One of the great privileges of being a priest is to give the dead a proper burial. It’s an honor to bury anyone, and especially war veterans; just in the last five weeks I’ve buried veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, all with military honors. It’s not a pleasure, of course, and over the last month or so the sheer number of burials I have been a part of has put a certain weight on my heart. Imagine my joy, then, when I read the opening line of this week’s Gospel lesson: “All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out.”
If you don’t recognize that line right off the bat, be happy, consider yourself blessed. It’s the opening line in the Committal portion of the burial rite, it’s the first thing a priest says after the mourners have gathered at the grave. There it’s rendered in the classic King James’ language: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”
This short line of Scripture fits the burial rite quite nicely, of course, and what follows in the burial rite is just beautiful: He that raised up Jesus from the dead will also give life to our mortal bodies, by his Spirit that dwelleth in us.” The great thing this week is that though Jesus uses different words in today’s Gospel lesson, He was saying, essentially, the same thing.
Today’s Gospel is about the Gospel, which is convenient, in that not all passages from the Gospels just come out and say what the Gospel is about. The Gospel is, of course, who Jesus is, and though Jesus speaks to us in examples and similes, He doesn’t beat around the bush at all.
“Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert yet they died.” “That’s what Jesus said and it’s a pretty easy verse to cruise past and not much ponder. I mean, of course those people died—in fact, they had died about 1,000 years ago!! And since no one even a millennium earlier had ever said manna would keep you alive forever if you kept eating the stuff, noting the fact that those ancestors ate and died seems about as profound a thing to say as “Your great-great-grandfather ate his fruits and vegetables his whole life and then he died.” Well, I didn’t really expect fruit and veggies to mean Grandpa would still be with us at the age of 187 so . . . what’s the point?”1
The problem here is the weight of the word manna. To us manna doesn’t mean much outside of the bread-like substance that God provided the Israelites in the desert, but for the Jews of that era, “over time, “manna” became a symbol for far more than the flaky, bread-like stuff the Israelites received in the desert. Manna became a symbol for the presence of God and the Word of God and the gifts of God generally—for all things that contribute to our salvation, in short. And even as a physical substance, the original manna was a true source of wonder and delight, a key sign that God was with his people, sustaining life in a place that was otherwise shot through with death.”2
And even here, when talking about manna, the very thing that kept His ancestors alive long enough to have descendants, Jesus says, in effect, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
And therein lies the Gospel, the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. Though you’ve seen the wonderful works of God, you’ve marveled at His creation, you’ve been struck through with wonder by His mighty acts, maybe you’ve even felt His presence in times of sorrow or joy, though this is all true and awesome, may I present to you Jesus.
For the next couple of weeks, we’re going to keep hearing about how Jesus is the Bread of Life and we’ll hear blessed John recount other food-related parables from or about Jesus, but the point of all of this is essentially the same: that in and through Jesus, God has gathered the faithful to Himself, that He will not cast us out but rather hold us safe until we are all raised up for eternal life. In other words, the Gospel is who Jesus is, that is true and that is awesome, so let us present, to the whole world, Jesus.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week