August 8

For the life of the World

By Marsh Chapel

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John 6:35, 41-51

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For our anniversary back in 2015, my wife and I stayed at a small resort on a finger lake in upstate New York. It was one of those places for us that we really only go to when special anniversaries come around. We had a splendid time. The place started as an estate for a wealthy family, was a monastery for 25 years, and underwent numerous renovations to turn into a hotel. It sits on the waters of Seneca lake and was built in the style of the Italian renaissance. At the time we went, the hotel offered guests the opportunity to see the lake on a nightly boat cruise. We went on the ride with one other couple and the boat driver. We spent the time chatting with the boat driver who made us feel that we belonged there. It was clear that he loved the water, the estate, and making guests feel welcome. He offered insights into what we were seeing and the two of us talked about church architecture. In short, he was an extremely hospitable guide focused on our comfort.

The next morning, my wife and I were waiting for breakfast. We looked at the wall and noticed pictures of some famous people who had stayed there over the years. As we looked through the photographs, we noticed that the boat driver was in many of the pictures. Through a simple Google search, we discovered that the man who drove the boat and made us feel so at home was a former owner of the estate. He and his family had lovingly restored and managed the property for decades. For years, they poured themselves into the estate, making it a beautiful and welcoming place for guests. At the time when we went, and still today, the man who drove the boat is the general manager of the hotel.

His love for the estate and for making guests feel welcome has stuck with me through the years. His kindness and non-ostentatious way of leading the nightly cruise was a bit of grace at a time when people tend to point toward themselves. It struck me, when I learned more about the man, that he was doing what I think makes him happy. I imagine there were other people who could lead the boat ride or interact with guests in such a personal way, but these interactions seemed to bring him genuine joy, so he made time to do them personally. There might have been other things he could have been doing, some of which other people might think were more important, but a trip over the fresh waters of Seneca lake with a genuine host stands as a moment of beauty in my memory. There is joy in doing what you love and in loving what you do. The whole trip, including the estate and interaction, was a reminder to search for beauty along with the good.

We have had to cling to such moments of beauty in the current state of things. We have lived off good and beautiful memories, waiting for new ones to be formed. We continue to wait with hope for a new season where COVID is the distant memory. In the meantime, though, we live in a state of paradox. We live in a time of trouble even while triumphs do exist. Perhaps, this paradoxical state can help us connect with a paradox from the Gospel of John. In a simplified manner, the paradox is, what is the relationship between those who believe and the world? Theologians are not in agreement as to whether this paradox is primarily pessimistic or optimistic. Do we reside in a irredeemable world fallen and marred by sin moving toward destruction, are do we live in a world loved by God seeking redemptive transformation? A similar paradox can be said of people and God, are people sinners in the hands of an angry God as Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermons says, or people for whom Christ has already taken on flesh to connect with the love of God?

On the one hand, the gospel account begins with a strong affirmation of creation and flesh through the incarnation of Christ, “The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.” John 3:16 indicates that God so loved the world. Our lectionary passage today ends with sharing that the bread of life Jesus offers is given for the life of the world. This bread is identified with the flesh of Christ. These Johannine passages suggest an optimistic understanding of flesh and the world. They connect the incarnation of Christ with the love of God in the world. They are a reminder to search for good, truth, and beauty in the world because the life of the world is the flesh of Christ. They suggest a sacramental quality of flesh and the world which draws us closer to God and companionship with one another.

The Gospel of John also uses the world and flesh in pessimistic manners. It recounts that being born of the Spirit is different from being born in the flesh, priority is given to the Spirit in these passages. Heavenly things are more significant than earthly things. Late in the Gospel, Jesus says that he chooses disciples out of this world, indicating that they no longer belong to the world. He warns that the world will hate the disciples as it hates him and prays that they be, not of this world as he is not of this world…

Tension and paradox need critical faith, not pithy pietistic platitudes. The world and flesh, according to John are not straightforward. They should not be dismissed nor romanticized. It is clear the Gospel account is using the world and flesh in paradoxical and complicated manners. It can be the place of the incarnation, the flesh of Christ with which the love of God is directed, or a place of antagonism against Christ and Christ followers. Commentators note the multi-layered uses of flesh and world throughout the Gospel. The world offers many good and beautiful things, but the world also offers evil and ugly things. It is not within our power to obliviate the tension, so we need to find ways of navigating the tension.

To explore the tension, we might turn from literal language and literalized language to the language of metaphor. Metaphors help us navigate tension because they are built on the logic of tension. Metaphors hold concepts together by creating tension between a literal meaning and a figurative meaning. This tension does not make metaphors untrue, in fact, Paul Ricoeur argues that this tension allows metaphors to say things about reality that not would otherwise be possible. Through a figurative throwing together, metaphors disclose aspects of reality and being to us; however, this revelatory process requires constant tension. Once the tension of a metaphor is lost, the metaphor dies. So long as the metaphor lives, it requires people to interpret through the tension. Metaphors allow us to peer through glass to see dimly what one day we hope we see clearly.

The central metaphor of the scripture passage today comes from the mouth of Jesus multiple times. Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life. This is a rich metaphor and one that should be kept alive. It plays with the intersections between bread being a basic food for survival and Christ being foundational to the life of Christian faith. Jesus also emphasizes part of what it means that he is the bread of life by using the phrase Ego Eimi, I am. In doing so, Jesus reveals the intimate connection between himself and his father in Heaven who said “I am” when Moses encountered the burning bush. Christ also compares himself to the manna that fed Israel while they were wandering the desert. Jesus as the bread of life is a metaphor rich in nutritive potential for the world.

Bread provides sustenance and strength for daily living. In the ancient world, bread was a staple food for families and communities. It was not just an individual meal, bread was a common food that gathered people around a table. The modern world has lost some intimacy with food and eating in many places. You might be like me, I buy my food from a store largely unaware of where the food came from in the world or all the steps involved to get it to my table. Eating has largely become individualistic, but food reveals the interdependence of life and food systems show how interconnected life is. Farmers grow wheat which requires seed, land, and proper weather. Grain needs to be harvested and milled into flour. Flour needs to be kneaded into dough which needs to be baked. Modern food systems require shipping and processing at various stages as well. It needs to be distributed to places where it can be purchased by consumers before being eaten. Each step along the way is a part of the web of life which connects all of us. When Jesus says, I am the bread of life and willing gives his flesh for the life of the world, he inspires us to see the interconnected existence of faith in the world. He invites us to make good and beautiful ripples in the web for the life of the world.

I was on the wrestling team in high school and one day my coach had the whole team start running around the mats. He took to the strongest individual on the team and gave him a gallon of water. My coach asked him whether holding the water would be difficult and my teammate said no. So, coach gave him the water and told him to hold the jug out with his arm fully extended. At first, holding the water was easy and my teammate laughed at us as we ran circles around him. As time went on though, the simple task of holding water increasingly became difficult. If you have ever had to hold something for a long time without a break, you have probably experienced that the constant tension required to hold something increases the difficulty of holding over time. As muscles get tired, it feels like more and more strength is required to hold the same amount of weight. Right before holding the water became too much for my teammate, my coach handed the water to another member of the team who at first found the task easy. When he was worn out, a new team member took his place holding the water. The lesson, my coach instilled in us that day, was how even simple tasks done in isolation can become grueling over time. When we isolate ourselves from our team or the world around us, we carry burdens and tensions alone. When we remain open to engage in community and interdependence with others, mutual thriving can take place and tension can be shared across lives. By constantly sharing in the task of holding the water galleon, the whole team was able to ensure that no individual person carried too much on their own.

When Jesus said that he is the bread of life for the life of the world, I wonder if this type of mutual interdependence was on his mind. While Jesus is bread of life for me, and for you, he is also bread of life for us. The bread of life provides nutritive sustenance in and through the webs of life. Jesus as the bread of life is a common meeting place for us to engage with one another and the world in life giving manners. In many ways, this type of being seeks to make life hospitable for everyone. Because eating is so central to our existence, it is an apt location for hospitality. Jesus as the bread of life for the life of the world can be a metaphor of radical hospitality where all are welcome. All are embraced. All are given bread for the journey. It is a metaphor where tension exists but does not overwhelm any individual because all hold a part of the tension. In contrast to forms of hospitality which are largely transactional and monetary, Christ’s hospitality is free. The incarnate Word present with God in the beginning enters the world to offer reconciling hospitality. What a gift. The bread of life is a gift. And it is a chance to see good and beauty amid a tensive world.

If you have been following the Tokyo Olympics, you might have seen inspiring examples of good acts. Two stick out to me so far. The Olympics are a great display of human perseverance, skill, and strength. Sometimes though, it takes determination, hard work, and luck to win. Athletes often spend years training and preparing to compete. This past Sunday, 800 meter runners Isaiah Jewett and Nijel Amos got tangled and fell while seeking to qualify for the final race. The two men did not respond to each other with anger. Amos reportedly apologized and Jewett invited him to finish the race together. While standing up, the two men reach out and linked arms. Citing superhero’s as a source of inspiration for how he handled the episode, Jewett said, “And that was my version of trying to be a hero, standing up and up and showing good character even if it’s my rival or whoever I’m racing, or if anything happened, I don’t want any bad blood because that’s what heroes do: They show their humanity through who they are and show that they’re good people.”

Or maybe you heard the story of the high jumpers who were tied for first place, Tamberi and Barshim. After neither had completed the necessary jump to win, they embraced each other. In their embrace, they were told they had to keep going in a final jump-off. One of the two, Barshim, interrupted the explanation of the jump off to ask if they could just share the gold medal. They were told that they could and the pair immediately backed away from the man explaining the jump off. Barshim extended his hand to Tamberi who immediately took it and the two embraced again. You can see the pure joy on their faces when they decided to share the gold medal. It does not seem that sharing gold took anything away from the moment for them, in fact, it seems that sharing added value to their experience. Barshim said, “We just look at each other and we know, that is it, it is done.” The two competitors, met back in 2010 and have been friends since. Their friendship now extends to sharing the gold medal.

John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus is the bread of life for the life of the world. This bread continues to be available and expressed to us today. The most evident places are in Word and Sacrament but also in the hospitality of boat driver, wrestling teammates, and Olympians. Wherever there is goodness, the bread of life is present for the sake of the world. Where there is need, the bread of life is present waiting to be actualized. When we receive the bread of life, whether it be tasted as the bread of communion, heard through the Word proclaimed, or seen as goodness in the world, Christ’s transforming life is active and present. When we give the bread of life to others and for others, we become co-laborers with Christ.

Earlier I said that the bread of life metaphor plays with the intersections between bread being a basic food for survival and Christ being foundational to the life of Christian faith. I find that true, but the bread of life metaphor also invites us to see Christ in relationship with the world. Whether one sees the world primarily pessimistically or optimistically, Christ, the bread of life is given for the life of the world.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics, Boston University School of Theology

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