Bible: John 6:35-51
35 Jesus 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.’
41 Then the Ioudaioi 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 for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
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There's a large billboard around the corner from our church. One of Australia's richest men, still hungry for something more from life, smiles down on us, hoping his populism will buy him votes at the next election. His beaming face is no match for that of Max, who used to meet us at the church door each Sunday. Max was not hungry. Instead, Max had the ability to be content wherever he found himself. He would greet people at the door, and sit with them for morning tea. His good humour and storytelling was gentle and respectful— he knew when to listen. He built people up. He built up the church garden, and spent long hours in the Op Shop and its store shed, politely listening to the concerns of his family, and the congregation, about working too hard, and then ignoring us all. His son said, "Dad figured he may as well die in the garden instead of sitting at home on his own."
Jesus said ... ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Max lived that. He had seen and believed. And it made him an ordinary and, therefore, profound, example of the grace of God in flesh. All the richness of God is for ordinary people like us.
How did Max get to this place? What made him a person characterised by graciousness rather than bitterness, a person generous rather than grasping, a person at ease instead of despairing?
He modelled himself on the person of Jesus; he underwent a sort of osmosis. He ate at the table; he took communion. Communion is the converting sacrament, an apparently surface action— a ritual— which when it reflects that deeper eating which is thorough going active belief in Jesus, seems to send down roots into our lives, and change and heal our foundations.
As we come to his funeral, my task for our congregation is to wonder if this is a real answer. Or did Max, and do I, simply reflect a getting older, and a burning out of ambition which will also, eventually, calm the hungers of the man on the billboard. Does Jesus make any difference, or are we wasting our time in a quaint and archaic little self-deception?
Is there any truth to Jesus' claim that we will be raised up "on the last day?" — that hope of a time when God will bring all things to fruition, and do that in a way which will include Max and me. Or are we, and that poor politician on his billboard, simply a flash in the pan of an ephemeral biological happenstance?
Both the Ioudaioi and Jesus assume God is. Both Jesus and the Ioudaioi assume there is resurrection— none of them dispute this. The argument between the two, and the argument between John's community and the synagogues, is about the way life and resurrection happen.
Jesus will say of himself that he is the way. (14:6) The Ioudaioi think the way to truth and life is to hold to the traditions of Moses. If there is resurrection, it will come through living out the traditions of Moses: Do the Passover. Keep the food laws. Keep the Sabbath. Honour God. To which Jesus says, "You will still die": "Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died." (6:48)... 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’"
The conversation between Jesus and the Ioudaioi is too familiar. It is a true picture of us humans; we dispute. And once we begin to dispute, there can only be one ending; someone will lose. I have spent my life disputing. It has done nothing to sate my hunger. It does not make me wise; it demonises my opponents, and blinds me to their good. I think, rather than being confirmed, it makes me more anxious, and more needing to win.
What health I have has come from walking away from the dispute, and simply being compassionate as I am able. Which sets me on the same path as Jesus: compassion is to be with, to sit in the place of, and to share the burdens of, those who are suffering and vulnerable. At its base, it is to join the losers. Compassion is to choose to lose. It is to see and grieve the depths of human suffering, and to walk close to the place of death. Compassion ceases to deny. It ceases to pretend we can win in life. It gives up on being right and correct, and sits alongside.
There is no proof of resurrection as we use the word proof. There is no testable, repeatable, controllable experiment one can do. The reality of life and death is that they are largely out of our control; we swim among them. We are in the place of Frodo, who said,
'I wish it need not have happened in my time.' ...
'So do I,' said Gandalf, 'and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.' (Tolkien The Fellowship of the Ring.)
When I dispute, I am Ioudaioi. Right or wrong, I am the ideologue. I am eating of the bread that does not give life, but gives a faux, and terribly temporal, victory. But it feels so much safer than believing in Jesus by being actively compassionate. For active belief in Jesus sets me on a journey where I have one certainty, which is that there will come a time when I will wonder whether... if I had earned more money, or had better super, or had cultivated the right kind of friends, I might now live a little longer.
My hope is that I might also find that I am like Max, who said to me a few weeks ago, that he had realised a few nights previously that this was the night he would die. He had felt terribly ill, so he got up, wrote some farewells on the little whiteboard in his nursing-home room and went back to bed, and waited. In the morning, he said, with a classic Max smile, I realised I was still here, so I got up and rubbed out the whiteboard, and got ready for breakfast.
I said it must have been a pretty challenging experience, to which Max replied, "Well, yes, it was..." but chose not to say more. Partly, I think, because he was astonishingly relaxed about the whole thing. I wonder if he was discovering, more than I have yet discovered, that death does lose its sting.
This Sunday we will have communion without Max. Communion was a time when Max was as serious as I ever saw him. He was characteristically thankful about life, almost surprised by how good it was to him. Eucharist, giving thanks, living thanks, had done its work on him, and affected the way he saw everything.
I will come to Max's funeral, and then later in the week, to this communion service, both times turning right at the big billboard. Eucharist, as opposed to Ioudaioi, is to be thankful that I am no longer driven to put myself up on the billboard. Not thankfulness that I am "not like him," but thankful not to be so driven to win, so driven to be right... so needing to be a success, and so needing to remain alive... as I once was.
In a comment on these pages, Bill Schlesinger says
My mentor - dead many years - said, 'It is not moral to pray for an end to suffering without building a plan to do just that.' So we try to figure out ways to get kids and families access to options they can choose, and try to figure out how to stop fighting among ourselves while we do that, and how to work around all the obstacles and frustrations, and still deal with the person who 'shows up at our kitchen door' ...
And greet people, and tie up the shoe laces of the person who can't bend over, and grow potatoes for the church café, adds Max. But getting off the billboard of Ioudaioi is also to recognise, as Bill says,
The work of the center of life is to trust that neither our arrogance nor our despair is the final word. We will have everything taken away sooner or later. We will die. And so will all our relatives and loved ones. It is in giving ourselves to that death, without defense, that we take Jesus' death into ourselves and trust. We die, and we rise in compassion, forgiveness, and responsibility for what is around us - even as we are over-whelmed...
John, I think, struggles to teach us Jesus' message about life and resurrection. He, too, was human. We have gleefully seized upon his Ioudaioi and made them into the Jews. But John saw what Jesus did. Jesus gave himself to the Ioudaioi. He walked away from the dispute. He let them win. He let himself be overwhelmed.
And so Max and I could sit in a room and talk about dying. Not with a lot to say— what, after all, do we know? But with a certain peace, and a little freedom. Our trust is not because the alternative is worse, but because our hunger is being filled. The sting and terror of death is itself being overwhelmed.
Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
The Sermon for this Sunday: All the world's a stage... and all the men and women eating bread...
John 6: 35, 41-51 - Eaten by Life (2015)
John 6:35, 44-51 - Love's Angular Momentum (2012)
John 6:35, 44-51 - On the Death of My Father (2012)
John 6:35,41-51 - Even More Bread! (2009)
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