I just returned Tuesday afternoon from Guatemala, along with my twelve companions who went on this year’s service trip. The thirteen or us worked in the small village of Nueva Providencia, where, for 9 years now, St. Johns has participated in various projects that the residents of the community have identified as important to their lives.
This time our task was to be a part of building the road on which trucks will be able to drive from the river all the way to the upper village. Our work involved digging out rocks and carrying them to various places (including, I would have sworn, back to where they had started). We mined white sand and threw black sand through a screen to remove gravel. In other words, grunt work.
Many of us older folk felt muscles we hadn’t heard from in years, while the younger members of the team often seemed, to me at least, like energizer bunnies. But one needs to put things in perspective. The villagers had started the work before we got there, and will continue on up the hill after we made our small contribution. John Corlett calculated that our group had put in about 312 hours of work. Which, as Bill Peterson said, would have taken the Guatemalans about 50 hours at the most.
So what’s the point of doing a small fraction of the work that the villagers could do in a fraction of the time? The answer is that when we are present to people whom we would not otherwise know, we each learn the others’ lives in ways that connect more deeply. I could read a textbook about Guatemala, or about poverty in developing countries, and I would know some facts. But that is far different than knowing some people.
It is different than greeting Valentine every year and having him remind me of how I cured his contact dermatitis three years ago; and his hands are still doing well. This year he wanted to know how old I am. When I said, “seventy three,” I think he gave me an easier job, and then kept checking every hour or so saying, “Tu me pareces muy cansada, debes descancar … you look very tired. You should rest awhile.”
All of this points me to a distinction which exists in Spanish, but not in English. In Spanish there are two words for ‘to know’: saber and conocer. The difference is between knowing data and knowing a person. Saber: I know that the capital of Kansas is Topeka. Conocer: by now I know my spouse, Ivy, for fifty-five wonderful years.
This difference is on my mind this week, because it has a lot to do with the conversation at cross-purposes between Jesus, and those who listened to him but did not actually hear. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…. for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”
These words drew muttering from the crowd. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” They knew some things about this man, Jesus, about his parents and where he grew up. They also knew some things about their history – that when Moses led Israel through the wilderness, God fed and sustained them with ‘manna’, which indeed came down from heaven.
Out of the things that they knew, saber, they rejected what Jesus offered to everyone who will come closer and truly meet him: conocer. “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
It is not knowing dogma and history about Jesus that can feed us. It is believing in Jesus, in the sense of permitting the personal connection and presence, that gives the gift of eternal life. We so often try to substitute one for the other. We may study scripture, memorize the Nicene Creed, have all the words of the Eucharistic prayers by heart, and still not permit ourselves to be changed for eternity.
I often think that it is our knowledge about Jesus – even knowledge about his teaching on Living Bread – that keeps us from getting close enough to really be with the one who offers life. Because what I know, all the things I have learned, is my achievement, under my control. The Living Bread, who comes with Eternal Life is not at all under my control.
Pastoral Therapist, Peter Woods, writes, “My ego, my self, thrives on achievement, and when the prize of the spiritual enterprise is eternal life, the ego needs to feel that it has at least played some part. But there is nothing for your ego to do here. Salvation, Enlightenment, Eternal Life, Wisdom are not the products of human endeavor the way making your own bread is. Here there is nothing to achieve or to do. You are not the baker nor the distributor. You are just another hungry pilgrim on the hillside or in the wilderness.”
Which is not to say that there are no works for our hands and minds and hearts to undertake. There are roads to build in Guatemala, affordable housing workdays in North Minneapolis, dinners to be cooked, served and cleaned up at First Nations Kitchen and Our Savior’s Shelter, meetings of Earth Matters from which we can learn. As the gathered community here we undertake to support and help each other in dozens of different ways. And these are all good things to be doing.
But they are not the price of admission to Eternal Life, which is ours as the pure gift of Jesus. Our giving and doing are a response to the love with which we have been fed. Are we willing to receive and be nourished by the Body of Jesus, which he has given for your life and mine, for the life of the whole world? Are we willing to have our lives changed so that eternity begins here and now?
For make no mistake, we are being offered a radical newness for ourselves, and for the world into which we go when we leave this place. That threat of new life may be part of our problem with coming closer to the one who is Bread. Who knows where we might be led or called, or even gently pushed? But wherever and however our lives might be changed, we can know and trust that we are fed on the journey. The Body of Christ, broken for you. The Blood of Christ, poured out for you. All is ours, in heaven and on earth.