The Work of God, the Bread of Life

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Jesus Breaking Bread for the Five Thousand by Brent Kastler

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

John 6:24-35

If the crowds were not hungry before they began to look for Jesus, certainly they were when they arrived. A windy night had passed since they had been fed with the loaves and fish created and broken by the hands of Jesus. Then, they rowed and searched again. If the twelve baskets of remnants had filled them in the morning, by noon the hunger had crept back into their bodies.

The crowd went out onto choppy waters to look for Jesus, filled with questions. Perhaps each morning we join them in wondering about the signs of yesterday. Curiosity propels us over the edge of the boats as we launch into a journey toward that which astounded us. Finally, after rowing and peering along the shoreline, Jesus comes into sight. We greet him with questions and with each response he guides us into divine mystery.

“Rabbi, when did you come here?”

Jesus never tells them. He does not reprimand them for seeking. Instead, he speaks their reasons for seeking into the space between them: you are hungry; you want to see; you want to live and be filled. Deep within, Jesus sees that human hunger for more than what we ate yesterday, the desire to see something greater than what we saw yesterday, the craving for life eternal and fullness within him. He names that hunger and says the food to satisfy it is coming.

To this promise of eternal food the crowd asks, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” What are the things we can do to satisfy that pang and grumbling within our souls?

“Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”

A work in the singular, performed across time. The manna in the wilderness and the true bread from heaven are the same work of God. The manna was sent from heaven so that the people might live and believe in a God of deliverance and sustenance. In the fullness of time, the true bread from heaven came down so that humanity might live anew and believe in that very same God.

What is this true bread which came from heaven? What is this bread which gives life to the world? It is not a what or a that. This bread is a who.

The Bread of Life, come down to humanity, for humanity, stands in the middle of a crowd. Amid this crowd, where we ask questions that seem to miss the mark, the Bread of Life still calls us to him. We insist that this bread be given to us always. To our questions, demands, and even confusion, the Bread of Life waits in our midst with arms outstretched, saying “come to me. I am right here.” The Bread of Life is the work of God, echoing across from manna in the wilderness to the tables in our sanctuaries. It is the work of God which continuously calls humanity to come and believe.

There are days now and days ahead when ravenous questions will be gnawing at our souls. When did you come here? What must we do? What are you going to do? Please, can we have this forever? Jesus never condemns these questions. Instead, each answer invites us into new life. Jesus names the deepest hunger inside of us and never tells us to stop seeking. Curiosity about the signs of yesterday launched us into the boats on the water and it is the work of God, the Bread of Life, which draws us always to the shore.

Imagining Reality

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost

Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

For many years now, with varied consistency, I’ve begun my day with the Morning Prayer office of the Book of Common Prayer. At the end of that prayer service there are a few options of closing benedictions, but more often than not I skip to the final one:

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.

It is not always conscious, but praying these verses from Ephesians changes how I go about my day as I dwell with the knowledge that God is doing more than I can “ask or imagine”. Knowing that God is always doing infinitely more, I’m invited to ask and imagine more boldly and live in the humble realization that I don’t really understand the whole of reality.

Jesus invites his disciples into this same kind of work in our Gospel reading from John. Discipleship is about learning to live into a constant conversation with God (asking) and learning to see, even if through a glass darkly, the reality of God’s reign. Since much of this reality is imperceptible through the usual means of our senses, it is only through imagination that we can properly get even a glimpse of what is really happening.

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Shepherding Gone Wrong and Right

Post by Tommy Parker

The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

As I read through the readings for this coming Sunday, two words caught my attention: sheep and shepherd. And no wonder—some version of these words is repeated 13 times in the readings by my count. 

Perhaps my attention to these words in particular is rooted elsewhere though. In my house, sheep are a common topic of discussion. One of my housemates is a talented spinner, knitter, and general expert on all things wool. She knows all about sheep—the differences between a Rambouillet versus a Merino versus a Shetland (and the list goes on). She can tell you all about their life cycles, their diets, how to know if they are healthy. Sometimes she will even wax on about a particular animal now twenty years gone who had the most lovely fleeces and was a joy to be around. She is probably the closest I will ever come to knowing a real-life shepherd. 

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Herod’s Party Trick

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost

Mark 6:14-29

This story of the beheading of John the Baptizer functions as a kind of flashback for Mark’s storytelling, sandwiched between the story of the disciples being sent out two-by-two and returning with their stories of healing and exorcism. Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus exhorts the disciples to come away to a deserted place in order to rest and, perhaps, escape the gaze of those with Herod’s ear bent to their whispers? 

Undoubtedly, this story, sandwiched between the sending of the disciples to preach repentance, cure, and cast out, is meant to warn the growing church of Jesus’ disciples of the real danger implicit in the church’s ministry. But perhaps more compelling is the contrast between the powerful “King” Herod and the Lord Jesus presented in this sandwich narrative. 

In this flashback, we see the chasm that exists between the powerful ruling class and those subject to their whims. John the Baptizer is Herod’s prisoner, and the text tells us that Herod is intrigued by John, if not a little fearful of him. Who can blame him? John doesn’t exactly have a nursery-rhyme message, especially for those with a Herodian moral compass. But John’s powerful message of repentance also means he is well acquainted with the powerful means of enfranchised retribution wielded by Herod. Yes, Herod is intrigued and a little fearful. But Herod is also the strong man in this story, as of yet unbound in the household of Israel, and he has the means of controlling the narrative as he sees fit with the power of incarceration and, as we will see, death. The powerful so often demonstrate their fear by brandishing these powers, both then and now. 

Nevertheless, it seems as though Herod has no interest in killing John the Baptizer. But his spouse does have said interest. 

I want us to consider the sheer banality of John’s death; consider how absolutely tragic and stupid it is that this great prophet, who stands as the signpost at the crossroads of history, is murdered by an indifferent ruler as a birthday present. It is almost as if Mark is holding this great figure in front of us, showing him to be the forerunner of the Christ, the inaugurator of the message of repentance and the forerunner of the Kingdom’s Gospel proclamation, and the one with whom we have now closely identified the ministry and message of Jesus, and he is killed as a party trick for the ruling class. Such is human life in the hands of those far removed from the common life of the underclasses. 

There might be some question of keeping oaths, here, but we shouldn’t be too caught up in Herod’s insistence on keeping his oath. Remember the folly of Jephthah, who swore an oath to God: “And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering’” (Judges 11:30-31). Perhaps these stories are precisely why Jesus commands his disciples to abstain from oaths: But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.” If we take this teaching from Jesus applied to this story, we can see that Herod’s oath goes hand-in-hand with his megalomania and self-interested “regard for his oaths and for the guests.” (Read: He did not want to look bad.) What does it take to regard one’s oaths and peers above the life of a fellow human being? Such is the value of the Forerunner’s life to this ruler; such is the value of so many lives to the rulers of this world. 

We should take notice, here, of the ways in which an oath (of office?) seemingly gives Herod a sense of absolution in this gratuitous violence. It is, after all, for the purpose of seeming true to his word, whatever his own feelings might be. He will stand by his decision, even if that means “collateral damage” is done. As a ruler, one cannot become attached, after all; ruling requires breaking a few eggs with dispassion for the sake of order. What would they all think if he broke his oath now? Would he make the tough decision when the time came, or would he let his passions get in the way of ruling efficiently and effectively? The king cannot be concerned with the fate of the pawns, anyway.

But Jesus receives the disciples and invites them to rest (Mark 6:30-31), understanding that their ministry in the towns and villages has likely left them exhausted and in need of recouperation. This is the beginning of the contrast between Jesus and Herod for this sandwich narrative. If we read on into the story, the disciples are unable to escape the crowds following them. Mark tells us that Jesus “saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). How far removed is this from the rule of Herod? Compassion is impractical. The disciples see this, and they suggest the people go buy their own food. Jesus will instead enlist them in the work of the Gospel: “You give them something to eat.” Perhaps this is but another way of saying, “Feed my sheep.” 

This is the way of the Reign of Jesus: the compassionate lamb among his sheep, the shepherd who lays down his life, the King who elects shame for the sake of each little one. As the rulers of this world hold humanity at arm’s length, the Lord Jesus embraces humanity as his own, and with the solidarity borne of compassion, feeds his sheep until each is filled with more to be shared. 

Mourning and Joy

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

2 Sam 1:1,17-27

Mark 5:21-43

The OT reading and the gospel reading for this Sunday are a study in contrasts.  Second Samuel begins with David’s song lamenting the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, who died in battle against the Philistines on Mt. Gilboa at the end of 1Samuel.  Those familiar with 1 & 2 Samuel know that a host of conflicting motives flow through David over the course of his life. The political, the religious, and the personal combine in complex ways in this future king of Israel.  In this case, I suggest that his grief for both men seems completely sincere.  

This is unsurprising when one thinks of the abiding friendship between David and Jonathan.  Theirs was a “wonderful love,” “surpassing the love of women.”  It is David’s equally sincere grief over Saul which is striking.  For some time, Saul had been trying to kill David.  As a fugitive from Saul, David had even gone so far as to work for the Philistines as a sort of mercenary.  Despite Saul’s animus towards him, David refused to treat Saul as his enemy, sparing his life on multiple occasions.  Whatever relief David may have felt at the demise of his tormentor, it is overshadowed by the loss of Saul and Johnathan.  Perhaps David’s mourning is so intense because he was unreconciled to Saul and exiled from Jonathan when they died.

This calls to mind so many scenes that we have witnessed over the past 18 months as COVID claimed the lives of people who were isolated from the very friends and relatives they would have most wanted to engage in their final days and hours.  

This sadness in the face of death is in sharp contrast to our gospel reading.  Jesus forestalls the death of Jairus’ daughter and he seems to radiate such healing power that an unnamed woman with hemorrhages only needs to touch Jesus’ clothing to be healed.   Both Jairus and the woman share a level of desperation, Jairus for his daughter and the woman for herself.  They also share an almost ferocious confidence in Jesus’ capacity to heal.  Their concern is whether Jesus is willing to heal them.  This is similar to the leper who comes to Jesus in 1:40 saying, “if you are willing you can make me clean.”

As one of the leaders of the synagogue, Jairus would have been a man of some stature in the community.  In order to discern Jesus’ willingness to heal he takes the direct approach, falling at Jesus’ feet and begging repeatedly.  He must have been relieved when Jesus agrees to go with him. 

The woman, who is known to us only by her ailments, shares Jairus’ confidence in Jesus’ capacity to heal.  She, however, lacks Jairus’ social standing.  Moreover, her hemorrhage would have made her ritually unclean and would have made anyone she touched unclean as well.  As she is socially isolated from her fellow Jews, she assumes that Jesus will not willingly touch her, but if she can touch him… 

This episode of two healings concludes with Jesus admonishing Jairus and his family to tell nobody about this incident.  In our world, where no incident or thought goes unrecorded and unremarked upon, this is extremely strange.  It is strange even within Jesus’ world.  Especially in the first half of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus often orders someone he has just restored to health to “tell no one.”  It is clear that this is as ineffective as it is odd.  

I don’t know if there is a single way to make sense of this Marcan phenomenon.  Nevertheless, if we contrast this reading with the reading from 2 Samuel, some things may come into better focus.   Although both Jairus and the woman seem most interested in Jesus’ willingness to direct his power on their behalf, Jesus seems most interested in their faith or confidence in him.  He tells the woman, “Your faith has made you well.”  He tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.”  When Jesus cannot do any work of great power, it is because of unbelievable unbelief of the people of Nazareth (Mk: 6:6).  

It would be fairly easy for a reader of Mark to assume that if one simply believes that Jesus can heal, one will be healed by Jesus.  From that it might well follow that failure to be healed is a sign that one has not believed or not believed enough.  In this way of looking at things, faith, confidence, or belief in Jesus can become a product of our own will power through which we can access healing from Jesus.  Any failures to be healed are on us. 

Those orders from Jesus to “tell no one about this,” may be small indicators that Mark inserts into his gospel to remind us to be very careful about what we say about Jesus the healer; to not say more than we actually know; to be hesitant to infer too much.  This becomes especially important for those of us, like Mark’s first readers, who live in that time between Jesus’ resurrection and the final reconciliation of all things under Christ’s lordship.

Although we live in the light of Easter and Pentecost, our time shares much with David’s.  We will shed tears in the face of death; we will know the pain of being separated and alienated from others; we will live as pilgrims on the way to our true home.  At the same time, we also rejoice in healings, reconciliations and foretastes of the kingdom as we long for that day when God will wipe all tears from our eyes.

Image Credit: Ilya Repin, The Resurrection of Jairus’ Daughter