The Bread of Eternal Life

This week we are back to Jesus’ discourse on The Bread of Life, which starts with the Feeding of the 5,000 – we heard that story a few weeks ago.As I thought about today’s Gospel reading, I found myself thinking about life based on these 3 concepts:

 – Physical life – what we know here and now
  -Life after death – which we can’t even imagine; and
 – Eternal Life, which I always want to write in all capital letters LIFE

I have known many people who believed that this physical life is all there is. My Father referred to death as “the big sleep”. I suspect he is now one very surprised eternal soul! Many others, including many who follow the teaching of Christ, see this physical life as something to be endured before we can enter heaven, when the good / marginalized will have eternal bliss and the others eternal punishment. We see this in the songs of oppressed people; such as in African American spirituals “the river is deep and the river is wide. Milk and honey on the other side”. Other people imagine life after death as rather like life here bur without the difficulties we endure now. You hear them at funerals saying things like: “Uncle Fred is now playing golf with my Dad on the great golf course in the sky.” To others, life is a 2 stage event – one life here and quite different one hereafter, perhaps sitting on a cloud playing a harp – who knows?

What is Eternal Life?

But what Jesus is offering in this discourse isn’t a two stage life – Eternal life isn’t the same as life after death. Eternal Life starts here and now. “Having eternal life” is mentioned four times in this discourse and in every case, the verb is in the present tense!. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” and “I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” Not will have, has. Eternal life starts here and now, and won’t be terminated by the death of the body. Eternal life is not ‘pie in the sky bye and bye when you die.’ It’s not something that you have to wait for till you die. For John and for us, eternal life is something that begins in the now. Eternal life is life now in Christ, (as Paul calls it) and John asserts here that believers have eternal life now in Christ. Jeus came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

So what is this life that Jesus gives, this eternal life? John Wesley once wrote, that religion (I think we’d probably use the word faith today) is not the mere saying over of so many prayers, morning and evening, in public or private, but “a renewal of our beings in the image of God, a recovery of the Divine likeness, a self-increasing conformity of heart and life to the pattern of our most holy redeemer.” Wow! Sounds heavy. If I could put it in other words: Wesley is saying that True religion or faith is a transformation; it’s a new way of living. It’s – well, as Wesley said, becoming more Christ like, recovering the divine likeness that is in us. Saying a few prayers, taking part in a few rituals, believing a few doctrines … we could call that Fast food Christianity – is not true faith; we may feel full for a time, but fast food, popcorn and pretzels, or even a hot dog and fries is not very nutritious. Christianity isn’t even fine dining, although that’s part of it; it’s an ongoing, sustainable healthy diet, day in, day out. And to Jesus’ listeners in 1st century Galilee, that meant bread. Jesus is the Bread of Life, the Bead of Eternal Life.

Life flowing out from God to us

The more I study the Bible, the more I feel a need to understand the words used by the writers, and what happened to them in translation. What’s the difference when I read everlasting life and eternal life? Well, none. The same Greek word is translated sometimes as one and sometimes as the other. But according to Greek Scholars, neither word really conveys the sense of the word John and other NT writers used, which has more of a sense of flowing – life that flows. It connotes a quality of life, tether than a quantity (length) of life, although the quantity isn’t absent. Jim Finley says it’s “Infinity (God) giving itself away”. A lot of the medieval mystics, especially women, use this language of God flowing out toward them and through them (Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingem, Teresa of Avila to name a few). For Christians it means we are part of the Trinitarian flow of God’s love and life in us, through us, with us, for us—and usually in spite of us.

The same idea is found in 1 John 1:1-4 which the message translates “eternal life” as “The infinite Life of God himself … this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ”! There you have it, The Life which Jesus brings is this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. It’s ours here and now. Christianity is an experiential religion, not a religion of dogmas and rules. The way we live flows out from our experience of the divine, as we in turn, are part of the flow, where love, compassion and forgiveness that flow into us from God flow out of us to others. God doesn’t give us rules for living king of like the “Seven habits for highly successful souls” . Instead, God lets divine Love flow through us and out to others.

God’s Gift to Us

Jesus makes it very clear in this passage from John that this life, the ever flowing, eternal life is not a result of anything we do. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” and “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me”. Our eternal life is a gift from God. God, or as Jim says, Infinity, takes the initiative,

But we have to respond with belief – not believing with our intellect certain propositions about God, Jesus or our faith, but the kind of belief I show when I tell my child, maybe as he branches out by himself, I believe in you. I have faith that you will do the right thing, I trust you. Jesus said: “whoever believes has eternal life.” God makes the offer; but we have to respond. If you come to my birthday party and bring me a beautiful and valuable gift, and I don’t take it from you, I don’t have it. In the same way, God offers to each one of us the gift of Eternal Life, and we have to accept this gift by believing, by trusting, by following the one who offer this life. God’s love is constant and unconditional; our part is to be open to it and let it transform us. There is absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us more than God already God’s; and there is absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us less. The only difference is between those of us who allow that and those who don’t, but we all are equally and objectively the beloved. Those of us who allow God’s love in our lives just enjoy it and draws ever-new life from that realization. As RR says “God doesn’t love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good.

How Jesus Defines Eternal Life

So what is this Eternal Life? I spent a lot of time this week trying to put into words (or find words written by others) to express what it feels like to live in Christ. I fall back on the words of Jesus: In his prayer before the crucifixion recorded only in Johns Gospel, Jesus refers to Eternal Life saying: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” And Jesus prays for all of us, who didn’t know him but have believed through the words passed down from the first disciples over the years: he prayers “for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us“ Unity with God, the triune God, Father , Son and Holy Spirit – and participating in the flow us divine love -this is the gift of Eternal Life, and it’s ours now.

God Walks with us in Good Times and in Bad

What a gift! But, please don’t misunderstand me, it’s not the gift of ease and comfort. It doesn’t isolate us from the problems of this world, sickness, unkindness, quarrels, money problems – they will still plague us. But God walks with us in good times and in bad – just read Psalm 23. And there will still be times when it feels as if God has deserted us. Just read the lives of saints and mystics! St John of the Cross called these experiences the Dark Night of the Soul, and they are times that God is letting us grow, like a bird pushing her chick out of the nest, or a snake sheading its skin for a new bigger one. Very often, we think of faith as a feeling or an emotion, an experience, and it is easy to become addicted to this feeling, and to measure how close we are to Jesus by the intensity of the emotion we feel. We become spiritually addicted to this emotion. Mike Glenn, a Baptist pastor, believed that he had a contract with Jesus: if he obeyed Jesus teachings, in return, God was obligated to do something in return for him, namely stop bad things happening to him. Then he was diagnosed with Cancer. He writes: “I lost [my faith]. No, that wouldn’t be correct. I didn’t lose it. That means you put it somewhere and then, when you went to look for it, you couldn’t find again. I didn’t misplace my faith. Jesus took my faith from me. He stripped it away. Jesus will never tolerate the presence of idols or falsehoods in your life, even when we call that idol ‘faith.’”. Love must sometimes be tough live and growth is rarely comfortable. There are two primary teachers (maybe they are the only two teachers) that move us ever closer to this unity with God. They are Great Love and Great Suffering.

A New Life – Sharing the Life of God

So, is it worth it? Oh yes! I want to leave you with the words of Richard Rohr: “I think [this] is the central positive theme of the Bible. It is the Divine Unmerited Generosity that is everywhere available, totally given, usually undetected as such, and often even undesired. It is called grace and has been rightly defined as “that which confers on our souls a new life, that is, a sharing in the life of God Himself”

Walking on Water

There is a lot in this reading that we just heard – four incidents and a hole. We start with Jesus inviting his disciples to leave everyone and go with him “to a deserted place” to rest. According to Mark, the disciples had just returned from their mission without Jesus to preach and heal, and were reporting back. Surely they needed this rest. Sadly interrupted by needy people But it was not to be. This is where the hole comes. The crowd were waiting for them and Jesus had compassion in them. You will hear this part of the chapter next week. Jesus feeds 5,000 men + women and children, after which (as we pick up the story), Jesus sent the disciples away in the boat, and dismissed the crowd. Then he goes away by himself to pray. As we heard, when his Prayer time was over, he went looking for his friends, walking on water to reach them – more later. The last incident we read about saw Jesus and the disciples back with crowds of people and Jesus again at work healing.

Back to walking on water. Did it happen? I’m not going to debate today whether Jesus really did walk on water. Three of the 4 gospels have this story. Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, Mathew, who based a lot of his writings on Mark, but adds the detail of Peter also walking on the water to meet Jesus until he lost faith he could do it, and John, believed to have written independently of the other three. Scholars’ opinions range from: He’s God; of course he can walk on water or (a version of this) the miracle was a hologram version of Jesus; to It was an optical illusion (he was on the shore or a sandbar) to It never happened; it’s a myth! Take your choice.

However you interpret it, like so many Bible stories, there is more than one level of meaning in the story. The phrase Walking on Water, like many biblical phrases has been adopted into current parlance and is used without thought of where it comes from.  When I worked at the bank we had a performance appraisal every year, and we were graded from Unsatisfactory, right up to Exceptional. I didn’t know anyone who had ever received the Exceptional rating, and I found out why when I tried to rate one of my staff that way. My boss didn’t believe anyone could ever be exceptional. As a result, the office culture claimed that, in order to be rated Exceptional, you had to be faster than a speeding bullet, leap tall buildings with a single bound, and walk on water! You have to be a combination of Superman and Jesus.  This is the way walking in water has entered our culture – as one aspect of doing the impossible. According to the story, if taken literally, Jesus could do the impossible, but not the disciples and not us.

Haven’t we all been the victim of unrealistic expectations?  Public figures get this regularly, especially after they have just been elected or appointed. There is even a name for it – the honeymoon period + that time before the person has done something to make them unpopular. I remember the headline in 2015: “How long will Justin Trudeau’s Honeymoon period last?” For a while, it seemed like he could do no wrong.  The same thing happens in other spheres of life. Of course there is the original marital honeymoon, but also the new boss, new pastor or a role model who, eventually, because he or she is human, lets us down in some way. We either accept the other person’s failings, or a divorce happens – marriage breakdown, we leave the job or the church, or we force the other person out.

Thinking about these expectations, thought of a song performed by the hip hop artist Eminem, the best selling artist of the 2000x in the US< called I walk on Water and here is the chorus (which I won’t try to sing): I walk on water / But I ain’t no Jesus / I walk on water / But only when it freezes.” Rap (also called Hip Hop)  is the 21st Century equivalent of the protest songs of the 1960’s, and like them expresses anger and frustration at the systems that marginalize segments of the population while making life easy for others – truths that are uncomfortable for the comfortably off to hear. In this song, Eminem laments the celebrity culture which has put him on a pedestal. “Why, are expectations so high?” he asks. His fans expect every word he writes or sings to be exceptional, each new song to be better than the one before; kids look up to him as a role model and he’s afraid to let them down. They expect him to walk on water, but what happens when the is=ce melts?  He raps:

‘Cause I’m only human, just like you / I been making my mistakes, oh if you only knew / I don’t think you should believe in me the way that you do /’Cause I’m terrified to let you down, oh / If I walked on water, I would drown / ‘Cause I’m just a man, ……. Or woman! … : I walk on water / But I ain’t no Jesus / I walk on water / But only when it freezes.

It’s not only leaders and celebrities who get idealized with unrealistic expectations.  Just as we have unrealistic expectations of a new boss, (or pastor or neighbour or even spouse) the boss (or whoever) might have unrealistic expectations of us! I doubt there is one of us who, at some time in our life, hasn’t been put on a pedestal, thought of as a role model, felt called to Walk on Water, carried the burden of unrealistic expectations.  Wasn’t there a time when, to your children or grandchildren, you could do no wrong? When people relied on you and didn’t want to let them down, but their expectations were unrealistic? Or have you ever been told: “You’re a Christian … how can you say (or do) that?” Haven’t we all wanted to cry out with Eminem I don’t think you should believe in me the way that you do /’Cause I’m terrified to let you down, oh / If I walked on water, I would drown / ‘Cause I’m just a man, ……. Or woman!

Where do these unrealistic expectations come from? Sometimes from others. Very often from ourselves!. But they do not come from God.  Jesus didn’t call us to be perfect, without flaws. OK, now you’re all thinking of that saying of Jesus in Matthew: “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”. I’m not a Greek scholar, but I looked that up. The word used in Greek, that was translated into Latin as Perfectus, and later into English as perfect is teleios and it can mean ‘perfect’ but is more usually used to refer to maturity or wholeness. In fact anywhere else it is used in the New Testament, it is translated as mature.  Be mature is very different from being perfect. Grow up, says Jesus. So what did Jesus expect of us as we grow up, if not perfection?

I like Paul’s image (2 Corinthians 4.7) which says that ‘we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.‘ The Corinthians made various kinds of pots and exported them widely. As well as fancy, highly glazed pottery, some of their pots were made of inferior clay that, when fired, cracked and made great light diffusers. Paul is referring to these pots, when hr describes how God’s extraordinary power chines through us, the inferior pots. Paul’s point is that our cracked imperfect exteriors (in this instance his in particular) are nothing to be ashamed of — they are vital. A well glazed pot keeps the light in; only a pot riven with cracks can shine God’s light in the world. The cracks let the light out. A slightly different image with the same idea is Kintsugi pottery, a Japanese practice which mends broken pots withgold or silver so that that resulting pot is more beautiful than the one that broke. In both cases, iy is through the cracks that the light shines through.

As Christians, we are called to be who we are with all our cracks and imperfections, knowing that God’s glory will shine through those cracks into the world around us and that the gold of God’s love will mend our brokenness into something far more beautiful than it was before. We are called to be who we are with all our cracks and imperfections.

The Christian calling is not a calling to perfection. I find it very freeing to know that I don’t have to walk on water, but instead we are called to be ourselves, and to live with our imperfections so that God’s glory can shine all the more powerfully.  I know I’ll never be perfect; I can’t walk on water. Those expectations come from other people, or from myself. I want other people’s high opinion, and I don’t want to let people down. But I do let myself and others down; I’m human, I can’t walk on water.

I don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be perfect. If perfection was the goal, I’d never step out of my house. I’d be too afraid about how I measure up to ever open the door. I’d obsess over everything I say or do  and if I couldn’t measure up, I’d stay under my covers, afraid to face the world. If I had to be perfect. I’d be stagnant and frozen.  That’s no life. Knowing we’ll never be perfect and don’t have to be perfect, means we can be those disciples in the boat, striving against the storm, even though they didn’t recognize Jesus. We can be the pots with cracks, because it’s through the cracks that God’s light shines forth.  God made each one of us, with all our imperfections. God loves each one of us, with all our imperfections. God made each of us to be different. What God want is for each of us to be the wonderful, beloved, distinct individual we were created to be.  He gave us guidelines Love God, Love your neighbour, and Love yourself. Same rules, but each has our individual way to let the light of love shine through. So be yourself, your beautiful, beloved self, and spread Love around.