This morning’s reading from the Gospel of John follows directly from last week’s section. It’s an extended teaching section by Jesus that is centered around the image of Jesus as the bread of life.
“Whoever eats this bread will live forever,” Jesus says. “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
There is a powerful combination of ideas here. He is evoking at once images of sustenance and salvation, and also of incarnation and sacrifice.
Last week, I know Liz reflected on how Jesus seems to be asking us what we’re truly hungry for, and his thinking seems to be that the deepest hunger is, in the end, more spiritual than physical.
That was an especially powerful statement among people who would have known physical hunger, even starvation, all too well.
But this is what he does.
This week we have the further layer of this argument with some of his hearers that he seems to be having. “Stop your grumbling,” he says, when he sees them murmuring. They bristle at this audacious claim that not only is there bread of life, to begin with, but that he is that very bread.
They’ve known him way too long to go for that. They’ve known him from way back. They know his father, his mother, his family. If you need a new ladder or a plow or maybe even a loom, sure, talk to Jesus. But this?
Come on, man.
It’s elsewhere in Scripture that Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country,” but nevertheless, the same idea seems to float over this particular moment in John’s Gospel.
That’s part of the thing about prophets, isn’t it?
Because it isn’t only the messages they bring us that are so strange, so challenging, so hard to swallow.
It’s the messengers themselves who can be so strange, so challenging.
When God’s Word touches down…when Word becomes flesh…it is so rarely through the proper channels, or from among the usual suspects.
Maybe that’s because it actually takes more faith to believe that way. It pushes us commit on a whole new level. Sometimes it seems like that’s how God works. Always looking for that leap we’ll have to make…that horizon over which we’ll have to travel in order to get wherever it is we’re supposed to go.
Sometimes, I think that if someone ever approached me and said that they were a prophet, sent by God with an important message, I could look them up and down and call it right there. That I’d say “Speak for your servant is listening,” or “You know what? I’m sorry but you can’t be a prophet: you’re just not weird enough.”
Prophets are often a little bit weird.
Last week, Liz and I saw a terrific one-man play in the city called “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” and I suppose I’m thinking about it because, while we never meet Leonard, the one thing everyone seems to agree on about him is that he was weird.
The play opens with a detective receiving a missing persons report for a boy in his early teens. Leonard. Who was sent to live with his aunt and cousin in a small town on the Jersey shore, where he stood out like a sore thumb–flamboyant, theatrical, seemingly close to nobody, insistent on wearing fairy wings in a local play and rainbow platform sneakers that he made himself out of a pair of high-tops and a pile of flip-flops and a massive amount of glue.
He is so different from the world around him that the atmosphere quickly grows ominous.
And yet, as the play goes on, and the search for Leonard deepens, it becomes clear that, surprisingly enough, he has touched many lives. Because there is something about his absolute brightness, his improbable spirit, that inspires all kinds of people.
Young as he is, isolated as he is, Leonard is alive. He’s alive in ways that a Jersey shore town in the winter, full of people whose best days seem to be behind them, just can’t help but find hope and comfort in.
That proves to be his legacy, and mostly, it’s a good one.
I recommend the play.
But more to the point, I think it says something about prophets and about incarnation.
Because there are people like that, right?
There are people who seem almost sent to teach us that something in our lives or in our world is being called to change. To respond to some new vision. To be ourselves bravely in some new and deeper way.
Some of the great figures in history were clearly like that.
But I don’t think we’re only talking about setting the bar that high.
More to point, the kind of person we’re talking about might be someone like Leonard, a random kid in a Jersey shore town. Or a headhunter who calls out of the blue, right at the moment when you’re open to a change–I know a little about that one, because a call like that brought me here. Or maybe it’s a neighbor who hears about your recent diagnosis and says, “I don’t know if you know this, but I’m a survivor, too….”
Prophets come in all shapes and sizes.
Let’s say also that the message they bring isn’t always religious.
Many years ago, an Anglican bishop caused quite a stir when he suggested that, perhaps, God might not be particularly interested in religion, among everything else that seemed to be going on.
He meant that maybe it’s the human, in general, the Creation, in general, wherever life is to be found, and not just the practice of piety in one or two particular communities that was most interesting to God.
Well, this was big news for a Bishop to say. But it shouldn’t be.
Prophets come in all shapes and sizes, and the message they bring isn’t always religious.
But it is holy — it is, somehow, a message from beyond us. A message that calls us even beyond the very selves we know.
Indeed, in our becoming, sometimes it turns out that we’re just about the last person to know. The last to see. The last to hear God’s deep truth for us.
For any number of reasons, we cannot hear the call until the prophet appears.
In our Gospel passage, Jesus tells the doubters in the crowd that it’s God who draws us when a message is received.
They are hung up in what is, for them, the sheer temerity of Jesus calling himself the bread of heaven. I’m not aware of that as an old image at the time of Jesus–it’s more like, bread or no bread, if he’s saying that he came down from Heaven, then they’re against it.
They can’t help but hear the message in the terms they know, when the point of a message like that is that it speaks something new, quite possibly in terms we don’t quite know.
And Jesus responds by talking about the God who draws us, who says things that seem improbable via people that seem improbable, and yet, whose call to us is undeniable.
To be religious, he suggests, to be conventionally observant, is far less important than our faithfulness in following God’s call whenever and however it might come.
Our Gospel this morning is not simply about the calling of Jesus. It’s about the ways in which God calls and touches each one of us.
May we see with God’s help to hear that call, however it may come, and find the courage to follow wherever it may lead.