I’ll give you…

… Something to be angry about!

As our interminable summer foray into John 5 and 6 continues this week, our Gospel lesson doesn’t just start where the last one left off, it helpfully includes the last verse of last week’s lesson as the first verse for this week (then immediately skips five verses that actually help that first verse make sense in context because RCL).  Having taught the hungry remnant of the 5,000 what the miraculous feeding was meant to represent, Jesus declares himself to be the bread of life.  Those who eat of this bread, Jesus says, will never again know hunger or thirst.

If one were to try to figure out the most offensive thing someone could say in the 1st century Jewish context, this was pretty close.  As I noted last week, this “I AM” statement by Jesus, the first of seven in John’s Gospel, would have been fairly obviously blasphemous, unless that person really was the Messiah, the Anointed one of God.  To claim the holy name, that which has gone unspoken even about God in Judaism, for one’s self would have been unimaginable.  Yet, in a very public setting, Jesus was willing to say “I AM.”

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The tetragrammaton – the Hebrew name of God

When confronted by the crowd for making such a bold statement, Jesus essentially says, “U MAD BRO?  I’ll give you something to get mad about!”  Jesus doubles down on his claim – saying twice more “I am the bread of life” and “I am the living bread.”  He claims that he will raise those who believe up on the last day.  He is even so bold as to suggest that the true bread that gives life to the world is his flesh.

One of the leading complaints about Christianity in the early days was that it was a cannibalistic cult.  Jesus does himself no favors here, and yet, he feels compelled to make such outlandish claims because he knows that all of it is true.  Jesus is “I AM.”  Jesus is the bread of life that God has chosen to offer to the world.  Jesus’ flesh, in the bread of the Eucharistic feast, will be the nourishment of all who come after and the sign by which Christ’s Church will signify the ongoing life of faith.

It would have been hard to imagine Jesus going further off the deep-end than his initial “I am the bread of life” statement, but deeper he went.  All the while, even in this polemical rhetoric, Jesus is offering an invitation.  “If you want eternal life.  If you want the salvation that comes from a relationship with God.  If you want to know life abundant, then believe what I am saying, as outlandish as it may be, for these words which I speak are the true bread that gives life to the world.”

By what authority?

For me, the problem with only preaching once in a a eight week span is that I’ve somehow missed the giant leaps the lectionary has done within the Gospel of Matthew.  Even if reality doesn’t bear this out, it feels like we all of a sudden find ourselves in Holy Week.  In actuality, we have jumped only a few chapters at a time over the course of the past few months, but this week, we find ourselves deep in the conflicts of Holy Week.

Chapter 21 begins with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  Known these days as Palm Sunday, this marks the beginning of Jesus’ final week.  Riding on a donkey, Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east on the same day that Pilate, the Roman Governor of Israel, would have arrived from the west on his war horse.  On the east side of town, the crowd cheered “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  On the west side of town, a much larger crowd proclaimed Caesar as the son of god.  Upon his arrival, Jesus made his way to the Temple where with a whip of cords and disgust in his eyes, he flipped the tables of the money changers and equated the whole enterprise with Isaiah’s “den of robbers.”

The next day, which would have been a Monday, Jesus again entered Jerusalem through the east gate and returned to the scene of yesterday’s unpleasantness.  It is here that our Gospel lesson begins with the chief priests and elders asking a perfectly legitimate question, “By what authority are you doing all this?”  In common parlance, we might imagine them saying, “Who do you think you are?”  I’ve written on the topic of authority in Matthew before.  Then, it dealt with Jesus’ claim to have been given “all authority” following his resurrection.  I think the topic deserves attention here, before the crucifixion, as well.

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My current working definition of authority comes from the Rev. Dr. Craig Koester, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Luther Seminary.  In a commentary on Matthew 28, Koester defines authority as “followability,” which I find helpful in this context as well.  After all that had happened on Sunday, Jesus returns to Jerusalem and finds himself, once again and still, surrounded by a crowd of followers.  The leaders are indignant.  How could this rabble-rouser still have followability?  Who gave him such authority?  One suspects that they already know the answer, though deep down, they pray it isn’t true that God’s judgment had really come upon the Temple system.

We who follow Jesus recognize his authority simply by following.  By subscribing to his teaching of the Kingdom of Heaven and how it has been inaugurated, implicitly we agree to the reality Jesus names after his resurrection.  Namely, his authority, the reason we follow him, comes from the God who created everything that is.  In so doing, we place ourselves under that authority while also having some of it ceded to us.  Since we are not in the midst of Holy Week, and will not be under the scrutiny of those of would do us harm, by virtue of our baptisms, we are all able to answer the question, “by what authority” with confidence – “we follow Jesus.”

The Beginning of a Controversy

bethzatha

“Now that day was the sabbath.”

The end of Sunday’s gospel lesson tells you that there is much more to come, even if the Revised Common Lectionary won’t give it to us.  If you’ve decided to go with the second Gospel lesson (John 5:1-6), please note that the other lessons are fairly short, and you could exercise the rubric found on page 888 of the Book of Common Prayer, “Any Reading may be lengthened at discretion.”  I would encourage you to do so because it isn’t just that last line that is so juicy, but the whole story of Jesus healing the lame man at the pool of Beth-zatha opens up the beginning of what will be a fairly drawn out controversy over Jesus healing on the Sabbath.

Typical healing stories use one of two words to describe what Jesus does for those in need of help.  He either iaomai  heals them or he sozo heals them.  Iaomi seems to be a fairly generic word for healing or restoration, while sozo carries with it a double meaning of physical and spiritual healing, salvation, and wholeness.  However, in this story’s full incarnation (John 5:1-18), the word that is five times translated as “made well” is hugies, which occurs only one other time in John’s Gospel, at 7:23.  The reprise of hugies at 7:23 comes in the midst of an ongoing argument between Jesus and the religious leaders that seems to stem from Jesus healing this particular lame man at the pool of Beth-zatha on the sabbath.

Given that we are coming to the end of Eastertide, it might seem odd to take the time to rehash the controversy that, in John’s Gospel, at least, would lead the Jewish leaders to seek a way to have Jesus killed, but perhaps that is some merit in telling the full story of the lame man’s healing.  We see in John’s use of the word hugies, another double meaning.  To be hugies is to be sound physically and sound in teaching. As Jesus heals on the sabbath, an act which according to the law was not hugies, John makes the bold claim that the proper thing, the sound teaching, is the compassionate response of Jesus to the man who had been lame for 38 years.  Perhaps this story is an opportunity to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves and our congregations whether or not we are focused on the hugies of the world.  Or, have we, like the Jewish leadership, become so bogged down in the rule or, more likely these days, the platform of one of the political parties, that we’ve forgotten that the sound response to need in the world – need for healing and need for the desire to be healed – is compassion?