If current data is to be believed, we are all on our way to having the attention span of hummingbirds. That may be one reason why this is the fifth consecutive Sunday that we are working our way through the sixth chapter of John. True, this is by far John’s longest chapter. But does it really deserve almost 10% of the liturgical year to get the message? Apparently, it does.
In this week’s gospel, we see many followers of Jesus, who have been with him through miracles and revelations, turn away because this “Bread of Life” message is just too hard for them to accept. They had come along for the loaves and fishes. They had been awed by the miracles and fascinated by his command of the law and the prophets. But they had their own ideas of what the Messiah should be. They were expecting really big things… just not the big things that Jesus was telling them.
John devotes the first twelve chapters of his gospel to a revelation of Jesus. Who is he? Why is he here? What does that mean to us? On six occasions Jesus uses a “show & tell” technique that any kindergarten teacher would recognize. He captures the people’s attention with miracles. Then he creates a metaphor linking the miracle with his mission of redemption. But there is nothing fancy about this transition. Having miraculously fed the multitude, he tells them directly: I am the bread of life. On five other occasions he uses this “I am” formula, linked to a miraculous event to reveal his divine make-up and his mission. Like every effective teacher, Jesus demonstrates his lessons with action. His method is persistent… repetition with inspired variation. His message is consistent… satisfying across the ages to humble believers and brilliant scholars.
It is the height of irony that in the midst of his betrayal, Judas addresses Jesus as “teacher.” As John writes in the first chapter of his gospel, the light of Christ shined in the darkness and could not be overcome. But Satan gave it his best shot. And Judas was his best student. He appealed to Judas’ pride, to his greed, to his jealousy. Judas listened to Satan and learned his lessons well. So here was an original disciple, beloved of Jesus… who attended the classes… heard the parables… saw the miracles… witnessed the constant outpouring of love…yet he rejected the Word made flesh in favor of a quick buck. Clearly, even with a divine teacher, education is a two-way street. Jesus does the teaching, but we must do the learning. We are the children of God… not the robots of God. Jesus does not program us. He reveals the will of God. He embodies the love of God. And we have free will to reject or embrace these teachings.
Ask any teacher, what is the most effective teaching technique? They will tell you it is “discovery”… leading students to find and embrace the truth, making it their own. That is why the origin of the word educate is educare. In Latin it means “to draw out”… in this case to connect us with our innate yearning to be united with God. At the start of John 6, Jesus literally sets the table for learning. His miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes demonstrates his power. This is obviously someone sent from God… more than a messenger, a Messiah. We had better listen to him. And having dramatically gotten our attention, Jesus then challenges us to think outside the box. Using the metaphor of nourishment he invites us to the Father’s feast… an eternal spiritual banquet where Christ is consumed for love of us.
At the conclusion of this gospel we see the results of his instruction in a critical divide between the slow-learners and the no-learners. When questioned by Jesus, once again, it is plodding Peter who speaks the words of faith: We have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God. Peter’s intellect still struggles with it, but his heart has the will to believe as he voices the inevitability of Jesus: To whom (else) shall we go? That inevitability, that undeniability is the best that can ever be expected of poor fishermen or learned theologians.
Doubt is rarely conquered. We are too flawed for that. Peter would deny Christ and repent. And at one time and in one form or another, so have we all. That’s why doubt must be suspended, until it is vanquished. Our faith is a gift that must be constantly nurtured. We all suffer from a spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder. We are so easily distracted. It is part of the human condition that we are taken up with the here and the now. That it is why, in daily prayer and scripture, Jesus must live in our here and now… not just in our there and then. And if that means taking five Sundays to discover Jesus and accept that he is the Bread of Life… it is time well spent… if it is a lesson well learned.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.