How Can I Know What I Know?
A fascinating thing for me is the current public speculation and conversation and endless analysis around why people adopt particular beliefs. Television’s talking heads of all stripes are constantly jawing about why conspiracy theories flourish. Why historical events are dismissed as imaginary. Why learning the facts may not change our opinions.
In addition, much serious research is looking at how our brain is wired, which actions are rooted in biology and which in culture, how trauma is processed and integrated into daily life. Highly interesting stuff – at least for me! We are learning that we as humans are both more sophisticated AND more primitive than we easily notice. We are finding that we “learn” our feelings by how we are are treated growing up and from the people around us. “Crowd mentality” is real, often tragically so.
Our Gospel reading begins with the words “on the next day.” In the aftermath of the miraculous feeding of 5000 people St. John tells us, the people rushed Jesus to take Him by force and make Him their king. Jesus escaped immediately and sailed across part of the Sea of Galilee. It seems that some of the crowd who were fed by Jesus spent the night in the field and went looking for Him the next morning. TV Newscasters today would be showing video of the crowd and asking what Jesus offered that was so alluring.
Jesus sets up a great test of group mentality. Remember that yesterday these same people wanted to make Jesus their king. After all, a king who could miraculously provide an infinite amount of food would give them universal advantage over all enemies. No more famines, no more endless, back-breaking field work. No siege would ever defeat them. The Romans? Poof! They are gone from power! In fact, the whole world would choose a food-producing, miracle-working king, right?!
The illusion here: a king who could produce piles of food on a whim would make life easy for everyone. The truth: a life focused on food and physical ease is not a life focused on God. The illusion: that God can be proven in earthly signs. If that were so, why was feeding 5000 people not enough for them? The truth: it is our hunger for earthly treasure that buries our desire for spiritual treasure.
St. Paul begs his church in Ephesus to live a life that is WORTHY of their calling. That calling is to live IN the Holy Spirit in unity with each other in peace and hope in Christ. Not a small calling.
When Jesus tells the people that they are to look for the bread from heaven, the crowd immediately remembered their history. In escaping from Egypt, their ancestors had lived on manna found in the desert and on quail that fell from the sky. Modern scholars have never determined for sure what this “manna” was, but the importance of its source as being God was not in dispute. By whatever means God provided, God provided. This history of God’s provision was top of mind for the crowd facing Jesus. What does all this mean to us?
Our culture shoves more information, more video, more sound, more options on us than our brains are wired to handle easily. We have more information at our finger tips in one hour than was available in centuries of human history. This abundance – while a joy and an achievement – can shut down our ability to see God. We are long on information and short on wisdom. We have an abundance of experiences but a shortage of understanding. We have more than we need but we are still hungry. We desire the real and true, but we feed on the husks and shells.
Jesus tells the crowd that He, Jesus, is the true bread. If we “eat” Jesus, we will never be hungry or thirsty. Each Eucharist we openly talk about eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus. How do we explain this to non-believers? How do we understand this eating and drinking?
Jesus taught in parables and stories in a world that had little of what we would call “science”. Parables and stories use metaphors. Metaphors make things easier for us to compare when facts are clear yet unrevealing. Metaphors let us take into our hearts what seems to be aimed at our minds.
The obvious understanding is that as food and drink sustain our physical bodies, our relationship with Jesus sustains our spiritual body. That is true, but it seems suspiciously elementary. Very little that Jesus ever said went only on level deep.
Think in terms of religious feasts and festivals in the Jewish tradition. The meals were built around a sacrificial offering and a ritual way of eating. The meals were shared with family and friends. That is what we do here every Eucharist. We gather around a table that is set with bread and wine, and we share the to meal together as we recount the sacrifice made for us.
There is, however, one very large difference. In the festival meals, a sacrifice is TAKEN from the flock and killed. The sacrifice of Jesus was not TAKEN. The sacrifice of Jesus was a gift. A gift to us and for us. Never forget that Jesus had the power to stop His trial and crucifixion at any moment. But Jesus did not. Jesus the Christ, the very Son of God, Jesus the Author and Giver of all life, walked to the cross in full knowledge of all that was to come. With full knowledge of the grace we needed to be reconciled to God.
Jesus knew that we would never be able to parse and dissect His death and resurrection to the satisfaction of our logical natures. Yet we can understand the intimacy, the ritual, the communion of sharing a meal. The metaphor of taking Jesus as food and drink into our bodies illustrates for us talking Jesus fully into our selves, our hearts and our minds, so that we can become like Jesus.
The cliché that we are what we eat is even more true in the spiritual sense. What we take into our minds, what we choose to see and learn, what we take into our hearts in choosing what we love, how we invest our time – that is what we become.
St. Paul tells us to grow fully into Christ. We can only do that if we allow Christ to grow fully within us, changing us and creating a new nature in us. The illusion: this is easy. Come to church and take communion and – spit spot! – all is done. The truth: Changing us is not easy. We like our defenses and prejudices, our ease and our habits. We are comfortable as we are. But we are not what God made us to be until we allow the love and grace of Jesus to shape us – shape us into the person God planned when God made us.
As the Psalmist tells us:
So [the people] ate and were well filled,
For [God] gave [us] what we craved.
Do we crave God? Hunger and thirst after God’s righteousness?