"By bread and word"
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
August 5, 2018—Proper 13B
Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
Last week we heard John’s telling of the feeding of the 5000, in which Jesus fed the crowds who followed him, with twelve baskets left over. He then saved the disciples from a storm at sea. And now, for the next four weeks, we will hear him unfold the meaning of these signs, as he explores what it means for him to say “I am the bread of life.”
He feeds them with the bread and fish they need for their bodies. He calms the storms of their fears. And then he says: this, in fact, is who I am. This sustenance, this release from anxiety, is the reality in which you can abide, if you choose to be with me. This is what my presence is made of!
It’s not an easy thing to grasp. The disciples’ responses echo so much of our own. They forget things. They demand things. They have a terrible tendency toward both “Who sez?” and “What have you done for me lately?” Listen to what they say: Why should we believe in you? You haven’t even given us manna like Moses did! Which prompts Jesus to head-desk and then ask wearily, “Uh, remember the bread I just gave y’all?”
Oh … yeah, right. We were hungry, and he gave us bread. He gave us more bread than we needed. He fed everyone there, with a basket left over for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. He DID give us bread! Lord, KEEP giving us bread, because we don’t like to be hungry!
Lord have mercy. Not only is their response to this gift a request for more gifts … they don’t even have any idea what the true gift is!
I am the bread, he says. I am the sign and the gift and the sustenance.
Jesus is the bread, and the disciples are confused. Jesus is the bread, and we’re a bit confused too. Fact is, we cannot understand this simply through explanation (even an explanation that will take us four Sundays to read!). We have to experience it. We have to come to the table and receive the bread and feel time fold back on itself. Somehow, mysteriously, when we take that bread, we are there on that hillside. Somehow, mysteriously, we are there at that “last supper.” We are there, hungry like the 5000. We are there, broken and scared like the disciples (and Jesus himself). We are there, fed and strengthened by this shared meal. We are there, sustained by the continued presence of Jesus. He is there. He is here. Re-membered. Sustaining us, feeding us, making us whole. He is here. God is here. And who knows what may happen next?
We have to do it to understand it. We have to live it (to be hungry and then fed, to be broken and then bound up … broken inside and then healed, broken apart and then brought together at this table) to understand it. Jesus is the bread of life, and he is given to us always. Always.
He is the bread of life. Which is the first of the I AM identity statements in John, but not the only one. He is bread, he is living water, he is light, he is door, he is way. But the first statement of identity in John is actually that he is Word. In the beginning, as Rabbi Cohen reminded us last week, was the Word.
And word is powerful. Word names. Word controls. Word makes and word can destroy.
We are defined, made human, elevated by our ability to speak words. And while we cannot come close to the power of THE Word, our words still reflect the potency of Word. Which is why that admonition from Ephesians today matters so much.
In describing the ways in which we have been called to live in community, the ways we have been called to follow Christ, the ways in which we have been called to exercise our gifts and talents, the writer of Ephesians urges us to “speak the truth in love.”
Two things, that must come together: speak truth and speak love. Speak truth, which urges the courage to speak things that will challenge both ourselves and others. Speak love, which requires that we question ourselves (again) and our motivations (again and again).
Speak the truth in love. This phrase has often been used solely to tell people what (we believe) they are doing wrong. It has been used to justify horrendous abuse, frankly, that perverts the idea of love to serve only a belief in the speaker’s “rightness” about the hearer’s “wrongness” (“I’m just saying this for your own good…”). But the writer of Ephesians was actually speaking more broadly about how we live together in a Christ-like way. He or she was speaking about how we live in a loving way. He or she was urging us to consider the power of speech, and work hard, all the time, to be sure that we are being thoughtful, reflective and truthful; that we are being gentle, and insightful, and concerned more with building up than tearing down.
Speak truth. Speak love. And maybe it’s better to separate them like that, given the abuse that’s been done in the name of “speak the truth in love.” The original intent of Ephesians is better found in the acronym that urges us to THINK before we speak: is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind?
Because our words, like bread, have power to feed and sustain, or to stunt and kill. Whether the person is present or not. Whether they can hear us or not. Our words shape our relationship to people, shape the way we see them and react towards them. We can blind ourselves, we can poison ourselves with the words we use to describe other people.
Or we can sustain ourselves. We can sustain others, and heal others, and build them up. We can, if our words true, even when they are hard. If they actively seek restoration and reconciliation, rather than denigration or domination. If they work toward liberation for all rather than self-protection or self-satisfaction for us. If they are expansive rather than exclusive. If they are, in fact, what Jesus might have said to or about this person.
Jesus is present, mysteriously, powerfully, in the Bread. And Jesus (the Word) can be present, mysteriously and powerfully, in our words. But I ask you: How much Jesus lives within the words that you say? In your speaking, to and about others, does time fold back on itself, and make Christ present once again?
Are you speaking truth? Are you speaking love? Are you allowing you and your words to be sustained and given life by the presence of Christ (who is bread, who is light and water and way and Word)?
How much Jesus lives in the words that you say? May it be ever more and more. Amen