An acquaintance recently confided that although he had been a Christian all his life, these days (in his middle-age years) he approaches his faith and his religion with all kinds of questions. I think he expected me to be taken aback by this revelation, as though it were an admission of weakness, and a confession of a failing. To the contrary, I think it is good and normal to approach both religion and faith with questions at various times of your life – maybe your whole life long. And one of the most fundamental of those questions is floating near the surface of the Gospel reading this morning, although it may not be immediately evident.
After Jesus’ miraculous feeding of five thousand people with five loaves and two fish, a crowd came looking for him, and they were hungry for something. “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?” As though he had not just miraculously fed five thousand people out of thin air, more or less.
Jesus told the clamoring crowd that “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Great!” they replied, “give us this bread always.” And Jesus famously declared to the fickle crowd, in a phrase that would prove to be awkward to set to music, “I am the bread of life.”
“I am the bread of life!” This is fine as far as it goes. And we could stand around and wonder what exactly Jesus means by this, except that it is pretty clear from the context that he means that he is the very thing that gives hope in the face of hopelessness, spiritual nourishment in the face of inner starvation, and everlasting life in the face of meaningless death.
There remains a more pressing question, however, that was the underlying issue behind the crowd’s clamoring. It’s a question that was as poignant a couple of thousand years ago as it is to us today, and that question is this: If Jesus is the bread of life, is Jesus good for you?
Is Jesus good for you?
It is no longer so clear, for instance, that bread is good for you. I, for one, realize that the less bread I eat the better off I will be – although I love bread and butter, or bread and cheese, or bread and nearly anything. Unless I am walking the Camino de Santiago and burning calories at a rate of knots, bread equals carbs, and I cannot take it for granted that bread is so good for me.
There was a time, I think, maybe, when people did not have to think much about whether or not Jesus was good for you; just like there was a time when people did not have to think much about whether or not bread is good for you. But those days are over. We don’t take very much for granted these days, not even things we once thought were good for us, like butter, or salt, or gluten. And if Jesus is going to run around telling people that he is the bread of life – or if he expects us to run around telling people that he is the bread of life, then we are probably going to ask at some level, is Jesus good for us? Does Jesus make us better people? Does he make us healthier, nicer, smarter? Do we end up with shinier coats and cleaner teeth? Does Jesus confer any moral superiority on us? Do we become better parents, spouses, or workers as a result of our relationship with Jesus? Will we be any happier because of Jesus? Any more patient, any prettier, any more virtuous? Is Jesus good for you?
Many people seem to have concluded that Jesus is not good for them or for you. To begin with Jesus is so judgmental – or at least he threatens to be. And nothing is more offensive to a large segment of modern American society than someone who seems judgmental. “Don’t judge” has become a maxim for our time that requires no further expansion, since its wisdom is unquestioned. Many people conclude, from the evidence around them, that, in fact, Jesus is not good for you, because he makes you narrow-minded, intolerant, and stupid, if you follow his teachings and belong to his church. Zen makes you more compassionate, but Jesus makes you a doofus, to put it kindly.
Is Jesus good for you? By no means is the answer to this question clear to the world, and sometimes not even to the church! It would appear that what we need are some studies, what we need is some data, what we need is some empirical evidence about whether or not Jesus is good for you; just like we need studies, data, and evidence to determine whether or not gluten is good for you.
The problem is that if we can’t figure out whether or not bread is good for us at this stage of human development, then we will have at least as hard a time figuring out whether or not Jesus is good for us. Experts will disagree. The data will be inconclusive. The studies will be assumed to have been rigged by those who commissioned them. And ten years from now the conventional wisdom may shift, as it may shift again ten years after that, and ten years after that, etc., etc. And still the question remains, Is Jesus good for you?
It is tempting to say that the answer depends: that it depends on who you are and what you want in life, out of this world. Do you want mercy, forgiveness, kindness, justice, peace, generosity, and hope? Then Jesus is good for you. It is tempting to throw the ball back in your court like this, as if the question depends on you. And we often like this way of looking at things because it confirms our sneaking suspicion that the universe revolves around each one of us individually. By this thinking, Jesus is good for you if you are good for Jesus. And I suppose that’s alright, as far as it goes. You do your thing; I’ll do mine. Go ahead and follow Jesus if you have nothing better to do with your Sunday mornings. Jesus is good for you if you are good for Jesus.
But this doesn’t sound like tremendously good news to me. It sounds like pretty good news, or not… depending on you. And if that’s so, then this way of looking at things doesn’t really tell you anything at all about Jesus.
Is Jesus good for you?
Well, this pulpit is here for a reason, and the reason is this: so that Sunday by Sunday someone may stand here and proclaim that, yes, Jesus is good for you! Jesus is light, and water, and love, amid a shadowy, parched landscape of fear and distrust. Light, and water, and love. The virtues of these elements do not depend on you or on me. We need them, and they exist in the world by the grace of God: light, and water, and love. And although we have become a species able to adapt without them for long periods of time, we do so at our own peril. We stumble over the question, is Jesus good for me? at our own peril, too.
A long time ago, Moses -who had probably had a dysfunctional childhood, and who, as a young man had anger issues so severe that he casually committed murder with his bare hands - found himself face to face (more or less) with God, who appeared to him in a burning bush. Jesus was there in the bush, whether Moses knew it or not, he was there in the gentle flames that did not consume the bush, and he was there in the voice that spoke to Moses, even if his accent was undetectable to Moses within the thunderous sonorities of God’s voice.
Confused and frightened though he may have been, Moses sensed that whomever this Being was who was speaking to him, he was powerful. But Moses had seen power before around the courts of Pharoah, and he knew that power was not inherently good. He’d felt power before in his own hands when he killed a man, and he knew that power was not inherently good.
So here he is facing this powerful Being, whose power is capable of being so soft that it burns with bright flame that nevertheless does not consume the bush. And Moses must have asked himself, as he took off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy, he must have asked, is this good for me? He did not yet know that God would lead him and all the Israelites out of slavery. He did not yet know that God had a promised land flowing with milk and honey to bring him to. He did not yet know that God would give him commandments of love and justice, and that he, Moses, would forever be associated with those laws. He only knew that here was this caressing flame, and this powerful voice, and this Presence that was so alluring, so gentle, and so strong. And I think he must have wondered, Is this good for me?
But you can’t ask a burning bush a question like that; you can’t ask the voice of God a thing like that. So instead, he asks this: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
And God said to Moses, “I AM… Tell them I AM has sent me to you.”
You can learn a lot from a burning bush – I wish there were more of them.
For I believe that the answer to the question - is Jesus good for you? - is to be found within the burning bush.
Is Jesus good for you? I AM, comes the reply, we know not whence – from some caressing flame that burns within the branches of the church, and yet never consumes us.
Over the next several weeks, the church wades around in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, which seems to hear the evangelist repeating over and over Jesus’ declaration that “I am the bread of life: I am.”
I suppose St. John, too, knew of the pertinence of this question: Is Jesus good for you? I suppose we are not the first ones to ask it. Of course in his day, gluten intolerance was as yet unknown, and bread, the staff of life, was an unambiguous gift of the earth and of human labor. And what they didn’t know about gluten, they made up for with what they knew about burning bushes, and about the name of the One who called them out of darkness into his marvelous light, out of a parched desert of slavery across a river of freedom, and out of a life of fear and distrust into a life of love.
What did he tell Moses his name was? I AM. I AM. I AM.
And when they heard Jesus tell them over and over again, “I am the bread of life. I am the bread of life. I am the bread of life.” as John asserts in his Gospel that Jesus repeated again and again, did they not hear the echoes of that holy Name? And recognize at last the accent once unrecognizable in the burning bush? And when they asked themselves, as Moses did, and as we do too, and as everyone with questions about faith and religion must do in this complicated world – Is he good for us? Is Jesus good for us? – did they wink at each other with knowing looks as the answer became so clear: I AM. I AM. I AM the bread of life. I AM.
Is Jesus good for you?
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the One who spoke once from the burning bush, and again in the synagogue of Capernaum, and today, I pray, right here on Locust Street. Is Jesus good for you?
I AM, he says, I am the bread of life. I AM.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
2 August 2015
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia