“They shall all be taught by God.” 
If you were listening to the gospel at all today, chances are that is one sentence that did not exactly leap out at you. It seems off-topic, ill fitting in the rich discourse about Jesus being the Bread of Life. We are loaded with preconceptions about the eucharist and notions of eternal life as a future heavenly existence. About the last thing we are primed to pay any attention to is this rather obscure quotation from Isaiah. And yet here in the midst of a critical discourse is a thought that might possibly change the way we think. It might rearrange the way we hear the whole story. It might even change our lives.
Many years ago when I was a young curate in my first parish we invited Sister Ellen Stephen of the Order of St. Helena to come as a weekend guest. My wife and I had the honor of hosting her. At the time, I was doing my best to start a practice of daily prayer and meditation. In fact, since high school I had in some ways been preoccupied with prayer, trying to understand the logic of it (as if prayer were a thing to be understood logically!). I took the opportunity of opening a conversation with Sister about prayer. Her first words to me were, “Prayer is a love relationship with God.” I had little idea in 1971 that I had just heard words that I would not only remember as long as I had a mind, but words that would come to take on greater and greater significance as years rolled on.
What I’ve come to see in the intervening half century is that prayer is everything, that God is everywhere in every thing, and that the entire experience of being in this universe is about nothing else but being swept up in a continuing love affair with the Essence of Life itself, one name for which is God and another name for which is Love.
To jump to the chase: that, I do believe deeply, is what all the words about “Bread of Life” are about. In all these discourses in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is quite insistent that what is at stake in his life and message is nothing less than the meaning—one might say the secret—of life itself. It is about how to live. It is positively not about how to succeed. It is not about how to adapt or necessarily about how to be happy the way we normally understand happiness. Jesus’ life and message are about the core reality of the universe. Indeed he identifies himself in the Fourth Gospel with the Creator of the Universe whom he consistently calls his father. He is equally clear that the relationship he has is by no means something he wishes to hoard. He clearly wants to impart whatever he has to a community which itself is to be the prototype of a new humanity. His is life lived in right relationship with his Abba, the origin of all.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Jesus does not require us to go through elaborate rituals of initiation into secret cults in order to understand the truth. At one point he says, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.”
|"My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me." (John 10:27)|
In other words, when we are on Jesus’ wavelength, we get it. We get him. We know what he is talking about even though we have sense enough to know that we don’t understand it fully nor ever will.
So when he quotes (freely according to the evangelist writing these words) Isaiah with perhaps an illusion to Joel, “They shall all be taught by God,” he is both saying that his message accords with ultimate reality, the core of the universe, namely God and therefore Truth, and he is also saying that being taught by God is the condition that makes anyone receptive to “hearing his voice.”
Now if you read the entirety of Chapter 6, for that matter the entire sweep of John’s gospel, you’ll quickly see how it is that people, including oftimes his disciples, don’t get it or don’t get it fully, and it is pretty obvious why. Their own preconceptions get in the way. That is exactly what happens to people today, including you and me. We want to be religious, sure. We want to be spiritual. And we think that the way to do it is to figure out how to squeeze it into categories that we already believe to be satisfactory, indeed true. So, for example, take the average American. He or she is schooled to think that our capitalistic economy is the sine qua non, the apex of modern life. We’ll defend it tooth and nail. We’re generally speaking not about to give that up for Jesus. No, we take Jesus and make out as if he himself is a capitalist or at least approves of those who are. He talked more about money than any other single subject and most of what he said flies in the face of capitalist economic theory. We take his radical sayings such as “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and come follow me,” and let all the air out of them telling ourselves that he is not to be taken literally. We read with great solemnity passages from the gospels, sometimes even reverencing them in clouds of incense and intoning them as if they were our most deeply held opinions, such as “Love your enemies,” without thinking that those words all into question the billions of dollars that we collectively put into what is in effect a war machine, ready to spring into action at the drop of a hat. We have whole myths about national security that we imagine Jesus approves of. There is not a shred of evidence that Jesus ever bedded down with any political regime. It seems to have escaped our notice that Jesus took on both the political establishment and their religious toadies in behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the outcasts. We even imagine that those who shouted “Crucify him” were a fickle crowd that had so recently hailed him as Messiah with palm branches and hosannas rather than a religious establishment sick of and frightened by his habit of undercutting their prestige and influence.
|"Crucify him," was the cry of the establishment. |
The common people heard him gladly. (Mark 12:37 KJV)
Little wonder that the crowd hearing him murmured and complained about his words. He didn’t fit their paradigms. His message ran counter to what they held dear. Unless and until we can tune in to what it is that God—the Truth—is teaching us, we will never hear the voice of the Shepherd. We will never be able to eat the bread of life, because our mouths and bellies will already be full of the bread that perishes.
I hasten to say that our obstinacy and in some cases dull mindedness don’t cause God to stop loving us. Or to put it another way, we can go right along doing quite fine without paying any attention to the Wisdom, the Bread, that Jesus both is and is offering. As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz puts it, “When God says, ‘I yearn for you,’ I may think, ‘Leave me alone. Mind your own business.’ Some people will answer like this. And for others it’s a very compelling power.’” You may curse the sun, but it keeps on shining. Or the wind and it blows wherever it will. Or your Creator whose very presence is stamped on your every cell and in every crevice of your body, and the Love force that enlivens you will still beat with every thump of your heart. And, just for the record, it doesn’t matter a whit whether you believe any of this or not. It just is.
The issue, however, is how do we open ourselves to this secret, this dazzling Kingdom into which we’re invited, this great banquet prepared for us, this priceless pearl of wisdom? For most of us it starts with clearing away some of the clutter that we’ve collected over the years. Clutter such as the notion that God is somehow distant—up there or back in history or remote. Clutter like the unhelpful notion that eternal life is somehow in the future and amounts to infinite time rather than a different dimension that is present here and now and therefore a life to be lived, not awaited. Clutter like the point of Jesus is to get the good boys and girls into heaven and make sure that the bad boys and girls go to hell. Clutter like the singularly inadequate notion that the entire project of religion is being nice. Those things get in the way of the truth, because none of that clutter is worth a cent, no matter how much we might prize it.
This process of what we might call spiritual housecleaning is not a once-and-for-all operation. It goes on continually, just as growth does. It’s best to realize at the start that the Bread of Life is related to hunger. When we are hungry, really hungry, we generally settle for the nearest food available, not necessarily the healthiest. So we will continue to collect clutter and thus we’ll continue to need to downsize.
What all this is about, of course, harks back three chapters to Jesus’ famous encounter with Nicodemus. In that nocturnal interview Jesus tells Nicodemus, who held all the credentials of a wise person and teacher, that he, like everyone had to start over. Be born anew, be “begotten from above,” Jesus tells him. You simply can’t shake a little religious seasoning over whatever it is you already have on your plate and call it a day. Nothing will do but learning how to live differently. The analogue to this idea appears in the other three gospels in the most radical statement that Jesus ever made: “Except you become as children, you will never enter the kingdom.” He is not talking about some romantic fluff about children being innocent; he is talking about children because they are newly minted, and, at least in the beginning, uncontaminated by the clutter that society crams into us largely to get us to conform to the existing norms. That is what socialization is fundamentally for.
This of course is only the beginning. Start dancing with Jesus and you’re in for a spin that will take you into places you really can’t imagine. And if you’re already engaged in this dance you will doubtless bear me witness that, yes, about the time you think you’ve arrived at enlightenment, you will see some old shadow drifting in from who knows where that will need to be welcomed, affirmed, included in your nice new interior castle that you were sure was finally in order. Surprises abound.
Remember that when you stretch out your hands today to receive the Bread of Life. Remember that the Bread of Life appears as one thing but is often something far beyond appearances. Remember that you have no wisdom, only smarts and maybe an admirably high IQ. Remember how you were when you were little—open, believing, and generally pushing limits and getting into trouble.
|The Bread of Life appears as one thing |
but is often something far beyond appearances.
Life is a love relationship with God. At the end of the day love alone suffices and satisfies. The Bread of Life personified in Jesus promises that it is true: they, including you and me, will all be taught by God.
A sermon for The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14B, on the text of John 6:1, 41-51.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018.
 John 6:45; a reference to Isaiah 54:13; cf. Joel 2:28-29.
 John 10:27
 Adin Steinsaltz, “Educating Desire,” Parabola, vol. 31, no. 2 Summer 2006 (New York: Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition, 2006), 62.