Sermon preached for the eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
The Jewish opposition grumbled about [Jesus] because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
They asked, “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph’s son, whose mother and father we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Jesus responded, “Don’t grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets, And they will all be taught by God. Everyone who has listened to the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God. He has seen the Father. I assure you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
I’ve heard it said that faith doesn’t come from having answers. It comes from having questions.
Nobody comes to faith because they already have it figured out. They come because they don’t. Because they wonder. Because they’re curious. Because something is missing in their life, or because a mystery has touched them they want to explore.
And so one of my favorite things about John’s gospel is his willingness to include the tough questions. The powerful questions. Sandwiched between Jesus’ lengthy speeches, John gives voice to people like us, people who want to know what on earth is going on with God.
This week, the question I want to look at is one of the hinge questions of Christianity. Is the person of Jesus enough that we can believe Jesus is God?
In these verses, Jesus talks about how he is the bread of life that has come down from heaven, here to give life to the world. Most of us now, two thousand years later, raised on communion wafers and Amazing Grace, don’t blink at that claim.
But we haven’t met Jesus’ parents. And the crowd has. So they ask, quite reasonably, I think, “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph’s son, whose mother and father we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
They know him. They’ve seen him grow up. They know he did not arrive floating on a cloud or appearing in a blast of light. So how, possibly, can he claim to be the Son of God, the Bread of Life come down from heaven?
These are people who know God. Who believe deeply in the God who created the universe from nothing, who appeared as clouds of smoke and fire to lead them through darkness, who set out the law for their guidance. A God who is, to use the words of a favorite hymn, “immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”
And then here they have a guy, late twenties, early thirties, and they remember him as a kid, and he’s claiming to be God’s son. Asking them to believe in him. Believe in him the way they believe in God. Come to God through him.
And so I get their question. I really do. If you are God, Jesus, is God still enough for us?
Can a person be God? Can a person be what we need? Can a person save us?
I have many beloved friends whose faith has broken on this question. Either Jesus is not enough to be God—too human, too limited, too historical—or God is not enough if Jesus was God’s best effort. My prayer for them is that they do find something that is enough—whatever they call it, however they experience it—to guide them meaningfully through life.
But I also have many beloved friends whose faith has been founded on this question. Who have come to Christianity not despite Jesus’ humanity, his physicality, his ordinariness, but because of it. Who can hold onto their faith because it gives them something to actually hold. To touch. To taste.
Something that is enough for them, even if it’s not everything they want.
In spending so much time with John’s sixth chapter, I’ve been reminded of Take this Bread, a spiritual autobiography by a woman named Sara Miles. She subtitled her book A Radical Conversion, and in it she describes the process of coming to God through Jesus, and coming to Jesus through communion, and coming to communion through a lifelong love of food. It’s not a flashbang conversion story, but a slow and cyclical one, peppered with questions that draw her deeper into the mystery of Christ.
Sara was raised unChristian, if that is a term I can use—not precisely anti-Christian, but not far from it. Her parents had long ago decided that God, who they understood God to be, wasn’t enough for them, wasn’t enough for the world they lived in. Her mother was angry that her own childhood had been controlled by missionary parents who insisted God was all-sufficient and yet barely scraped by. Her father, with more sophisticated disinterest, once explained to Sara that “Some people… believe Jesus was a god. And some people think he was just a very, very good man. A teacher.”
Sara had plenty of teachers. She didn’t need one who wasn’t around to grade her papers or engage her in conversation. And so she inherited her parent’s cynical atheism, and after seeing the suffering of the world in her job as a journalist, became only more firmly convinced that God wasn’t even remotely the answer to the world’s longings, or her own.
And yet, one morning when she was forty-six, that journalist’s drive to ask questions, to explore her world, sent her into an Episcopalian church she often passed on walks.
This is what happened, in her own words:
I walked in, took a chair, and tried not to catch anyone’s eye… We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood and sang, and it was pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. “Jesus invites everyone to his table,” a woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda. It had some dishes on it, and a pottery goblet.
And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying, “the body of Christ,” and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying “the blood of Christ,” and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me. …
I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told. But neither could I go away: For some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again.
It was communion that kept drawing Sara back to that church, even when all her friends thought she was going crazy. The week she was baptized, she launched a food pantry at the church, modeled off her sense of God’s table being open to all, that was soon serving upwards of 300 people a day. All the doing—shelving donations, calling volunteers, praying with the hungry—it helped her connect with a physical Jesus, a god who did things. Day by day, challenge by challenge, question by question, Sara began to feel that God was enough for her—for her hunger, her longings, her questions.
Sara came to God through Jesus precisely because he was real, tangible, somebody she could imagine talking to. The fact that Jesus had a mom and dad and got tired and angry and probably had toothache and heartache like the rest of us only helped Sara know that she was not alone in the world. That God was as real as anything else she could touch or taste or smell.
Jesus calls himself the bread of life, a new and improved version of the manna God rained down from heaven, and I remember two things from my childhood Sunday school lessons about manna: that it kept the Israelites alive, sustained them in their journey in the wilderness, and that it was sweet.
The bread of life sustains us, but it is also something for us to enjoy.
Our faith should not be bitter in our mouths, or dry or tasteless. Our faith should be something we relish, because we have this promise from Jesus, that he is drawing us to God, and giving us eternal life, and doing it all because God so loved the world. God sustains us, puts breath in our lungs and food on our tables, but God also gives us what we need for life to be sweet—hope and mercy and strength and love, friends around us and imagination to inspire us and a promise to be with us always.
So the question is, is God enough?
I want to answer yes. I want to answer yes and be done with it.
But more, I want to keep asking the question. I want to stay hungry, for more of God, for more of God’s word, for more time with God’s people, for more experiences of God’s presence.
Because when an answer is given a conversation is finished. And I don’t ever want to be done talking to God. Because God is more than enough for me. A mystery I’ll never be through wanting to explore.
I think, early on in her journey of faith, Sara Miles assumed that eventually she would find the answers to her questions, and become a Christian. But that isn’t how it works for her. I suspect it isn’t really how it works for anyone. She writes,
“Christianity wasn’t an argument I could win, or even resolve. It wasn’t a thesis. It was a mystery that I was finally willing to swallow.
I was loved by a big love. In the midst of suffering, of hunger, even of death. Alleluia. What was, finally, so hard about accepting that?”
To God be the glory. Amen.
 Miles, Sara. Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion. 2008. p. 9.
 ibid, pp. 57-59.
 ibid, p. 274.