Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Seeking Loaves or More?

On the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost we hear from the Gospel According to Saint John. In this reading we find that Jesus, after the two-fold miracles of feeding 5000 people and walking across the inland sea of Galilee, is approached by a crowd that wishes also to be fed, or be fed again. We need to consider their motivations as we read…

So when the people saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”
 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures unto eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.”
 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.”
 They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.”
 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. (John 6:24-35)

Of Hunger…
As evidenced by this text, Jesus was approached by many persons after he went about doing healing work in and around Capernaum. Some wanted just to be fed bread by him in a continued sign, like welfare recipients who are infants and do not wish to grow. Others came wishing to be fed, but were willing to work for whatever would be given. In either case, Jesus sensed their hunger as centered about only their bodily needs. Both groups indeed exhibited an ongoing materialistic hunger, one that the kingdoms of this world did not fill. They did not realize the availability of a greater providence. Consequently, rather than again merely providing bread for those gathering, our Lord spoke to them of his filling the greater need.
 However we must take note that we need be careful here with this emphasis. The text does not negate the mortal hunger pains of the poor who go without food, some to the point of starvation and death… but Jesus clearly points us toward the filling of a greater eternal hunger. Jesus called attention from our basic human quest for food, often made harder by sin and futile by human greed… and went further to highlight the gift of everlasting sustenance. To grasp this message more easily, I contend that we must examine the context for the writer of this gospel. It is important to grasp that we read here a gospel message written by blessed John. Our author likely penned this literary work over several decades in its entirety. If we therefore follow his historical arrangement of the lesson within the surrounding material, we of the church can find a familiar pattern. A flow emerges, and holds true for the church even in our modern times.

Elemental Economics
You see, within the several historical decades believed to be in this gospel’s writing, we find that this text was likely first laid down while the early Christians were simply members of a faction growing within the Jewish synagogues. Therefore given the flow of the text, they may be likened to those who were the first 5000 fed upon the hillside… some who spiritually believed in the Word of God. They were gathered amongst those fed with only two fish and five loaves. They were filled miraculously! Others however, did not believe but were still fed in their “going-along-with-ness”. Still others sought to follow Jesus for personal gain, attaching themselves to the growing cult. These last were simply users trying to build or sustain their own personal cupboards.
 In the very next setting of the gospel, however, we see the emergence of the early church was represented in the disciples as they were “crossing of the sea”. Almost passed by, they eventaully emerged safely from the water, thus portraying the virtue of Christian baptism as accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. This I offer was likely why John immediately followed the feeding story with the sign of Jesus walking on the water. If my assessment is correct, the result historically flows well as the narrative continues that many in and surrounding Capernaum were healed. Note the flow: feeding, baptismal washing and healing! I note, therefore that John firmly established the eternal healing nature of our baptism into Christ. The pattern clearly emerges here.
 However, the danger expressed by Jesus at the time was that some followed because of selfish sinfulness. These were not accepting his spiritual message. Being steeped in the ways of the sinful world, they felt that the benefits of feeding upon bread was an end result that they could do themselves, and they needed to do for themselves. In that way, you see, continued reward would independently satisfy their needs and wants. They could independently claim earning of the benefits. Thus they corporately wished to turn God’s gift of salvation into a worldly worker’s union salary negotiation! If we interpret the text in such a way… if they had been successful in working to obtain either food or water in either materialist or spiritual sense, we then might ask an important question. “Do you think the sinfully arrogantly would say that they deserved credit because of their works?” I fear that there would be, and often is now… just this argument made.
 Indeed, consider that the church has often erred in saying, “We have baked the bread for communion, and we've poured the water for baptism in the font of our spotless church… that we have built this sepulcher as a monument... so we may claim credit for our work!” Indeed, you see… there is no end to our vanities.

On Being Filled…
Jesus turned the focus of those who approached him on that day. By doing so, he speaks yet through John to our own self-centeredness. Our Lord spoke concerning all sustenance given by God, whether it be worldly or eternal. Central to the message remained that God provides both material “bread” as sustenance, and spiritual Bread. Both comes to us as given from the Father. This follows the pattern of the Jewish ancestors of the synagogue.Note that Jesus referred his listeners to the miracle of daily bread (manna) supplied in the wilderness; bread that was given to the wandering Israelites (see Exodus 16 and Numbers 11). He thus encouraged through John, the early church which found itself wandering in the wilderness of a sinful world. The Bread of Life shall sustain them!
 As our Lord described… earthly, worldly bread provided either then or now, may also be made spiritual bread for us. This is uniquely the work of God and is not due to our works! Further, Jesus stated the rather startling good news that he alone is the true Bread from heaven. Consequently out of this grows the theology that we use to describe the Holy Eucharist, as our communion (gathering) meal.
 You see, John wrote to the early church telling them about the apostles who had crossed the turbulent sea, and thus pointed to our blessed receiving of the waters of Holy Baptism. Our author then revealed the Son of God… who is God himself… as the One who comes to us in the Sacrament of the Holy Meal… in, with and under the natural element of worldly bread. Thus this feast that we are given becomes not just worldly bread, but more so the “Bread of Life”. Indeed Jesus, who is the Christ, was he who spoke to the people gathered… who explained to his church clearly concerning his identity.
 How so do we know this? Look at the text closely. The writer clearly said that Jesus used a divine statement beginning with “I am...” (In the Greek - ego ami). Jesus described himself therefore with a statement that began in the same manner as the divine name. This name is so holy that it is yet unspoken by many devout Jews. Recall in scripture that the revealed name of God as “YHWH” is the name that we translate into English as “I AM THAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14).
 I repeat, Jesus said boldly… “I AM the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” Therefore we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and is God. We hold closely to this faith graciously given to us by the Holy Spirit through the waters of baptism, for it is strengthened by the spiritual food of thanksgiving provided of the Holy Spirit in communion. We thus are called to be eternally and wonderfully filled. So it was in John’ day, is yet, and shall ever be. So said John by the power of the eternal Holy Spirit, thanks be to God.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Seeing Through Fog...

FOR THE Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, we again find diversity in the readings offered within the lectionary preaching spectrum for the church. The gospel readings used differ, but to some degree they also parallel. First consider that our reading from the Gospel According to Saint John contains the story of Jesus walking on the water. Next, we find the same story also appears as read from other church pulpits from the Gospel According to Saint Mark (Mark 6:45-52). We find the story also comes to us from the quill of Saint Matthew, but not from Luke. In study here then, we have an opportunity this week, to examine how these two, differing witnesses used the same or similar source materials. This historically may reveal even more from the apostolic record. To begin our study then, from John we read…

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him (Jesus) by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea rose because a strong wind was blowing.
 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat. They were frightened, but he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. (John 6:15-21)

Lighting the Fog of Night…
In this story that related Jesus’ walking on water, we find much agreement between the gospel records of Mark and John. This is largely attributed to the fact that they likely had a common source even though the  two were written in differing decades of history. However, we note subtle nuances exist between the two gospels. If we assume that indeed a common source existed, we need consider that these subtleties can speak to us concerning the perspective of each particular author.
 I offer here that John, as quoted above, is the later dated document. Mark is estimated by most scholars as written about 65A.D., it seems that it predates the writing of John, revealed here by the emerging church across the Roman Empire.
 The date of the writing of the Johannine gospel reveals a process that may have spread over several years, and it is estimated as being written c.90A.D. In reading then, an importance rises as we note that the only two miracle stories are shared by John, that are contained in the other gospels. These include the feeding of the 5000 persons, and our Lord’s walking on water. Therefore we can note that the author saw that these two events helped to focus the hearers. These centered the people on the gospel, highlighting the sharing of a holy meal and the ongoing practices of baptism in the church.
 To examine this editorial progress, first let us consider each disciple’s destination in the story. Mark had earlier written that the disciples went out in a boat first to cross the sea, and then Jesus followed them. Afterward, Jesus walked in the darkness of the early morning, traveling on the water toward the village of Bethsaida (house of fishing).
 John later wrote, however, that the destination was Capernaum. An obvious, but slight difference therefore exists between the accounts. Bethsaida was a village near Capernaum. A small, localized community, it was a fishing village on the outskirts of the larger town of Capernaum. According to the earlier Markan account then, we might think that Bethsaida contained a people receptive to the fishermen's witness from amongst the disciples, and its socio-economic strata of impoverishment and small business was quite receptive to the words of Jesus. It seemed that what was a good evangelical method in one fishing town, would be good in another.
 Conversely, John did not mention Bethsaida; instead he held up nearby Capernaum as the destination. We might then ask “Did they land at one place, then move to another?” I seriously doubt it. I believe John emphasized the greater populace for a reason.
  I offer that blessed John, who wrote some 25 years after Mark… wished to relate to a larger and wider audience. Therefore John may have thoughtfully considered that many in his widely-dispersed audience would not even geographically know of tiny Bethsaida, but instead would more likely identify to some degree the larger-populated Capernaum. This would be especially true if the congregational audience was populated by many persons who were not Jews, but were of various ethnicity and were in house churches in the wider Greek and Roman world.

Lord, Do Not Pass Us By...
Also, in rather stark terms, we see that Mark portrayed the darkness of night, but described the rising waves only in that the “wind was against them”. The scene focused the hearers more on the appearance of Jesus walking on the water. Shimmering as the Light come into the world, Jesus was erroneously thought by the disciples to be a ghost (phantasm). This may reflect that Mark may have fought with the emerging heretical opinion that Jesus was not a human being, but just a divinely glowing phantasm who came down upon earth. The opinion circulated that this "theos-aner" (god-man) was one to roam around and educate simple men, only to go irretrievably back into the heavens. However, I assign this theory concerning Mark’s early motivation purely as guesswork.
 What is more certain is that our Lord’s appearance made the disciples very frightened. It was stated by Mark that Jesus was brightly seen as passing by the boat in his path across the water. While many authorities have said that this is likely a Hebraic way of saying that he was coming “alongside”, I question that assumption. If we look at the Hebrew tradition, we read of a divine “passing by” that was spoken of…

When the waters saw thee, O God,
when the waters saw thee, they were afraid,
yea, the deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
the skies gave forth thunder;
thy arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of thy thunder was in the whirlwind;
thy lightnings lighted up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Thy way was through the sea,
thy path through the great waters;
yet thy footprints were unseen.

                                          (Psalm 77:16-19)

Surely then, the episode echoes to us the “storm god” theophany of Israel, a mythological image also recorded in many other civilizations. In this psalm, we see that Israel trembled as God passed by. So did the disciples. However, recorded here is the reason for the “passing by" of our Lord Jesus. Our author in Mark stated that the disciples had not thought seriously and sufficiently about the full impact of the feeding of the 5000, and were likely rowing across the tempestuous water in rather scattered confusion. They were rightly portrayed then by Mark as in danger of being “passed by”, because of unbelief. We need to remember that Mark often portrayed the disciples as a rather sorry lot, confused in their establishing a working rhythm at the oars of the church.
 I ask then, “Was this story meant then as a warning to the early church, who rowed the tiny ship of our Lord’s church forward in roughening societal seas?” If we may accept this.., then I ask, “Was Mark telling them that Jesus is certainly no ghost... surely not just an evil mirage appearing out of the dark night?” I say, “Most certainly!”
 Mark revealed that God was indeed with them. He warned his churches that faith was given and faith was still needed… for the Lord may yet pass by them by in the early dark hours of church history. Mark’s message was therefore told in this way to those early readers of the church in 65-70A.D., those who were called to place their sights only on the destination before them.
 Now, here we must note that John omitted that Jesus almost passed by. Why so? I believe that guided by the Holy Spirit, the omission was not merely accidental. You see, John addressed a different audience in a different time. In his latter day of writing, his churches were spread widely across the Roman and Greek provinces, and the presence of Jesus in the waters of Baptism and the elements of the Holy Eucharist had been firmly anchored as more certain in their mindset. However, we know that the early church was still casting about, flailed adrift by great and harsh political and religious currents and undercurrents. Thus the congregations who read this message rightly needed a concise, tightly-worded admonition. In these elements of the very same story then, the person of Jesus Christ is pointed out specifically as saying firmly... “It is I, do not be afraid.”
 For John’s churches then, and those floundering in our own day, this stands out as a focused message. For John, the disciples took the Lord into the boat and he proceeded with them. John spoke this good news loudly to his congregations. They were assured that though ghastly and dangerous portents would seem to overwhelm, the early church of Jesus Christ would endure in proclamation of the gospel message. They would not be swamped! Jesus Christ remained amongst them in Word and Sacrament, and each community could reach the firmness of God’s eternal shore. This is the central good news in this story from John. We note also that this rings true across the centuries even to our own pulpits and naves.
 Know this! Let it be known that whichever lesson may be used by your particular congregation during the coming Sunday, the message resounds similarly. Jesus is no bright figment of our faint imaginations. Our Lord comes to us as bread and wine, which is also his body and blood… and he comes to us also on the waters of baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit. He rules eternally over the natural and spiritual forces of all creation. Our sinful and sometimes doubting Christian communities, whether small or large, are then simply called to partake of his divine, forgiving Presence, and keep on rowing… witnessing firmly even though the seas still may be turbulent and the shores seem very distant. We are comforted, for God is most certainly with us.