This Is Not How You Learned Christ!, Proper 13 (B) – 2003
August 03, 2003
This is not how you learned Christ!
We are never satisfied. This is what the Exodus stories reveal over and over again. We are never satisfied. What is it that we want? We long to return from exile, but then we wish we had stayed in Egypt, “when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” The manna falls from heaven, but we clamor for meat.
The stories are familiar to all of us: The people eat their fill and are satiated, but they are not satisfied. The writers of the Pentateuch bring this reality out with a repetition that shocks us. Ingratitude toward God and God’s servants and forgetfulness of the God who brought them out of Egypt are not attractive qualities, but they are human qualities, and the writers and editors were realists. They were not going to hide the sin and greed of the people in order to pretend that their ancestors were better than they were; they told the truth about human nature. What we fail to understand and fail to perceive is that which lies beneath the stories. We have become such literalists that we fail to see the truth.
Literalism does not reveal truth: it hides it. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus tries to get the people to look beyond the literal to the truth of God’s revelation. But they refuse to see it. “You are not looking for me because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves,” Jesus tells them, and there is no greater realist than Jesus. He knows that they are looking for actual food that fills only the stomach. They want works and he shows them work. They ask: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answers them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
They want miracles that will make their lives easier, but he wants them to see that there is only one work that matters: once that is realized all else falls into place. But for them (and for us) magic is easier than faith, and they don’t want to listen. If the promised Messiah was to repeat the miracle of manna in the wilderness, then it is this story, which they take literally, that they want to see reenacted. Jesus has just fed them; they were hungry because of staying on the hills and listening to his words, and he had compassion for them. But they continue to want the actual thing-the literal answer. And there is no literal answer given, because Jesus knows that it leaves us just as hungry as before. Jesus says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
They keep asking for actual food, and Jesus keeps telling them that it is another kind of food that matters. This portion of Chapter Six in John is like an echo of the longing for water in Chapter Four of the same Gospel. In that story, the Samaritan woman keeps talking about the actual water of the well and Jesus offers her the water of eternal life. She also does not understand. She also is literal. Finally Jesus reveals himself to her as the one who possesses and brings the water of life to those who trust him.
On this occasion, when they are talking about actual bread, he reveals to them that he is “the bread of life.” Again they do not understand. They know him, after all. He is the son of Joseph and Mary, and they have known his parents, so how can he be other than what they know?
Again the literal clashes with truth. What is water? What is bread? What is the actual thing apprehended by the senses? What is the truth apprehended by the heart, the spirit? The words of Jesus, though based on what the people knew from experience, always point to that which is true, to that which does not perish. But the people clamor for more assurance than that. If their eyes tell them something, they will not look beyond that sense to what the heart sees and apprehends. It is too complex. They don’t want to be bothered.
More so than they, we live in an age where the literal is constantly struggling with truth, and the literal seems to be winning. Fundamentalism depends on a literal interpretation of Scripture, and this literalism keeps people from seeing the truth God longs to reveal to us. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” But we all want to fashion “the One who is sent” in our own image-we want a Jesus who can be manipulated to fit our personal ideal and prejudice. Fundamentalists still ask for a sign — an answer that is firm and unquestionable: to the sadness of abortion, to the fear of terrorism, to the problem of disobedient children, to the rapid technological changes that baffle them, to the questions of difference in sexuality.
It is easier to retreat from the world and its problems; we want concrete and secure answers. Ambiguity is troubling. We want definiteness, and literalism-even as it picks and chooses only those portions of the Bible that it can manipulate-gives us this assurance. Literal interpretation of what we don’t like gives us permission not to love those who are different from us.
“This is not the way you learned Christ!” the writer of the letter to the Ephesians cries out. Even in translation one can hear the grief behind the words. “Surely you have been taught about him,” the writer continues his lament. Remember the stories about Jesus that you heard, the ones that brought you to believe in him, he reminds the readers. “Surely you were taught in him,” he tells them. Remember the stories he told; surely you have heard them. Remember his life, surely you know about it. Remember his death and resurrection. Truth is in Jesus. Not in minutiae and disagreements, but in Jesus.
Yet, for them, paganism was so much easier. It was concrete. However much we look down on those former pagans, we too long for similar concreteness. We want everyone to think and believe as we do.
Even we, reasonable and rational Episcopalians that we are, even we are not immune to this temptation and sin. If we interpret Scripture in a certain way, then this is the way all others in our church should interpret it; otherwise, we will withdraw our support or we will leave. And the wounds of Jesus reopen and bleed.
“This is not how you learned Christ!” Saint Paul cries out again and again. Going back to Jesus as John reveals him, let us pay attention to his urging to look beyond words, beyond what divides us, beyond literal interpretations to the truth of his person. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says in this Gospel. He is not talking about physical hunger here as he is not talking about physical thirst. He is talking about a truth that is available to every human being: that we will not be driven away if we long for God; what is being asked of us is to do the will of the one Jesus knew as a loving Father. Searching for that truth takes a lifetime. Let us not waste it. AMEN
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