Bread of Heaven

As part of my sermon preparation this week, I spent time rewatching video of Abbot and Costello’s old comedy sketch, “Who’s on First?” (I know, I have a hard job.) I don’t know how many times I have seen this video over the years, but I still find it funny. Part of what makes the whole scene comical is that Abbott and Costello use the same simple words, but they are using them to convey different meanings.

The scene in the middle of John 6, where Jesus and the crowd are talking about the meaning of the miraculous feeding, is like listening to Abbot and Costello. Jesus and the crowd are using the same words, but they keep talking past each other. They are using the same words to mean different things.

Jesus says, “You follow me because I fed you bread.” The crowd says, “Feed us always, like our ancestors who ate the manna from heaven in the wilderness.” Jesus says, “God gives the true bread from heaven, and this bread gives life.” The crowd says, “Yes, give us this bread from heaven always!” Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.”

The crowd wants to know what this bread is, where it is, how to get it. Jesus says the bread from heaven is not a what but a who, and the way you get the bread from heaven is by accepting it as a gift from God.

We do not always find humor in talking past one another. Sometimes when we use the same words and realize we mean different things with the same words, we get frustrated and angry. Countless divisions and conflicts in the church come about through using the same words to mean different things: salvation, sanctification, communion. Our different understandings of communion have caused some of the worst fights in the church.

This conversation between Jesus and the crowd reminds us that communion exceeds more than we can sometimes put into words. The meaning of the bread we eat and the wine we drink at the Lord’s table is more than our minds can comprehend. It is life-giving. It is a gift from heaven. It is a participation in the bread of life, Jesus Christ


I Am: Do Not Fear

When I was a young boy visiting my great-grandparents, I would sleep on a mattress on the floor of my great-grandfather’s room.

One night, I woke up and was confused about where I was. It was very dark in the room, and I could hardly make out my surroundings. Suddenly I realized there was a figure standing over me in the doorway.

I wanted to cry out, but I was so terrified I could not make a noise. The figure standing there softly spoke my name, “Max.”

At the sound of the voice, my fear and terror were replaced with a sense of peace and security. I recognized that voice as the voice of my father and felt safe. As I calmed down, I also remembered where I was and why I was not in my bed.

In the middle of John 6, the disciples find themselves in a boat at night with a storm raging around them. They look up and see a figure approaching them. John says it is when they see the figure that the disciples become afraid. Then Jesus identifies himself and the disciples are moved from fear to welcoming Jesus into their midst.

Unlike my father who spoke my name that night, when Jesus identifies himself to the disciples, he says, “I Am.” Most translations render that as “It is I.” However, the more literal translation is simply, “I Am.”

‘I Am’ goes back to the story of Moses in Exodus 6. When Moses asks for God’s name, the initial response is simply, ‘I Am.’

John plays on this understanding of the divine name throughout his gospel. There are a series of sayings where Jesus identifies himself as bread, water, gate shepherd, etc. All these images are introduced as I am the bread of heaven, I am the gate, etc. But there are a few stories where Jesus just speaks, ‘I Am.’ In these simple ‘I Am’ passages, Jesus’ divine nature emerges, his ability to transcend our immediate needs and concerns.

In this scene on the Lake, Jesus says, “I Am: do not fear.” Because Jesus is, we do not have to fear the storms. We can welcome him into our midst and find safety and comfort in the midst of the chaos.

Sheep Without A Shepherd

The second half of chapter six in the Gospel of Mark is a great summertime read. Jesus and his disciples plan a little retreat, a mini-vacation, some time away from the pressing crowds and their demands.

Chapter six begins with the story of Jesus’ unsuccessful ministry in his hometown of Nazareth. In verse thirty, the disciples return from their successful ministry tour. They desire to share with Jesus what they were able to teach and do in ministry. However, they keep getting interrupted by the crowds. Jesus suggests that they sneak away in the boat to a quiet little place away from the crowds.

Finding a quiet little corner tucked away where we can have Jesus all to ourselves is not easy though. As Jesus and the disciples head out, the crowd, hungry for the ministry of Jesus, guesses where they are heading and rush there ahead of them on foot.

Can you imagine the reaction of the disciples as they round the cove where Jesus has directed them so they can have their quiet little sabbatical and see the shoreline covered with people; people hungry for the healing touch of Jesus, people hungry for the life-giving teaching of Jesus?

Mark does not give us the reaction of the disciples. Instead, he tells us about how Jesus views these people. Jesus looks at them with compassion. He sees them as sheep without a shepherd (v. 34).

In Numbers 27, when God tells Moses that Moses is about to die, Moses asks for a successor, so that the people of Israel do not become like “sheep without a shepherd.”

Early on in her history, Israel adopts the image of the shepherd for the leader of the people. The kings of Israel and Judah are often called shepherds. Those kings who lead the people in faithfulness to God are called good shepherds. Those kings who get attracted to worshipping other gods or serving their selfish ends as leaders of the people are called bad shepherds.

Part of David’s greatness as a king is related to the skills he learned as a shepherd, providing food and water, leading the people of God to greener pastures, protecting them from enemies. Psalm 23 describes God with these shepherding characteristics of caring and providing for God’s people.

The second half of Mark chapter six illustrates Jesus as this type of good shepherd. He sees the crowd as a wandering flock, stops to feed them with his teaching and then with a miraculous meal. Jesus is the shepherd who is concerned about us as spiritual and physical beings.


The Fame of Jesus

In the middle of Mark 6, we get a glimpse of just how fast knowledge of Jesus began to spread. After hearing about Jesus sending his disciples out in groups to further his message and ministry of the kingdom of God, verse 14 says that news of all this was spreading so far and so fast that Herod, the ruler of Galilee, even heard of it. Religious authorities have noticed Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry. Now the political authorities are beginning to take notice.

This Herod is one of the sons of Herod the Great, the king who ruled at the birth of Jesus. The son was denounced by John the Baptist for marrying his brother’s wife. To pull this wedding off, Herod had to divorce his own wife, who was the daughter of Aretas, king of the nearby Nabateans. Aretas, to save family honor, attacks Herod and takes part of his territory. Then Herod marries Herodias, who was previously married to his brother. In case that’s not enough palace intrigue, Herodias was niece to both these sons of Herod the Great. Herod does not seem like one who would bother to take note of whatever the latest religious phenomenon is sweeping Galilee.

Herod did take some interest in John the Baptist, who was introduced back in chapter 1 of Mark’s story as the forerunner of Jesus. Herod’s main interest seems to be that John would not stop talking about how wrong it was for Herod to divorce his wife and marry his brother’s wife who was also his niece. Let’s be honest, John had a lot to talk about here. And, Herod did not know quite what to make of John, for though he put him in prison, he would listen to him gladly.

Herod, who is supposed to be in control and running things, actually comes across rather pathetic in this story. He does not rule so much as he is ruled by his passions and his desire to not lose any honor. When the daughter of Herodias, his new wife, dances before Herod and his court at a lavish party, Herod promises to give her whatever she desires. Encouraged by her mother, the daughter asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod, the once willing listener to John’s preaching, grants the request.

So when Herod hears of a new religious fervor sweeping Galilee, He is amazed to learn that it is attached to a new name, Jesus. Some say this person is no ordinary person but a prophet, like one of the prophets of old: Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Amos. Some say surely this figure is Elijah, come back to bring in a new messianic era. Herod joins the voices of those who say, “Surely, this person is John the Baptist, raised from the dead.”

Whatever Herod has heard and thinks about Jesus, he does not know Jesus. It is not enough to just gather bits and pieces of information about Jesus, to be aware of his fame. There is nothing like knowing Jesus. If Herod knew Jesus, he would have known that he was one greater than the prophets, Elijah, and even John.

Amazing Jesus

We read lots of stories in the gospels of people being amazed at what Jesus can do: heal the sick, raise the dead, teach with authority, walk on water. We still find ourselves amazed at some of the events in the life of Jesus over 2,000 years later. What we may read over and forget is the story about how we can amaze Jesus.

In Mark 6:1-6 we read about Jesus returning to his hometown. It is obvious that these people know him well. They name his family members, know where his mother lives, and probably even know his favorite Psalm to sing. What they do not know is where he gets the power to do the things they have heard about Jesus doing in other places.

Mark tells us they are scandalized by Jesus. They have tried to place Jesus in all their known and familiar containers: Mary’s son, brother of James, carpenter. Healing and teaching are not skills learned in any of these categories. So where did Jesus get this power?

The people of Nazareth are not so much amazed by what Jesus does as by the fact that Jesus does these things. They have stumbled over their familiarity with Jesus. They know him so well, they cannot believe he is able to do such things.

This is when we uncover what amazes Jesus: unbelief. Mark says Jesus was able to do very little in his hometown. He healed a few sick people but was not able to do any great miracle like he had done in other parts of Galilee or even in Gentile territory across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was amazed that his hometown crowd could not believe in his ability to do such things.

Imagine Jesus coming to his own people and turning away, amazed that their unbelief keeps them from experiencing some of the radical outbreaks of God’s kingdom like feeding thousands or casting out demons. What deeds of power might Jesus be trying to work among his people, the church, today? Are we limiting what Jesus can do among us by trying to contain him in familiar categories and labels?

Of course, Jesus will not be limited by our unbelief, any more than he was limited by the people of Nazareth that day. Instead, Jesus goes forward and expands his mission by enlisting his disciples to begin carrying his message and mission forward.

Grace-filled Interruptions

Some of our favorite stories of Jesus’ ministry occur in response to interruptions.

Jesus is teaching all day and the disciples come to him and say, “Send the people away to get something to eat.” Jesus feeds the crowd of over 5, 000 with five loaves and two fish (Mark 6).

On another day when Jesus is teaching, parents push their children to be close to Jesus. The disciples try sending the children away, but Jesus places them front and center and says, “Let the children come to me. The kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (Mark 10.)

In Mark 5, Jesus is on his way to heal a little girl. While walking the crowded streets, a woman reaches out to touch the edge of his clothes. Jesus stops and asks the crowd, “Who touched me?”

These stories are not about how these people interrupt the important teaching and healing of Jesus. They are stories of how Jesus interrupts the way we think things are supposed to be. In each story, Jesus stops what he is doing and devotes himself to the situation at hand. His grace-filled response is why we remember these stories still today.

Jesus interrupts our ideas of where food comes from and how we have to receive it. Jesus interrupts our ideas of who is important and should be allowed in the center of activity. Jesus interrupts our ideas about who is worthy of notice and needs healing.

In his book Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen tells about visiting a former colleague at the University of Notre Dame. As they walked across the campus, the older professor commented, “my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work” (Doubleday: 1986, p. 56).

I am not saying every demand on our time is of equal worth. We are bombarded with robocalls and infomercials that can drain precious time from family, friends, or work. But there are times in our lives when the real difference has been the grace we experienced in the unexpected encounter, the event that seemed to ruin our daily schedule, or the meal from unexpected resources in the most unlikely place.

Trinitarian Living

This Sunday is designated as Trinity Sunday in many Western churches. It is not that these churches forget about the Trinity the other 51 Sundays of the year (well hopefully it’s not like that.) This day is just set aside to lift up the Christian understanding that we worship one God who is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Doubtless, there will be lots of sermons devoted to the Trinity. The problem that troubles many of these sermons is trying to explain the Trinity; say too much and it is easy to go beyond the official teaching of 3-in-1, say too little and you might end of with just one being, say too much and you might end up with three unrelated beings.

Saint Augustine realized this danger years ago. In his book on the Trinity, Augustine first surveys the works of other early theologians on the Trinity. Augustine notes that many struggled when they ventured to explain the Trinity. Often they made the Trinity sound like a mathematical problem: 1+1+1=1 Augustine saw the Trinity not as a mathematical problem to be solved but as a model of Christian living.

For Augustine, the Trinity is a model of how Christians are called to live int he world. The Trinity is the original unity in diversity. For Christians, devoted to worshipping and following the 3-in-1 God, the Trinity calls us to live in fellowship with God and neighbor.

Arguments from the days of the early church about how many persons and whether or not they were all one same essence, were not esoteric hair-splitting just to get the doctrine correct. Doctrine was seen as guidelines, stage directions for living the Christian life.

The Trinity is about how we see and understand God, but like Isaiah (Isaiah 6), our vision of God leads to a new way of living in the world. A trinitarian understanding should lead to a trinitarian lifestyle. Such living places us, like Isaiah, before the holiness of God. Here we see our solidarity with others, “I am a person of unclean who lives in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Yet cleansed by God, we are sent forth to share with others the what God has made known to us, with our lives as well as our lips.