Unusual Names Leader Guide: Unusual Gospel for Unusual People - Studies from the Book of John

Unusual Names Leader Guide: Unusual Gospel for Unusual People - Studies from the Book of John

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by Adam Thomas

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The first two times Jesus says “I am,” no predicate nominative follows. Remember seventh-grade English class: a predicative nominative is a noun that follows a linking verb. The first time, he says “I Am–the one who speaks with you” to the woman at the well. The second time, he says “I Am. Don’t be afraid” to the


The first two times Jesus says “I am,” no predicate nominative follows. Remember seventh-grade English class: a predicative nominative is a noun that follows a linking verb. The first time, he says “I Am–the one who speaks with you” to the woman at the well. The second time, he says “I Am. Don’t be afraid” to the disciples. In both cases the words stands alone: I AM. These statements are declarations of God’s very being, and they appear several more times over the course of the Gospel. A broader statement cannot be made. “I AM” is as close as language can get to universality and eternity. One of the markers of this revelation is a second kind of “I am” statement. This second kind takes a piece of the great “I AM” and fills in the blank that our sense of curiosity wills to be there. When Jesus says, “I am the bread/light/shepherd/vine/___,” he is comparing himself to those things. In these “I am ________” statements, Jesus discloses a piece of his divine identity, enough for us to hear, swallow, and digest over the course of a lifetime.

Session 1 - I Am the Bread of Life. Nourished to Be Nourishment.
Session 2 - I Am the Light of the World. Turning to the Light.
Session 3 - I Am the Good Shepherd. Cast Out of Complacency.
Session 4 - I Am the Vine. Connecting the Branches.

Each session begins with an opening prayer, followed by the text of the day being read aloud. The group will enjoy a 5-7-minute video where Adam shares his thought on the Scripture and its "unusual" focus. The group will discuss the readings for the day then close with prayer.

The new and exciting aspect of this particular Bible study series is the blending of traditional weekly Sunday school with modern, daily-delivered digital content, which will keep readers connected with the material throughout the week. Between the daily communication and the group gatherings, participants will immerse themselves in the Good News.

The emails that accompany this study are crucial to the small-group experience and leaders should notify small-group members to subscribe for their emails at least 1-2 days in advance of the first gathering. 

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Unusual Names Leader Guide

By Adam Thomas

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-8506-1


Session 1

"I am the bread of life" Nourished to Be Nourishment (John 6:26-51)


About the Bible Reading

Snapshot of the Lesson

The first time Jesus tells us who he is by way of special metaphor comes in John 6, the day after Jesus feeds five thousand people with one person's lunch. The crowd finds him again, and assuming they still have bread on their minds, Jesus uses that image as a new name for himself: "I am the bread of life."

This statement is a small piece of Jesus' divine identity. From the perspective of the Gospel, it speaks to the past, the present, and the future. It links to the past via the story of the Exodus. The manna in the wilderness was a sign that God had not abandoned the people of Israel and that God would take care of them on their way to the Promised Land. As the "bread of life," Jesus promised to be a daily source of nourishment for his people, as the manna was during the wandering in the desert.

In the present moment, Jesus tries to move the crowd away from focusing on their physical craving for the barley loaves they received the day before and toward the deeper craving—the desire for relationship. Of course, Jesus is talking to us as well as to his audience, so he is inviting us into relationship, as well. By taking in the "bread of life," Jesus becomes a part of us, as close to us as we are to ourselves. If Christ is a part of us, then there's no wonder that we "will live forever" (6:51).

For the future, Jesus' words shed light on an understanding of the Holy Eucharist (also known as Communion or the Lord's Supper). There is no scene of the Last Supper in our unusual Gospel; instead, this discourse serves as John's comment on the Eucharist. No matter how you understand Christ's mysterious presence in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, when we share it with each other, we are sharing Christ's promise to dwell in us as we dwell in him. The "bread of life" provides us nourishment in order that we may become nourishment ourselves to a hungry world.

By naming himself the "bread of life," Jesus proclaims his promise to sustain us. By eating of his bread, we affirm our desire to be in relationship with him. By sharing it together, we participate in the deeper reality of being members of the body of Christ: We are fed so we might feed others. We are blessed to be a blessing.

A Bit of Background

As part of your preparation for this session, read Exodus 16, in which God begins the daily blessing of manna from heaven for the people of Israel. Notice how the people begin complaining about their hunger as soon as the threat of the Egyptians is gone. If the situation weren't so dire, it would be comical: The moment the threat is gone, they realize their stomachs are rumbling. And then the histrionics start: "Oh, how we wish that the LORD had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt.... You've brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death" (16:3). Of course, God has other plans and begins providing for them immediately. John echoes this complaining when the Jewish opposition "grumbles" about Jesus.

Because this passage is related to the Christian experience of Holy Eucharist, someone in your group might ask a question about what exactly is going on in the Eucharistic moment. While exploring that topic is really outside the purview of this study, it might be helpful to have some vocabulary to use when the question comes up. The most honest answer is that no one knows for sure because it's a deep mystery. There are a few prominent understandings of the Holy Eucharist. The one that gets the most press is called transubstantiation, which is a fancy word for "something turning into something else." Adherents to this explanation believe that in the act of consecrating the bread, it ceases to be bread and becomes the true body of Christ. It still looks like bread because our perception can't see beyond the mundane. A second understanding of the Holy Eucharist is called consubstantiation, which is a fancy word for "something along with something else." Much like we believe that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine (that is, one-hundred percent of both, not fifty-fifty), the consecrated bread is one-hundred percent bread and one-hundred percent body of Christ. The one does not destroy or dilute the other; indeed, the presence of Christ makes the bread so much more than bread. There are other understandings, but this paragraph is already too long, so if this question dominates your group's session, I suggest inviting the questioners to talk with the pastor or schedule another study for this topic alone.

Where We've Been and Where We're Going

This passage follows on the heels of the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:1-15). The crowds who witnessed that miracle follow Jesus and his disciples across the lake and find him in Capernaum (6:16-22). In between, Jesus spends the evening alone on the mountain and then meets his disciples in the middle of the lake in the middle of the night. Jesus' second "I Am" statement comes during this midnight maritime stroll: He says to the disciples, "I Am. Don't be afraid." In other words, "God is with you, so you have nothing to fear." Jesus reiterates this promise to be present when he calls himself the "bread of life" the next day.

After our passage, Jesus deepens the discussion about being the bread of life, going so far as to say that his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood. Many of his listeners can't bear to hear these words, and they leave him. Afterwards, in one of the more emotional scenes in the Gospel, Jesus asks if the twelve also wish to leave him. Peter answers, "Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life" (6:68).

Words Worth Mentioning

In the overview above, we talked briefly about the "I Am" statements, but a few more comments are warranted. It is amazing to me that non-native speakers can grasp the English language when the most common verb in English has half a dozen forms that follow absolutely no pattern when the verb is conjugated. The verb, of course, is "to be." The confusion commences immediately when no one besides Hamlet ever actually says "to be" in a sentence. Rather, we say (in the first person singular, present, active, indicative) "I am."

In Exodus 3, Moses asks God what God's name is. God responds: "I AM WHO I AM." (Other translations of the cryptic response range from "I create what I create" to "None of your darn beeswax what my name is.") The awkward English rendering of the Hebrew preserves the root of God's divine name, which is the verb "to be" (hayah in Hebrew). When Moses asks God what God's name is, God responds with something like, "I have be-ing and I bestow be-ing and that's all you need to know."

In the Gospel According to John, Jesus places himself directly in the path of this tradition. Jesus doesn't keep his divine identity a secret; rather, he proclaims it by saying over and over again, "I Am." Jesus' statements of "I Am" help reveal the divine identity, which Jesus has come to make known. At the same time as Jesus is revealing the divine identity, he is also teaching us who we are. We have be-ing because God is the ground of that be-ing, so when Jesus reveals God's be-ing, we discover our own existence, our own lives. When Jesus reveals his divine identity, he reveals our identities, for our true identities rest in him. Indeed, we are because he is.

What the Other Three Say

While we didn't actually read the feeding of the five thousand for this session, that event serves as the catalyst for Jesus' discourse about the bread of life. The feeding of the five thousand is one of only a handful of stories that appear in all four accounts of the Gospel. (See Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17.) Interestingly, in Matthew and Mark, the event of Jesus walking on the water happens right after the feeding, as it does in John.

In the upper room on the night Jesus is arrested, John focuses on the foot washing rather than on the meal. In the same setting, the other three narrate Jesus sharing a meal with his disciples, giving them bread, and saying, "This is my body." In John, Jesus' statement "I am the bread of life," functions in a similar role as the Last Supper in the other three. (See Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20.)


Set Up the Learning Area.

__ Set up the equipment needed for viewing the DVD.

__ Arrange the chairs so that everyone will be able to see the DVD clip. Make sure to have enough chairs for everyone. Be sensitive to the needs of persons with physical challenges.

__ Set up a focal worship space. A pair of candles, a cross, and a Bible on a small table in the center of the room is just right.

Gather Needed Materials.

__ The Common English Bible, plus any other translations you'd like access to.

__ Bible dictionaries and commentaries.

__ Personal reflection guides, one for each participant in the group.

__ Paper, markers, pens and pencils, nametags, or other supplies.

__ Markerboard or large sheets of paper and markers.


Welcome the Participants.

__ Greet the participants as they arrive, and give a personal reflection guide to anyone who does not already have one. If you choose to use nametags, invite them to make one and to sit where they would like.

__ Invite two people to be readers for the session. Give each of them a Bible. Tell them to review John 6:26-51 in order to become familiar with the passage before reading it aloud in a few minutes.

Pray Together.

__ Pray the following prayer or one of your own.

Gracious God, you are the source of all true sustenance. Grant us the grace always to look to you for nourishment and to deepen our relationships with your Son, who feeds us with his continual presence. As we study your Word, give us curious minds, open hearts, and welcoming spirits, that together we may share the wonder of your movement in this gathering; all this we ask in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, who invites each of us to dwell in him as he dwells in us. Amen.

Introduce Unusual Gospel for Unusual People.

__ If this is your first session of the entire Unusual Gospel for Unusual People Bible study, read aloud the instructions about using the personal reflection guide in the section entitled "Your Unusual Book—Use It Your Way." Ask participants to doodle about the words unusual, unique, uncommon, and extraordinary in space provided in the reflection guide. View the DVD clip "Introduction to Unusual Gospel for Unusual People." Invite participants to write, draw, or doodle responses in the reflection guide.

Discuss the Daily E-mails.

__ If this is the second or third module of an eight- to twelve-week study, you will have daily content from the last session of the previous module to talk about. Do this activity instead of the introductory activity. Invite participants to share any thoughts, feelings, or questions they had about the e-mail content they received during the previous week. Notice around which topics the group's energy centers, and ask yourself how you might use those topics to transition into today's session.

Read the Bible.

__ Invite the first reader to read John 6:26-51.

__ Ask for first impressions from the group, but there's no need for a full discussion here. Invite participants to share a thought or feeling; or a word or phrase that gave them comfort or rubbed them the wrong way; or a question the passage brings up. Participants can make notes or doodle about the reading in the personal reflection guide.

__ Invite the second reader to read John 6:35-41. This may seem extraneous, but I assure you, participants will hear the passage differently even after a few minutes of sharing. Hearing it twice will also help them retain the content. Note the shorter passage the second time through.

View the DVD Clip.

__ Watch the DVD clip for Session 1. Invite participants to record insights gained from viewing the DVD in their personal reflection guides.

Reflect and Respond.

__ Depending on your group size, break into small teams of three to four people, or stay together for discussion. If you break into teams, be sure to leave enough time for them to report highlights of their discussions to the reassembled group. If people want to share what they have written in their personal reflection guides, allow time for them to do so. Do not pressure them to share, however.

__ Discuss the following questions, questions that emerged from your own preparation, and questions asked earlier by the group.

1. In the second reading of the passage, what words or phrases struck you differently than in the first reading? What words shimmered for you? Where is your energy in the passage? What inspires you, challenges you, or makes you curious?

2. Describe bread. What thoughts, images, or feelings come to you when you think of bread? How do these thoughts, images, or feelings shed light on Jesus' naming himself "the bread of life"? (Note: You may want to bring a loaf of crusty, bakery bread to the session to use as a focal image.)

3. What is your experience of the Holy Eucharist/Communion/the Lord's Supper? What meaning does it have for you as a follower of Jesus Christ?

4. When was the last time you felt yourself moving deeper into your relationship with Jesus? How did it feel?

5. As the bread of life, Jesus is a source of nourishment delivered via his constant relationship with us. When have you experienced the nourishment of his relationship? When have you felt distant from it?

6. How does a nourishing relationship with Jesus Christ help you provide nourishment and blessing to others?

Ignatian Questions:

__ Invite participants to imagine themselves as characters in the biblical passage. Address the following questions to the specific characters mentioned.

1. To a hungry listener in the crowd: When you realized Jesus wasn't going to give you any more actual food, how did you feel?

2. To a hungry listener in the crowd: Did you stick around to listen? If yes, what did you hear? If not, where did you go?

3. To Jesus: What was your sense of the crowd as you spoke to them? How did they respond?


__ Pray the following prayer or one of your own to close the session. You may also choose to use the group circle prayer described in "A Plan for the Weekly Sessions."

Gracious God, you are the source of all true sustenance. Grant us the grace always to look to you for nourishment and to deepen our relationships with your Son, who feeds us with his continual presence. Thank you for the opportunity to study your Word, share the wonder of your movement in this gathering, and be that movement as we depart into the world; all this we pray in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, who invites each of us to dwell in him as he dwells in us. Amen.


Session 2

"I am the light of the world" Turning to the Light (John 1:3b-5, 9-10; 3:19-21; 8:12; 12:35-36)


About the Bible Reading

Snapshot of the Lesson

The second unusual name Jesus calls himself moves past the physical to something even more fundamental to our lives than bread. Jesus says, "I am the light of the world" (8:12). This name first appears in Chapter 8, but the thread of the imagery of light and darkness weaves throughout the entire Gospel. So instead of focusing on one longer passage today, we are going to trace that thread through four chapters. And believe me, this is only some of the dark/light imagery. I wish we had time to look at it all.

What does being "the light of the world" add to Jesus' divine identity and our relationship to him? As John says in the prologue, light shines in darkness. Think of a candle flame illuminating a dark room: Have you ever seen a ball of darkness do that in a light room? Of course not. Light dispels darkness, and this is where John's use of the image takes hold.

For John's dualistic understanding of the world (see more in "A Bit of Background" below), God calls us to come to the light, thus choosing the "good" and leaving behind the "evil" done in the dark. Coming to the light necessitates a complete paradigm shift affected by repenting of deeds done in darkness. Repentance means "to turn around" or as the CEB has it, "to change our hearts and lives." So moving from darkness to light requires a full 180, a sea change, a re-turning along the path you originally traveled down. The good news is that the path of darkness immediately becomes the path of light when you turn around. The light of the world shines all the time; sometimes we face it and sometimes we turn away, but it shines all the same.

As the "light of the world," Jesus illumines all our tunnels, all our dark nights, all our wilderness wanderings. This light shines with Jesus' fullness, through which we receive "grace upon grace" (1:16). As the light warms our backs, this grace calls us to turn around and see all the good things of God—faith, hope, love, joy, forgiveness—made visible by the light. And traveling back along our once-dark paths, we realize what an insubstantial shadow of life we were living in our self-imposed exiles.


Excerpted from Unusual Names Leader Guide by Adam Thomas. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Adam Thomas was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 2008 at the age of 25, making him one of the first priests from the millennial generation. His unique voice in the faith community emanates from a combination of his youth, honesty, humor, and tech-savvy nature. Adam is a nerd and a gamer and a preacher and a follower of Christ. He serves God as the pastor of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Mystic, CT, writes the blog Where the Wind, and lives a hectic but beautiful life with his wife Leah and their one-year-old twins. His Abingdon Press resources include Unusual Gospel for Unusual People Series, Coverage: Who is Jesus, Letters from Ruby, and Digital Disciple.

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