Is Jesus God? Read John’s gospel carefully

God’s chief wish for humanity – believe Jesus’ vision: if he is “the bread of life,” such “bread” is God’s gift.

Sunday, August 6, 2006, Pentecost 18. First Congregational United Church of Christ, Open & Affirming, Santa Rosa, CA. The Rev. Bob Cramer, Eucharistic Minister.

I remember our young people, a few years ago, returning from a mission trip to Mexico. Easter Sunday found them in Long Beach, California, where Jerry Stimson is pastor of a large UCC church. It brought them up short to hear, from the pulpit, that “Jesus is not God.” Jerry evidently meant Jesus hadn’t had the power to raise himself from death; God did the raising because of Jesus’ fantastic faith in God, and for perfectly modeling a life of full humanity.

The Gospel of John, as we learned last week, teaches that just as Moses delivered a wandering tribe to the land where they would become a nation, calling down manna from heaven to nourish a tired and discouraged people, Jesus calls on God’s power to make a small snack into a meal for thousands and for his teaching, and his example, to become the very bread of life for believers in God. John is very certain that belief in Jesus’ vision of God’s eternal kingdom is the way of salvation. John encourages us to see that.

This can startle and confuse Christians. Mainstream pastors and teachers often mean to tell us that John’s gospel isn’t talking about belief in Jesus as though he were God — that, instead, John tells us that we must believe in the teaching of Jesus if we are to know the God of Jesus. However, it seems many don’t get that message. At this table, I want always to affirm John’s call to follow Jesus’ belief.

What do we affirm, after all, when we receive Communion? Is it not that the bread and cup which Jesus blessed, and we bless, are the gifts of God for the people of God? We don’t even say “the gifts of Christ for the people of Christ,” because we believe those gifts are for all people whether or not they are called Christians. It is very much in the spirit of Jesus that we say “the gifts of God.”

It is doubtful that, if Jesus prayed as the gospels say he did, and as the first catechism of the church says, he was praying to himself. Listen, as we now pray as the Didache — that first catechism — says:

Our Father in heaven, your name be revered, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is done in heaven. Give us today our bread for today and forgive our debtors; and do not subject us to temptation but save us from the Evil One; for yours is the power and the glory forever!”

The Didache, by the way, immediately follows the prayer of Jesus with this command: “You should pray in this way three times a day.” I cannot help thinking about Mohammed, how he was supremely open to receiving the Koran because he believed Christianity had gone off the deep end on christology. Muslims should faithfully pray to God five times a day and follow a simple list of holy disciplines, that is all. Christianity, Mohammed said, was way too confusing.

Okay, so we’re not Muslims. But Islam does revere Jesus — not as Christ, but as teacher, prophet and saint. I do too, but I worship only God. [Here I’m describing my own practice, not prescribing it.]

In part of today’s gospel reading, the crowd no sooner had consumed the miracle of bread, which they probably did not have the wit to compare with manna in the wilderness, than they asked for yet more miracles. This is in John 6:22-29.

“I swear to God,” Jesus says, “you’re looking for me only because you ate the bread and had all you wanted, not because you witnessed miracles. Don’t work for food that goes to waste, but for food that lasts — food for real life — which the son of Adam will give you; on him God the Father has put his stamp of approval.”

The crowd persists. “What must we do to set about what God wants done?” they ask. “What God wants you to do,” Jesus says, “is to believe in the one God has sent.” [“Believe in what I teach,” that is.]

A Jesus Seminar commentary says “Christian belief is especially important in this gospel: it is presented as fulfilling God’s chief wish for humanity.”

In my reading, for John this means believing as Jesus believed — that God creates good and suffers from our evil, as we do; and that goodness comes to us when we let ourselves see and hear it, and when we live good — godly — lives as a response. It could get us killed, living and believing that way. Jesus himself has shown us that. He also has shown us how to conquer fear and the cold hand of death, and God has blessed that belief — and ours, as we come to believe as Jesus believed and lived.

–[If bread has its place; so does fasting! Before you are baptized you must fast for a couple of days, the Didache taught; “and you should continue fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays (not Mondays and Thursdays like the hypocrites.)” Hmm … can fasting be ‘bread’ too?]