(Sermon for Sunday, August 12, 2012 || Proper 14B || John 6:35, 41-51)
I don’t know about you, but these last two weeks, I have felt afraid. Last week, I was excited to go and see the new Batman movie. But then a self-proclaimed Joker – Batman’s chief enemy – calmly walked into a midnight showing in Aurora, Colorado and filled the theater with tear gas…and then bullets…and then dead bodies. Fear – and grief for the victims and their families – replaced excitement, and I haven’t darkened the door of a movie theater since.
This week, I was excited to come to church to celebrate communion and praise God with all of you. But then a white supremacist calmly walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and filled the temple with bullets of his own…and more dead bodies. Fear – and shock and more grief – once again replaced excitement, and I would be lying if I told you that I feel completely comfortable right now exposed like I am in this pulpit. I don’t know about you, but these last two weeks, I have felt afraid.
And so, as I sat down to write this sermon, fear was on my mind. And I started wondering just why fear is so debilitating. And as I wondered about that, the words of Jesus from today’s Gospel started seeping into my consciousness. And I found that, while my fear didn’t evaporate just like that, someone had sidled up next to the fear and made the fear seem very small in comparison.
But I get ahead of myself. First, why is fear so debilitating? Well, fear has a way of unmaking us. When God created you and me, God made our default position one of loving and trusting. Think of the toddler who will go up to any stranger and say, “Hello.” Then think of the frantic mother who grabs the child by the wrist and yanks him away. Or here’s another example. While on vacation, I met my two-year-old cousin for the first time (which was a real treat, let me tell you) and within half an hour of meeting me, he was flinging himself into my arms from the top platform of the playground. God programmed us to love and trust, not to fear.
So when fear inevitably takes hold, the fear overrides our initial programming. Love and trust move down the list of conditioned responses, and we are no longer the whole people that God intended us to be. Fear motivates people do all sorts of things, the kind of things that unmake us. Some people hole up in their bedrooms never to venture into the world. Some lie to their parents about where they’ve been. Some never settle into mutual, meaningful relationships. Some cheat. Some bully. Some abuse drugs and alcohol. And some go on shooting rampages through temples containing people who look and think differently than they do.
Fear is so debilitating because fear keeps us from being the people God made us to be. Fear hollows out our identity as God’s children. Fear replaces the loving and trusting identity with one that longs to isolate and control. When our identities are tied up in fear rather than in God, we lose who we are; we lose ourselves because there is nothing sustaining or life-giving about fear.
When we feel fearful, when we feel like we are being unmade, what is really happening is that we are losing our connection to our identity as those loving and trusting children of God. And this where the words of Jesus begin seeping into my mind. This is where we make the turn and place Jesus next to the fear and notice how small the fear seems in comparison.
Jesus spends much of his time in the Gospel according to John telling people who he is. His identity is a subject that crops up every other chapter or so, and Jesus signals to us that he is talking about his identity with a special coded phrase. He says the two simple words: “I Am.” But these two simple words carry a lot of weight. By saying “I Am,” Jesus essentially quotes God’s words to Moses. At the burning bush, God gives Moses the mission to free the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt. Moses wants some insurance to let people know he really met God, so he asks for God’s name. “I Am Who I Am,” says God. When Jesus borrows this phrase, he reveals to his listeners and to us his divine identity.
Jesus uses these “I Am” statements over a dozen times in the Gospel according to John. Two of them happen in the story that runs the length of Chapter Six, a part of which we read this morning. I’ll get to the first one in a moment, but before that, let’s talk about the one in our passage today. “I Am the bread of life,” says Jesus. With these words Jesus reveals a piece of his divine identity.
As followers of Jesus, our identities are wrapped up in his. When he discloses a piece of his identity, we discover a piece of ours. When he says, “I Am the bread of life,” he invites us to imagine what bread can tell us about God. Bread nourishes us, just as being in relationship with Jesus nourishes us. Bread in the wider sense of food sustains life, just as through Jesus (as “the Word made flesh”) all life has come into being.
But this is no normal, everyday metaphor. I might say my wife’s smile is the sun on a rainy day, but we all know her smile is not actually the sun. Jesus doesn’t idly compare himself to bread. Jesus is the “bread of life.” Normal, everyday food and drink will satisfy for a time. But eating the food of the bread of life brings us into relationship with Jesus, who is that bread. One of the Eucharistic prayers says this beautifully, praying that we “may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, and [be] made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”
In the Eucharistic meal, which we will share in a few minutes, we take Jesus in, and the Bread of Life opens our eyes to the wonderful reality that his presence surrounds us and penetrates us always. The wonderful hymn known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” describes this ever-present reality:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
When Jesus reveals that he is “the bread of life,” he invites us into the reality that his presence sustains us wherever we are and whatever has happened. This is part of his divine identity, and our identity finds a home in this sustenance.
Whenever fear debilitates us, whenever fear threatens to unmake us, Jesus Christ is there sustaining us, nourishing us so that we can continue on our way, surrounding us with his steadfast presence. We were not made to fear, but to love and trust. The more we rely on the sustaining presence of the Bread of Life, the less of a foothold will we give to fear.
I told you that I would mention Jesus’ other “I Am” statement from an earlier part of this morning’s story. The night before today’s lesson, the disciples row across the sea in their boat. But a storm comes up and threatens to swamp them. Then they see Jesus coming toward them, walking on the water. And do you know what he says to them? He says: “I Am; do not be afraid.”