by Ellen Sims
texts: Exodus 16:2-15; John 6: 24-35
One of my favorite one-frame cartoons depicts a woman opening her front door to what appears to be a couple of Bible-carrying young men wearing white dress shirts, ties, and rumpled pants. The dialogue bubble above their heads has them asking the lady of the house, “Have YOU found Jesus?” Not a very funny cartoon. Until we search the frame more closely and see behind her the full panorama of her living room and eventually we make out a man, almost entirely hidden behind the living room curtains, his sandals jutting out at the bottom of the drapes and a sliver of his left side reveals that the hidden figure is wearing a long white robe and has long brown hair.
Have you found Jesus?
It’s not as if he’s playing hide and seek with us. But sometimes the more I study the Bible and Christian theology, the more elusive he seems. And I’m in good company. The Jesus Seminar that about 50 Jesus scholars formed in 1985 took 2 decades and the most scholarly of methodologies to pull from the many and sometimes conflicting stories of Jesus an understanding of the “historical Jesus.” Their important findings remain controversial. By the “historical Jesus” I mean the man whom scholars believe actually lived in 1st century Palestine–in contrast with the “Christ of faith,” who is based on both the historical record AND evolving Christian traditions and theology. Most scholars believe that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are more rooted in the historical Jesus than is the Gospel of John, which offers us a more spiritualized portrait. From time to time I call attention to these differences. Having just read a passage from John, do you notice anything about John’s Jesus that differs from the Jesus we’ve been reading about most of this year in Mark? (In John, for instance, Jesus speaks about himself in elevated ways.) So it’s not so easy for Bible readers to nail down who Jesus was and is in historical and spiritual terms.
And of course even Jesus’s contemporaries were often perplexed by him and were continually “looking for Jesus.” They couldn’t figure him out any better than we can.
Today’s Gospel text once again begins with the people unable to find Jesus, so they got into boats, a veritable Jesus flotilla, and this time went to Capernaum “looking for Jesus.”
Bless his heart. He is looking for some rest—and is trying to remain authentic to his purpose. In the synoptic Gospels, more so than in John, Jesus is on the move not just literally but figuratively. He continues to learn and develop his sense of mission as he encounters new people, like Matthew’s Canaanite woman who bested him in a battle of wits. Jesus evades us and our neat categories and our desires to have him serve our concepts of God. “Looking for Jesus” is our vocation. But we’re not going to find him behind the living room curtains. To find Jesus, we end up trying to reconcile different Jesus portraits in the four canonical Gospels and in the letters of Paul and noncanonical writings that didn’t quite make it into the collection we now call the Bible and in historical records and archeological artifacts of the time period. These are just some of the ways we go “looking for Jesus.”
My friend Kate Campbell, a recording artist based in Nashville, sings about this quest for Jesus in her song “Looking for Jesus.”http://www.katecampbell.com/music/save-the-day-2. What differentiates some searches for Jesus from others is the last line of Kate’s song. We all want to believe and so we keep looking for Jesus. And sometimes that means we make Jesus into our own image. That word believe at the end of Kate’s song is also how today’s Gospel text ends.
It’s one thing to seek information about the historical character, Jesus of Nazareth. It’s another to extrapolate from the meager historical record something about the God-lit life that set off a movement that became Christianity. To “believe” in this Jesus is not just an acknowledgement that such a person existed 2000 years ago but to trust and commit to the Jesus Way—and be transformed it. Believing in Jesus is not about attesting to certain facts about Jesus but is more about setting one’s heart toward the things he loved. Faith in Jesus means having the faith of Jesus. His followers are not required to attest that certain statements about Jesus were true; instead we are to have faith in his God-dependent way of living. We can debate whether Jesus actually said, “I am the bread of life”—found at the end of today’s reading. It seems so at odds with Mark’s Jesus, who has been pointing us to God, not himself. But his later followers certainly saw him in those terms. And the Bread of Life, like the living waters Jesus offers John’s “woman at the well,” is what we desperately need. No wonder Jesus’s future followers came to ritualize his final meal he shared with the twelve first followers. When they went looking for Jesus after his death, they found him in the breaking of the bread together.
I said earlier that it seems that the more I read the Bible, the more elusive Jesus seems. And it’s true we can never know with certainty all the “facts” about Jesus of Nazareth; we will never reconcile the various portraits of Jesus in the Bible or fully flesh out all aspects of the personhood of this man who lived 2000 years ago. But there is enough we do know that allows us to follow him all these many years later. And there is something in the life of Jesus that I do take on faith, something that he set in motion that extends beyond that one all-too-brief human lifespan and has moved past the 1st century all the way into the 21st century. That’s because the web of humanity that Jesus touched with his life has continued reverberating down through the centuries, his life setting in motion other acts of compassion and care, which set in motion other actions of healing and hope, and in that way the community of Jesus continues powerfully here and now, now and right here at Open Table. Looking for Jesus opens us to an encounter with Love and makes us vessels of God’s love.
Let me tell you about one way that a small act of love can ripple through a crowd. As we read about last Sunday, the generosity of a little boy who gave up his lunch satisfied the needs of 5,000 people. Let me also tell you about a small act of love that has rippled outward to a family in our community. Two Sundays ago your generosity yielded $180 we collected for an immigrant woman whose husband had been wrongly apprehended by ICE. This man had his proper documents, but they were in the trunk of his car and was not allowed by ICE to get those documents. As a result, he was illegally sent to a detention center in Louisiana and was at risk of being deported, leaving his wife and daughter alone here. So we collected a love offering so his wife could buy food and pay rent after her husband’s last pay check ran out and in hopes her husband would return before the family found themselves on the streets.
Last night our friend Juan posted on Facebook that when he arrived at the woman’s house with our $180 gift, her husband was there! A lawyer had represented her husband pro bono and obtained his release because he had no criminal record and Belong provided a supporting letter of his good character. Juan mentioned in this video that the donation came from Open Table.
One small gesture of kindness can set in motion something bigger. One act of generosity in the name of Jesus puts bread on the table for an immigrant family, or turns two loaves of bread into lunch for five thousand.
In today’s text from John, “Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” We see that what Jesus started two thousand years ago is active in this world today—-when the hungry are fed and the captives released.
We don’t have to know all the details of Jesus’s life to recognize that his life was God-lit and to know that the Spirit of God’s love lives on today. But it’s even more important for us to embody his compassion and experience the way he found himself centered in and emanating forth God’s love force in the world.
PRAYER: O God, keep us looking for Jesus. And may we learn from him the way to yield to love. Amen