John’s Gospel is full of these “I am” statements by Jesus. “I am the Good Shepherd.” “I am the vine.” “I am the door.” We come to church wanting to encounter Jesus. So, we might encounter him as shepherd, as vine, as door.
It’s not easy to figure out exactly who Jesus is. That’s one thing that makes John’s gospel a good one for us.
Here Jesus comes forth and tells us, upfront, who he is. … Sort of. . .. Because typical of Jesus in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks in symbols, in metaphor. A teacher could use John as a textbook when trying to get students to understand metaphor.
Note that Jesus doesn’t define himself by saying, “I am the Messiah, which means that I am a sort of political official.” He doesn’t say, “I am the Savior of the World.” He doesn’t say, “I am the third person of the Trinity, which means that I am a member of the unified Godhead.” Though that might be nice if he mentioned it to a preacher trying to write a coherent sermon for Trinity Sunday.
Instead Jesus says, “I am bread.” Jesus is breaking into poetry. (Do you wonder if Jesus, addressing a modern-day young, energetic group, might have broken into rap?) Jesus breaks into poetry, because only poetry can bear the weight and the depth of what he wants to say.
“I am bread” is a metaphor, an image meant to shed light on something. (Here it is, your English lesson for the day: A metaphor is not simply an explanation or a definition – it’s something that expands our understandings.) Metaphors like “I am bread” cannot be said any other way. Metaphors make us say “Hmm.”
So, when the crowd around him starts to debate about just what sort of “bread from heaven” Jesus means, (for only God can give miraculous food from heaven, right?) Jesus says directly (if a metaphor can be direct,) “I am bread.” He doesn’t say it in mere simile (a comparison using “like” or “as,” you might remember from some long-ago English class).
He doesn’t say, “I am like manna sent down from heaven that Moses gave you.” He says directly, “I am bread. Feed on this bread, and you’ll never be hungry again. Feed on this bread and you will be raised up.”
I suspect that Dietrich Bonhoeffer liked this image, this metaphor. Bonhoeffer was a German Protestant theologian important for his support of the ecumenical and his view of Christianity’s role in a secular world. His involvement in a plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler led to his imprisonment and execution in 1945.
One thing Bonhoeffer wrote was “The body of Christ takes up space. That is, the body of Christ makes footprints.” He went on to say that, “A truth, a doctrine, a religion needs no space for themselves. They’re abstractions. They have no viable body. But the incarnate Christ needs not only ears and a heart, but living people who will follow him.” Christianity is therefore not so much a doctrine, an idea, as it is an encounter with something, with someone.
Today’s gospel implies that to meet Jesus is similar to “meeting” a loaf of bread. Christianity is never simply something of the head, or of the heart, a vague and general abstraction.
Jesus takes up room here. He takes up space among us. Like bread, Jesus takes up space. The living Christ was always intruding, going where he was not necessarily wanted or anticipated, taking up space where people didn’t expect – or want -- God to be. He intruded into the homes of sinners. He showed up at a wedding and caused a scene.
Which, of course, brings up a story.
It seems that an Episcopal priest, complete with collar, and a very Southern Baptist pastor, Bible in hand, found themselves seated side by side on a long cross-country flight. Before lunch was served, the attendant came down the aisle with the drinks cart. When the cart stopped by the priest and the pastor, the attendant asked what they would like to drink. The priest chimed in first and said, “Oh, I’ll have vodka on the rocks with a twist.” The attendant looked at the very Southern Baptist pastor. “What for you, sir?” Looking over at the priest with a faint sign of scorn, the pastor replied, “Well, I’ll have a ginger ale, thank you.”
The attendant served them their respective drinks and proceeded down the aisle. While enjoying his pre-lunch vodka on the rocks, the priest couldn’t help noticing the pastor’s ongoing discomfort with an “obvious” Christian setting such a bad example for others.
Finally, maybe because the vodka had loosened his tongue, the clerically collared priest turned to the pastor and said, “Excuse me, but have I offended you in some way by having this drink?” The pastor replied, “Well, yes. I guess you have. It just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a pastor should be doing.” A sly grin came over the priest’s face. “Now wait a minute. Didn’t Jesus himself change water into wine – barrels of it – at the wedding feast in Cana?” The pastor, silent for a moment, but undaunted, shot back, “Yes, and I would have thought a lot more of him if he hadn’t.”
Jesus showed up. Jesus came also to places of death. Think of his presence, his intruding, when Jairus’ daughter seemed to be dying. He insisted on coming to places that made people uncomfortable.
He still does. Maybe that’s one reason that people try to keep religion theoretical and spiritual. It’s less uncomfortable that way.
But Christianity is not a spiritual religion. Christianity is an incarnational religion. Christianity believes that God takes up space, that God will not remain ethereal and vague.
Our Gospel of John opens with this declaration: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” [John 1]. He becomes a fact, an undeniable fact for us to encounter and deal with.
Like it says in one of the post-communion prayers, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. Which is another way of saying, “Now go and deal with him.” Amen.