Chilmark Community Church
August 9, 2009
“Slipping the Bonds of Earth and Heaven”
John 6:35, 41-51
Susan E. Thomas
It seems to me that in light of this morning’s lectionary reading from John that the first great task of a Messiah is to bring to an end the search for a Messiah. So what if I told you about a man whose mother knew from the beginning that he was no ordinary person. Prior to his birth, a heavenly figure appeared to her, announcing that her son would not be a mere mortal but would be divine. This prophecy was confirmed by the miraculous character of his birth. In his youth, the boy was already recognized as a spiritual teacher; his discussions with recognized experts showed his superior knowledge of all things religious. As an adult, he left home to engage in an itinerant ministry. He went from village to town with his message of good news. Proclaiming that people should forgo their concerns for the material things of this life, such as how they should dress and what they should eat. They should instead be concerned about their eternal souls.
He gathered disciples around him who were amazed by his teachings and flawless character. They became convinced that he was no ordinary person but was the Son of God. He could reportedly predict the future, heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead. However, not everyone proved friendly to his message. At the end of his life, his enemies trumped up charges against him, and he was put on trial before the Roman authorities for crimes against the state.
Following his death, his devoted followers claimed that he ascended bodily into heaven; others said that he had appeared to them, alive, and that they had talked with him and touched him. They were convinced that he was not bound by death. A number of his followers spread the good news about this man, recounting what they had seen him say and do. Eventually, some of those accounts came to written down in books circulating throughout the first-century Greco-Roman empire.
But, I doubt you’ve ever heard the name of this miracle-working “Son of God.” For, the man I’m talking about is the great neo-Pythagorean teacher and pagan holy man, Apollonius of Tyana.
Now Appollonius lived at about the time of Jesus. Even though they never met, the reports of their lives are obviously very similar. What is even more remarkable is that these were by far not the only two persons in the ancient world who were proclaimed to be Messiahs.
What is important for us this morning is to look at the message given to us by John the Evangelist about Jesus as the Christian Messiah and what it says about our Christian faith and who were are as Christians standing on this far side of history. Now, one of the first things I do when I preach about John’s Gospel is to stand back and take a few moments to explain John’s community. Who were these first readers and hearers of John’s Gospel about Jesus. It’s important to do this because in the first half or so of his Gospel, we find Jesus talking to, arguing with, and encountering “the Jews.” These statements about “the Jews” in John’s Gospel have led to many mis-readings and these mis-readings have lead to the persecution of Jews by Christians for centuries upon centuries.
So what I tell you as good church-going Christians is to understand who “the Jews” are for John and his church community and how this led John to present his stories and understandings of who Jesus was for this unique community. Now John, who was the latest of the four gospel writers, was gathering his stories and writing them down and telling them to a community of followers of Jesus who were Jews around the year 100 CE. These were Jews who were followers of Jesus but basically still living their lives as Jews. Living in community with their family and friends and neighbors who were Jews and attending synagogue, observing the Jewish holy days, and following Jewish customs and theology, except that they believed in Jesus as the Messiah. Well, somewhere along the way serious debates began about whether these Johanine Jews were abandoning Jewish monotheism by making a second God out of Jesus.
Ultimately the leaders of the synagogues expelled the Johanine Jews from the synagogues—the word in Greek is that they were “apo-synagagoed.” This break from Johanine Jews and the Jews of the synagogue meant there was also a break up of family, relatives, friends, business associates, neighbors and communities. An entire way of life fell apart for the Johanine Jews because they were also Jews who wanted to follow Jesus. Alienated and persecuted by their family and faith community, this newly forming group of a Christian community and church turned against “the Jews” who apo-synagagoed them and turned very hostile toward them. So, I want you to remember these apo-synagagoed followers of Jesus and their fledgling new church community and their leader John the Evangelist and how their being kicked-out of the Jewish community informed their statements about who Jesus was for them and their account of Jesus as Messiah story.
As we look at this morning’s passage, we find ourselves already in middle of the controversy between John’s faith community, the apo-synagagoed ones, and “the Jews” of this particular synagogue. In these brief, few verses we find in many ways some of the very core beliefs of the Christian faith—in fact, I think that if you wanted to talk with someone about what Christians believe—you could point to these few verses to explain the basic theology of Christians.
It may, however, be for some preachers and theologians to believe these verses in chapter 6-and the ones before and after to- read into them a Eucharistic theology—using them to explain what it means when the church takes Holy Communion together. But really, the bottom line, here, friends, is we need to read these verses through the lens of faith-talk—how a community of antiquity came to have faith and how we today come to share that same faith.
For, here we can talk about how God reveals God’s self to us, particularly in Jesus- as the One who has definitively slipped the bonds of earth and heaven, about what it means to have “faith” in this God and be a follower of Jesus and you could even talk about what it means bring all this together as part of the ongoing witness of Jesus as the body of Christ-the church. And, I would add this caution—that we need to do all of this all the while being mindful and respectful of our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors who are of the Jewish faith and to honor who they are and never use the Bible to make anti-Semitic statements or commit acts of violence in the name of Jesus as the Christian Messiah.
If we understand John’s Jesus in chapter 6, and in his entire Gospel, as a Jesus who is speaking to not only “the Jews” of a certain community but also is attempting to shore up these apo-synagagoed followers of Jesus and their fledgling community, then this passage makes a lot of sense.
Think about it… I ask you how would you as an apo-synagagoed follower of Jesus talk about Jesus to those who have apo-synagagoed you? What stories would your Jesus tell? What signs would he do? What metaphors would he use?— to connect with both the Jewish community and to shore up this new community of believers in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, God-with-us as both human and divine? What would Jesus have to say to convince you he is the Messiah? How would the apo-synagoged Jesus describe himself to you and show you that he is indeed the Son of God, the same God as the God of Abraham and Moses and David?
Well, like I said, I would think your Jesus would say and do everything we’ve heard in this morning’s passage. And I would also imagine, as a Jew, I would respond to what I’ve heard the way the Jews responded this morning’s passage.
First of all, John strategically locates Jesus in this passage not outside of the synagogue but on the inside. If you read ahead a bit to verse 59 John says Jesus says all these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. It’s a bold move to place Jesus physically on the inside, one that would speak volumes to those who were aposyngagoed, those on the outside now.
But, probably the most important thing John’s Jesus does to connect with these two communities is he goes right to the heart of the Jewish faith and to it’s formative narrative—the Exodus story. The story of how God heard the cries of the Jews in slavery and led them out of captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land of milk and honey, of freedom and prosperity. The story of the wilderness generation wandering but aware of God’s presence with them as God went out before them as a pillar of light and led the way. God who self-communicates with Moses, their leader for this journey. And, a God who nourished them with bread (manna) and water during their wilderness journey.
The next important thing John’s Jesus does is connect with the prophetic tradition of the Israelites. Again, the writings of the prophets were a central part of who the Jews were, a sort of record of their long history of why they enjoyed good times and prospered and why they suffered through and survived so many hard times in exile.
John’s Jesus speaks about who he is to these Jews in the Capernanum synagogue and his apo-syngagoed followers by using the central stories that are at the heart of the Jewish faith. But sooner or later it’s also time to take a radical leap of faith and begin to talk in a new way about a new faith, a new language for a new community—to make complete the break between the Jewish community and apo-syngagoed followers of Jesus. Sooner or later, it’s time to let your loved ones know that you are moving on with your life. So, you take your communication to the next level. Your Messiah says he is just that—he is God in the flesh—both human and divine—right here and right now—the Son of God with you. You, in short, become the Reveler and come out as “the living bread that came down from heaven.”
Indeed John’s Jesus is the Great Revealer, so unlike the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, making in John’s Gospel the more than 20 “I am” or in the Greek ego emi statements—constantly describing who he is. In this brief passage alone you can count the 4 ego emi statements John uses to describe Jesus as the incarnate one of God using the “I am the bread of….” metaphors. Jesus is over and over again, trying to reveal himself as the one who has indeed slipped the bonds between heaven and earth.
Now, let’s step back for a second and imagine how you might feel as a Jew having listened to this news of Jesus as the Messiah. How would you feel about having Jesus say that your traditions, your central stories about your faith have been used for a new context, to tell a new story about a new Revealer?
Well, I think we might respond to Jesus just the way John has written it here. Any one of us would be angry, puzzled, frustrated, confused, in disbelief and more. We would probably say things like “we know you—your family lives just down the way from us, just off Main Street, second house on the left, right? You’re Mary and Joseph’s son, not God’s. You went to synagogue with our boys and played with them in the streets at night. I remember the time when you were little and got lost—your parents had us all out looking for you. How can you claim to be God’s son, you are only human after all. We know you all too well, so how could someone who grew up right under our noses turn out to be the Messiah? How can you offer us eternal life, you are so, so commonplace, so flesh and blood like us? How can you be from heaven? C’mon, be on your way now, we won’t listen to any more of this kind of talk now, you hear?
The early origins of Jesus are not denied, but it takes faith to see what lies beyond them to his heavenly origins. John’s Jesus says this is exactly the place of faith. Jesus’ message here is that faith happens when we are drawn in by God. God is the one who draws us in—who reveals God’s self to us. This drawing in is the work and word of a living God who not only has been present with us throughout history, as we find in the long history of the Jews with God, but is present and at work with us in John’s community of believers and right on down to the community of the faithful here this morning. God is the one who wants to be known and knowable to us, and wants to enter into relationship with us. God is with us and for us in this world and beyond—and those who follow Jesus believe God has self-communicated in Jesus as the living bread come down from heaven so that us very earthly human beings may know God.
It’s certainly not an easy message to digest but that’s precisely the point—it is the message of faith. Faith in God revealing God’s self for us in the person of Jesus. In this passage, Jesus is the one revealed to those who are ready to listen to his message and are continually open to learning about their faith, taking that life long journey of faith all the way to life eternal.
Now I’m not going to take a poll here and ask you to raise your hand and ask if John 6 has put an end to the search for a Messiah for you or if you are still searching for a Messiah or if you are somewhere in between because I don’t want anyone here to think they’re going to be apo-synagagoed. I believe it’s much more important for us to talk about who are going forward, as those who have received the traditions about Jesus from John’s faith community but also those who have received the traditions about Jesus from Mark or Matthew or Luke’s faith community. And also, from the early church communities planted by the apostle Paul and all those church planters who came after Paul and followed his brand of Christianity. In short, I think it’s important for us to look at the whole witness of the Bible and in particular the whole tradition of what we know of as the Christian Scriptures and the Christian witness as the church community.
I remember when I was living in Atlanta there was a high school state championship track meet taking place one year in which a lot was being written in the sports section of the paper about the mile run that year because one of the high schools had a promising miler who had missed the state record by less than one second the previous week. As the story unfolded, the runners came to the state championship meet and as the mile runners lined up at the starting line, everyone was focused on this one runner. He was a tall, good-looking, and well-built young man. He looked like an athlete. And yet the crowd noticed at the other end of the line another runner who in every way was a sharp contrast to the gifted athlete. He was small in stature, his shoulders were narrow and his chest caved in, even his legs didn’t seem straight. The crowd wondered what he was doing in this race.
As the race began, the favored athlete pushed off at a fast pace. With every lap the distance between this miler and the others increased. The other fellow fell steadily behind. The leader sprinted the last 100 yards and broke the tape to a deafening cheer from the crowd. He had established a new state record! Only a few other runners bothered to cross the finish line after him, most of them dropped out, seeing that they couldn’t win.
The field crew began to bring out the hurdles for the next race. One judge, however, yelled out to them to get the hurdles off the track. Saying, “look, this race isn’t over yet!” Around the turn came the hollow-chested, spindly-legged runner, panting and struggling to keep going. The crowd fell silent and watched as he literally fell across the finish line. His face ground into the track. The judge went over to help him to his feet and asked him, “Son, why didn’t you just stop back there like the other runners?” Between gasps for air, the runner answered, “My school had a good miler, but he got sick and couldn’t come. My coach asked me to come and run this event.” “Well, son,” the judge continued, “why didn’t you just drop out? You were almost a lap behind the others?” The runner answered, “Sir, they didn’t send me here to win. They didn’t send me here to quit, either. They sent me here to run this mile, and I ran it.”
Friends, God did not call us as Christians to be “winners” of a particular faith and to lord our Lord over others like some victory to be gained. And yet, God did not call us as Christians to quit when we have questions about our faith about how God reveals God’s self to us and how and what it is we have faith and what we believe about Jesus. But, God does communicate to us as followers and as the church community in particular to go and run this race—to the best of our ability, asking our questions – searching—all along the way while not giving up. In fact the definition of “theology” is faith seeking understanding. The minister James Luther Adams used to tell his congregation that “an unexamined faith is not worth living.”
So we are here today with all of our faith and our questions, with our fears and with our hopes, with devotion and dread to accept by faith that God promises to be present with us. God is, after all, big enough to accept us with our faith and with our questions and draws us in and shores us up for the race that lies ahead. God has promised to be present in our midst, even in the midst of our search for a Messiah—loving us, encouraging us, guiding us, and giving us hope all of our life long.
Friends, never shrink from this good news—only be on a lifelong quest to learn what it means to be drawn in by God and to be taught by God and to hear the good news of God. This is the alternative story that Jesus tells as the one who has slipped the bonds between earth and heaven, the story of abundance, of enough bread for all. Know that you are each called to tell this story and to offer your self and your gifts to do the work of Jesus in ministry.
If you’re wondering where to start—maybe our reading from the letter to the church in Ephesus is as good a place as any to start. Start by realizing that we are all neighbors, members of one another and that therefore we all need to honor and respect one another. We could start by not letting evil talk come out of our mouths, but only what is good for the building up of the community—for the grace that is needed for today. Maybe we could continue to learn to put away our bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and the like. Instead we could continue to try to be kind to one another, tender-hearted, and forgiving of one another. In short, we could be imitators of God and could continue to learn to live in the same love that Jesus showed us. In those moments we too will know what it is like to slip the bonds between earth and heaven and touch the face of God. Amen.