I’m not preaching this weekend. Doug, my associate is preaching. He’s also the one who designed this series, “The Way to Heaven” based on a book by that title. And it is really all about grace. Last week I preached about the need for grace, or original sin. This week the topic is the grace that comes before - prevenient grace. Now, I’ve been gone all week and so don’t really know what Doug is preaching. Plus he has changed the scripture from the original plan and so I’m not 100% sure I know what he is planning to do or say. So, come to Southport UMC this week and we’ll find out together! And in the future, I probably won’t write one of these when he does preach.
But this time, I decided to find something I had written about the passage that I think he is planning to use in worship. Why? I don’t know, except I like to feel like I know what’s going on. Even when I don’t. Plus I’m looking for prevenient grace in these verses. And decided you could help. So, here’s what I wrote before under the title “Grumbling at the Table.”
Sometimes there is no greater joy than sitting down at the table with your family. In those moments we laugh and share and invest ourselves in one another’s lives. We participate in the thoughts and dreams and hopes as well as the experiences and happenings of the lives of those we love. Sitting at table together at its best is a glimpse of heaven, the true community celebrating life as Christ calls us to live. At its best it is heaven. At its worst it is hell.
Sorry. A bit strong? Maybe. But then sitting with surly teenagers who are still fuming from slights real and imagined, and with parents who have just lost their last nerve and are fed up with excuses and “he said/she said” and aren’t listening anymore - well, how would you describe it? I’m not sure which is worse the pointed fingers and hurled accusations or the sullen silence broken only by cutlery on plates and angry chewing as though devouring each other.
Not that it ever happens at our table, you understand. Sweetness and light and homey family bliss, that’s us. But it came to mind, this odd possibility, as I read our Gospel lesson for this weekend. It seems that at the table that Jesus set there was some grumbling from time to time.
John 6:35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
John 6:41-51 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." 42 They were saying, "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'?" 43 Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
“Who does he think he is?” That’s the grumble. He’s not so special. He’s just like us. It is the inclination of most of us to want to pull people down to our level. I’m not talking about those who want to push enemies down lower, to climb up on top of them, to crush them beneath our feet. That is something different. This seems more benign somehow. We like puncturing overinflated egos. We like knocking folks down to size. We like putting people in their place.
One might even argue that it is woven into the fabric of the American Dream. We are all equal, no one is special, greater, higher than us. That’s why we don’t have royalty, at least officially. The problem is we keep looking for people we can put on those pedestals, at least until we decide to pull them down again. Equality is a good thing, but we often use it as a means to dismiss those we ought to listen to.
“The Jews,” which in the Gospel of John means those who were out to oppose Jesus and not Jews in general, wanted to put Jesus in his place. He’s just like us, with parents and a history. He grew up around us, we know him. What is all this about being bread? What is all this about coming down from heaven?
The irony here is that John uses the same word, which we have translated as “complained,” as the word that was used in the Old Testament to describe the attitude of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. Remember they had problems with leaders too, they complained and grumbled and whined about the direction they were heading. So, now we have these folks complaining that Jesus doesn’t know what he is talking about. That he is leading them astray. Why should we follow you? they grumble. You’re nothing special.
In fact this passage is another of John’s attempts to say something about the specialness of Jesus. But it is done in a rather curious way. First of all, Jesus says I am Bread. What? Common ordinary bread. Stuff on the table, something everyone has all the time. I am bread, says Jesus. I am the common stuff of life. I am that sustaining presence that you often take for granted. At least until you don’t have any. They say, he’s nothing special and he says he is bread. ? Not caviar. Not creme brulee. Not rack of lamb (oh, well, that comes later, I suppose) Just bread.
It is as if he is saying to those who don’t want him to be special - “You’re right! I’m not special. I am necessary. I am daily (give us this day our daily bread)” At the same time to those of us who want him to be special, to be brought out on special occasions, like the good china and grandma’s silver, he says, “No, I am bread, the ordinary stuff of life. You don’t keep me on the shelf for special moments, you take some everyday.”
And as if that isn’t odd enough, he goes on to say he isn’t really leading here. Wait, what? At least that is what it seems to me that he is saying. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father.” Huh?
Maybe he is saying to those who are grumbling that the problem isn’t with him, but with God. Maybe if they stopped and listened for a little while then they would hear the resonances in their own soul. God is at work in them, and if they were to pay attention, they might find that what he represents is just what they’ve been looking for. They might find out that he can satisfy the deepest hungers in their own souls.
John Wesley talked about the grace that comes before - before our awareness, before our efforts, before our choices. God is at work in us, drawing us toward the One who will fill the empty places in our souls. This “prevenient grace” is what Jesus was talking about here. Jesus tells us about the God who calls, who draws, who wants us to know God’s own self. This isn’t about barriers, about hoops to jump through. It is about the nature of God.
And our own nature. What we learn in this story is that sometimes we are so full of ourselves that we don’t hear the call of God. Sometimes our hurt, or our anger, or the rights we thought we didn’t get, keep us from hearing God’s call to join in an experience of love and sharing. We miss another opportunity to taste the Kingdom by breaking bread with those we love. God calls us to dinner.
Leave your attitude at the door.