Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 08/12/2018

In this year where the majority of the gospel readings come from Mark, we’re now into week three of our John, chapter 6 summer interlude, the Bread of Life discourse, with two weeks to go. About now, if you’ve been here every week you might start to think, “Didn’t we have the same gospel reading last week?” It does get rather repetitious and it’s not over…there are still two weeks to go.

On the surface of things, what’s going on throughout most of this chapter is a conversation between Jesus and the ever-present crowds that followed him, this time after he had fed 5000 of them with five loaves of bread and two fish, the story we heard a couple of weeks ago. They follow Jesus because they sense that there’s more bread where that came from and they want it. In the back and forth of the conversation, the crowd is looking for bread that will again fill their stomachs, but that’s not what’s on offer.

Instead, Jesus offers himself as the Bread of Life, the Bread from Heaven, but they don’t get it. They don’t understand as what they want is not what they really need. What they want is bread they can eat which is understandable. I’m reminded though of a Warren Zevon song titled, She’s Too Good for Me when he says “I have everything she wants, but nothing that she needs.” In the case of Jesus, it’s the opposite: he has what the crowd needs, but not necessarily what they want but they don’t understand and they won’t. The conversation and the confusion will continue for a couple of more weeks, actually the confusion will continue for a lot longer than that as 2000 years later, we still have trouble understanding that what Jesus offers is what we need.

This conversation and confusion are on the surface of chapter six, but in the case of John you know by now that it’s seldom or never primarily about the surface of things. The surface story is used to convey a deeper truth. Unfortunately a lot of people never get past the surface and instead treat this and all of the conversations in John as verbatim transcriptions of what Jesus said even though it’s pretty certain that that’s not what they are. The things John quotes Jesus as saying may well be based on things he said, but John uses great poetic license and imagination in how he reports it in order to get at that deeper truth. What you wind up with are words and images worthy of meditation on many levels. But…if the goal is to get at the author’s intent concerning who Jesus is, reading John only on an historical level will mostly lead you to ask the wrong kinds of questions and cause you to miss the depth and beauty of the truth about Jesus that John conveys.

Anyway, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again and again until I’m sure you’ve all got it: the gospels are not biographies of Jesus; there is biographical information in there, yes, there is a historical memory connected with the stories about Jesus, yes, but the primary goal of those who wrote the gospels was not to pass on historical information.

The gospels are testimonies to and about Jesus, imaginative and creative testimonies. They are written to tell us who Jesus is but again it’s not primarily information about the historical Jesus because…what’s important is not who Jesus was back then, it’s who Jesus is now.

What we have then are narrated events, events that as written, are already acts of poetic interpretation on the part of the writer, events that are already images. It’s those images that we’re left to consider, images in which the past, the present and the future all kind of come together. We’re left with the images along with the faith that underlies them. The faith is important too because it’s the living faith of those who have gone before us and it’s that faith that carries through the ages and becomes part of the present and the future telling us not who Jesus was, but who he is.

I’ve been reading a new book titled Saving Images by Gordon Lathrop who is one of the leading Lutheran liturgical scholars; he’s retired now as a seminary professor but still writes books and he says a lot of the same things I do except he tends to say them better. One of the things he says has to do with how we read the Bible: he says we need to read toward a conversion of our imagination, toward alternate ways of understanding our world and refreshed ways to understand God, and thus toward the continual rebirth of faith.

Conversion of imagination means…to imagine the world differently, to allow ourselves to move beyond the facts on the ground as we say, and instead to see the world with Jesus, the living Christ, with his saving grace, at the center. With that comes an alternate way to understand the world, seeing it as a world of abundance, not scarcity, a world where all are welcome, a world of hope and possibility, a world infused by the presence of God, rather than a world of cynicism and divisiveness trapped in a hopeless downward spiral.

We also imagine God differently, not as a God of wrath and judgment but of grace and forgiveness, a God who loves us as we are and whose will for us is that we are always growing in his likeness. Conversion of imagination means that we share in the living faith and imagination of the apostles and prophets and evangelists who have come before us, people like John, so that through them our faith is always being renewed and reborn.

As we read the Bible and as we worship, we have an invitation into this different reality where even time is changed. It’s not a denial of what’s out there, it’s not a false world but a symbolic world that enables us to imagine that there is more, that there is another way to think about the world and envision the world, a way that does break through cynicism and divisiveness and delivers hope because…it brings Jesus into our midst. At its best, that’s what worship does; that’s why we gather. We come together to encounter Jesus and one of the primary ways that we do that, is through the images that are part of the liturgy of Word and Sacrament.

The gospel of John in particular invites us into a world of images. In reality, that’s what all the gospels do, but as an example of poetic imagination that encourages a conversion of the imagination, John is unique. Throughout John there are images, images of light and darkness, lambs and sheep and shepherds, water, vines and branches, many of them “I am” images that describe Jesus and connect him to God. For a month here we deal with the image of bread and especially Jesus’ statement, “I am the bread of life.”

Important to remember is that no one of these images is enough. Way back in the 300’s Ephrem the Syrian, one of the early church fathers, wrote about what he called a garment of names, a garment of images that God puts on so that human beings can better encounter and understand who God is so you see what I’m talking about isn’t a new idea; it’s been around. Ephrem found this garment of names and images in the Old Testament and as a Christian he saw the garment transferred to Jesus. But again, no one image is enough, but all are useful in some way to point us in the right direction and to help us consider who God is and who Jesus is and with that, to bring him into our presence.

The other thing to remember about images, is that images don’t provide answers, they’re not things to be solved. There’s no one right answer to what is meant by saying that Jesus is the bread of life; what the image means to me may not be the same as what it means to you.

What we know though, is that bread has to do with nourishment and sustenance and so maybe we’re led to think about the sustaining truth of Jesus’ words, the sustaining truth of the gospel of grace that he announces. In thinking about Jesus as the Bread of Life, quite likely the bread of Holy Communion comes to mind and with that thought your mind might also jump to the forgiveness experienced in Holy Communion as it relates to the bread Jesus offers. The connections could continue but what I hope you see is the power of images; again there’s no one answer and no one image is fully adequate, but together they contribute to a conversion of imagination which brings about a rebirth of faith, a new way to envision God, ourselves and the world.

Through the power of images, Jesus’ presence is revealed and in his presence we consider our response because a response is called for. What that response is varies tremendously but as is often the case, Martin Luther can be helpful. I paraphrase, but he said that when we encounter Christ through the words and images of the gospel, we encounter the triune God who, in the person of Jesus has gone out into the world as a gift. However we shape our response to that encounter, we do it so that we too go out into the world as the body of Christ, also as a gift. We could perhaps say that we go out as bread, a gift to our neighbors.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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