The Cheat Code
Have you ever noticed that Jesus, especially in the gospel of John, likes to create confusion and misunderstanding? Have you ever noticed that often he doesn’t really answer the questions that people ask him? Have you ever noticed that in these encounters with the people who are trying to follow him, Jesus is deliberately disruptive?
Why do you think he does that?
I suspect it’s because Jesus is trying to shake us up a bit, to throw us off balance, to open us up, to help us loosen our grip on the way we usually see and understand things so that he can move us to new ways of seeing and understanding. So that we can be changed.
He wants to take us up a level, or maybe even two levels. This text, this sixth chapter of John which we started last week begins with thousands of hungry people who are fed with a few loaves of bread and fish. But by the end of today’s gospel reading, we’re no longer talking about putting food in people’s stomachs. The feeding of the thousands with the loaves and the fish is what John calls a sign.
Now the purpose of a sign is to point to something. And like any sign, these loaves and fish are meant to point us to a greater reality, a bigger truth. A truth so big in fact that we may need a little help to get there.
The crowd, though, at first they don’t seem to realize that this is a sign. They just want more bread. And Jesus realizes that he needs to take them up a level.
Any gamers here today? Anyone play computer video games? Well, one thing about the way that most video games are designed is that they work in levels. You’re playing the game, you’ve got your controller, you’ve got your character running around the screen in a certain setting, looking for treasure or battling wild animals or whatever. Maybe that first setting is a forest with trees and lakes and hills. But then you get enough points, or you defeat the forest giant in battle, or you go through a portal, and then all of a sudden you go up a level. The forest disappears and suddenly you’re in outer space whizzing around in your rocket ship shooting lasers at rogue spacecraft. It’s a whole new world.
That’s what happens if you stick with Jesus in today’s gospel. You go up a level. First, you think you’re talking about loaves of bread. But then Jesus says, you know, it’s not really about bread, let’s talk about what really matters. I mean, bread’s great, eating bread will keep your heart beating and your stomach from growling. But there’s more to life than bread. Jesus is pointing to a bigger understanding of our lives, of what it means to live abundantly as human beings. We hunger for much more than bread. We long for much more than physical existence. We were made for more than that.
So the crowd asks, ok, then what do we need to do?
And Jesus says, “Here’s what you need to do: believe in the one whom God has sent.”
And all of a sudden we’re up a level.
Now, it’s not easy to go up a level. It’s disorienting, it’s disruptive, it feels like the ground has shifted underneath you. And sometimes, you just don’t know how to get to the next level.
Kind of like a video game. But sometimes, there’s help available. For certain video games you can get what’s called a cheat code. Has anyone heard of a cheat code? It’s this code that you enter into the computer that helps you get to the next level, and sometimes the cheat code even gives you the tools you need to thrive at that new level.
Would you like the cheat code for today’s gospel? In fact it works for the whole of the gospel of John.
Well, for that I’ll have to tell you a little story.
When I was in seminary, during the summer of 2007, I got on a plane and traveled to the Seychelles Islands. I spent three months working there, as an intern, as part of my theological training. And to get ready for that posting, I took part in a 10 day orientation program before I left. The orientation program was for people like me who were going overseas to do various types of work for the church. We all met in Toronto, but the people taking part came from all over North America. It was a great group of people, with a lot of different backgrounds and interesting stories to tell.
And I remember in particular one man from Texas. He was tall and slim, and he had that Texan accent, greeting us with a “Howdy y’all” when he entered the room. Now my Texan friend didn’t talk a lot, you might say he was the tall quiet type. But as we were going through the sessions and various exercises, whenever he did speak, he almost always said the same thing. If we did a Bible study, invariably at some point he would chime in with “Well, ya know, it’s all about relationship.” If we did a session on how to work in a culture we weren’t familiar with, he’d say, “Well, it’s all about relationship”. If we were getting training on issues of poverty or justice, “it’s all about relationship”. And y’all know what? My Texan friend was always right.
And so if my Texan friend was with us today, and I was to ask him what he thought Jesus was talking about in today’s gospel, I’m pretty sure I know what he would say: “It’s all about relationship.” And y’all know what? I think he’d be right.
When the crowd asks Jesus what they should do, he tells them that they have to believe in the one that God has sent, referring to himself. Now that word “believe” sometimes gets us on the wrong track. In our day and age we often think that to believe something is to give our assent to an intellectual proposition, for example we might say “I believe that black holes exist”, or “I believe there is life on another planet”. Sometimes we use the word believe to indicate that we agree with Christian doctrine, like saying that I believe in the virgin birth or the doctrine of the Trinity.
But that’s not what today’s gospel is about. Remember the cheat code: “It’s all about relationship”. The word that we translate as believe is the Greek word pisteuo which is the verb form of the noun for “faith” and would be better translated as “to trust”. What we are being called to do is to trust in Jesus, to faith in Jesus – and these are deeply relational words. Jesus is not asking us to give our intellectual assent to facts or statements about him, rather he’s inviting us to enter into a relationship with him, and through him, with God.
Because in the same way that bread and fish can satisfy our physical hunger and keep our hearts beating, it is our intimate, trusting relationship with God that can satisfy our deepest hungers and give us life in the fullest sense of the word, life that Jesus calls abundant life or eternal life. Our deepest yearnings go way beyond food. We yearn for meaning and purpose in our lives, for belonging and connection, for love, for respect, for community, for peace, for joy. Loaves of bread won’t get us there. The food that we need to satisfy our deepest yearnings is a relationship with God. It’s all about relationship.
Now you might object, how can we have a relationship with God? We’ve never seen God, God is a mystery, God is so far beyond us that we can’t even imagine what such a relationship would look like.
But in Jesus, God took on human form, so that we could indeed see what God is like. As John the gospel writer himself says back in the first chapter, No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, Jesus, who has made God known. We look to Jesus and we say “that’s what God is like.” And the God that Jesus makes known is caring and compassionate, someone you could imagine going on a canoe trip with, someone you can enter into relationship with and learn to trust.
You know, by the end of today’s text, I think the crowd is starting to get it. They’re no longer asking for loaves and fishes, they’ve moved up a level. Now they’re asking not for loaves but for the bread of God which gives life, real life, to the world.
And Jesus says: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes, faiths, trusts in me will never be thirsty.
It’s all about relationship. The intimate, life-giving relationship with God made possible for us through Jesus.
Homily: Yr B P18, August 1 2021, Trinity
Readings: 2 Samuel 11.26-12a; Ps 51.1-12; Ephesians 4.1-6; John 6.24-35
Image by Markus Spiske