John 6. 41-51
Sunday, August 8, 2021
If ever there is limited rain in May, June, or July, the non-irrigated fields of corn in northern Minnesota resemble less the desired lush, supple, and green stalks that ensure a high yield and more a dwarfed, sand-colored and withered form that mirrors the broken earth that holds it. Farming is a risky business. There are no certainties. And when a drought hits, you feel as helpless as ever. Powerless. You pray for rain. You watch the daily weather forecasts for a glimmer of hope or a miracle. You develop your own version of a rain dance. Yet, while clouds tease and hope hangs on for dear life, the rain doesn’t come. The field that began with such promise and rich, loam soil and seed sowed with precision to optimize yield now stands a literal husk of what it might be, not to mention a financial wreck. In such moments, you can’t escape the limits of your humanity and the need that is its partner. You are captive to the capriciousness of life.
Given the abundance of rain that we have experienced in Connecticut this year, such a scene seems almost unthinkable. However, we know how precarious each season can be with constant news of drought and fire in the west. We’ve dodged the bullet for another year. And unless we change our behaviors, we know that with climate change and rising temperatures, it’s just a matter of time before we too experience the helplessness that can be the consequence of nature.
Ironically, just as we are powerless to alter the force of nature in a particular moment, it appears that the author of John also believes that we are also powerless to believe in God on our own. Jesus says in today’s text, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” We don’t beat down a pathway to the divine. We don’t merit an audience with the holy. We are drawn in, helpless to alter this reality as well. However, given all that we are responsible for, given all that we must do in life, given the creativity and industriousness that we demonstrate, and given the work in which we take great pride, such a perspective may seem odd, at best, and insulting, at worst. Indeed, there are any number of religious types who will underscore the need for you to choose God, commit to God, accept God. Yet, Jesus makes clear that those actions are all secondary. The primary activity that matters most is God’s. You are drawn by the Father.
Which can be quite liberating when you stop to think about it. Particularly if your know what failure feels like, or how limits impinge upon your ability to do or be all that you would like to do or be, or you understand that just doing the work to get through each day is challenging enough, not to mention trying to remain faithful in all its fullness to the God of creation, the Lord of Life, and the Author of salvation. Given our track record as humans to control the world around us, we may as well be walking down a corn row of one of those drought parched fields in northern Minnesota. Good luck!
What further fascinates is the way that God meets us in those moments of helplessness and powerlessness. Not necessarily plucking us from the jaws of despair. Rather, walking with us through the difficulty, and reminding us that we are not alone. It is worth considering the biblical stories of God’s involvement with human beings who are in need and food insecure. There’s Abram and Sarai moving from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan. There is Jacob rescued from a drought in Canaan by way of Egypt. There are the Israelites wandering in the wilderness toward the Promised Land who receive the gift of manna from heaven. There are Naomi and Ruth provided for by Boaz in the land of Moab. And there is Elijah receiving cakes to eat amidst his hunger and need in today’s first lesson. Thus, to read the biblical narrative is to know human fragility and privation. One also recognizes that God enters into those places of concern and provides. Or to put it another way, saves.
Which is what Jesus does in today’s text. He probably is speaking on a verse selected for the Passover Seder meal that is being shared in a Capernaum synagogue. Hence, the encounter between Jesus and “the Jews” in our story. In that context, those gathered would understand the textured and rich narratives of God providing for the people. Indeed, the Passover itself stands as the preeminent story of God’s providing and liberation. So, when Jesus identifies himself as the fulfillment of all of those stories that have come before--I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh--you can understand that the people might be caught off guard. “Who does he think he is?” they ask. This is Mary and Joseph’s boy. We know them! Bread from heaven! Ha! Right!
And there may be moments in our own lives when we respond in a similar fashion. Whether we are at our wits end or we don’t know which end is up, it can be easy to wonder about the veracity of what Jesus says. As a normal, common, ordinary peasant in the first century, his declaration sounds too pretentious, too extravagant.
Yet, that is precisely where Jesus meets us. In the normal, common, and ordinary moments of life and the objects of this life: bread and wine. The simple meal that we partake of momentarily is a reminder to us of the ongoing presence of God in the midst of life and our participation in the eternal life of the Holy here and now. The meal reorients our perspective and our expectations. It is not that we come because of what we have done, nor do we expect all problems to be eradicated. Rather, we recognize our fragility and our need and understand that the meal the meal draws us more fully into the life of God that is life for the world. Thus, as Jerome Burce notes,
At some point a human being quits grasping for life or griping at God
And begins instead to give herself away with Christ, as a piece of his
Flesh for the life of the world.
We are fed, so that we might feed. We are met in our need, so that we might meet others in their need. We are welcomed to the table, so that we can invite others to the feast. We are drawn into the divine dance to understand once and for all that it is not what we have done, but it is what God has done that creates us, sustains us, and completes us.