I know the David story—the darkness, the redemptive element—is seemingly the text we might focus on. It’s not where I’m focusing us this week. Instead, I’m arrested by this metaphor: “The Bread of Life.” Metaphors are a big deal. Although people abuse language in all kinds of ways, it is never to their benefit. As writer Parker Palmer warns, we’d all do well to choose our metaphors carefully. After all, the way we view life is largely proportional to our metaphorical perspective: Is life a battlefield, a stage, or something altogether else?
This week’s gospel begs us to consider the proximity of God’s love. It is so close and immense that it is often unseen or seen as dispensable. That God’s love is taken for granted is an understatement of the highest order.
“Ask me whether/ what I have done is my life,”
asks poet William Stafford in a reflective poem. In this single question, our entire concept and worldview is challenged. What is “my” life? What choices have we made with others in mind? When Jesus says that we are to lose what (Mt. 10:39) we want to find, what’s he talking about? He’s talking about the bread of life. He’s talking about literal provision in this world and the next. Confused? Paradoxes are part of doing business with Jesus: Divine and human, death and life, and metaphorical and literal. Jesus invites us to shuttle back and forth between never entirely answering the mystery. Like children, we are simply asked to believe that he will lead us well and that he is who he says.
“The spirit of God is deeper than our thoughts and feelings.”Henri Nouwen
Have you ever been up early and held perfectly still and just felt like behind the scenes, if you just looked deeper into things, you could see God’s angels dressed in overalls clearing the set for the newness of another day? The poem from Stafford, called “Ask Me,” reminds us that much of our lives involves waiting and listening--and sometimes waiting out our own knee-jerk emotional responses to things. As spiritual writer Henri Nouwen advises, “The spirit of God is deeper than our thoughts and feelings.” And thank goodness for that. God is so close that he is both waiting and listening with us.
So what are we waiting for? Are we, Jesus and you and I, waiting for the same thing?
Recently, Tasha and I spent a few days together as we drove to Chicago. We stopped in Cleveland, had dinner and at our hotel we watched a television show called Everybody loves Raymond. I assume you know the show about a man who lives in Long Island with his wife and children with his parents living directly across the street. In the episode we watched, Raymond is working on a book (he’s a sports writer) and he is forced by his mother to let his cousin Gerrard help him edit the book. Later in the episode, Ray is unnerved to discover that both Gerrard and he share similar traits: they sound the same, act the same, and are perhaps both annoying. The epiphany for Ray comes when his wife Debra dispatches her daily dose of truth upon him.
Watch the clip below, 8:03-9:07
Unbeknownst to me at the time why, my wife began laughing too. “You’re Raymond,” she shouted. What followed was a lengthy denial period, but try as I may, the more I thought about it, the more I knew she was right: I am Raymond. At least partially. At my best, I strive to be more like Fred Rogers: calm, quiet, caring. At my worse, I am negative, hyper-sensitive, and self-defeating: Raymond.
Historically speaking, we might be tempted to look back and think of David purely in this dichotomy: in terms of his good and evil deeds. But to limit David into just two dimensions of faith is to fail to recognize what’s going on in our own faith journeys. Though we live in polarizing times, we are not creatures of 100% goodness or 100% wickedness. Biblical scholars more knowledgeable than myself could tell you about David’s dark side (Sopranos) and others would marvel at his heart being like God’s own (1 Sam. 13). My point is that, like all people, David had to have had good days and bad days, but most days he likely lived somewhere in between. Just like us, in David we can see a spectrum of moments in which the Spirit is alive and active in him and also witness those regrettable moments in which he has turned his back on God’s will for him.
So how do we live more days closer to our “Fred Rogers” end of the spectrum? How do we avoid the apathetic malaise of our “Raymond” tendencies?
For me, staying close with God does involve a certain amount of routine. There are clearly things you can do to draw nearer like: praying, going for walks, or reading your Bibles. And obviously, it is hard to think that God would be pleased if you robbed a bank today or if you berated the barista and Starbucks for getting your drink “wrong.” There are clearly, then, things to avoid. Commentator Donald Guthrie explains that we absorb more from the Bread of Life than mere nutrients—we receive spiritual “food.” We receive an intimate relationship with Jesus: one where his words bloom around us while others, who don’t believe, see nothing. In verses 32–33, Jesus asserts his authority and the Father’s autonomy. “Sir, give us this bread always,” says the crowd as they follow Jesus looking for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So many—in the text and even today—still don’t even hear what he is saying to them, to us. He is what is to be broken. He is our portion.
Every week we enter worship through confession of sin. That’s heavy lifting up front, in my view. If the psalter is hard to read for us, maybe that’s because most of us are not taking our glaring “sins” or “character flaws” to God. The idea of asking God to help us locate a “secret heart”(Ps. 51:6) or a “clean heart” (Ps. 51:10) for being rude to someone at work seems disproportionate. It fits better for that which we seek to block out: what we said to a family member, or some other thing we wish wasn’t.
If the psalter is hard to read for us, maybe that’s because most of us are not taking our glaring “sins” or “character flaws” to God.
Nathan assumed, as Chris pointed out a few weeks ago, that David and God were so seamlessly synchronized that David’s desire would naturally be God’s. The dangers of such thinking, clearly, are limitless and carry over into our day and age where we do darn near anything to believe that the things we decide for ourselves are God-ordained decisions. Are they?
“You are that man,” says Nathan. Is there something that we intentionally throw shade towards in order to blot out what we really need to pray about?
In order to keep ourselves humble, our confession needs to more than an empty exercise. We must invite God inside us to search us so that we might really be “whiter than snow” (Ps. 51:7). When we get too high, in my experience, is when trouble finds a way to creep in. David, of course, gives us a infamous example of this. But David, too, knows the way to God. Parker Palmer says that the way to God is down, not up. That is, it is our humility before God that allows us to hear Him and be known by him. Getting low is, by the way, the opposite of what we are trained to do in a culture where we are taught to stand out, to embrace our individuality. After all, we are to be “in” the world but not “of” it (1 John 2:15–17). Look to Jesus for proof of this. He never belongs to the the world. Instead, he is always waiting on God. Down, hidden almost—he lived a life of low profile until his ministry began in proper. Down he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Down he went into hell to discover his divinity. Down is the way to God; it is not found in gazing up.
In his article titled “Chew, Tick, Swallow, Tock,” Bishop David Roller recounts some triumphs and challenges of living as a Christian in our consumerist world. Roller tells of a trip to a mall whereby he felt good about himself for not wanting any of the clothing or accessory items lauded all over. He, then, shares that he was humbled when we reached the food court: the smell of pizza, french fries, and allure of a carbonated drink got him. He ate a burger. At the core of the article, Bishop Roller encourages us to understand that our understanding of hunger is too limited; in fact, we ought to under for “righteousness” the same way we hunger for food and drink (Mt. 5:6). Which raises the question: What do you hunger for? Is it a vacation? Is it more meaningful work? Is it for someone’s apology? Is it Jesus?
We have a slew of phrases in English that attempt to merge food metaphors into everyday speech: we all have had “food for thought” or been given difficult to “chew on.” Jesus’ declaration that he is “the bread of life” (John 6:35) is something altogether else. This statement is a curious one to us, perhaps. Taken out of context, in a literal way, early Christians were often misunderstood to be a cult of cannibals by the Romans.
In the Bread of Life metaphor, Jesus does not mince his words; he does not choose a random metaphor. So what does it mean that Jesus is the “bread of life?”
Our relationship to Jesus is contingent on faith. The people following Jesus during his earthly ministry had questionable amounts of faith. They were more, at least collectively, concerned with whether or not the miracles, like the feeding of 5,000, could be sustained. Was Jesus able to keep pace with the works of Moses? Jesus seems to gauge this distrust in his ability to provide in verses 28–29: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” It’s easy to look back on the Israelites and wonder: How could you not be amazed by the miracles performed just recently within their present day? If the chronology John sets is linear, then Jesus had just feed 5,000 and walked on water.
All of us would want to see Jesus’ miracles in and around the Holy land. The truth is that Jesus is still with us today and that many small, good, and miraculous things happen everyday. Babies are born. Parents put children to bed. The Bills make the playoffs once and while.
So Jesus’ proclamation that he is the “Bread of Life” is kind of a big deal, even though it it should not necessarily be tied up directly with what most of us thinking about: the Eucharist. In John 6:24–25, Jesus teaches by contrasting material sustenance vs. eternal life. Those “following” Jesus didn’t largely know what they even had in him. Instead, Jesus was pit against Moses in a slew of comparisons: could the miracles hold up? Could it help the Jews live well then? This story cuts deep into the questions that we pose culturally. So, Jesus, do you mean more to be than money, prosperity, or financial security. Pastor Francis Chan illustrates the absurdity of most Americans’ thinking on this point by using his rope illustration:
In the end, the “bread of life” is nothing more than a picture of God’s provision and planning for our lives that is unconcerned with the things we worry about: the groceries we want to buy, the room we want to remodel. It is a metaphor to help us order our lives. Paul warns that false versions of God will be taught, but there can be no compromising in God’s vision for humanity (Eph. 4:14). In fact, we are to participate in the maintenance of God’s vision for humanity by caring for those around us—even if they are all Raymonds.
The bread of life is Jesus’ way of saying, “I know what you need. I’m with you. I know you need food, water, and a place to live. I know you need opportunities and friends. I know you need an outlet for your gifts. I know you are mine. Do you?”
Indeed, Paul invites us to participate in a “life worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called” (Eph. 4:1). Thus, if David’s story should teach us anything, it is not that we are imperfect. It is that we must learn to live in between our impulses, in between our highest and lower selves. Sometimes it will mean that we need to examine and reexamine the metaphors that drive our lives. We must strive to consume the bread of life, that promise of God’s agency in us, because being Raymond is the death of us. In the words of Henri Nouwen:
“I was full of paradoxes.”
So live between the extremes, and find God in the direction of your most earnest prayers. The bread of life is there, waiting, ready to empower you in the direction of the calling you seek.
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