During the first few years after I was ordained, I spent time as a prison chaplain at a local medium security prison.
Each month a rotation of priests from the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina would preside at a Holy Eucharist on Fridays in the Interfaith chapel on campus, and I usually presided at the service once every three months.
Toward the end of my time there, I became known by the guards and a handful of inmates who attended the service and who asked for counseling regarding their incarceration and crimes.
I got to know one inmate particularly well, because his story of how he had come to be in the prison and how he had turned his life around were resonant and convincing to me.
I’ll call him David in order to protect his identity.
David had come from a very wealthy and connected household, but had begun selling and using hard drugs and alcohol at an early age, in part as a reaction to his experiencing a lack of love in his family.
When he got involved in a dispute with a fellow dealer, which led to gunfire and an injury to the other man, David suddenly found himself facing hard time in the prison where I was serving as chaplain.
While inside, he had ample time to consider his life and actions, and through working with a counselor we both knew, he was able to refrain from using substances, and he began the long road of preparing for a new life outside the prison.
Of course, there were several people who felt threatened by this new found resolve and they told David that he was a criminal, and that he wouldn’t be able to be anything different no matter how hard he wanted to change.
His parents doubted his ability to change.
Others cited the high instance of “conversion” in prisons and claimed that the change was temporary or “a show.”
And they had good reason to believe that was the case, because the lifers who were doing time in that prison had seen that scenario play out several times before.
But David was different.
Over the years I spent with him inside the prison, my own perception of him changed.
Whereas he was fighting his identity struggle mightily when I first met him, over years of Eucharists, and counseling sessions, I saw his demeanor calmed and his resolve fortified.
And I began to be invested in the survival of his new self, in the new life that I knew he was working hard to lead.
When he finally got transferred to minimum security, I was able to take him on leave for full days, and help him see how the world he knew had changed along with him.
When he was released, I checked in with him to make sure he was staying true to his vision, and I rejoiced when he got accepted to college.
On the outside there were even more voices that were telling David to revert to his old life…and each time a challenge or barrier presented itself to him because of his conviction status…he had to choose who to be.
With God’s help, David believed more in the new vision of himself that he was called to pursue rather than the old one that everyone expected of him.
And that change has indeed become the reality, as he has now graduated from college and a master’s program, has married, and has just celebrated the birth of his first children.
I give thanks to God for the strength David showed in holding to his vision and program, and even more, I give thanks for all the good that has come from him refusing to believe the lesser story of himself that others wanted to tell him.
Last week we heard Jesus saying that he was the bread of life, and the bread that came down from heaven.
The disciples have a hard enough time believing it and understanding it, but today we see the larger populace weighing in on just who this Jesus is.
Some are upset because he has compared himself to the manna that came down in the wilderness and sustained the Israelites during their 40 year sojourn in the wilderness.
The metaphysics notwithstanding, their beef seems to be that he is comparing himself too closely to God, and they can’t wrap their heads around how this little boy from Nazareth, who was born years after them, could somehow be part of that great mystery of providence for their ancestors that happened generations before.
Isn’t this Mary and Joseph’s boy? What’s he talking about? We know who he is…he’s not the bread of life…he’s a poor kid from Nazareth, and he always will be.
It is a familiar line from those who think they “know us” but who cannot accept it when their vision of who we are is forced to change.
In Jesus’ case, more so than anyone else, his new calling and mission would indeed be radically different from anything that had come before in his life, and anything the world had ever seen.
So perhaps we can forgive the crowds for being so incredulous.
Can we do the same with those who knowingly or unknowingly hold us captive to former versions of ourselves instead of embracing the changes that God is calling us to make?
Believing in the bread of life, and following Jesus, means that we are called to be engaged in a lifelong process of transformation.
At times, this calling asks us to shuck off old and inadequate versions of ourselves, like a cicada who emerges from the former shell of itself, and leaves the dried husk behind to soar into a new life of flight.
However, it seems inevitable that some who know us will want the old version back, as if the new creation could be squeezed back into a former version of itself.
Do you have voices like this in your life? Do you sometimes feel inhibited by those who can’t let go of your past story enough to embrace the future God intends for you?
Jesus did, and his response was to surround himself with people who were trying to move into the future with him.
The disciples didn’t always get Jesus, or understand the fullness of what God was doing in him, but they tried and they got better at it as time went on.
Maybe they weren’t sure how this special man could be compared with the bread that came down from heaven, but they also had never seen how so many could be fed from so little, so they were open to a new possibility.
Likewise in our personal lives and maybe even more importantly in our church corporate life, we need to find ways of encouraging each other’s growth rather than stifling it.
We need to be strong enough to hold onto the vision of who God is calling us to be, and to let go of voices that long too much for Egypt rather than the promised land, that see the little son of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth rather than the Crucified and Resurrected Christ, that settle for a drug dealing convict rather than a redeemed and educated husband and father.
Jesus’ identity is being challenged this week, and so is yours.
Whose voice and call will you listen to with conviction?
Who is God calling you and us to become?