“Every cloud has a silver lining. That test was a piece of cake. Don´t worry, I was only pulling your leg.” What do these phrases have in common? They are all idioms, phrases that mean something different from what the individual words say and that would not make sense if translated into another language word for word. This week my Spanish homework is to learn about Spanish idioms. I think it´s one of the hardest things about becoming fluent in a language. In order to grasp an idea you have to step back from the actual words and get the general sense. It´s a bit like understanding metaphors or parables, and it´s something that I think we human beings are uniquely able to do, making a jump from literal words to phrase or story or meaning. But we don’t always make that jump easily.
The prophet Nathan tells King David a parable, and like so many Biblical parables, it´s a trap: a lesson taught slantwise, that sneaks a message into the listener´s consciousness by being indirect, a trap that Nathan springs as soon as David expresses appropriate outrage at the obvious injustice. A poor man´s ewe lamb is the metaphor for a woman whom David saw, desired, and conspired to obtain. “You are the man,” thunders Nathan, as he confronts David with the depth of his own depravity. There’s a whole other sermon here, about the objectification of a woman as property, about the abuse of power, about corruption in high places, but that will have to wait for another day.
In the Gospel, Jesus has fed the hungry crowds, and they follow him everywhere in the hopes of getting another free meal. But when he starts talking about the food that endures for eternal life, about bread from heaven, they are baffled. They don’t understand that the bread he is talking about isn’t made from flour, water, and yeast. They can’t make the jump to the metaphor.
In both cases, King David’s lust and the Gospel crowd’s hunger, short-term appetites rule. The people are focused on what is right in front of them and how they can get more of it, rather than taking a step back and considering the long term. David has Uriah killed so that he can possess Bathsheba. The action destroys his credibility as king and sets him and his family on a path of internal conflict, power struggles, and tragedy. The Gospel crowd fails to understand the loaves and fishes as a sign of the covenant relationship between God and God’s people. A little bit later in this same chapter John tells us that many of the disciples left Jesus after this episode, because his teaching was too hard. Once the free food ran out, they weren’t interested any more.
I remember an incident, years ago in another state, when I was at the grocery store and I bumped into a parishioner I hadn’t seen in several months. When I greeted him and asked how he had been, he told me that the church had been great while he and his family were going through a difficult time. Once they resolved their difficulties they no longer needed the support of the church, so they were just doing other things with their time now. Their short-term need was satisfied, and they didn’t look any further for what else the church might be able to offer, or for what they might be able to give back. I had evidently failed to teach them what being church really means.
In contrast, I can point to any number of people here who have stuck to the church through thick and thin, who have built deep and strong relationships, who have appropriately leaned on the loving support of this community through incredibly hard times and have continued to be a part of the community for each other when joyful times returned. The Young family is a great example, as we prepare today to baptize little Dominic.
Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” What does that mean? John’s Gospel is full of stories where people misunderstand Jesus. The woman at the well doesn’t get the metaphor of living water. The scholar Nicodemus doesn’t understand what it means to be born again. We use both of those images in our Baptismal service, describing how we are reborn by the Holy Spirit through the water of baptism into everlasting life. Similarly, we receive the bread of the Eucharist as the body of Christ, a heavenly food that becomes the bread of life for us in a way that we cannot understand.
Biblical language is idiomatic. The individual words often add up to something much more than their grammatical sum. Jesus repeatedly tries to point his listeners to something beyond their short-term needs and appetites. And sometimes it’s hard to understand what he’s getting at. Sometimes we get stuck in the details, trying to parse out a word or a phrase without regard for the bigger context, the overarching meaning. We have to take a step or two back and consider the big picture, the overall message of this God who longs to be in communion with us.
Most of us here today will never know true physical hunger. We generally have the means and opportunity to eat whenever we feel like it. But what about spiritual hunger? When we pray ¨Give us this day our daily bread”, we are asking God to take care of our daily needs, yes, but we are also asking for bread from heaven, we are asking God to satisfy a different kind of hunger, the hunger for meaning, for love, for community, because in Scripture bread never just means bread.
The world we live in demands our attention on the short-term, on the here and now. We are exhorted to get “your best life now”, or to expect instant results from a diet plan or whitening toothpaste. And we are all too familiar with the terrible consequences to our planet and our health of such short-term thinking. But there is another way to live, a way that is healthier and in the end much more satisfying. It’s a way of looking beyond the short-term and the literal. It’s the way of patiently planting seeds, of holding out a vision, of persisting, the way of love. This is the work of God and we are invited to participate in it.
This morning we will welcome a child into the household of God through baptism. We will invite him to confess the faith of Christ crucified, to proclaim Christ’s resurrection, and to share with us in Christ’s eternal priesthood. What kind of community will this congregation be for little Dominic?
The crowd asks Jesus, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answers that the love he offers is the basis for the work we do as his people. He offers a new way to live. To live as if we have everything that we need, because we do. To live as if every human being matters, because she does. To live as if love is the strongest force in the universe, because it is. To live and work for reconciliation, truth, healing, and generosity. To live in gratitude for the abundance that we receive and in trust that this abundance will continue, because everything we have comes from God who is the source of love and life.
Paul´s teaching to the Ephesians gives us more pointers on the works of God, with his language of unity, that is also reflected in our baptismal service. One body, one spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We are one. The church’s mission is to bring people together, to help us grow as a body into the full image of God, the full stature of Christ. We do not exist independently of each other. We are all different, with unique gifts and callings, we don’t always agree with each other, but together we form the body of Christ and are called to “grow up in every way into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” That is the way that Jesus shows us, the way that gives life to the world, the way, in every sense that matters, of love.
August 5 2018
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges