12 Pentecost 14: I Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, August 12, 2018
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes himself with seven “I am” statements. Though metaphorical, these statements are not a simple description of the personhood of Jesus Christ, but an invitation into the mystery of the divine. When Moses asked YHWH what his name was, he responded, “I AM.” So, when we hear Jesus say over and over again “I am the Good Shepherd”, “I am the light of the world”, “ I am the bread of life”—we need to take notice. Something big is happening here—some little piece of the divine is being imparted to us.
For many of us the identity of God is wrapped up in the picture we were painted by our beloved Sunday School teachers of long ago. It is an image akin to Santa Claus and Father Time, Gandalf and Dumbledore which generally looks like a really, really old white guy with a really, really long white beard sitting on a golden throne in midst of clouds. I would argue that this image looks nothing like bread or a vine or water. And it has not been simply our Sunday school teachers who have created the masculine image of God as an enduring one—we reinforce it in our liturgy and our language. We refer to God with masculine pronouns and rarely recognize that Wisdom or Sophia has historically been identified with the third figure of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit. That image of a really old guy with a long white beard has defined not only what we believe about God and the church but the world we live in as well.
It is the image that allows labor practices akin to slavery and trafficking to exist. It is the image that perpetuates gender inequality, racial terrorism, and social displacement. It is the image that has kept us out of balance, disharmonized, and broken when it comes to relationships. It is the image that has perpetuated systems and institutions of injustice and hopelessness. It is the image that limits our relationships and defines a culture in which all men are not considered to have been created equal. It is not necessarily an evil image, but it can be harmful.
When we define God in our own image, we deny the freedom of those who do not look like God. We oppress them. We arrest them. We detain them. We refuse them entrance. We go to war against them. And maybe even worse, we allow and do not discourage them in defining themselves as lesser beings than us.
When one’s image of God looks radically different from one’s self, it is difficult to measure up. It divides us not only from others—especially those who come closer to that image—but also from our selves. When we don’t measure up to the image of God, we find it difficult to reconcile ourselves with God, to be in relationship with the church, much less to partner with God and others to do God’s work of reconciliation in this world.
When we create God in our image, we divide the world into us and them. We don’t create opportunity for partnership but partisanship. We don’t share in one another’s joys or celebrate our differences. Instead, our relationships become only as diverse as our fears allow. And if we find it difficult to relate to another in their joy; how much harder to empathize with them in their sufferings? Instead of putting away our bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice, we use it to judge and question another’s identity in God, just as the people of John’s day question Jesus.
“Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’” He can’t be bread from heaven—he is a man born on the earth—much less does he look like our image of God.
I think Jesus knew that his words were radical and that they would be hard to accept or even to understand—less so because they are about defining him and more so because they are about defining the divine. Sure, the people of Jesus’ day appear to reject, or at least question Jesus’ true identity—the identity that we take for granted. But Jesus seems to be more concerned with those who are already drawn to God and broadening their understanding of who God is. And God is not a really, really old white dude with a really long white beard.
Yes, Jesus is a man—more precisely he is incarnate, God made man—1/3 of the Trinity which means, mathematically speaking, there is 2/3 of the Godhead that is beyond male related imagery. And Jesus expands the image of himself beyond that which is simply masculine. He is bread, light, living water, a gate, a vine, resurrection and life, the way, the truth and the life, and a good shepherd. Six of the seven “I am” images Jesus Christ offers us regarding who he is, are not human.
The identity of Jesus, of the divine, is so much more expansive than we can ever imagine. God is that which feeds us and nourishes us, brings us hope, leads us, helps us to see truth and possibility, loves us. In the letter to the Ephesians, we are asked to put away our bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice and instead be kind to one another. But a truer reading of these words might be, be Christ to one another.
Be bread and feed; be water and quench thirst—nourishing others physically that God might do so spiritually. Be light and give to another hope. Be a gate that you might open the door of possibility to all those who can imagine something greater. Be a vine that you might grow. Be resurrection and offer another a second chance, renewed life. Be the way, the truth, and the life so that you might guide others to God. Be the good shepherd—tender-hearted and forgiving—recognizing that most of us are dumb as sheep and simply need to be cared for, to be loved. Be the image of Jesus in this world in all the ways that you can, at all the times that you can, to all the people you can.
Jesus is living bread and we gather at the rail to eat his flesh that we might go out to the world and offer ourselves for its consumption—a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Amen.