Finding the ‘I Am’ Within (Sermon from John 6:35, 41-51)
In the Hebrew story where Moses turns aside to see the burning bush that burns but is not consumed, God speaks to him and calls him to speak to Pharoah on behalf of Israel. Moses asks God, “Who shall I say sent me?” And God says, “Tell them ‘I am’ has sent you.” The God who is ever present, who is ever alive and active, the God who lives in the present moment.
In John’s Gospel Jesus is portrayed as the incarnation of this living Word and Presence. Jesus embodies the Divine “I am.” Images are employed to creatively imagine what this means. In this text John’s Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever trusts in me will never be thirsty.”
What might that mean? There are parallels in the wisdom literature of Judaism. In Proverbs 9:4-5 Lady Wisdom says (wisdom is often personified as a woman, and in the Greek wisdom is feminine – Sophia) – so Sophia says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” Then, in the book of Sirach, Lady Wisdom comes to the one who aspires to do God’s will. The text says, “She will feed him with the bread of learning, and give him the water of wisdom to drink” (15:3).
Isaiah makes a similar connection. Isaiah writes in Isa. 55:10-11a: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth.” The word here is the wisdom and revelation of God.
Earlier in this same oracle (passage) the prophet says, “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen [that is, hear and appropriate God’s wisdom and instruction], so that you may live [so that you will experience fullness of life]. And what is this fullness of life? The prophet says, “I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.” Fullness of life is the experience of those who live in a covenant of love, in steadfast loving relationship with God.
Now, what I have discovered by striving to live in a covenant relationship with God rooted in steadfast love is that my deepest fears and angst and worries have been alleviated.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that a relationship with the Divine solves all our problems, answers all our questions, or is the solution to all our doubts, frustrations, disappointments, and feelings of emptiness, restlessness, and disillusionment. It’s not. That’s not how life works on any level.
But when we assimilate the wisdom of God, when we appropriate the deep, abiding love of God – the kind of wisdom and love that we have encountered in Jesus – we become connected to a larger purpose and calling that can be deeply satisfying regardless of the pressures, sufferings, tensions, and losses we may encounter along the way.
None of us are immune to pain and loss and grief. For these things are an inevitable part of our journey. But when we appropriate the wisdom and love of God and learn how to live in relationship with God, we discover the grace needed to face the common challenges of life.
A growing relationship with God means tapping into the divine energy and Spirit that dwells within. Our relationship with God is not a relationship with a God who is out there somewhere, but a God who is right here residing in our deepest, truest self.
You see, sisters and brothers, the oneness that Jesus experienced with God is a oneness that is accessible and available to everyone. This oneness was not limited or exclusive to Jesus. The “I Am” that Jesus identified with and knew intimately lives in us. So the question is: Do we know this and are we living in the reality of it? Do we know how divinely human we are? Do we realize that we are one with God? Do we realize that the “I am” is part of who we are?
Most of us don’t, unfortunately. Most of us feel that God is distant – that God is out there somewhere. And this feeling of God’s distance is reflected in many of the biblical stories, because this is how many people of faith understood the Divine. Just think how often the words “Fear not” appear in scripture. Whenever there is some theophany, some visible, or apparitional manifestation of the divine in the biblical stories, almost always the humans present are struck with fear, and God or the angel has to say, “Fear not.” This seems to be hardwired in us – that God lives out there and whenever God draws near it can’t be good.
Now, it is true that in the Hebrew Bible and in the wisdom literature in particular readers are instructed to fear God. But this is more about reverence and respect, than it is about being afraid. They are telling us that God must not be minimized or relegated to some secondary role in our lives.
Jesus, however, as the incarnation of the wisdom and compassion of God, makes known to us a God who is as close to us as the air we breathe. Jesus calls God “Abba,” which is a warm, endearing term that a child speaks to call out to a loving parent. God, says Jesus, is like a father who runs out to meet his lost son. God is like a woman who searches until she finds the lost coin, or a shepherd who risks losing everything in order to find the one lost sheep. In Jesus we meet a nonviolent God. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, not destroy them, because this is how God treats everyone.
When we probe deep within our true selves, when we are able to strip back our defense mechanisms and shed false images and understandings, this is the God we discover within. You don’t have to be smart, you don’t have to have a seminary degree, you don’t have to know all the rituals or a lot of theology, you just have to be humble, open, and receptive to the “I am” who is an inseparable part of who you are!
The story goes that a villager who went to town every year on the High Holy Days to pray in the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue had a son who was somewhat mentally challenged. He was not able to learn the Hebrew alphabet, much less a single prayer. And because the boy knew nothing, his father never brought him to town for the holidays.
Yet when the boy reached the age of thirteen and became responsible for his deeds, his father decided to take him along on the day of Atonement, lest he stay home and, in his ignorance, eat on the fast day. So they set out together – and the boy, who had a little shepherd’s pipe on which he piped to his sheep, pocketed it unbeknownst to his father.
In the middle of the service, the boy suddenly said, “Father I want to play my pipe!”
The horrified father scolded his son and told him to behave himself. A little later, though, the boy said again, “Father, please let me play my pipe!” Again, the father scolded him, warning him not to dare; yet soon the boy said a third time, “Father, I don’t care what you say, I must play my pipe!”
“Where is it?” asked the father, seeing the boy was uncontrollable.
The boy pointed to the pocket of his jacket. His father seized it quickly and gripped it firmly. And so the service passed with the man holding firmly onto the boy’s pipe until the sun was low in the sky and it was time for the final prayer of the day.
Halfway through the closing prayer, the boy managed to surprise his father and wrench the pipe free from his father’s hands. He quickly put it to his mouth and let out a loud blast that startled the entire congregation. As soon as the Baal Shem Tov heard it, he hurried through the rest of the service as he had never done before.
Afterward, he told the worshipers, “When this young lad played his pipe, all your prayers soared to heaven at once, and there was nothing left for me to do but finish up.”
The boy was able to hear the Divine Voice and was in tune to the Divine Presence in a way that the other worshipers were not. I like what John Shea says about this story. He says, “The prayer of the shepherd’s pipe is not the type of prayer that waits for an answer. It is an answer – an answer to the exuberant presence of God welling up within us.” So the question is: Are we awake to this Presence? Are we tuned in to the inner music? Can we hear the Divine Song?
One of the reasons, I think, so many people are unhappy, Christians included, is because we are not living true to who we really are. We are God’s children – that’s who we are. We can ignore and deny that connection. We can refuse to admit or claim that reality. But that’s who we are. And I don’t believe we will ever have this deeper hunger and thirst satisfied until we live out that reality.
When Jesus invites us to eat the bread that he is, I believe that we need to hear this as an invitation to appropriate his wisdom and listen to the Divine Spirit within? It’s an invitation to follow his path and to open our hearts to this deeper part of us where the “I am” dwells? The question is: Are we ready to listen and dance to the rhythm of divine love and goodness that resounds from our truest and deepest self?
When our text says that no one comes to the Christ unless God draws that one, the text seems to be suggesting that no one can heed the voice of Divine Wisdom and Love apart from the drawing, enticing lure of God. And I believe that. But I do not believe for a minute that God singles out certain ones and ignores others.
In our early stages of spiritual development we tend to believe that. We tend to think that being special means that others are not special, or that we are more special. Because God loves Israel does not mean that God cannot love the Egyptians too. God loves the Egyptians and all the other peoples of the world as much as God loves Israel or God loves Christians.
I believe we are all drawn to God, though not in the same way or through the same means. John’s Gospel even says as much. In 12:32 John’s Jesus says, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” The living Christ can use a variety of means and mediators to draw people into relationship with the great “I am” who is within. The prophets are quoted in this very text as saying, “They shall all be taught by God.” No one is excluded.
And so often it takes a little boy with a shepherd’s pipe, it takes the little ones, the excluded ones, the marginalized ones, the ones who are overlooked by the so-called powerful and prominent to teach us how to pay attention and know God’s love and grace.
And always, as in Jesus, this eternal flow of life, this deep love and grace and goodness, will manifest itself in our flesh, in our works and deeds, in our relationships, in the way we treat and respond to one another. John’s Gospel says that the bread from heaven is no less than Jesus’ flesh that he gives for the life of the world.
Well, of course it is. The eternal life of God is always manifested in the flesh, in our bodies, in our everyday life, in the way we talk and walk, in the way we celebrate and grieve, in the way we suffer and rejoice, in the way we care and love, and in the many tangible ways we express compassion and understanding.
As we share in the bread and cup, as we drink the cup and eat the bread, may this sacred ritual be an expression of our desire and commitment to drink from the well of God’s wisdom and love and eat from the bread of life that is grace and truth.
Our good God, as we share in Holy Communion together, may our eating and drinking be tokens of our surrender and self-giving to your will and purpose in our lives. Show us how to love you and to love one another and may your love nourish us and nurture us that we may have the mind of Christ. Amen.