THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
Bread of Heaven
Friends, this morning I’m afraid I’ll need to ask for your forgiveness for what I’m about to say.
For, what I’m about to say are two of the most infamous and dangerous words in the English language, when put back to back.
These two words have caused untold misery, they have begun countless fights; they have crippled countless spirits.
This statement of just two words is actually—for my money anyway—the most dangerous and foolish thing one can say…a phrase that should never ever be uttered in church…and yet, is all too often…
This horrible two-word statement is this, friends: “Everybody Knows”
“Everybody Knows”: it’s a claim to authority, a statement of absolute certainty…and it’s almost always a lie.
“Everybody Knows” moves through history along a dark and insidious path, crushing the hopes and dreams of good people along its way:
“Everybody Knows” war is the only answer
“Everybody Knows” women can’t vote
“Everybody Knows” black people can’t ride at the front of the bus
The problem with “Everybody Knows” is that it’s really no more than a tricky and dishonest way of saying “I think” or “we think.”
Compare these two statements:
“I think we should raise tithing to meet our budget goals,” versus
“Everybody Knows the only thing to do is raise tithing!”
“I think” claims personal ownership for the idea, whether it’s good or not; “I think” invites consideration and reply whereas “Everybody Knows” demands to be the end of the discussion.
It claims, by subtle threat that “everybody who doesn’t know” is either stupid or not to be trusted.
If “Everybody Knows” had its way and was not met with occasional opposition through history, the world would be a bleak, foolish, and hopeless place.
“Everybody Knows” the sun goes around the earth.
“Everybody Knows” people will never fly.
“Everybody Knows” that man who was crucified did not rise from the dead on Sunday…
Sometimes “Everybody Knows” demands a strong and unwavering opposite response, even at great cost to the one who believes in the impossible.
Such was the case that the man-who-would-be-crucified-and-raised-on-Sunday, Jesus of Nazareth, found himself in in this morning’s reading from John…
You see, the trouble started for Jesus when He claimed
“I am the bread that came down from heaven”
For those of us on the other side of Christian history, for those of us living two thousand years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and two thousand years after the establishment of the first churches, this is not such a problem.
“Well certainly Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven!”
“We have a whole ceremony about it four times a year. We eat the bread that is His body and drink the wine that is his blood and celebrate in Communion with each other and with Christians worldwide.”
But if we stop to think about it: a man who is bread from heaven, really is a strange thing to say. It really is a strange thing to believe…
And those who were gathered with Jesus that day thought so too…
According to John:
They 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’?” 43
Elsewhere in the Gospels, both Mark and Luke name the very true reality that a prophet is a prophet everywhere except in his hometown.
It’s hard to claim to speak for God; it’s hard to be taken seriously when the audience you are preaching to says…
“Just a second… aren’t you Mary and Joseph’s kid?”
“Everybody knows Mary and Joseph’s kid ain’t no prophet! Everybody knows Mary and Joseph’s kid ain’t ‘bread from heaven’!”
However, Jesus is not mocked by the crowd…
It’s easier for Christians, for those who have experienced the Communion of bread and wine, for those who have committed themselves to faith to take Jesus at His Word…
But let’s imagine for a moment that we are hearing these words for the first time…that we are one of the Jews gathered in John’s Gospel …
Let’s imagine that we are the ones claiming “Everybody Knows” Jesus is not the Messiah.
Let’s imagine that we are the ones who—like the Jews in John’s story—know that “bread from heaven” refers only to the manna in the wilderness fed to the Israelites and their prophets by God a long time ago…
The Good News for this morning is that even those who reject Christ as “bread from heaven” – both in the times of the Gospels and today; even these voices are welcome parts of the conversation.
The presence of doubt does NOT mean that faith is not present. Rather, the presence of doubt shows that faith is not something that comes easily and without great consideration.
After all, imagine how difficult it would be to hear this news for the first time…
How would we feel to be confronted by this bold young Rabbi from Nazareth?
How would we feel if this man, this strange teacher took the Scriptures which we hold to be most sacred and said: “see, there where it says ‘bread from heaven,’ that’s talking about me”
I don’t know if you’ve ever met anyone who claimed that the Scriptures were talking about them personally but I can tell you that it is a strange experience. You are probably less likely to think “Finally! Revelation’s long-awaited Messiah here in Saskatoon!” than you are to look around for men in white uniforms, driving a padded van, and carrying butterfly nets. This person isn’t a prophet! This person’s gone off the deep end!
And really…both in the time of the Gospels and now…that is the logical and rational response to meeting someone who claims to be the “bread from heaven.”
“Everybody Knows” people who talk to God are off their rockers.
“Everybody Knows” God doesn’t walk up to you on the street and introduce Himself.
“Everybody Knows” people are not bread…not even “bread from heaven.”
The point of this little exercise in empathy; in trying to imagine what it is like to not believe in Jesus as Christ is important because it’s where those we hope to meet with the Gospel are now.
Friends, we who live in the Western World are living in what can be a called an “opt in” society when it comes to church.
A few generations ago we were in an “opt out” society; that is, if you were born in the West (in Canada, in the US, in Europe) in the first half of the 20th Century, you were most likely born into a church.
Most likely: your parents went to church, their parents, the children you went to school with…everybody started life in the church. In this society, if you wanted out of church you had to “opt out”: you had to go against the grain of culture and family and society in order to leave a relationship with the church.
Today, in the 21st Century, we are living in “opt in” times. Compared to where the West was in the 50s and 60s, very few children are being born and brought up in the church. If you were born in the later part of the 20th Century or later and wanted to go to church you had to go against the grain of culture to “opt in.”
Christians today arrive in church by a variety of different paths. We have diverse experiences, diverse stories, diverse opinions, diverse theologies…but what we have in common is our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. Doubts and all.
What we have in common is a shared faith. A shared rejection of “Everybody Knows there’s no such thing as God,” a rejection of…
“And even if there was a God, Everybody Knows he wasn’t some carpenter in Israel two thousand years ago,” a rejection of…
“OK even if Jesus was God, Everybody Knows the church has moved so far from His original message that it no longer represents His justice”…
Those of us who are willing to be “foolish” enough to reject the “Everybody Knows” statements of the modern world find ourselves gathered in places such as this, talking about things such as this on Sunday mornings.
As a favorite professor of mine always said: “A tradition is an argument about the tradition”
The Christian tradition is a group of people arguing about what the Christian tradition is.
The funny thing about those around us who reject the church or who dismiss the church as something no longer relevant or faithful to Christ are themselves participating in the tradition.
These comments are still part of the conversation!
Reformed Christians became Reformed Christians by criticising the church as it existed at that time.
Today the Reformed Church strives to be not just “reformed” but “reforming.” That’s why the conversation doesn’t end. There is always a newness and a deeper faith that the Holy Spirit is calling us into!
The challenge for this church today: is to try to reach out to those who are not yet in the conversation, who are not yet part of our life-giving (and, yes, sometimes patience draining) argument.
But if we want to know how to reach those who we are not yet in conversation with, notice how Jesus does this in our Gospel lesson…
47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I 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.”
Friends, when it comes to the world in need of Christ’s love, “Everybody Knows” bread is not flesh. “Everybody Knows” that eating some special bread and saying some special prayers does not make a person live forever.
But you know what else “Everybody Knows”?
“Everybody Knows” there’s something wrong with the world we live in.
“Everybody Knows” that poverty and addiction shouldn’t be as rampant as they are.
“Everybody Knows” the human race should have scared itself out of committing genocide a long time ago.
“Everybody Knows” that political and religious leaders should be the last people on this planet who should be taking advantage of vulnerable people in their care.
“Everybody Knows” no one should be hurt or made to feel afraid because of what they either believe or do not believe in.
Whether we choose to proclaim it in faith in Christ or not, I think “Everybody Knows” that there exists…somewhere…a better version of the world that doesn’t have these sicknesses and these injustices and these problems…we Christians call it the Kingdom of Heaven; a place that’s equal parts impossible and already here.
In speaking with this crowd in John’s Gospel, Jesus knew He had an uphill battle on His hands.
He knew that what He was saying was too difficult, too strange for his own disciples let alone those who had made up their minds not to believe in Him.
Faced with such a difficult task—the task of revealing Himself as the Messiah, of revealing what He was about to accomplish on the cross to those who would not believe that God was there among them offering salvation…Jesus chose the image of “bread” to plant in their minds.
In other words…given the task of finding a visual example of how His salvation on the cross would take place…how He would be made to suffer and die in order to be resurrected on Easter morning…Jesus chose bread.
What is the connection between new life and bread?
What is the connection between the suffering and breaking of flesh on the cross and the simple wholesomeness of bread?
Bread is simple and soft; safe and life sustaining, there’s nothing threatening about bread
Flesh on the other hand…flesh is messy, flesh has blood in it, flesh is strong and yet weak, it is pure and yet polluted by sin. The visceral images of flesh: of its warmth of its sweat of its odor are not the stuff of pureness and innocence, rather they are the things of sin: the “sins of the flesh” as they are so often called, in fact.
What does the paradox of bread and flesh mean for us? For those of us who have become convinced of Jesus Christ as God-in-Flesh and those of us who are still struggling or who have returned to a place of struggling?
Jesus’ audience in John was used to the idea of a familiar bread from heaven…the bread from heaven that was the manna in the wilderness; fed from the sky to the Israelite nation and its prophets. According to biblical descriptions about this manna, it was not fancy, it was not tasty, it didn’t keep for more than a day, but it was life-sustaining, and so long as the people moved forward and had faith, they would be fed by it again.
To these people who had only read about such bread and such faith Jesus said I 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.
Compared to the “bread from heaven” of the Old Testament, the new “bread from heaven” in Jesus Christ is different.
The old bread was about “sustaining life,” the new bread is about saving it.
The old bread was a sure sign from heaven that God was on the side of Israel. The new bread requires both giver and receiver to give up their lives for it.
The old bread was…well bread. The new bread is a man from a long time ago whom John called the “Light of the World.”
The Good News is not just that Jesus Christ is God’s “bread from heaven” but also that God’s “bread from heaven” was a human being…
One who knew the struggles of our humanity.
One who was not representing God from a safe distance.
One who walked the streets we walk, who ate the food we eat, who struggled over the same doubts and temptations we struggle with.
But ultimately, one who was faithful to us, even unto death on the cross.
A wiser person than myself once said that “all of God’s gifts are cross shaped.”
So it is with bread. God’s gift of “bread from heaven” in Jesus Christ is a paradox between bread and flesh.
Between wholesomeness and unimaginable suffering
Between the calming smell of rising dough and the smell of blood and wood – what Paul called Christ’s “fragrant offering to God.”
Between faith in the life everlasting and the doubt that a humanity who would put their savior on that cross deserves such a gift.
The paradox remains open, but we can take hope in the fact that Christ went willingly to this cross to demonstrate it to us…to demonstrate His love for all of us…doubts and all.