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Sermon, August 8, 2021 Pentecost 11

A Gift for Us (Part 2 of 4)

Today’s Gospel reading continues from John’s Bread of Life Discourse (6:25-69), Jesus faces the hostility of the crowds when he declares that he is the bread from heaven who will bring eternal life to all who have faith in him. After all, they know his father Joseph and do not take seriously the idea that Jesus is God incarnate (cf Mk. 6:3). To be from heaven and to be able to give life to others was unimaginable to them and brought all other claims Jesus had made into question. Yet for John, to recognize that Jesus was from God was the source of faith itself.

In response, Jesus calls them to refrain from complaining among themselves. These people show similar unbelief to the “murmuring” Hebrews of the Exodus (Ex. 15:24; 16:2; 17:3). However, Jesus goes on to say that one does not come to him by personal effort. Instead, God initiates the response: “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (v. 44). In verse 45, Jesus recalls Isaiah 54:13 to draw on the established belief that “all people will be taught by God.” This prophecy was now being fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus. This is the only time that the Gospel of John makes reference to the prophets.

To be taught by God is to hear and accept Jesus. The law, which has been exclusive to the Judaic tradition, is no longer the source of God’s instruction and revelation. Now God’s teaching will come through Jesus and will be available to all who believe. No one has seen the Father except Jesus; so he is the only one who can make the Father known. And whoever believes in him has eternal life (v. 47).

The miraculous bread in the wilderness ensured survival when the Hebrews faced starvation; but all those who ate the manna eventually died. In a similar manner, the feeding of the five thousand provided temporary physical nourishment. However, the living bread that Jesus himself offers leads to eternal life: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (v. 50). Furthermore, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (v. 51b). While Jesus’ words of self-giving suggest Eucharistic themes, the primary issue here is Jesus’ gift of himself, as his body will be sacrificed for the life of the world at his crucifixion. As the bread of life, Jesus restores all creation to wholeness.

In our first reading, The Prophet Elijah had incurred the wrath of Queen Jezebel by defeating the Baal prophets in a contest. He called down fire from heaven as a manifestation of God’s power and then had all the prophets put to the sword (1 Ki. 18:20- 40). In retaliation, Jezebel determined to have Elijah killed.

Desperate and in fear for his life, Elijah fled into the wilderness where he prayed to the Lord that he might die (cf Jonah 4:3). Although he had successfully bested the Baal prophets and was now out of reach of Jezebel, Elijah was in deep despair. Alone in the wilderness, away from his country and people, the prophet saw the future as hopeless.

Exhausted, Elijah fell asleep under a broom bush. An angel appeared and told him to arise and eat, for there was food and drink provided for him. Elijah did as he was told and once again fell asleep.

The angel appeared a second time, commanding him to “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you” (v. 7). This offer is more than food; it is also an invitation to hope and to trust God’s purposes. After Elijah ate and drank, he had enough strength to travel for forty days and forty nights to a cave at the mountain of God at Horeb — the same mountain where Moses had received the commandments.

The forty days and nights of Elijah’s journey recall Israel’s forty years in the wilderness as well as the forty days that Moses spent on Mt. Horeb, not eating or drinking while he received the words of God’s covenant. As it was with the provision of manna in the Exodus wilderness, the Lord watched over Elijah and provided sustenance for him. All was not lost; and after encountering God in the “sound of sheer silence” (v. 12), Elijah once again took up the tasks that the Lord commanded him.

Psalm 34 expresses Elijah’s sense of gratitude for deliverance from danger: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears” (v. 4). Thus the Psalmist invites others to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (v. 8a)—to experience the Divine goodness that abounds and brings fullness of life to those who come to God.

Perhaps this is what happened to the crowd with Jesus: they knew too much for Jesus’ words to ring true. Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (Jn. 6:41). The Judeans object. They murmur among themselves. These are the insiders, the ones who know the history — they know how God does things and how things should be done. They also know Jesus’ origins. “Who does he think he is?” they mutter. “Claiming to have come down from heaven? We know his folks. We know he came from Nazareth, not from heaven!” (v. 42). These Judeans also know their scripture. “The bread from heaven was the manna fed to our ancestors back in the time of Moses,” they correctly point out. And these Judeans know the law. “The Lord God said, ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods.’” They know it all.

Maybe they know too much. Or perhaps they really don’t know enough. A pre-seminary student wrote an editorial to a seminary student newspaper espousing the use of doughnuts and coffee or pretzels and beer as the elements in the Eucharist. When this was protested by a student in the seminary, the professor quietly said to the students gathered around him, “Remember, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and it can lead us to the wrong conclusions.”

The student only knew a little. In retrospect, so don’t we all. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and it can lead us to the wrong conclusions. When it comes to God, and even to the Church, we know only a little. Like all living things, the Church — and our understanding of God — continues to grow and to change. And so, to know only a little, and to think the little that we know is all that there is to know, can be fatal. These Judeans had some head knowledge about God; perhaps they did not know God by heart or by trust.

Jesus says to them, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (Jn. 6:45). The Judeans knew some things, but their knowing was limited, and they let it close their ears, shut their hearts, and limit their vision. They were unable to hear and know what God was trying to show them. They had made up their minds and did not want to be confronted with what Jesus tried to teach them.

Jesus is not calling us to abandon our knowledge and tradition as if they still cannot teach, help, and guide us. Jesus cautions us that our knowledge will not give us absolute answers or a foolproof plan to make things right. God’s answer is rarely to reassure us that our knowledge and understanding are correct. If anything, God uses our knowledge to give a purpose, a journey, and a direction — namely, to trust and follow Jesus.[i]

So, our task this morning on this Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, is to, once again, place our trust in Jesus knowing that he will provide for us everything we need for the journey ahead.  Knowing full well that we have much to learn.

There’s more to follow.  Amen.

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[i]  Craig A. Satterlee at Workingpreacher.org (8/7/2015).

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