the neoliberal economic state “issue from the same dynamic of atomization on which the modern state is founded. Rights transfer power from social groups to the state in order to build a protective wall around the individual. Torture also aims at building walls around the individual,” Cavanaugh continues, “except the walls have ceased to be protective. This is not, of course, to say that rights and torture are equivalent. It is only to say that atomization is a common pathology of modern states and is a severe problem for the church wherever it is found,” he concludes, “as the church is one of the groups that is compromised in the calculus of state and individual” (2002, page 174).

This may sound like some pretty esoteric puffery. But Cavanaugh brings his argument directly to the communion rail. “As many pastors know,” he observes, “the church is hemorrhaging from the inability of Christian discipleship to out-narrate the ideology of the market” (2002, page 175). He notes that the “market” and Christian discipleship describe two very different roles for human desire. “The tragedy is that we have been trained by the market that desire is self-validating, and so we become incapable of escaping the confines of the self. The landscape of postmodern spirituality,” Cavanaugh writes, “is one of lonely and isolated individuals fabricating their own small gods” (2002, page 175).

He argues that the Church in the United States has made the same theological error regarding the Eucharist that paralyzed the Church in Chile in the face of political repression, torture, and disappearances. “The church is charged with the care of the soul,” he notes, “the body, in effect, is handed over to state and corporation” (2002, page 175). The atomization of society and the dualistic division between “spiritual” and “physical” (between “faith” and “politics”) serves authoritarian political purposes in Pinochet’s Chile and authoritarian market purposes in Reagan’s/Trump’s America.

The dynamic that is missing from Cavanaugh’s analysis in the United States is, however, the reality of racialized identity. On the one hand, there is no greater threat to the authoritarian market and the plutocratic oligarchy it represents than the gathering of “identity politics” groups. Groups are better able to defend themselves against autocracy than are individuals. So, groups – especially racialized groups – must be dispersed and destroyed.

On the other hand, only the WHAMs (white, heterosexual, affluent, males) are allowed to be “individuals” in the sense that the market will recognize. We who fit that profile don’t need a group identity. Instead, we believe we define the “normal,” mark the “center,” and police the boundaries. “We may be abandoning our brothers and sisters in Christ to their isolation,” Cavanaugh writes, “simply in the interests of getting along” (2002, page 177). In the imperium of the market “getting along” really means “getting ahead.”

Cavanaugh’s conclusion is powerful and worth reading several times. “The eucharist is not a mere symbol, a source of meaning which the individual reads and then applies to social issues ‘out there’ in the ‘real world,’” he declares. “There is nothing more real than the body of Christ. The eucharist is not to be applied to political issues; rather, the eucharist makes the church itself a political body. The church practices the politics of Jesus,” he argues, “when it becomes an alternative way of life that offers healing for the wounds that divide us” (2002, page 177, my emphasis).

References and Resources

Cavanaugh, William T. “The Body of Christ: The Eucharist and Politics.” Word and World, Volume 22, Number 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 170-177. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/22-2_Body_of_Christ/22-2_Cavanaugh.pdf.

Fredrickson, David E., “Eucharistic Symbolism in the Gospel of John” (1997). Faculty Publications. 85. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/85

Johnson, Bryce. “The Bread of Life.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 382-388.

Judge, Rebecca, and Taliaferro, Charles. “Companionable Bread.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 367-372).

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for John 6:1-21 (Pt. 2); 9 Pentecost B 2021

We’re Hungry

“In the biblical story of creation,” Alexander Schmemann observes in For the Life of the World, “man [sic] is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food” (Kindle Location 83). Alongside the command to be fruitful and multiply, Schmemann suggests, the command to eat (fruits and grains) is given at the dawn of Creation. The human being “is indeed that which eats,” Schmemann argues, “and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table” for human beings (Kindle Location 87). This image of the cosmic banquet continues throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, he suggests, and is both the origin and fulfillment of life as God has intended.

In a gospel launched with the words, “In the beginning,” attention to the dynamics of the Creation stories is always a necessary element of interpretation. Schmemann’s meditation on the Eucharist is an excellent way to be grounded in this dimension of the Bread of Life discourse.

Photo by Jimmy Chan on Pexels.com

“In the Bible the food that man [sic] eats,” Schmemann continues, “the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God” (Kindle Location 132). This dimension of the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John is amplified throughout the Bread of Life discourse. However, it is made clearest in the Walking on Water text, where Jesus declares “I am!”. Thus, the texts must be held together.

All of life is intended to be communion with God. That is the “natural” state of things, the way God created the cosmos to be. Abundance, therefore, is the default condition of Creation according to God’s intention, not the exception to a hard and hungry rule. Schmemann puts it this way (apologies for the non-inclusive language):

“All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation…” (Kindle Location 135).

In a cosmos in bondage to sin, death, and evil, scarcity is the order of the day, not abundance. But we should be clear that this is not how the Creator intends things. The feeding miracles in the gospels are not exceptional one-offs or mere magic tricks. Instead, these feeding miracles are signs of the way in which the Creator intends for us to live. They are not the exceptions. They are the rule – God’s rule.

The same can be said for the miracles of healing and the exorcisms. The absence of illness, enslavement, and death is what God intended from the beginning. The miracles in the gospels, therefore, are signs of the fulfillment of Creation as it was intended to be. There’s a sense in which the crowds get it right with Jesus. He is “The Bread King.” But that’s not all he is. And bread is more than something to hold peanut butter and jelly.

Scarcity is a management tool for the powerful. The golden rule in this world, as Mr. T. observed, is that the one with the gold rules. The one(s) who controls access to resources controls the levers of power. If One comes bringing abundance, then the power of scarcity is threatened. Those who control access to resources, access to life, will do anything to maintain a monopoly on money and meals.

Hunger is a physical symptom of the need and desire for food. This text is an opportunity to examine and celebrate our desires. “Behind all the hunger of our life is God,” Schmemann writes. “All desire is finally a desire for Him [sic]” (Kindle Location 138). This may sound odd to ears to tuned by our Puritan history to regard all human desire as sinful.

In fact, it is not desire that is the problem. It is, rather (to quote St. Augustine), disordered desire. The problem is desiring the means as ends in themselves. Desiring bread is a good thing, not a bad thing. But desiring bread as an end in itself rather than as a sign of God’s grace and love – that is the problem. Desiring God is the purpose for which we were made. When our subsidiary desires lead us to that Real Desire, they are doing their proper work. When our subsidiary desires become “dead ends,” then Creation itself goes off the track.

Sarah Coakley, in her excellent book entitled God, Sexuality, and the Self, seeks to reposition human desire as an appropriate and positive subject for theological reflection. She suggests that our desires are rooted in the Desire which is fundamental to the Trinity – the interpenetrating and infinitely loving Desire of Father for Son, Son for Spirit, Spirit for Father, and all the combinations and permutations thereof.

Coakley notes that Sigmund Freud did much to get our theology backwards, inside out, and upside down when it comes to desire – especially, but not exclusively, sexual desire. “First, Freud must be – as it were – turned on his head,” she writes. “It is not that physical ‘sex’ is basic and ‘God’ ephemeral; rather, it is God who is basic, and ‘desire’ the precious clue that ever tugs at the heart, reminding the human soul – however dimly – of its created source” (p. 10). The same argument could be made, I would argue, about physical hunger.

The difference between Divine desire and our (now broken) human desire is that our desire arises from a sense of scarcity. There is, however, no scarcity in the Trinity, only abundance. She argues, “in God, ‘desire’ of course signifies no lack – as it manifestly does in humans. Rather, it connotes that plenitude of longing love that God has for God’s own creation and for its full and ecstatic participation in the divine, trinitarian, life” (p. 10).

We can see how John’s account works with these differing desires. Jesus himself, in John’s account, knows what he’s going to do. He knows that Abundance is ontologically basic, not scarcity. The disciples live in a world, they think, where scarcity is the prior reality, the default setting. There’s not enough money, not enough bread, not enough fish, not enough disciples.

Jesus restores abundance to its proper place. There’s lots of green grass. There’s plenty of room for seating. He can get the food distributed all by himself, thank you very much. The people could eat as much as they wanted. The fragments fill twelve backets, the leftovers of all who had eaten their fill. This is what Creation is supposed to look like – filled to overflowing with the loving presence and power of God, offered to people without price or limit.

I can’t help but think about the oracle in Isaiah 55 at this moment. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1, NRSV). It’s no accident that the section title in the NRSV is “An Invitation to Abundant Life.” The editors got that one right.

The conversation in Isaiah 55:2 moves immediately from the proper object of desire to the temptation to make bad investments in subsidiary ends. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” The rich food to which the oracle points is clearly something more than free wine and milk. It is rather the proclamation of God’s word of abundant life – the gift to which all other gifts point. This is the proper object of our desires.

The oracle concludes with the promise that the Word will produce. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11, NRSV).

Coakley argues that this is the only way to judge and therefore order human desires in the way that gives abundant life. God is the final point of reference for desires properly ordered. The question to be addressed is how to put the desire for God above all other desires and to judge human desires only in that light (p. 10).

“The world is a fallen world,” Schmemann argues, “because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. The accumulation of this disregard for God is the original sin that blights the world” (Kindle Location 168). This argument can allow us to connect our text with the ongoing discussion in Ephesians on the role of Creation in expressing Divine love, grace, and mercy for a tragically disordered and de-centered cosmos.

“When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value,” Schmemann continues, “because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the “sacrament” of God’s presence” (Kindle Location 178). The commodification of everything and everyone as the basis of neoliberal late-stage capitalism is perhaps the parade example of human desire disordered almost beyond repair.

Abundance is the default, not scarcity. We are created hungry – but hungry first and foremost for relationship with God. We reach out for other objects to satisfy that desire, but those other things have no life in themselves. “[T]he ‘original’ sin is not primarily that man has ‘disobeyed’ God,” Schmemann argues, “the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God” (Kindle Location 194).

Jesus comes to restore the cosmos to the path of Abundant Life — to the sacrament of communion with God.

References and Resources

Fredrickson, David E., “Eucharistic Symbolism in the Gospel of John” (1997). Faculty Publications. 85. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/85

Johnson, Bryce. “The Bread of Life.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 382-388.

Judge, Rebecca, and Taliaferro, Charles. “Companionable Bread.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 367-372).

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for John 6:1-21 (Pt. 1); 9 Pentecost B 2021

Text Study for John 6:1-21

Five weeks of the Bread of Life – here we go again! “There are perhaps few texts that strike trepidation and exasperation in the hearts of preachers,” Karoline Lewis writes, “more than the five consecutive Sundays in the season of Pentecost, Year B. How much can you preach on Jesus as the Bread of Life?” (page 83).

The appointed text for this week is John 6:1-15, but that won’t do. Both the Synoptics and John put the Feeding of the 5000 and Jesus Walking on Water back-to-back. I don’t find it helpful to ignore that obvious connection. So I would recommend, as do most commentators, that we would read verses 1 through 21 in our worship services.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Karoline Lewis sees the “Healing of the Man Ill for Thirty-Eight Years” in John 5 and “Jesus as the Bread of Life” in John 6 as linked by the reference to Moses in John 5:45-46. In addition, she notes that these discourses make clear once again the pattern in this gospel of sign, dialogue, and discourse. She writes that “the structure underscores the main theological point of all of the signs in the Fourth Gospel. Each of the miracles—or signs, as John names them—is miraculous not only on its own terms but also for what it reveals or shows about what it means that Jesus is the Word made flesh” (page 75).

I wonder if the community hearing John’s account has the same question I’ve often heard in parish ministry. Why, Pastor, doesn’t Jesus do signs and miracles among us now on a regular basis? Why were such events largely limited to the earthly life of Jesus and a few decades in the life of the early church? I’m not sure that such signs and miracles are absent from the lives of disciples and congregations. But they seem to come rarely and in their own time, for sure.

“The signs are a questionable source for assessing Jesus’ true self, his true identity,” Lewis argues. “It is worth exploring,” she continues, “the reason for the relative downplaying of the signs and the significance placed on Jesus’ interpretation of the signs” (page 76). The temptation, when we focus on the signs, is to be mesmerized by the miracles, fascinated by the fireworks. In that moment, we tend to take our eyes off of Jesus. Such a focus, I would suggest, leads quickly to aberrations such as the Prosperity Gospel and the Word of Faith movement.

“To know that the full meaning of the sign lies not in the sign itself,” Lewis suggests, “but in Jesus’ interpretation of the sign implies that listening to Jesus, hearing Jesus, is vital” (page 76). She notes that seeing the sign by itself is incomplete, “is not a fully embodied, incarnational experience without listening for the interpretation and its meaning.” Therefore, the dialogues and the discourses are necessary parts of John’s proclamation, and the sign-dialogue-discourse structure reinforces this element of John’s theology.

The mention of Moses in chapter 5 is reinforced by additional allusions in the early verses of chapter 6. This is a priority for John’s account, according to O’Day and Hylen. The double mention of going up the mountain reminds of the Sinai sojourn. They note that Jesus’ question addressed to Philip in verse 5 may remind us of Moses in Numbers 11:13 (NRSV) – “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” Moses whines to the Lord. “For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’”

Malina and Rohrbaugh comment on the mountain location of the feeding. “The mountain in Mediterranean culture was a height outside inhabited and cultivated space,” they suggest, “that is, outside the city, the village of the town. A mountaintop was a well-attested place for community with God (like Sinai in the Exodus,” they continue (page 126).

Having a meal in such a space, however, would have been unusual, Malina and Rohrbaugh argue. Wilderness places were the haunts of wild animals, demons, and other chaotic and threatening spirits. They note that people didn’t picnic in wilderness places in the first-century Mediterranean world. Such locations made it hard to guarantee ritual purity, and food stores weren’t readily available (page 126).

It could only be safe and sane to have such an outdoor feast if God, or God’s representative was the host and provider. That seems to me to be an important point to keep in mind as we go along in the early part of chapter 6. “The compassionate God who cared for people with good in the wilderness wanderings,” Paul Berge writes in his Word and World article, “is present in Jesus’ ministry with provision enough for all people.”

“Verses 14–15 indicate that the crowd recognizes Jesus as a prophet like Moses on account of the signs he performs,” O’Day and Hylen write. “Jesus’ withdrawal from them is not a rejection of these associations, but indicates that the crowd does not fully understand what Jesus’ kingship means” (Kindle Location 1517). Jesus is not merely a “bread king.” Rather Jesus brings both abundance and liberation, as is prefigured by Moses in the escape from Egypt and the wilderness sojourn.

“Kings are not simply a political equivalent of a ‘president’ with rights of hereditary succession,” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest. “Rather, kings have total control of and responsibility for their subjects,” they continue, “they are expected to provide them with fertility, peace, and abundance” (page 126). They note that the nature of Jesus’ kingship is one of the significant themes in John’s account. We should pay attention to that theme in our text.

Malina and Rohrbaugh spend some time on the social and cultural significance of bread in this account and in the first-century Mediterranean world. “Bread constituted one-half of the caloric intake in much of the ancient Mediterranean region,” they write. “Wheat was considered much superior to barley; hence barley (and sorghum) bread was the staple for the poor and slaves,” they observe (page 127).

Barley is more drought-tolerant than wheat and can be grown in a wider range of soil types. Barley flour, however, is not as easy to knead as wheat flower. The bread isn’t as tasty or nutritious and is harder to digest. Barley bread was the food of the poor. That is a fact emphasized in John’s account by the identification of the specific type of bread Jesus used in the feeding. (page 127).

O’Day and Hylen connect Jesus’ walking on the water with the Exodus story as well. This is another reason to read through verse 21. Jesus’ identity in John’s account is never really up for debate in the way it is in Mark’s gospel. The water-walking is more of a confirmation of that identity rather than a demonstration of divine power.

Malina and Rohrbaugh emphasize that Jesus walks on the “sea” rather than merely on “water.” The difference, they argue, matters a great deal. “To walk on the sea,” they suggest, “is to trample on a being that can engulf people with its waves, swallow them in its deep, and support all sorts of living beings” (page 128). The boats used at the time were open to all the threats of the environment. “Jesus’ ability to walk on the sea,” they conclude, “is evidence of his place in the hierarchy of cosmic powers” (page 128).

“When Jesus walks on the sea, it becomes apparent that he, like God, can calm the chaos of the sea. Jesus’ words in verse 20 confirm what his actions demonstrate” (Kindle Location 1538), O’Day and Hylen write. He uses the Divine identifier so common in John’s gospel – “I am.” Translations that render this identification as “It is I,” miss that connection to the assertion of Jesus’ divinity in John’s account.

O’Day and Hylen note that “the combination of the sea crossing…and reference to the divine name suggests God’s power over the waters, a familiar part of the retelling of the Exodus story” in the Psalms and the Prophets (Kindle Location 1544). “Following a miraculous meal set at the time of Passover,” they conclude, “the sea crossing appears as a parallel to the crossing of the Red Sea. Jesus appears to the disciples as the One who led Israel through the waters” (Kindle Location 1546).

The feeding takes place, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh, at the time of the second Passover during Jesus’ ministry. It is clearly spring, we should observe, since there is an abundance of green grass in the wilderness place. “The setting has a specific detail unique to John: that of much grass (6:10),” Lewis notes. “This description alludes to and foreshadows the presentation of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in chapter 10. The pasture for the sheep signals provision and abundance of life,” she suggests, “and this abundance is clearly present in the feeding of the five thousand” (page 83).

Thus, one early take on this text may be to reflect on all the signs of abundance in the story. Jesus has an abundance of time. There is an abundance of grass. There is an abundance of people. There is an abundance of food. There is an abundance of divine power. “Abundant life is predicated on the human necessity of dependence and reliance,” Lewis notes, “Above the minimal needs comes abundance and the ability to thrive” (page 83).

More than enough – that’s probably a good place to launch our five-week sojourn with John.

References and Resources

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.