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Visions from The Catacombs: Week before August 9th, 2015

John 6:35-51

35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” 41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

What I am Learning

It is pretty clear that Jesus is having a pretty intense conversation with the crowd that came across the lake to find him after the feeding of the 5000. What motivated them to go all that way? Why were they so angry about what Jesus said after coming all that way to see him?  What is the meaning of his words?

As 21st century Western people, we are often left scratching our heads about what in the blazes is going on with these people!

So let's try to tease it out a bit and see what is up. Jesus is using a very powerful narrative for the People of Israel: the giving of Manna as a part of their liberation from Egyptian slavery. Manna is a Hebrew word that means "What is it?" When they first saw it they did not know what it was or what they could do with it.

But this thing they didn't understand became the bread that kept them alive as they journeyed to liberation. This liberation had three venues:

External Liberation: Through the leadership of Moses they were liberated from an oppressive and exploitative culture - the domination/submission system of the Egyptian Pharaohs.

Internal Liberation: Through the covenantal relationship with God they were being liberated as persons from a vision of humanity they had "just breathed in" as a people growing up in a culture.

Communal Liberation: Through the covenantal relationship with a God who sought to liberate human beings and to reorder human society into a just and equitable society, they were being liberated to embrace and create a society of mutuality.

When Jesus says that he "is the bread come down from heaven" he is saying that he is the new manna, the bread that sustains people in their journey of liberation in all three venues: External, Internal and Communal.

Then we get a few terms that can really throw us off.

The Jews: This term in John should really be translated "the Judean Leadership." This was the group of collaborators with the Romans (forced and not forced) who were the official leaders of the Jewish people, but who followed the self-interests of the Romans. This term is not a general term, in John, of the Jewish people as a race or ethnicity. It is not a racist term in John, even if it has sometimes been used that way.

Eternal Life: Eternal life is not a discussion about heaven or post-mortem disembodied existence with God in the clouds with harps and chubby angels. Eternal life is a life that flows from and is consistent with the life and will of God for human beings and the creation as a whole. Eternal is a reference not to another place or time, but to the reality of God's way of mutuality with and within the world. Ancient people, says the late Walter Wink, understood that heaven and earth, the eternal and temporal, were all interconnected. They also understood that human beings were alienated from God. This is what they generally meant by "sin."

Believe: This is truly a difficult word for us and modern and post-modern people. The word here does not really mean that we "assent to a list of theological junk about God and/or Jesus." The word more deeply means "to trust." This trust is a deeper thing than assent to beliefs. This does not mean that all content of a faith tradition is bad. It is just one small part of a deep trust in what God is doing in the world so that our lives are formed and re-formed and re-forming in the midst of that trust.

Eternal Life Redux: Eternal life, in addition, contains an implied promise that death, change, loss and vulnerability do not have the last word. God offers life in Jesus the messiah. This life continues in the midst and through death.

While they cannot see it or understand, Jesus is the new manna on a new and renewed journey of liberation initiated and sustained by God. Perhaps they questioned him because they could not imagine that God could do it again. Perhaps they imagined, as so many of us do, that hope is lost and so all we can do is to hide in our spiritual bunkers and wait this thing called life out.

Jesus insists, however, that God was continuing to work in the world.

We need to remember to keep the whole Gospel of John in our heads when we read any one passage. Jesus is the new manna, and the character, message and methodology of that manna is revealed in Jesus who rejects power over people to embrace power with people - even when that gets him killed. Jesus embraces human life as we experience it, embraces death as the cost of resisting the Roman Domination culture, and trusts that God's eternal life keep him connected to life in the midst of it all. The Gospel of John, while written the most distant from the life of Jesus and the most poetic, envisions Jesus as God deep in the flesh.

His embrace of life is why he is our bread. When we share his meal, we learn in ways that we cannot speak easily that we are embraced in the threefold liberation that God intends for all people. We are given strength for the journey, as a community and as people.

No wonder they though he was crazy.

Maybe he was and maybe we are for joining him.

But then, how else would we want to live our lives?