NYE Reflection #3: What Must We Do to Be One?
The sounds, the images, the feelings of National Youth Event still linger on. Indeed, we imagined a better world and a blessed community in which all people were welcomed and accepted for who they are, and their gifts embraced. Our imaginations were expanded to believe that this just might be possible, even in our hometowns and cities. And then, after the thrill and wonder of it all, we got on buses and we came home. Back to the grind of work, preparation for school, the daily routine, and life. And the great event we experienced and the miracle of blessed community that filled us and made us whole now was in our memories. But what next…
And so it was for the characters in our Gospel story in John, just right after the great event of the feeding of the 5000 and then Jesus’ Gold medal performance in the Olympic water walking event. Crowds of people were looking for Jesus all over the place and couldn’t find him. When they finally did, he was on the other side of Lake Galilee. Apparently, Jesus’ bus didn’t blow a tire. The crowds weren’t looking for him so they could thank him for such a great teaching or because they were so satisfied by the sign of such a great meal of bread and fish with such an open community. They went looking for Jesus because they wanted more. And, they wanted to figure out what all this meant. But what next…
As they found out, though, they were not about to get more bread for their stomachs or another miracle, but instead an interpretation of what had happened. Your stomachs are full, said Jesus, the supposed miracle man of Nazareth. Don’t eat the food that doesn’t last, but eat the food that lasts forever. Well, the people had to have been interested now. Not only had Jesus filled their hungry stomachs, but now he was promising to give them a lifetime supply of all they could eat buffets! Imagine getting the word from your favorite restaurant that you can come whenever you want and eat all you want for free. They were ready for that and said: Okay, Jesus, so what do we have to do to perform the works of God? In other words, just tell us what to do so we can get what we want! But again, not quite the answer they expected. Jesus responded with: Believe in the one whom God sent, and that is a work of God. Uh, okay. But they needed a way to control this God-stuff, something tangible so they could believe in it.
So the people spoke: What miracle will you perform so we can believe in you? What are you doing that’s so special, Jesus? I mean, look—our ancestor Moses was pretty awesome, because when we were stranded in the wilderness, Moses gave us bread that fell out of the sky. It didn’t require some ornery kid with a few loaves and fishes. If fell out of the sky, man!
Then Jesus spoke: Really? You’re going to bring Moses into this? He didn’t give you that bread from heaven. It was GOD, by the way, and the bread that GOD gives you is way better than any buffet you could imagine. GOD’S bread gives life even to the whole world! Now the people were REALLY excited, because this sounded even better than the manna: Give us this bread always. But Jesus said: I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. And then the 14 hour bus ride seemed like 24.
They were focusing on the wrong kind of bread, of course. Their bread would eventually get stale. And Jesus was asking them to widen their perspective to experience the bread that endures. Meno is the Greek word for endures in verse 27. Meno is used often in John to describe Jesus’ relationship with those who follow him. You remember the image of the vine and branches. Jesus said: If you Abide/Endure in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Abide/Endure in my love. This enduring bread is a metaphor of Jesus’ relationship with us, humanity. This relationship is accessible to all. There are no left out people, because this relationship endures. It endures through changing cultures, times, and circumstances. This relationship bread nourishes us and sustains us.
At National Youth Event, we experienced much of what this enduring relationship can look like. We were together and all being fed in the way we needed to be. I was so impressed with the acceptance, tolerance, and compassion of the teenagers. I saw this kind of abiding love in them. We looked forward to what we would do with this nourishment—how we would bless people. But our bread and fishes miracle event didn’t last forever. Eventually, we all returned to our homes and churches. Sadly, reality was different than what we experienced in Indiana. For if we’re honest, we know that the bread we most often consume is WAY below the standards of bread we are offered. Like the crowds in our story, instead of looking forward, we look back to our past and think that the things of old will always satisfy us–even if some of those things are intolerance, prejudice, close-mindedness, fear. Like the people looking for Jesus, we keep looking for something to satisfy us and quite frankly, we never find it, because we are looking for the wrong things. Sitting in a pew won’t satisfy us; proclaiming a doctrine or creed won’t fill our stomachs; quoting Bible texts to support our point of view won’t quench our thirst; walking through the old rituals won’t make us whole; hanging out with the same people who are just like us won’t enrich us; just believing without living it doesn’t bless people.
I think there’s so much to this bread metaphor, if we’re willing to embrace it. So much grace, because in a world full of conflicts, walls, divisions, and unsatisfying things, we can choose to believe in a GOD who endures with us through it all. We can choose to believe in a God who is present in our suffering–always there and still loving us when we doubt and fear and say unspeakable things when no one is watching or listening. We can choose to fill our mind and hearts with an eternally patient and forgiving God of love, even when others seem so eternally impatient and hateful. We can choose to remain, abide, and endure in a love and mercy that is meant for ALL people. We can choose to believe that our mountaintop, miracle moments that often end abruptly in a bus ride serve to push us forward with new energy, joy, perspective, and hope. They miracle events may not last, but the bread will.
And the bread is meant for all people. If you ask me, that’s where we get sidetracked, when we lose purpose today in the church. We ought to consider such wonderful bread as a gift that is not limited to just us or to those we like. We ought to endure in our own walk with God–not criticizing someone else’s relationship with God because it’s not like ours. See, we’re all tempted at some point to go looking for Jesus to try and make sense of this faith thing and this God stuff, to fit it into a category, but we miss the point. Faith, God’s love and mercy–this enduring relationship—are not things to make sense of. They are things to embrace; to be thankful for; faith and God’s enduring love is for us to live.
None of this church stuff matters unless we live it out there. Now listen, regardless of whether you like or don’t like the letters of Paul in the New Testament, this Ephesians passage certainly is relevant. The dynamic was this: in the 1st Century, Jews and those who were not Jews [Gentiles] had a hard time accepting each other. Both groups couldn’t quite wrap their minds around the concept of unity through reconciliation. It was really difficult for them to accept that those “far off” were now equally gifted by God and that the dividing walls had been torn down through Christ.
I don’t think the distinction of Jew and Gentile works for us in our context. Today there are different walls between people. We make distinctions between races or ethnicities. He’s black, she’s white; he’s brown; she’s yellow; you’re green. We divide ourselves by social class—rich; paycheck to paycheck; just scraping by or dirt poor; bmw or bicycle or Septa bus; big house with a nice yard or one bedroom apt or cardboard box. We build walls of sexuality—gay or straight; bi or trans; active or chaste. And like the 1st Century folk, we separate by religious belief or lack thereof—Christian [with too many categories to name], Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Agnostic, Atheist, Neopagan, Sacred Earth.
And yet, the dream of God for us—for all people—is that through the enduring, reconciling bread of Christ, unity is still possible. Jesus was the one who broke down the dividing wall or the hostility between us. But unity—being one—does not mean that we are all the same. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Unity doesn’t blur distinctions or uniqueness. The Body of Christ, what we today refer to as the church, is defined as: the wisdom of God in its rich variety. It’s all these different people bearing with one another. The uniqueness doesn’t go away, nor should it. The uniqueness is a blessing. And it doesn’t prevent us from growing together.
In fact, it is our acceptance of one another as we are that helps us claim the really, really satisfying bread. When we speak up for someone who is not our best friend when he is bullied; when we reach out to help someone who doesn’t speak our language; when we show hospitality to a stranger; when we invite in someone left on the outside; when we rejoice, cry, laugh, pray, eat, dance, sing, hug, donate, repair, cook, lift up, encourage, and surprise with kindness. THAT is the fruit of our enduring relationship with our God. Because we all eventually go home and face reality. We all find ourselves looking for Jesus and purpose and something to satisfy us. And then, we realize that the most important part of the bread that lasts is how we burn the calories. Who do we love? Who do we help? Who do we reconcile with? Who do we call friend? And then, with these actions inspired by the bread, we do find unity. And we find wholeness, too. Amen.