In last week’s lectionary Gospel reading we saw Jesus taking people on a journey of discovery. He showed them two things. First, he showed them that the bread they were so interested in (having been miraculously fed by Jesus in the wilderness) was a foretaste of something much more important – a kind of nourishment which would fill them with the life of God’s coming Kingdom. And second, he told them that this gift he was offering was nothing less than the gift of himself. He was and is the bread of God which comes down from heaven.
In this week’s passage we meet their response. They are shocked, incredulous, and frankly cheesed off. He appears to be talking nonsense. They grumble.
You can see their point. We know this man: we know who his parents are, we know where he comes from, we know him. How can he say that he has come down from heaven? In other words, how can God have a name, an address and a human history that we all know? They have their idea of God and Jesus doesn’t fit.
“My idea of God” or “my view of God” or “my kind of God” is an expression I come across quite frequently, not least in church circles. We like to make God comprehensible and acceptable to us. We want him to conform to our way of thinking and our way of doing things. When the scriptures present us with something we don’t understand or don’t like we reckon it our right to reject what they tell us in favour of something more palatable.
It’s understandable but not very logical or sensible. A moment’s thought will tell us that reality is what it is and not what we’d like it to be. Some things that physics tell us about the natural world are very hard to get one’s head round. If that is true of the world we can see, how much more is it likely to be true of God whom we can’t see?
Jesus tells them to stop grumbling. He explains that the only way they can come to him in faith is if God the Father does something in them to enable them to believe:
No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.John 6.44
A person can only be known if they choose to reveal themselves. Some people don’t give much away – they’re hard to get to know. We sometimes speak of such people as a “closed book”. Others are “open books”; they hold little back, making themselves easy to know. Only God can reveal who God is:
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.John 1.18
We are entirely dependent on God for knowledge of God. He comes to us and makes himself known. The pattern is evident in the New Testament. By the sea of Galilee Jesus comes to some fishermen and calls them to follow him. On the road to Damascus Jesus grabs hold of Saul and changes him from being the fiercest enemy of the gospel to its most devoted servant. At Caesarea Philippi Peter acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, only to be told that this revelation came not from his own good sense or depth of insight but from God the Father himself.
The same pattern still holds. We talk of humanity’s search for God, but the real story is God’s search for us. One of the best-known examples is C. S. Lewis, who – far from searching for God – describes himself as:
… brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting [my] eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Chapter 14
More recently writer Paul Kingsnorth tells a similar story
Perhaps our own experience is less dramatic and feels more like our own self-motivated search. In one sense this is quite natural. What God does to reveal himself he does in us and not merely to us.
One of the tests of the reality of our knowledge of God is that it involves repentance. We find our mind being changed (that’s what the word means) about who God is and what he is like, increasingly conformed to the portrait painted by the scriptures and less dependent on “my view of God”. Only so can we know Jesus as the bread of life which comes down from heaven.