John 6:35, 41-51
August 9, 2015
The movie, Remember the Titans, tells the story of the integration of two high schools – one white, one black – in Northern Virginia in the early 1970’s. The students were integrated. The teachers were integrated. The football team was integrated; both players and coaches. Coach Yoast, the white coach who was in line for the head coaching position was instead made the defensive coach. The man who had recently moved to the city to become the coach at the black school was made the new head coach: Coach Boone. The integration would officially begin with the new school year. But the football team was integrated at football camp in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The players tried to segregate themselves, but Coach Boone forced them to be together on the field and off. There is tension and resentment from everyone, but eventually they get to know each other and like each other. As in all great sports movies, they become a true team.
But the people back home didn’t get the memo. School starts with protesters at the gates. There are outbreaks of fights in the halls. The team is almost torn apart by the conflict, but they pull together – and start winning games. Not everyone is convinced. One night after a game, a small group of the players are hanging out together. One player, a white kid who had transferred to the school from California, wanted his friends – all black – to go to a local restaurant for something to eat. One of the black players resists, insisting that they would not be welcome. The white player doesn’t agree, so they go in to the restaurant. Just as the black player predicted, they were told to leave. The owner didn’t serve black folks or hippies.
When they go back outside, the white player, the “hippie,” tries to apologize. “I didn’t know.” Humiliated and angry, the black player who had initially refused to go in starts yelling at his white friend. “What do you mean, ‘you didn’t know?’” “I told you, didn’t I?!” “I told you.” The white player, who is obviously stunned by what has just happened, keeps saying he was sorry and that he didn’t know. The night is over. They part ways. End of scene.
I love this movie and there are a multitude of memorable moments that I could draw on for sermon illustration after sermon illustration. But this one stands out in my mind because of the white player’s insistence that he didn’t know. It seems ridiculous that he says that. His black friend was right. He told him that they would not be welcome. He told him that it was not a good idea for them to go in to the restaurant. Yet the white player really didn’t know.
What does it mean to know something? My first response is to think of knowledge solely as an intellectual process. I’m given facts and information. I process them. I memorize them. I learn them. I know. So why didn’t the black player’s facts and information about the racist response they would receive in the restaurant result in the white player’s knowing? Maybe it is because knowledge is more than just a memorization game. Knowledge is intellectual, but it is also experiential. That white player did not know. He could not fathom or imagine what his black friend was trying to tell him. He didn’t know because he had probably never experienced blatant racism like that. But the black players knew. They knew to the depths of their beings that they would not be welcome in that white establishment. They knew it because they had lived it their whole lives. They knew. Their friend and teammate didn’t. But once he experienced it, he knew it too.
What does it mean to know something? What does it mean to know someone? In this particular moment in this sixth chapter from John’s gospel, “the Jews” think they know Jesus. One thing that I have learned about John’s gospel is that when he refers to “the Jews” he isn’t necessarily implicating an ethnicity or a people. The Jews as John refers to them are the religious leaders and authority figures that were in opposition to Jesus. I say that because his use of that term has been misread and misused to justify anti-Semitism. I don’t think that John was anti-Semitic in the way we understand it. But I do think the he was highly condemning of the religious leaders who worked and plotted against Jesus. I also know that when John uses this term, conflict is close at hand. We’ve gone from hearing about the “crowds” that surrounded Jesus to “the Jews.” There’s a storm brewing.
The first verse we read today, verse 35, is one that we read at the end of our passage last week. It is a bridge verse. Then we skip to verse 41 and read that muttering and murmuring is happening among the religious leaders. It’s not clear to me why verses 36 through 40 are skipped, because they provide the impetus for why the authorities are beginning to complain. Jesus tells them that “I have come from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
Okay, now I get it. Now I see why a chorus of grumbling is rising. Jesus has just asserted that he has come down from heaven. He has claimed to be the Son of the Father. He has claimed to be the one who opens the door to eternal life.
What? This guy says he has come down to us from heaven? That he is the Son of the Father, Father as in God? Isn’t that Jesus? Isn’t he the son of Joseph? We know his father and mother. We know where he comes from, and it’s not heaven. I can understand their skepticism. It would be like me running into that obnoxious, whiny kid, Philip, the one who lived down the street from me, and the one I smacked in the head with a hairbrush – that’s another story; I was 9 and he deserved it – saying to a crowd of people that he was the Son of God and had come down from heaven. Knowing where that kid came from, knowing his mother and father, I would have an extraordinarily hard time believing him.
The authorities listening to Jesus think they know him. They know the facts about him. They know where he comes from. They know his family. They know him. Jesus responds to them by saying, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” In other words, “Hush up.” Those grumbling and griping against him obviously don’t know Jesus. They have not yet been drawn to him by the Father. They don’t come to him because he is the bread of heaven, the bread of life. They are there to see what he’s up to. They don’t know him, because they have not experienced him as anything more than Joseph’s son. They don’t know him as the One God sent from heaven; they don’t know him and until they do, they cannot experience him as the bread of heaven.
They .have not yet come to Jesus. What does that mean? What does it mean to say, “Come to Jesus.” Whoever comes to Jesus will never by hungry or thirsty. We realize that this isn’t physical hunger or thirst. But it is a longing for something. It is an ache for something. It is a recognition that something within you is missing. Jesus says I am the living bread. When you come to me, when you eat of this bread, that longing will be answered, that ache will be soothed. Someone in the YMCA Bible study once said, “We are born with a longing for God.” It seems to me that Jesus is speaking to that longing. He is speaking to that innate need within each of us for something … more. His answer to that longing is to come to him. In him they will, we will, find the living bread.
But again I ask, what does it mean to “come to Jesus?” Is it an answer to the alter calls I experienced growing up; when the choir would softly sing, “Just As I Am,” over and over again, while Brother Bob would beckon all who wanted to give their lives to Jesus to come, come. Does coming to Jesus happen the moment a person reads a familiar passage of scripture, maybe one that she has heard countless times before, but this time it reads differently? Suddenly the light of understanding flashes on and she understands a meaning in the words she hadn’t understood before. Is that what it means to come to Jesus?
In the Amplified version of the Bible, verse 35 reads like this, “Jesus replied, ‘I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to Me will never be hungry, and he who believes in and cleaves to and trusts in and relies on Me will never thirst any more (at any time).”
He who comes to me, who believes in me, who cleaves in and trusts and relies on me will never be thirsty again. Believes. Cleaves. Trusts. Relies. When you come to Jesus, when you believe, cleave, trust and rely on Jesus, you experience the Bread of Life.
I don’t think there is one answer to what it means to come to Jesus. I think there are many answers. I think for some it begins as an answer to an alter call; for others, it begins as a mindful recognition of a deeper truth. But whatever way that moment happens; either in a moment of great emotion or a moment of intellectual assent, a person who comes to Jesus knows him in a new way. It is experiential. It is both head and heart. One cannot preclude the other. To come to Jesus means that somehow, in some way, both our hearts and minds have been opened to knowing him. When we know him, we believe, we cleave, we trust and we rely on him. The good news is that we never know him perfectly. We are never perfect at believing, cleaving, trusting and relying. At least I’m not. But not knowing him perfectly in one fell swoop is okay. It is good news. Because that means we have opportunity after opportunity to come to Jesus. We have a lifetime of moments to know him. Knowing him is being in relationship with him, in community and in communion with him. Relationships don’t happen all at once. They happen every day, in many, many moments. How wonderful it is to know that we are called to come to Jesus again and again, and that our knowledge of him, our relationship with him has room to deepen and grow. No matter how you come to Jesus, just come to Jesus, just as you are. Let all of God’s children know Jesus, come to Jesus, and say, “Alleluia!” Amen.