PROPER 13 / 9 PENTECOST — 2 August 2009
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 a.m.
2 Sam 11:26-12:13a Ps 51:1-13 Eph 4:1-16 John 6:24-35
The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
A few Sundays ago over at Trinity in Iowa City I was observing that one of the features of the Revised Common Lectionary that we are now following is that it takes the Old Testament readings seriously as stories, indeed our stories, not just as some kind of prophecy of the Gospel reading for the day. That’s fine. The downside of that is that sometimes the stories themselves are fairly long, and so we don’t always get the full picture in any one Sunday. The selection from Second Samuel this morning assumes we remember last Sunday’s reading. We have to recall that the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s generals in the Israelite army, was named Bathsheba? Remember Bathsheba? Well, David had an affair with Bathsheba and got her pregnant, and then arranged to have her husband Uriah killed in battle against the Ammonites. But at the end of today’s reading the lectionary gnomes leave out the final part, another ten verses or so, after David confesses his sin: the Lord still punishes David by striking his and Bathsheba’s baby with a fatal illness. How just of God! (I’m not at all sure what the fundamentalists make of this story. I suspect that those who interpret the Bible strictly literally probably haven’t actually read it.) The story of David and Bathsheba was made into a fairly awful movie with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward back when even I was very young. I’ve put it in my Netflix queue. So we’ll see!
I have absolutely no idea how to link this story with the Gospel today. But it’s an important story for its own sake.
In the Gospel we have been hearing about the feeding of the five thousand. The folks got fed last week, you recall, as we switched from St. Mark’s Gospel to the sixth chapter of St. John to hear his account of the feeding. (The feeding of the multitude is the only story, apart from the Passion narrative, that occurs in all four Gospels. Actually, it occurs six times in four Gospels. But I digress.) This Sunday we continue working through John’s sixth chapter, and we will keep that on for a few weeks yet, hearing Jesus' discourse about the Bread of Life, before going back to St. Mark at the end of the month.
So today the folks catch up with Jesus again after the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus tells them, "You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves." (Not because you put your faith in the in-breaking Reign of God, but because you got your own perceived needs met.) "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." God does not always agree with us about what is really important, or about what we really need.
Well, then, the folks go on, "what must we do to perform the works of God?" And Jesus replies, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."
Believe in Jesus. What's this about? I've come to the conclusion that "believing in Jesus" is one of the most misunderstood notions in the Bible. "Believing in Jesus" is not the same thing as assenting to certain doctrines about Jesus. I don't mean that doctrines about Jesus aren't important, or that what the Church teaches about Jesus isn't true, or that we shouldn't believe them. I just don't think that's what Jesus was talking about when he said, "Believe in me." I also don't think Jesus meant anything very much like, "Accept me as your personal savior." I don't mean that personal commitment to Jesus isn't vitally important, I just mean that I don't think Jesus intended to present himself as an object of religion. Being doctrinally correct, and having a personal relationship with a savior, however important they may be, can still be ways that we satisfy our own perceived needs rather than commit ourselves to God's cause. When Jesus says, "Believe in me," I think he means, "Believe in the message I am telling you, believe in the word I speak to you as God's Word, believe in the Kingdom of God which I am proclaiming and enacting among you, believe in me as the one who embodies God's Reign." To believe that Jesus is the true bread which gives life to the world - not just that "Jesus is the True Bread," but that the bread which gives real life to the world is indeed precisely that which Jesus proclaims and enacts and embodies, the loving sovereignty of the living God — to believe that Jesus is the true bread which gives life to the world is to commit ourselves to his pattern of life as true human life, to commit ourselves to his values, to his cause, to his vision, as the values and cause and vision of God, to commit ourselves to him precisely as the Way and the Truth and the Life.
Specifically how does all this play out? Well, that's what we're given this life to work out. I don't think there are any cheap or easy answers. I certainly think we need to question all those assumptions which self-servingly try to turn God into the provider for our own perceived needs. I am convinced that when God is really providing for us, God is giving us what we really need in order to share with our Lord in giving life to the world.