On Miracles and Messages
August 1, 2021
Psalms 51: 6
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
John 6: 24-35
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Today’s sermon is titled On Miracles and Messages. When Thomas Jefferson ran for President in the year 1800, opponents labeled him as “a howling atheist.”* Imagine what they would have said had they known that Jefferson, in the privacy of his own home, was taking a pen knife to four different translations of the Bible. Jefferson was cutting out, by hand, only the passages where Jesus spoke and other details of his life, carefully excluding any narratives about miracles or the resurrection. “He cut out passages with some sort of very sharp blade and, using blank paper, glued down lines from each of the Gospels in four columns, Greek and Latin on one side of the pages, and French and English on the other.”* The project took 25 years to complete and very few people even knew about the handmade volume. Jefferson wrote the following about discretion: “Religion is a matter between every man and his maker, in which no other, & far less the public, [has] a right to intermeddle.”**
This informs us about what Jefferson would have thought about his project eventually becoming widely available to the public. It was in 1895, 70 years after his death, that the Smithsonian purchased his work, an unparalleled distillation of the Second Testament in English, Latin, French and Greek. Jefferson had bound the work in red leather and titled it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Jefferson was certainly no “howling atheist.” In a letter to his friend, John Adams, Jefferson confided that he was working on a project that would distinguish the essence of Jesus’s message from “what he called ‘the corruption of schismatizing followers.’”*** [schismatizing, as in creating a schism] In Jefferson’s opinion, the inclusion of the miracles, and especially the resurrection, created unnecessary division among early followers of Christ. In removing them, Jefferson wrote that he had found,“the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”***
Jefferson found it necessary, for his own personal practice and understanding of Jesus’s teaching, to separate out the miracles from the message. In our reading today from the Gospel, Jesus sees the very same necessity.
Jesus had recently fed 5000 with a few loaves and a few fish and in our reading for today the people are coming back for more. Perhaps they are coming back with empty bellies, as Jesus suspects. But they are also coming back with questions. “Rabbi, when did you come here? What sign are you going to give us, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? What must we do to perform the works of God?”
The Hebrew people have a long tradition of prophets and prophecies responsible for some of their greatest catastrophes and some of their greatest accomplishments. An important part of this prophetic tradition is the discernment about whether or not a prophet is legitimately sharing the word of the Lord. What testifies to their legitimacy more than anything else? The inexpiable events are deemed miracles or signs. The people want to know, “What sign are you going to give us, so that we may see it and believe?” The people want proof.
I imagine Jesus is exasperated by their demands; he just fed five thousand with a few loaves and a few fish and then his disciples collected 12 baskets of leftovers. Even after that the people want more proof. This is where Jesus pulls a move we could call “Jeffersonian.” Jesus says, “Forget about the miracles; listen to the message.”
His message is this: “Work for the food that endures for eternal life…My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. The bread of God… comes down from heaven and gives life to the world… I am the bread of life.”
I am the bread of life. This is the English translation of the original Greek, but Jesus spoke ancient Aramaic. To help us understand what he might be saying, I offer you the following explanation from a religious studies scholar, Dr. Neil Douglas-Klotz, who was recently interviewed this week on “The Daily Good.”**** Dr. Douglas-Klotz has worked specifically with these “I am” statements that Jesus makes; there are seven of these statements, but there is a problem with the translation. This is tricky to explain, so try to stay with me here. In ancient Aramaic, there are no verbs that mean “to be” so there is no way to say “I am.” What Jesus would have said is “I-I.” One “I” signifies the “small self” (nafsha) connected to the “greater self” or God (Alaha) signified by the other “I”.
So we have nafsha + Alaha = bread of life
The small self joined with God is the bread of life that brings life to the world.
Isn’t that beautiful?
There is one more aspect of Jesus’s message that I want to explore before we close for today. One of the questions the people ask Jesus is, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answers them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Jesus says, essentially, “Believe in me.” But here we have another linguistic clarification to make. According to our expert, the more accurate translation of “Believe in me” is “Believe with me” or “Believe as I do.” I don’t have to tell you what a colossal difference this makes. The people ask, “What must we do?” and our teacher answers, “Believe with me.” What an invitation this is, Friends! Believe with me. Jesus issues the invitation and the words we read today from the psalmist respond in kind, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.”
In closing on this Communion Sunday, I pray we can answer Jesus’s invitation to believe with him in the goodness that is God. May we answer like the psalmist, with truth in our inward being and space in our secret heart for the wisdom of God to flourish. So be it. Amen.
The shared ritual of communion strengthens our connection to one another, to the experience of our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, and to a love that is greater than death.
****text of interview: https://www.dailygood.org/story/2768/neil-douglas-klotz-on-the-aramaic-jesus-tami-simon/
Sound recording of interview: https://resources.soundstrue.com/podcast/the-aramaic-jesus/
God of sunlight and God of rain, we are here with all our complexities…our mix of hope and fear, trust and worry, health and illness, acceptance and resistance. Help us, Lord, to bring the disparities of our emotions ever closer together, so that we may move through the joys and challenges of our lives with equanimity, balance, and serenity. We pray your healing presence be with us and with all those in need. May we be ever attune to the ways we can serve, with sensitivity and effectiveness and in the spirit of Christ, the giver of this prayer… Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the Apostle Paul in the book of second Corinthians, chapter 13 “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Amen.