I spent my first Sunday at our companion parish of Holy Trinity in Tokyo with Deacon Mary Yamano. Mary is a very gifted and spiritual woman who was also a professor at the Anglican seminary in Tokyo. She felt a strong call to be a priest, but the current situation did not allow her to live fully into her call. As we stood in the chancel prior to the congregation’s arrival that Sunday morning, Mary explained the flow of the service to me. For a moment, we stood together in that space in silence and Mary turned to me, her eyes brimming with tears, and said, “This is so hard!” With that, she broke down. I put my arms around her and I think she cried a year’s worth of tears into my shoulder. She had spent over 20 years as a deacon and been faithfully serving a church that just could not get past their tradition and biblical interpretation to see her gifts as a priest.
Tradition and scripture are gifts from God; however, both must be interpreted and sometimes our interpretations put limitations on the Spirit rather than allow the Spirit to liberate us. Tradition and scripture are to be means through which we encounter the living God, but too often we mistake the means for the ends and find ourselves in the practice of worshiping the tradition or the scripture instead of the God who inspires both. This is a form of idolatry and it seems to be what is happening in this portion of our reading from John’s gospel today. We’re about half way through this extended version of the Feeding of the 5,000 story. And the focus today has shifted away from the crowds who are engaging Jesus in a back and forth dialog to this group John calls “the Jews” to which Jesus gives an extended teaching. Now there are various understandings of what John means when he says “the Jews.” Sometimes he is referring to the Jewish authorities. At other times, it appears he is speaking of “Judeans” in effort to contrast their temple-centered spirituality with that of the Galileans whose worship is less centered on the temple in Jerusalem. At other times he is speaking of the Jewish people as a whole. I’m inclined to think this is a group of Jewish people as Jesus tells us they are complaining among themselves. Perhaps they are divided about who Jesus is and what his teachings about bread mean.
This group of Jews appears conflicted about the idea of Jesus’ origins and who he really is. The origin and identity of Jesus is a major theme in the Gospel of John – beginning with the prologue where John says “the Word was with God and the Word was God” and the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Yet John also said, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” We are hearing this again today. His own people just couldn’t accept him – after all, they knew where he came from, right? He came from Galilee, and was the son of Joseph … what’s all this “came down from heaven” stuff?
Last week, I spoke of the fourfold shape of a Eucharistic life and how this extended story centered on the acts of taking, blessing, breaking and giving – the acts Jesus uses on the bread and fish, the act we do each Sunday when we celebrate the Eucharist, and how it is to be the pattern of our Christian life. Today we hear in this reading of how these grumbling Jews were stuck in a paradigm shaped by their own traditions and scriptural interpretations. They knew they were chosen (taken) and blessed as God’s Chosen People. But that’s where they stopped. No being broken so that a new understanding could enter their hearts. And this is why they could not understand what Jesus meant as they rigidly stuck to what they knew. They knew that the bread which came down from heaven was the Manna in the wilderness – it was part of their history in the Exodus story (and it is no coincidence that this story in John is set near the Passover – John 6:4). The Jews perceived all of what they were experiencing as past actions in their history while Jesus is speaking of the living bread of the here and now and into eternal life – one which shows up among them in a form they don’t expect: a seemingly ordinary man from Galilee.
It’s tempting to sit back and pass judgment on these poor clueless Jews who can’t get past their paradigms to see Christ; however, we are not unlike them at all. It was scriptural interpretation and holy tradition which for many years claimed the sacrament of ordination was only valid for men – a paradigm that barred Mary, and many others, from living into a priestly call. We too have our lenses, shaped by both the Bible, tradition and our culture which often blinds us to seeing God breaking into our world in new ways and in forms we don’t expect. What happens when we encounter Christ in a homeless person, or a recent immigrant from Mexico (who may not be “legal”), or in someone addicted to drugs or alcohol, or maybe in the eyes of a Muslim child? Do we refuse to see Christ in these people because our scriptural and traditional interpretations won’t make room for this possibility? Will we refuse to be fed by their presence with us and will we refuse to be Christ for them? If so, we are no different than the Jews who are not seeing Jesus for who he really is.
I’ve heard it said that if we believe Christ is only able to come to us in the ways we expect, we will walk right past as he’s heading the other way. Christ often comes to us through people who challenge us and through those who are on the margins. Where does the Living Bread show up for you? Where have we failed to recognize Christ precisely because we have remained taken and blessed but refused to be broken? As we continue our journey through John, may we live as taken, blessed, and broken people that we may be fed by the Living Bread that, in turn, we may feed others.