l three Synoptic Gospels – so, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – Jesus tells us that he is bread. We repeat his words, we pray them together, when we celebrate the Eucharist on Sunday morning. Jesus holds out the bread and he says to his friends:
Take, eat. This is my body.
Somehow – impossibly, amazingly – Jesus says, this is me.
It is only in the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, that Jesus adds modifiers when he speaks of bread and of himself and of how he is bread. In John he tells us that he is the bread that came down from heaven, that he is the bread of God, or maybe most famously – we’re going to sing the beloved hymn later on – that he is the bread of life.
At the risk of stating something linguistically obvious, the purpose of a modifier is to add or restrict the meaning of a noun. We don’t use modifiers if there is nothing to add, nothing to modify. If you went to a restaurant and the server brought you a glass of water, it would be very odd indeed if they placed the glass on the table and said:
This is the water of wetness.
As opposed to what?
What we may deduce from Jesus in the Gospel of John is that, by linguistic necessity, there is bread that does not come down from heaven, bread that is not of God, bread that is not of life. We may deduce that there is bread of death.
What might this bread of death be? Or to put that another way, what is the bread that isn’t Jesus? Now, maybe his question – bread of life versus bread of death – is a super mystical idea, wildly esoteric, more than we can possibly encounter or understand. Jesus as we find him in John is certainly capable of speaking in pretty seriously mystical language.
But maybe this is isn’t mystical at all.
Maybe this is as everyday as we can possibly get.
One of the rules about being human and being alive is that we must eat. Unlike other forms of life on this earth, we are not designed to function through water and photosynthesis, we cannot turn the rays of the sun directly into our food. And the example of Jesus is that eating is generally a good and joyful thing – to read the Bible is to encounter a Messiah who is constantly sharing meals with strangers and friends and who delights in doing so.
More broadly still than eating, one of the rules about being human and being alive is that we must consume. It is necessary for us to put on clothes in order to survive the elements and to meet social expectations, it is probably necessary for us to live indoors. And while we may debate their necessity, most of us like the convenience and comfort that comes from having access to a washer and a drier, to a car, to a stove, to a computer, the list goes on.
What if Jesus is telling us that there is a way of eating, of consuming, that is congruent with discipleship, that is Christ-like in nature, that follows the example of Jesus, that is of life. And by contrast, there is way of eating, of consuming, that is incongruent with discipleship, this is not Christ-like in nature, that is out of step with the example of Jesus, that is of death.
Maybe what Jesus is saying is that when you and I consume – and today we mostly do that by spending money as opposed to, say, harvesting a crop or slaughtering an animal that we have raised ourselves – we are by definition making a moral decision. How we choose to consume, in ways small and large, in ways bad and good, shapes reality; not just for ourselves, but for other people, and for creation.
You and I have a big disadvantage in this moral decision making versus Jesus and his friends. First, we have a disadvantage because, we live in a globalised context; when we buy a banana in Portland, we are shaping reality in Central America and the Caribbean; when we buy an iPhone, we are shaping reality in China; when we consume fossil fuels and petroleum products, we are shaping reality across the world. (I don’t know how many Facebook friends in how many different cities have posted over the last few days about stifling and often record-breaking heat in the places where they live.)
For most human beings across most of history, if they wondered about the working conditions under which, say, their horseshoes were made, they could go down to the blacksmith and see. That’s largely unavailable to us – the scale on which we operate is enormous. We just have to take other folks’ assurances that our consciences would feel okay if we visited the planation where our bananas grow.
Second, you and I are rich. Now, I appreciate that not all of us in this room feel rich. But by global standards, by historical standards, 90 or possibly 100 percent of us in this room are wealthy. If you are not wondering where your next meal is coming from, where you will sleep this night, if you can get health care when you need it, if potable water comes out of your tap, you are kind of rich. And the problem for us rich folks is that we have so many more opportunities to buy stuff than the poor and, therefore, we have so many more opportunities to buy the bread of death.
Jesus and his friends have all but nothing – remember when he sends out his disciples to proclaim the Gospel, he tells them to pack light. And packing light for these folks means, among other things, not to take two tunics. These are people, in other words, who, when they are living large, have one change of clothes. Who knows how many changes of clothes I have in my closet at home? Certainly more than two. And when I look at the labels sewn into the collar, labels that explain that my clothes are made in countries that I have never been to under working conditions that, maybe, I don’t want to think about, I wonder: Am I eating the bread of death?
There may be a good reason that Jesus, in one of his most arresting images, says that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to get into heaven.
Now, one of the few stories that appears in all four Gospels is the story that we call the Loaves and the Fishes – in a couple of the Gospel, it actually appears twice.
That tells us that it might be important for understanding who Jesus is, that it might be important for understanding what the bread of life is.
Most of you know the story. It goes something like this: Jesus and his friends are hanging out outside, and a big crowd has come to hear Jesus talk. Suppertime rolls around and folks start to get hungry, possibly even hangry. And the disciples come to Jesus and they say: Send the people away, tell them that they are on their own for dinner. We only have enough to feed ourselves, just a couple of fish and a few loaves.
But Jesus says: You feed them.
And so they do. And once everyone is full, there are leftovers.
There are no fewer than two miracles here. The obvious one, is that the food multiplies. The less obvious miracle, but the one that may be just as big, is that the disciples hearts are transformed. The disciples start the story in a place that you and I probably recognise, a place that consumerism really encourages to hang out in. This is the place of scarcity, of anxious selfishness, in which our dominant narrative says: There’s not enough. What if I run out?
By the end of the story, the disciples have been changed. They have been transformed by witnessing, by participating in, holy abundance. They have eaten the bread of life. And they have shared it with others.
Friends, there is bad news and there is good news.
The bad news is that choosing to eat the bread of life is a choice to change and to be changed. bread of life involves sacrifice.
I’ve heard folks argue that we can lick global warming, but that doing so is going to require most of the earth’s population to go vegan. I don’t know how much I like that idea; I don’t eat a tonne of meat, but I love a good hamburger every now and again, and the idea of a world without chees and cream kind of makes me sad. I’ve heard folks argue that there is no reason that any worker in our country should not be receiving a living wage, enough to live indoors and not worry about food and have access to health care and enjoy some recreation, but that economic justice might mean the stocks in my portfolio are not quite as valuable as they are now. I don’t know how much I like the idea of that bottom line going down. I’ve heard contemporary prophets tell us that there can and will be a place of dignity and equality for those who have historically lived the margins. And while I nod in agreement, I am ashamed to admit that part of me isn’t sure how much it likes that idea either: I have gotten used to the privilege that comes of being straight and male and cisgender and white.
These are not sacrifices that you or I can outsource to someone else. They are mine to make, yours to make.
The good news – well, it comes at the end of the story of the Feeding of the 5000.
How do you imagine that the disciples feel in this moment? Are they angry? Are they cursing Jesus? Do they yell at Jesus, saying: We said that there wasn’t enough and then you made enough and, Jesus, you made us look stupid?
They are joyous. They are amazed. They are set free. How good it must feel to put down the weight of the consumerist story that says that there isn’t enough, that I have to look out for myself, that this is a world of scarcity. How good it must feel to stand in community and, together, tell the story in which there is abundance, in which all of God’s children can thrive.
Jesus says: Take, eat. This is my body. Jesus says: I am the bread of life. Whoever eats will never be hungry. Whoever believes will never thirst.
One of the several stylistic elements that distinguishes scripture from contemporary writing – say from a contemporary novel – is that almost nothing in it is superfluous to what we might call the core message of a given passage. The authors of scripture, in other words, typically don’t provide us with information in order to create ambience or in order to help us envision a character or a location. Today’s Gospel, for instance, does not begin by telling us about the weather – it doesn’t explain that it is raining or that the sun is shining – nor does it begin by telling us that Jesus is wearing a hat or about that Peter was having problems with his accountant. Everything that Matthew tells us is focused on helping us to understand this conversation between Jesus and his disciples.
Thus, when Matthew tells us that this conversation takes place in Caesarea Philippi, we are invited to pay attention. This is not an incidental detail. Rather, it is a major clue to unpacking this story.
What does Jesus bring his disciples here in order to talk to him?
In Jesus’ time, Caesarea Philippi was the local headquarters of the Roman Forces in Israel – it was the command centre, if you like, of the occupation. This is the place from which the orders went forth that set taxes, that established law, that determined where soldiers would patrol, that specified where the crucifixes would be built and who would hang from them.
In other words, Caesarea Philippi is both the symbolic and the actual location from which Jesus and friends’ freedom is curtailed, from which so much of their suffering emanates. It is here in this place of injustice and fear and hurt, that Jesus asks the disciples:
Who do people say that the Son of Man is?
“The Son of Man” being one of the ways that Jesus refers to himself. It is a title that we could translate as “The Human One.”
Peter doesn’t hesitate:
Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
In other words, the consensus among the people who have encountered Jesus is that he is a big deal – that his voice and his actions are in continuity with the most important and holiest people in Israel’s history. Indeed, in some way that we can’t entirely understand from a 21st-Centutry perspective, Jesus is John the Baptist and Elijah and Jeremiah.
But then Jesus ramps up the stakes.
he says to Peter
do you say that I am?
And Peter answers:
You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Is it possible for the answer to a question to be simultaneously inspiring and obvious? This is the response that we hope people will give when we ask them who Jesus is. We are delighted when people give this response. But it also the answer that we expect. There is nothing unexpected about it.
But back in the First Century, Peter’s response was unexpected and indeed dangerous, especially at Caesarea Philippi.
That’s because, in Jesus’ time, there was competition for titles like “Messiah” and “Son of God.” And the person who competed hardest for those titles was the one whose soldiers waited inside Caesarea Philippi’s walls: the Emperor.
There isn’t really a contemporary American analogy for this conversation. Maybe we could imagine Jesus and Peter standing outside of the White House, and Peter answering Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” by saying, “You are the President.” But I don’t think that gets at the danger. Although many Americans may not like or respect a given President, most of us are pretty confident that we can question the authority or even mock the President without someone coming to kill us the next day. And identifying someone as President who manifestly is not the President would probably not be so much dangerous as it would be silly.
What makes Peter’s answer even more dangerous and even more subversive and – let’s go further – even more foolish than it might otherwise be is the one to whom he assigns these titles. It would be one thing if Jesus were the leader of an army, of a group of rebels, if he were the kind of conquering hero whom the disciples sometimes want or expect him to be. It may be a risk to find the rebel leader and declare him to be the leader of the country. But at least when you do that you have a fighting chance.
But Jesus doesn’t have an army to back him up. He is totally unarmed. He has faced Satan unarmed, he has faced the religious authorities unarmed, he has faced the angry crowds unarmed. He will face Pilate unarmed. The Son of Man, the Human One, has no worldly power and, in particular, no violence to back up the title that Peter assigns to him.
And maybe that’s why, even if we don’t have an analogous location in which to set it in contemporary America, this story is still is dangerous or scandalous or foolish, even today. In many ways, the story of Christendom has been the effort to recast Jesus – a peasant from a defeated land – as someone who has worldly power, who is aligned with worldly power, who blesses worldly power.
Beginning with Constantine’s decision to make Christianity the official religion of Empire and extending up until the present day (while the Episcopal church’s influence in Washington has diminished markedly from a century or even half a century ago – a diminishment that is probably good for our souls – one of the first things that a new President still does is to go to an inaugural service at the National Cathedral), we’ve worked hard to recast Jesus – the one who asks, Who will it be? Me or thing King? – as someone who backs the King up.
In this understanding of God, Jesus is the one who blesses wealth and status and power. The Prosperity Gospel is a particularly extreme version of that theology: if you’re rich, it’s because you’re in God’s good books. But virtually all of us participate to some extent. Every time we look at our bank account or our real estate holdings or even our health and say, “I’ve been really blessed,” we’re engaging in Prosperity Gospel theology.
Maybe, therefore, there is a contemporary location in which we could set this conversation that would retain some of its scandal. Maybe we could ramp up the stakes a little by moving the conversation to Lloyd Centre or the outside of a bank. In this culture that assigns so much of our value as human beings to how much money we have and how much stuff we can buy – in a culture whose religion in many ways is consumerism – we would meet Jesus there and listen as he asks: Who do you say that I am? Or to put that question a little differently, to put it the way that Jesus himself puts it to the rich young man: Who or what is most important to you? Is it these things in these stores, is it the numbers in your bank account? If you have to give up your money and your stuff or me, which would it be?
That might start to get us a little closer to the original danger of this conversation.
Some of you are familiar with the work of art known as Homeless Jesus. Designed and crafted by the Toronto-based artist, Timothy Schmalz, Homeless Jesus is a bronze statue that depicts what is pretty clearly Jesus Christ sleeping on a park bench. Schmalz first installed Homeless Jesus in his hometown and he his since installed other casts across the world.
A number of folks find Schmalz’s sculpture offensive or even insulting to Jesus. Which is intriguing because, if you think about it, Homeless Jesus is remarkably orthodox.
Maybe we are offended because we sense that he Schmalz gets it right.
Jesus is the one who says: Just as you have done to the least of these, so you have done to me. He is the one who says: Blessed are the poor. He is the Human One who stands, unarmed, outside of the headquarters of the brutal occupying powers and tells Peter that he’s got it right when Peter says that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.
If Schmalz is right about Jesus – if Jesus himself is telling us the truth about who is – then part of discipleship involves answering a question. It is a question that is posed, perhaps, by a man wearing a hoodie, a man whose fingernails are stained with dirt, a man whose cone of body odour is almost paralysing. A man who is without power or status.
This is the man who slips off the park bench and asks you and me:
Who do you say that I am?
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Today God invites you and me to recognize and claim our own place in that great parade of people who have said “yes” to God, and “yes” to the things of God. I’m hoping we’ve brought our marching clothes, and that we will join in that great procession today – in this time and place. God has work for us to do, and God has given each of us an array of gifts that, in using the appropriately, will transform the lives of other; and also give us the please of making a difference in this world.
Each of us has our arena of responsibility, our place of connection. When we are paying attention, we can be effective witnesses of God’s truth. Sometimes it is easy, and sometimes it is very costly. But always, always, in generously sharing our gifts, transformation comes – new life is born, and the former things are no more.
I can tell you a couple of stories.
This coming week on the church calendar – August 14th – we are remembering Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who died on that date in 1965 in the heart of the Civil Rights movement in our country. Jonathan was a seminarian – at just my age. I was a year out of seminary by then. Jonathan, like many, felt called to action, to help in some way to re-balance the racial inequality in our land at that time. On his final trip to the south he ended up with a few others in a small town in Alabama. They were all arrested and put in jail, only to be released that evening out into the darkness. As they made their way into the little general store to buy some soft drinks they were confronted by an angry deputy sheriff who aimed his shotgun directly at Ruby Sales, a teenager of color. Jonathan Daniels quickly stepped in front of her, taking the full blast of the shotgun, and was killed.
I was deeply moved by this tragedy. I think the was, first, because of Jonathan’s willing sacrifice of his life for another. I had a sense of solidarity with him because he was a seminarian as I had been. Second, I sensed his passion for justice and reconciliation which he demonstrated in action. Certainly we had common ground in that deep idealism of young adulthood; however, I hardly had the courage, much less the vision at that time to do anything like he did.
His witness has had a transforming influence on the lives of many people, including my own. For me this was that first nudge into awareness of the out-of-balance reality that surrounds you and me in our society’ and also, an awareness that I am called to pay attention and engage with this imbalance. My sense of solidarity with Jonathan Myrick Daniels also made possible my becoming aware of some deep personal resentments that were doing their destructive work in my spirit. His ministry ended up being also a ministry to me.
Let me tell you how that happened. Jonathan was a student at ETS, the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge MA. I had been a student at the Philadelphia Divinity School, class of 1964. In 1974 the two schools merged. The Philadelphia alums were not happy. What happened is that, in exchange for the Cambridge school changing its name from RTS to EDS, now the “Episcopal Divinity School,” EDS got all the books, all the faculty and all the money. Our heritage had, it seemed to us, been ripped off. They tried to treat us Philadelphia grads as alumni, but we were not interested. East year around the time of my birthday, I would receive a telltale card in the mail with the message, “We prayed for you in the chapel today.” My thought, but un-uttered response was, “Go stick it in your ear.”
In the early 90’s the telltale card arrived, and I opened it. However, this time, instead of a picture of the Cambridge campus, there was the color picture of an icon. The school had commissioned an Icon in honor of their student Jonathan Myrick Daniels and of all the martyrs of the church.
I almost cried. I thought to myself, “Any place that would do something as fine as this can’t be all bad.” Then I thought of all the sermons I had preached on forgiveness and reconciliation since 1964, never connecting with that deep sense of loss, and the resentment which I was carrying, and which would bubble up only around my birthday. That day was the beginning of a great healing for me.
I began with God’s invitation to you and to me to join this great parade of people across the ages who say “Yes” to God and to the things of God. That “yes” was not any less complex for any of them than it is for us in our lives. The image of this procession of faithful people is useful, because the direction of the procession is forward. You gotta keep on moving. You may miss a few steps, or get out of rhythm terrible, but this parade of faithful people is on the move, and we can get in step with it now, with the realities of our own lives – our situation, our losses, our hurts, our hopes, our passions, our excesses, our reality – and off ourselves, again and again to the purposes of God in this world and in the human community.
Writer Tom Ehrich says, “I must deal with today’s questions, decisions, anomalies and agonies. The critical tools for living are open eyes, a discerning mind, the will to persevere, the capacity to love, the willingness to learn, especially from struggle and failure, with hope for tomorrow, and faith – that is, deep trust – in God, and in all that God promises to us.”
Someone has said that faith – that is, deep trust in God – really began for Jesus the day the townspeople threw him out of town. Then it grew some more when he found the disciples arguing over who would get the best seats in the coming kingdom.. And then it grew even more when he had the confront the moneychangers in the temple. And, finally, it grew in that moment of his utter loneliness in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Social advocate Lisa Fithian, a strong voice for justice, said in an interview, “When people ask me, ‘What do you do?’ I say, I create a crisis, because crisis is that edge where change is possible.”
In the crucible of our lives we can grow. Sometimes we’d pay anything to avoid these moments of truth.
How we live our lives can make a huge difference – to those around us, and in our own being. Gifts have been entrusted to us to help us make this difference. Eugene Peterson, in a paraphrase of Jesus’ words, says: “Great gifts mean great responsibilities’ greater gifts mean greater responsibilities.”
I like this image of the procession, that we keep on moving along. We only come into a new view of things as we arrive at new places in the journey. We’ll set aside some things, maybe some good things, but things that no longer serve our purposes, and we’ll embrace what is new and useful in our service of our God and others.
Our lives make a difference. You and I are accountable for all that has been entrusted to us. May we use these gifts well.
I am fascinated, and I am also terrified by William Percy’s contemporary hymn (#661) about the life of the apostles, with its daunting 4th verse:
The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod:
Yet let us pray for but one thing, the marvelous peace of God.
This marvelous procession of life with God, and neighbor, and self – that journey to completion and wholeness where God’s first word, and last word to us is identical – that word is, “I love you.”
But then always comes the invitation – “Follow me.”