The Difficulty of Believing
One of the commentary titles I read for this week's Scriptures was "Not Another Bread Passage...Please!" We are halfway through this string of five stories from John, and I certainly sympathize with the author. Just how many weeks in a row can anyone talk about Jesus as the Bread of Life before the message begins to go stale? The Gospel passage for this Sunday is a combative encounter between the Judeans who had not yet accepted Jesus as Messiah and Jesus' attempts to tell them that is does not matter if they believe or not because God will inspire the hearts of the believers. The passage (John 6:41-51) ends up conveying "Exclusive Country Club" status to believers, which is the exact opposite of the intent.
This story is in keeping, though, with the historic arc that stretches through the Old Testament. It is the story arc that Jesus expands and also breaks wide open. For generations since Exodus, the descendants of the desert wanderers knew they were a special, saved people. Even when nations invaded, Israelite armies lost battles, King David’s own house split and subsequently met in battle, they knew God would ultimately keep the promise of deliverance from outside enemies. God would save these people God had chosen so long ago and the rest of the unclean world would disappear. Jesus both confirms that God has sent him to save the people, but also unsettles the balance when he also expands the definition of the save people to all who believe.
Rewind for a moment and look at the picture above. It looks like a terrifying storm. It is a painting of Elijah in the cave waiting for God to pass by. Such a familiar story that a little painting and a story prompt dumps the entire story into the mind. Or, in my case, not a story, but a dramatic anthem that musically mimics the earthquake, the fire, the still, small voice. Right before the story in the cave, though, is a telling of God providing sustenance for the exhausted prophet. More Bread. Why is Elijah exhausted? He is running for his life. He has just defeated Queen Jezebel's priests who worshiped Ba'al and she has put a bounty on his head. Elijah is not feeling particularly loved by the community; he feels all alone, despairing, and despondent. Elijah cannot believe that his life is worthy of saving, but God says it is.
Skip forward several hundred years, and we are back to the scene where Jesus is talking with the disbelieving Judeans. They want Jesus to be a particular type of savior, on their terms. But that is not Jesus' way. Jesus knows that there are people outside of the small Judean community who are good people. His message about being the bread of life is intended for all people, everywhere. It is what Jesus means when he says "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father."
Belief in God, by whatever name, is not an exclusive, private country club reserved for only the highest of deserving. It is for all people, but only some will recognize the good bread on offer, and the expanded, compassionate, serving life that accompanies.