True Bread: Message to the Pharisees—and Me

John uses a technique in his Gospel where in his sermon forms, he does more than address his historic audience. He’s also addressing the reader. In fact, there are times where you almost get the impression that Jesus is talking to someone in the context of the story, and—just as if it were a play—he turns to the audience and says something to them apart from the conversation happening in the main story.

My Dilemma: I Don’t Get It All

In John 5:39-47, Jesus is addressing both his audience (the Pharisees) and the readers (us). So when I read this passage, I try to find myself in that audience, being addressed in the way that Jesus is addressing the Pharisees. And as a Pharisee, here’s my dilemma: I have a certain picture of who God is. I’ve pored over the Scriptures to figure out what that concept is, and I’ve accepted it wholeheartedly. In fact, I’ve staked my life on it.

That’s a fair assessment. The Pharisees are not not in and of themselves, you see, ignorant or  unlearned or even  treacherous people. At one level, they’re committed to doing their job: to uphold the law of Moses as an accurate picture of who God is and what he asks of his people.

Jesus shows up, and says to me, the Pharisee: “Actually, you don’t even believe Moses. Because Moses spoke of me.” And here’s his cryptic last line: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say? (John 5:47).

How would I respond? Probably something like “What do you mean, ‘I don’t believe what Moses wrote?’ I’ve given everything I have to this!”

The reason I can find myself here, among the Pharisees, is that the church where I spend my time (not The Episcopal Church, but the body of Christ) always teaches from a slightly refracted place. There’s a distinction between the truth of who God is in Jesus Christ and what I believe. I’m always slightly off.

As Paul says, “We know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12). We don’t get it all. In fact, we can’t get it all because of who we are, fallen human beings with limited capacity to understand divinity. The Pharisees stood their ground and upheld their tradition—and they rejected Jesus.

My Need: Real Relationship

So what does that have to do with us? I feel our situation is exactly the same. It’s possible, you see, to have accurate doctrine and practice. The Pharisees had clear concepts about the oneness of God and about what God asks of his people in the Law.

But what’s missing? Relationship. Thomas Cranmer prayed, “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit that we may truly love you. And Lord, we magnify your holy name.”

Relationship gave Moses the capacity to step into the breach and receive from God, even in the midst of the apostasy of the people of Israel. Moses trusted God. That’s a relational word.

And that’s what we don’t see in the Gospels’ portrayal of the Pharisees. They do their best to be right and to teach right, but as Jesus even says at one point, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matt. 15:8, Mark 7:6b).

All of this means I can fulfill the Pharasaic. I can search the Scriptures, get my doctrine right, try to think carefully and critically about what the Scripture says, almost as an end in itself. But if I’m not truly loving God and magnifying his holy name, I’m dangerously close having my doctrine right but my relationship wrong.

My Food: True Bread

And that’s the heartbeat of what Jesus tells his listeners: I’m here for a relationship. I think of Jesus’ words to Peter after the resurrection: “Peter, do you love me?” (John 21:15-17).

Not “Peter, do you understand now?” No. “Peter, do you love me?”

If I have a non-relational perspective on the Scripture, what I give myself as well as my hearers is not what Cranmer called “true bread.” When we feed on true bread, something special happens. Cranmer makes it clear: “Evermore give us this bread that he may live in us, and we in him.”

Again, I can think right but have my relationship wrong. I can be intellectually on-point but relationally in a place of disaster.

And how do I move toward relationship? I need God to get me there. I need the Lord to literally come into that crowd, take me by the arm and walk with me, as he did with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, so my heart burns within me (see Luke 24:13-35).

That’s where the life is, you see. Not just poring over the intellectual concepts or the accuracy of doctrine. It’s not a problem of method, but relationship.

You see, the intellectual pursuit of Jesus Christ is never an end in itself. If it doesn’t enable me to love, it’s idolatrous. “Evermore give us this bread that he may live in us.”

And we in him.

How is your faith moving you toward relationship? Share this blog and your response on Twitter. Please include my username, @revgregbrewer.

(This post is an adaption of Bishop Brewer’s sermon on March 30, 2017, in the Bishop’s Oratory of the Diocesan Office, Orlando.)

Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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