Proper 13 (18)  |  John 6:24-35

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.


Bread is evil, or so the internet tells us. Never mind that we humans have looked upon bread as our most basic foodstuff for millennia — now we hear that eating bread makes us fat, inclines us to diabetes, and perhaps even to worse things than that.

I do not intend to give it up. I like bread. Any food so central to the human experience as to become a symbol of life itself is worth keeping.

FreshBread_wideBread is the metaphor that Jesus repeatedly uses for himself and for God’s relationship to humanity. “I am the bread of life,” he says in the Gospel of John. Later in the same Gospel, Jesus uses even more vivid language, declaring that his followers must take and consume his broken body. Some Romans — not surprisingly — wondered whether early Christians were cannibals. These words of Jesus, combined with descriptions of the ritual of communion, raised doubts.

None of it was meant literally, of course. Jesus was not urging people to take a bite out of him. He may not even have meant to limit the metaphor to himself. So much attention goes to his claim of being the bread of life that we gloss over the preceding statement: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

That which comes and gives life — that is a much broader statement. It is no longer just bread, no longer just Jesus. How about light and warmth? How about the air we breathe, the water we drink, the trillions of atoms, molecules, interactions, and energy sustaining us?

What about the touch of a loved one, the smile of a child, the kindness of a stranger? What are they but a trail of breadcrumbs leading to God?

They sustain us as surely as our daily bread.

Daily bread — it is a phrase we have from the prayer Jesus taught his followers. The Greek word is επιούσιος, epiousios, and it is a peculiar one. It is a hapax legomenon, a word or saying found only in one context, in this case the Lord’s prayer. Matthew and Luke each contain versions of the prayer, drawing on the same source and preserving this odd term.

επιούσιος might mean daily, or needed, or necessary. It might mean something else altogether. We have nothing for comparison, no other use of the term.

Perhaps it means “that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”— that kind of bread.

For people of faith, everything that sustains us is the gift of God. Such faith-speak puts off those who are wary of the not-yet-known, and anything dressed in God-language is rejected by the devoutly non-religious. Nevertheless, what we couch in the language of faith does not loose its reality or power.

Knowing that the effusive light bathing our world is flung to us in particles and waves from the star at the center of our planet’s orbit does not harm my faith. Light, energy emitted by the sun, is natural. As the warmth on my child’s face, it is miraculous. The one thing does nothing to lessen the other.

On a hot August day, understanding how ice cream is made does nothing to lessen the wonder of it. Knowing the science of baking bread does not diminish the taste of it.

The ritual of communion has been explained by theologians so many ways. For some, the bread is miraculously, if metaphysically, the actual body of Christ. For others, God is present in some way that is just beyond expression or comprehension, somehow behind or with the bread. For still others, the bread is merely a symbol, a way of imagining the simple and sustaining gift of God’s presence.

No matter how we explain a symbol, the reality behind it remains. No matter how long the trail of crumbs that lead back to the origin of life on this planet, all that sustains us is of God. Explanations of love need not stand in the way of experiencing it.

"The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci
“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci

The Other Side

Proper 11 (16) | Mark 6:30-56

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

The Other Side

He was tired. He must have been.

He tried to take some time off, to lead his friends and followers on a retreat, out in the wilderness away from it all, but when they got to the spot they found that everyone had gotten there ahead of them.

It was a little like going to Yellowstone to enjoy nature only to find bus loads of tourists everywhere you go. And these people haven’t come to look at the bears. They’ve come by the bus load with the sole purpose of finding you.

It was the same wherever Jesus went, first one crowd and then another. He took a boat, aiming to land at a nice secluded spot, but it’s hard to hide a boat on the water and the people came, a great throng of them, to find him.

I would have been irritable, cross, put out. If Jesus was, he covered it well. He seemed to reflect that while he had sailed to this unplanned rendezvous, these thousands of people had walked the long way round to find him. He saw that they needed it so badly, wanted it so much. So instead of leading a retreat for a few friends, he led one for a few thousand folk, talking to them, even managing to feed them.

Jesus tried again. After he had dismissed the people, some of them no doubt lingering while he urged them to head home, he sent his friends back across the water in the boat.

Painting - Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee
“Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee” by Rembrandt. 1633. Stolen 1990, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, current whereabouts unknown.

There they were, his friends, out on the Sea of Galilee. The story says that he had gone up on a mountain where he could probably see their progress. He was trying for some alone time. Maybe he got a little rest before the storm rolled in.

He watched the cloud line, felt the wind, watched the waves grow, and he knew that his friends would be afraid. People who know nothing about the water can be afraid of it. People like some of his friends, lifelong boatmen and fisherfolk, know enough to be terrified of what a sudden squall can do to them.

And he saved them, of course. It’s a famous story. Jesus walked on the stormy water, in the semidarkness of the early hours, and he calmed the storm and joined them in the boat.

There are some odd details.

For one thing, the story says that he meant to pass them by. We can’t quite tell whether he meant to pass by unseen or to pass by so that they would see him—probably the former. Never mind how he was managing to walk on the water. For another thing, Mark’s Gospel says that when he got into the boat, the wind ceased, without being clear as to whether it was cause and effect or happenstance, though we are inclined to see another miracle. Of course, this miracle meant that the rest of them had to start rowing.

When they reached the other shore, people recognized Jesus and started bringing crowds and fetching sick relatives, expecting Jesus to heal them. One might imagine a doctor finally opening a clinic in a remote valley of Appalachia. The people brought their sick and put them on mats, in the streets where Jesus would pass, in the marketplaces of their villages. It must have been a sight, and an unsettling one, his path bordered and measured by people who needed him. Some of them wanted more than others. Some only wanted to touch his robe, either to make the experience more physical or to let some power move through the touch, and he let them.

Of course, he did.

The people in our path—it’s all so obvious isn’t it?—we help them, though it would be nice if the Gospel were clearer on the whole walking-on-water and calming-storms and healing-people miracle thing. There are no explanations of the mechanism by which it works, if it still works at all. It’s a God thing.

Painting by Delacroix - Christ Calming the Tempest
“Christ Calming the Tempest” by Eugène Delacroix

We’re left to do what we do, and we watch for God to do what God might do, and we call the whole experience faith. It is a sometimes unsatisfactory arrangement, depending on one’s expectations.

When God passes us by, for instance, is it to remain unseen or in the hope that we’ll notice? Of course, the atheist would say that nobody is passing by—it is only the wind, or an idea, and no one knows where those come from or where they will go.

Faith is remaining open to the possibilities. It is not being stupid. It is being imaginative, hopeful, open, and humble enough to suppose that we are not the greatest thing in the universe.

The wind doesn’t listen to us, or if it does, it seldom agrees. We’re rubbish at walking on water. That sort of thing is God stuff, and not our job anyway.

Even in matters of faith, we don’t get to do the God things, which is good. We do the follower things. Our hugs do not heal, but they may help. We walk alongside the needy, like a kind non-believer might do, with the difference that we hope God is walking on their other side whether or not anyone notices.

We feed the hungry people, and we talk to the lonely ones, believing that God was already in the business of doing that before we got there. We think that the opportunity to help is also a God thing—not making people needy, but helping us to see them when they are.

Maybe, as some people claim, there were no miracles in that story. Maybe there were stepping stones in the sea, and everyone had food stashed away, and Jesus just got them to share. Maybe the storm just ended, as they all do.

Regardless, something happened around the shores of Galilee, something different enough that we have four gospels telling the stories. Something happened that makes us look more kindly on one another, something that helps us respond when needier people reach out and touch us.

That’s pretty miraculous. That’s a God thing.

Beasts of Burdens

Beasts of Burdens  |  Matthew 23:1-12

When Jesus finished the tirade that fills this chapter of Matthew, you can almost imagine him walking out of the temple to the sound of the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden”.

Ok, almost.Lioness

It takes little imagination to understand that this is a tirade, though. The entire chapter is one long unrelenting indictment. Jesus declares no less than seven ‘woes’ upon the religious leaders for the burdens that their expectations lay upon the faithful.

If you have been around churches (or, I expect, synagogues, or temples of almost any established faith) for any length of time, then you know what Jesus was talking about. You will also have come to expect the usual twist in the exploration of such a passage—that we are invited to apply Jesus’ words to our own hearts, to our own expectations of those around us, and to the unwanted, unfair and unbearable burdens that our expectations place upon them.

Only slightly less anticipated is the interpretation that we should examine our own expectations of ourselves. We not only try to carry the unnecessary burdens of meeting the expectations of other people, but we also stumble under the weight of our own self-criticism, collapse under the burden of our self-expectations, and go wobbly-legged from the unmerited idea that we have no intrinsic worth, value, or strength.

There is one over-arching trajectory to be found in Jewish and Christian scripture, and that is the movement of God toward humanity. From the Old Testament images of God as smoke and fire, untouchable, unfaceable, and unknowable, to the Christian revelation of the physical incarnation of God in the person of Jesus the Christ, Messiah, the only unwavering message is one of God loving, valuing, treasuring, restoring, and redeeming all of humanity, each one of the teeming crowd of humanity, and all that we have touched and that has touched us.

Horses on the hill

So let’s consider Jesus’ tirade from the point of view that it could apply to our cruel criticisms of other people, our unrealistic expectations of the people around us. There’s a lot to learn from that exercise. And let’s consider Jesus’ tirade from the point of view that it could apply to our own inner dialogue, the cruel criticisms and unrealistic expectations that we lay on our ourselves. There is a lot to unpack right there, and all of it is useful.

While we’re at it, let’s also consider the possibility—the slight, often overlooked possibility—that Jesus was yelling at precisely the people he meant to yell at. Maybe, just maybe, we ought to allow the Messiah, God incarnate, that much credit. God yelled at whom God wished to yell: the leaders, the teachers, the people with credentials. People like me who presumed to say something about faith. The people who claimed to know something about God. The people in charge.

Jesus is saying we should question authority. What? Did you think they thought that stuff up in the 1960s? There is nothing new under the sun. (Wait, did someone already say that?)

We get to question the people who claim to teach us and those people who presume to preach to us. In particular, we need to question the teachings of anyone who doesn’t like our questions. The ones who are worth listening to are the ones who will welcome your questions, even your differing views.

Matthew portrays Jesus, just prior to embarking on this scathing criticism of the religious leaders gathered around him, sharing the greatest commandment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That is not blind faith. It is open minded exploration. It is bare souled honesty. It is walking toward God with eyes wide open. It is tossing out all of the things we thought we knew about God in order to know God. It is realizing that our preconceived notions of God are rubbish. It is realizing that if God is real, if anything we understand about God is at all true, then this is a God who already knows more bad things about each and all of us than we ourselves realize or can admit, and yet who keeps loving us.

Relentless. That is what God’s love is. Relentless. Interminable. Unceasing. Tireless. Endless. Ruthless. And therefore it is also unfathomable. Incomprehensible.

Question anybody who leaves you wondering what you might do to get God to love you. There isn’t anything you can do. It is not about what we do. It’s about Who God Is.

Mountains with Clouds 2 010

What It Means

What It Means  |  Matthew 18:15-20

In The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya says to Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

BaboonInigo should try listening to religious people explaining what the Bible means. I can imagine him replying, “You keep using that book. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The lectionary hands us a few words from Matthew to consider this week. In the middle of the passage, this Gospel records Jesus talking about a man who refuses to listen to the faults that other people find in him. Jesus says, “Let him be to you as the pagan and the tax collector.”

That sounds pretty simple, even satisfying. Practical. Just turn your back on the cretin and get on with your life. But hold on a second—if this Gospel was written by a tax collector, as tradition holds, we might stop to wonder. Let him be to you as…the tax collector. Maybe it does not mean what we think it means.

Most of us want to hear a word of rejection, absolving us for writing off the miserable , unreasonable heathens who offend us. We might stop to remember a miserable man in a hated profession, despised by everyone with any sense and a few coins to rub together, who was called to be a close disciple of the Lord—Matthew. More than that, if the tradition is true, this same wretched cheat wrote one of the four gospels. This Gospel, the one we’re talking about.

Now I ask, what does it mean when Jesus says, “Let him be to you as the pagan and the tax collector”?

Consider something else in this short passage. We keep hearing of two or three gathering together. We keep hearing of people talking, agreeing, asking.

Jesus isn’t talking about judgment. He is encouraging communication and reconciliation. He ‘s not talking about authority, but about true power—a different thing altogether—found in community and shared faith. In the context of this Gospel, the one who fails to listen still remains a potential friend and follower of God.

Hard headed pagans and money grubbing fiends don’t fall outside the circle of God’s grace. Given time, and given God, even they may come around and offer us a story worth hearing.

Who knows? When we finally hear their story, we might find that we were the ones who hadn’t been listening all along.


Finding Your Spark – Pentecost

Pentecost  |  John 20:19-23, John 7:37-39, Acts 2:1-21

Were they waiting or were they hiding?

There were about one hundred and twenty of them in all, gathered somewhere according to Acts (which is really Luke II, the Sequel.) The group included the inner circle of followers and Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. Luke is careful to record that Jesus told his followers to wait until they had received the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, we are told, the Spirit descended upon these followers like sparks falling from the sky.

Sparklers Adj 026John told the story differently, or perhaps told a different part of it. In the words of this gospel, Jesus himself appears and breathes upon his followers, conferring in some mystical way the Spirit of God upon these men and women. In this version, they were all definitely hiding behind locked doors out of fear, fear that the Romans and the temple leadership would do to them what had been done to Jesus.

Perhaps they were both hiding and waiting. At any rate, by the time about seven weeks had passed and the religious festival of Pentecost or Shavuot began (commemorating Moses receiving the law directly from the Lord,) something radical happened. Either the Spirit fell upon them, or they realized that they already were touched by God.

They found their spark.

Whether you read John or Luke or Acts, this story is not anything that you can really accept strictly on an intellectual basis. There appear to be contradictions. There is the troublesome detail of the appearance of tongues of flame. Either people speak in languages that they did not previously know or other people begin to understand foreign languages as their own. It would be interesting to hear an explanation of this narrative from the perspective of group psychology. It would be interesting, and it would not be a matter of faith.

We want to understand things. We want to know the reasons, explain the magic trick, be able to tell why an apple turns brown after you bite it. There are limits to reason, though. We can explain a great many things, but our explanation has little to do with whether we have faith in them. When you are jumping out of an airplane, understanding how a parachute works is extremely helpful. Having faith in the person who packed your chute is even better.

Understanding informs our faith, but it is not our faith.

John also records that Jesus stood and cried out, “The one believing in me, as the scripture has said, out of him will flow living water.” Living water, he says—the spring of life, the Holy Spirit. No fire falling, no blowing wind, but the Spirit of God flowing quietly from within until suddenly we notice.

Life can be surprisingly simple and surprisingly complex. Often we find ourselves hiding, either hiding from something or hiding something that is within us. We find ourselves waiting, sometimes for years, and sometimes for something that we finally realize we had all along.

Perhaps this is a good moment to remember the words of the late Maya Angelou from Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now. “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”

We may not ever be able to explain what happened to those early Christians at Pentecost. Maybe they hid and they waited until they simply changed the way they thought about what they were waiting for. Either way, there is no need to understand everything, and there is no need to wait for God to change the things around us—that may be for us to do ourselves. Pentecost means that God is already changing the things within us, the things that matter, the things that last. Eternal life has less to do with the time that passes by us than with the Spirit that flows within us.