Both/And 

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on John 6:35, 41-51 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven.”

And the crowd said, “No you’re not. You are the son of Joseph who came down from Nazareth.”

This bit of dialogue in our Gospel reading today is a kind of scene that is repeated over and over again in John’s Gospel. You might even call it a running motif. In this motif, Jesus is teaching someone – it could be a single person, it could be a small group, it could be a large crowd, as it is today – and in his teaching, Jesus is making a connection between two different things. And the people hearing Jesus’ teaching aren’t getting it, they are misunderstanding, sometimes it even seems as if they are willfully misunderstanding, deliberately not getting it. And the reason they’re not getting it is because what Jesus is presenting they are seeing as an either/or, when Jesus wants them to see a both/and.

In this passage, the people’s confusion revolves around where Jesus comes from. Jesus is in the middle of building an extended metaphor about bread – in fact the entire sixth chapter of John’s Gospel narrates how this extended metaphor plays out – and the gist of this metaphor, when it’s all put together, through all its turns and layers, the gist of the metaphor is: as bread nourishes and sustains the life of the body, so relationship with Jesus nourishes and sustains life-giving relationship with God. The words and actions and love that come from the human life of Jesus bring us more deeply into the wisdom and work and love that come from the divine life of God.

And that is the part of the teaching the people just don’t get. How can divine things come from human things? How can an earthly person lead us into heavenly realities? How can relationship with the holy, awesome, invisible, transcendent God come to us from relationship with Jesus, a man?

Because this crowd knows the web of relationship from which Jesus comes. John says Jesus was giving this teaching in the town of Capernaum, and Capernaum was more or less Jesus’ base of operations during his Galilee ministry, so the people there had kind of gotten to know him; and it wasn’t all that far from Nazareth, so the Capernaumites could easily have checked up on Jesus’ background. They knew where he came from. They knew whose house he grew up in. They knew the local gossip and the stories hometown people will tell. They knew Jesus was fully human, as human as they were, caught up in the same kinds of relationships of love and dependency and need and giving and receiving and hurting and asking and wondering and misunderstanding – all the same kinds of relationships they themselves were caught up in.

So how could he then say that through relationship with him would come relationship with God? How could he put those two things together? Human is human; divine is divine. Earthly is earthly; heavenly is heavenly. God is God; and a man is … well, really. It’s one or the other. It’s either/or.

But the whole point of Jesus’ teaching – the whole point of Jesus’ ministry, the whole point of Jesus’ miracles, the whole point of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the whole point of Jesus’ Incarnation, the whole point of Jesus’ being – is to to reveal that this is not either/or. It is the gracious, mysterious, unfathomable, wondrous gift of God to make us both/and. It is God’s choice, God’s loving will, to take up our human actions and make them part of accomplishing divine ends. To make our earthly relationships open up into heavenly relationships. To work through our very human personal and communal struggles and trials and tribulations and triumphs and tragedies and everything we do – to work through us to work out God’s justice and peace and joy and love in this world.

What Jesus wants us to know, every bit as much as he wanted the Capernaumites to know, is that being human and being divine is not an either/or, it’s a both/and; and by growing in closer relationship with Jesus, we are growing closer and closer to, more and more like God.

Now in one respect we are ahead of this game compared to the Capernaumites: we have had two thousand years to get used to this kind of language about Jesus. It doesn’t come as the same kind of shock to us to speak of Jesus as both human and divine. Every Sunday in the Nicene Creed we say that humanity and divinity in Jesus is both/and. We’re kind of up-to-speed on that.

What may be harder for us is to see that humanity and divinity is both/and in us. That might come as a surprise. How is it that our works could be working the work of God? I mean, we all know what kind of hot messes we are. We know we can’t do miracles and perform healings and teach wisdom like Jesus. What divine work could God possibly do through all our human stuff?

But listen to these words from Ephesians: “speak the truth; do not let the sun go down on your anger; labor and work honestly; share with the needy; let your words give grace to those who hear; be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another; love as Christ loved; be imitators of God.”

We imitate God, we let divine reality come forth in our human actions, when we speak and work and share and forgive and love. And those are pretty simple things. Those are things we can do. And even if they seem very small and very insignificant and very human to us, even simple things like this, done in faith, and done over time, add up to genuine divine reality. These are things God works through, and they make humanity and divinity in us both/and.

And right now I want you to think of one thing in your life – you might actually think of several, but I want you to choose just one to focus on – one thing in your life where a very human action might be both/and with the divine work of God. Maybe there is a relationship where your love can give someone a glimpse of God’s love. Maybe there is an illness where your presence and your compassion can be a channel for God’s healing. Maybe there’s a controversy where your words can offer an opening to God’s truth. Maybe there’s an injury or offense where your asking for forgiveness, and your offering forgiveness, can move toward God’s reconciliation. Maybe there is something deep within you, something so private no one else could guess, where your reaching out to God in prayer opens the way for God to reach to you with grace. What one thing in your life can you see as human and divine, both/and, in Christ? And how will you let that one thing lead you into being an imitator of God in everything?

Jesus who came from Nazareth said “I am the bread that comes from heaven.” And he meant it both/and. And in Jesus, we can be both/and God’s bread from heaven for our world, too. Amen.