Sunday, September 5, 2010

Good Bread (John 6:24-35)

So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must be we do perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us, then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors gave us manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from Heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This past Sunday evening, Ashley came over and we set out to find something to eat. Sunday is obviously a big work day for both of us, neither of us are ever in the mood to cook anything, and we are more than happy to grab something quick and cheap.

It was about 7pm, and what did I want? A fresh made sub from Harris Teeter. That’s all I wanted. Simple, cheap, easy, tasty. I often want a sub from Harris Teeter on Sunday nights, perhaps reminding me of Sunday nights growing up when Dad would often pick up subs from Emil’s following Sunday night programming at church. For whatever reason, around 7 or 7:30 on a Sunday night, I want a sub. I should also know by now that Harris Teeter’s sub shop closes at 7, because on more than one occasion I have driven over, walked toward the sub shop, saw the person cleaning up and thought, “Dangit – they close at 7!”

Not deterred, my problem-solving skills were called into play. I remembered Sub Station II up here on South Boulevard, I’ve had plenty of sandwiches there, and so we victoriously drove across Dilworth, pulled into the parking lot, walked around the corner, and saw their posted open hours expired at 6.

Well now, I was starting to get frustrated. We went back to the car, I sat there for a minute, and then it hit me. My GPS is great at finding all sorts of restaurants, surely it would know where we could get a sandwich! I pulled up the restaurant listing, and sure enough, it listed a Jersey Mike’s in the 1400 block of East Boulevard, just 1.1 miles away.

Now, I drive up and down East Boulevard all the time. I didn’t remember a Jersey Mike’s in that block, but you know that you can drive past something for years and not even know it’s there. Besides, GPS said it was there, and when has GPS ever gotten it wrong?

3 minutes later I confirmed that there is not, in fact, a Jersey Mike’s in the 1400 block of East Boulevard. So, we pulled up GPS listings again, and chose another sandwich shop back over by the Dilworth Harris Teeter, pulled in the parking lot, and were greeted with yet another “CLOSED” sign.

It was now 45 minutes and 3 miles from my home when we first asked, “What do you want to do for dinner tonight?” and we decided to just grab something quick, cheap, and easy. I had no idea it was so difficult to get a sandwich in this town after 7 on a Sunday!

Ashley, ever the one with uplifted spirits, said, “Well, what else do you want to do?” to which I quickly replied, “Hmph, I just don’t care.” By now, Ashley understands this to be code for “My blood sugar is low and I’m beginning to get cranky,” so she gently and effectively persuaded me just down the street to Moe’s, where we treated ourselves to wonderful burritos.

By the time it was all over, it felt like a great quest for food in the wilderness, which is exactly where we meet up with Jesus, his disciples, and a crowd of hungry followers in today’s Scripture reading. It is a day after Jesus has fed the multitude on the side of a mountain next to the Sea of Galilee, which was the story we looked at last week. Out of nothing and in the middle of nowhere, Jesus had performed a great sign, multiplying five loaves and two fish into a great, abundant feast that fed the people to the point that they were full and wanted no more.

But that was yesterday. Today, the people woke up out of the inevitable food coma produced from eating so much the day before, and now they’re hungry again. They get into boats and head across the sea to find Jesus. The Sea of Galilee is small – a lake, really – but it still takes a little bit of effort to get over there to find Jesus.

Can you imagine the conversations in those boats on the ride across the lake? “Mom, I’m hungry! Aren’t we going to get breakfast first?” “Don’t be silly – we’re on our way to find Jesus. He’s our meal ticket, now!”

They find Jesus, they ask him when he got there, and in typical Jesus fashion, he dodges their question, refuses to answer it directly, and instead gave them an answer to a question they didn’t ask. Jesus says, “I know your game! I know what’s going on here! You’re not here because you’re really interested in me, per se, you’re only interested in what I can do for you! So long as I can meet what you’re looking for, you’ll keep coming looking for me, but I know what you’re up to. You’re hungry again, and you expect me to magically fill your belly again just like I did yesterday.”

Have you guys ever watched one of those hot dog eating contests where “champion eaters” compete head-to-head to see who can stuff the most processed beef and pork product down their gullet without ralphing it all back up on the table? Do you know how these champion eaters train for their “sport?” They eat. A lot. As with any training program, it gets progressively more intense as the event draws closer. So, in the days before the competition, do you think these champion eaters starve themselves so they will be famished by the time of the competition, or do you think they eat the greatest quantities of food in the days immediately prior to the event?

They gorge themselves in the days leading up to the competition for one very obvious reason. The stomach is muscle, and like any muscle, it is flexible and can be stretched. It has great capacity for expansion, and the greatest way to expand its capacity is to keep eating and stretching it out, eating a little more and stretching it further, again and again and again until you max out its capacity. If it has been stretched to capacity immediately before the competition but is empty right when the contest begins, they stand a good chance of being able to live every mother’s dream for their son by stuffing 60 or 70 hot dogs in their face.

But the next day, I am willing to bet that they eat regular normal meals again, because food perishes. What fills us and satisfies us today can easily be gone tomorrow.

In our Scripture reading, when the crowd was hungry, they came looking for Jesus to feed them again. Jesus knew that they were just looking for more of the bread that perishes. Jesus says “Stop chasing food that perishes.” Instead, work for the food that endures for eternal life.

Jesus says it is God in heaven who gives us the true bread from heaven. The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. We join the crowd in saying, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Back in the 4th Chapter of this Gospel, a woman at a well asked Jesus for the water that never ran dry, and here the people ask for the bread that brings life to the world. And Jesus reveals himself to be that bread with the promise that those who come to him will not hunger. Those who believe into him – who embed themselves in him, who abide in him, who give their whole selves in trust to him, who are in total solidarity with him – will not thirst.

The author of John’s Gospel doesn’t want us to read or hear these stories on their own, but as part of a larger story, one that resembles several we’ve heard before. This is one way that the author of this Gospel wrestles with the profound question of Jesus’ identity, and what it truly means to have faith in him.

Bread here refers not only to actual bread, food represents more than just the actual food we place in our bodies. Food is a metaphor here, representing all those things we strive after, work for, and fill our lives with, yet we often find that even when our lives are full of these things, we remain empty on the inside.

As I look out over the landscape today, I see that we are in search of food in a wilderness of our own as well. People in our world are either desperate for food at all, hungry each night and hoping for relief, or else we have all the food that we can eat with leftovers, yet our lives are curiously unfilled, or unfulfilled. The rich say to the poor, “How can you still be hungry? There is more than enough food for everyone in the world!” The poor say to the rich, “How can you still be hungry? You have so much already!”

Could it be that Jesus words to those chasing him across the sea those many years ago still have truth today? I think it is no small coincidence that many of the colloquial phrases we have for money have, at their root, an association with food – bringing home the bacon, putting food on the table, putting cheddar in your pocket, making dough, bread-winner. Jesus puts a tacit warning label on the bread that perishes, the breads and foods of the world, the things that we think will fill us up but we find are anything but nourishing. “Work for it all you want,” he seems to say. “Just know that all these things are never going to fill that deepest hunger in the pit of your being.”

I think we all fight the temptation to keep consuming bread that doesn’t satisfy – accumulating property, amassing wealth, new cars, new homes, new clothes, new toys, new hobbies, new pastimes, new social circles, new drugs, new amusements, new activities – but these things don’t fill that pit, and indeed, all they do is create a vicious cycle: the more we get, the more we want, and we find our appetite keeps getting bigger.

And, perhaps you’re like me. Sometimes I think that God is there to help me obtain these things. My prayers can be self-centered instead of God-centered, a laundry list of what I want – things, possessions, security, feelings, experiences – and not often enough do I pray for my will to be conformed to Christ’s. Not often enough do I say, “Change my heart, O God.” Not often enough do I pray for God to change my appetite and replace the taste in my mouth for food that perishes with the taste of food that endures for eternal life.

Perhaps you’re like me. I come to God with all my worldly hungers and appetites, all the vain things that charm me most, and I don’t give them to God. Instead, I ask God to give me more, just like the crowd who had their fill of the loaves, I want more of the bread that perishes, and I resent it when God responds by saying, “You come to me with your wish list for all these things, treating me like some genie in a bottle or blessing vending machine. You come to me with all these wants, when all along I’ve been offering you exactly what you need. Instead of asking for more, how about you just go ahead and take what you need!” Then again, perhaps that’s just me.

Friends, there is a comprehensive menu around us of food that perishes, but Jesus offers us an alternative. True enough, he often meets us exactly where we are, for the crowd that was hungry, he provided a miraculous provision of a feast of bread and fish, but that meal was a sign. It pointed beyond itself to a deep truth about Jesus – a truth we should make a staple in our diet, feast on constantly, and find ourselves nourished as disciples of Jesus the Christ. Jesus continues to tell us the same truth: he is the bread of Life. Whoever comes to him will never be hungry, and whoever believes in him will not thirst.

The words are words of promise – but they are also words with challenge. People were attracted to Jesus by the gift of bread to feed their bodies. That attraction caused them to seek and find him, expecting more of the same. Instead, Jesus offers something bigger, bread and fish, yes, but something bigger, something more – less easy to grasp and understand, but something which will, in the end, be infinitely more satisfying.

Do you remember hearing this phrase as you were growing up? “You are what you eat.” This produced no shortage of humorous mental pictures for me as a kid, but there is a truth that rings through it. Because, what you eat becomes part of you. If you eat nothing but junk food, all the sugar and fat and nutritionally bankrupt calories in that food become part of you. If you eat fruits and vegetables, their vitamins and minerals become part of you. Now, we all love junk food – it tastes great, it makes you feel good in the moment, it temporarily seems to satisfy hunger. But in the long run, it doesn’t lead to life more abundant, but to a life that fails to fulfill its full potential and is riddled with complications of disease and stress. A life full of nutritious food may not have much appeal at the beginning – flavorless and bland compared to the sugar and fat-laden junk food, but over the long run, it is the path that leads to greater health and vitality, a much more abundant life than we’d ever get by filling up on nothing but junk food.

Jesus’ words here are both a challenge to our natural appetites and an invitation to develop a different appetite.

You are what you eat, and what we eat is intrinsic to our appetites, so if we eat the bread that perishes, we will develop a greater hunger for the bread that perishes and continue to demand more of it and be satisfied with less of it, and this perishable bread will become part of us.

But if we feast on the bread of life, we will develop a greater and greater hunger for the things that are truly from Jesus. We will seek those things that are consistent with Jesus, and our lives will be satisfying and full, and Jesus, the bread of life, will become part of us.

How do we know if Jesus has become part of us? Again, you are what you eat. You’ll know that Jesus has become a part of you if live like Jesus – if key character traits of Jesus are evident in your life. Jesus said a tree would be known by its fruit (Luke 6:44), and fortunately for us, elsewhere in Scripture we find a list of the fruit of the Spirit – the evidence of Jesus dwelling within each of us, the evidence that Jesus is a staple in our diet and has made himself at home in the depths of our belly. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul tells us what a Christ-filled life looks like: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).

And, rather than looking for the evidence of these fruit in the lives of others to determine if Jesus dwells within them, if they are actually feasting on the bread of Life, let’s each simply focus on ourselves. I’ve got enough places where the crop in my own life is thin; I’m hardly in a position to point out what I perceive to be the deficiencies in others.

One place we find the bread of Life is here in the elements of bread and wine, consecrated in the community of Christ-followers, they communicate the real presence of Christ to us. Jesus is present in a particular and unique way every time we celebrate this feast, this Communion, this Eucharist together; this is a place Jesus promised to meet us.

This fall, we are beginning a new worship experience on Wednesday evenings – a weekly service of prayer and Holy Communion at 6:30. It will last half an hour, but that very well be the most important half-hour of your week as you reconnect with Christ in a place he’s promised to meet you, and in so doing build better relationships with others who are doing the same.

We call this meal a Sacrament – an outward sign of an inward grace – a tangible pledge and promise of Christ’s abiding presence with us. We call this meal a means of grace – a direct line through which God comes to each of us on our journey: inviting us closer to God regardless of how distant we are, accounting us right before God when we feel out of step, and shaping our appetites more toward the things of God so we can live Christlike lives. All of that happens every time we celebrate Communion, making it one of God’s greatest gifts to us.

Jesus is the bread of Life. Both the gift and the giver are one in the same! The table is set and the invitations are sent, and I guarantee there’s a place for you at this table.

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