If you’ve been coming to church the past few weeks, you’ve heard two sermons from 1 Samuel on King David: a terrific one from Tricia Dykers Koenig last week, and one from me three weeks ago. King David was a wily rascal, a power hungry kind of political guy, who more often didn’t live up to his privilege as God’s chosen servant. But one of the great things about being the preacher is I get to decide what I’ll preach on. So, I decided that I had enough with old King David for now. As interesting of a character that he is, I thought we might need a break from his complicated life.
So we are in the Gospel of John. We are with Jesus today. But we can’t dive into our passage this morning without backing up. The feeding of the 5,000 on the hillside above Capernaum near the Sea of Tiberias or Sea of Galilee comes before our story. (I want those who went to Israel this past winter to conjure up images of these places. You remember the beauty of that lake and the green mountainside? You remember the city of Carpernaum where the synagogue stands from the 5th century?)
The Gospel of John has juicy details – John is really good about giving some additional images in his stories that the other gospal writers don’t all have – and in the feeding of the 5000, he includes this young boy who brought two fishes and five loaves forward for the meal. So, with the blessing that Jesus gave to this meager lunch brought forth in generous love, the food was multiplied, and after all their stomachs were full, 12 baskets of leftovers were collected. A true miracle. Now some scholars suggest that the miracle might have been that others saw the generosity of the boy and slowly took out of their own cloaks and pockets, the meager lunches that they had brought along and started to share their lunches also, which was a miracle as well – the not hoarding. But whatever the “real” miracle was, the writer said it was a miracle. It was a sign. And for John, it was a sign that Jesus was the divine one sent from God.
After the feeding of the multitude, Jesus slips away as he was often known to do. The disciples climb in their boats, as they were known to do, and go looking for him. The familiar story of Jesus walking on the water is not that important in this text. It’s there, and it’s significant, but it really doesn’t make a big splash (no pun intended) in John’s narrative.
The crowd does see that Jesus is not with the disciples who climb out of their boats on the shore. And so they too climb into their boats and go racing over to Capernaum looking for Jesus. They are relentless.
When they find Jesus on the other side of the lake, they ask him, “When did you get here? Where did you come from?” Jesus calls them out. He calls them out on their motive to have more food, more bread. See, these were the people at the feeding. And they followed him, looking for the one who filled them once, and who might do it again. So Jesus gets right to the point: he makes clear the kind of bread they seek will not fill their lives, just their stomachs. It’s the kind of bread that does not stay with you. It leaves no lasting transformation.
I do want to pause here so that we can be clear that the longing for bread that fills the stomach is clearly not a bad thing, And Jesus was concerned with the feeding of stomachs. Filling the stomach is deeply connected with filling the soul. In fact, therapists who work with eating disorders – overeating or under-eating – say that the struggle over food can point to an emotional hunger that goes much deeper. Food becomes the way to suppress the pain inside us – through indulging it or denying it.
The writer Frederick Buechner, who always has just the right words to get at the heart of the matter, said this about hunger: “To eat is to acknowledge our dependence – both on food and on each other. It also reminds us of the kinds of emptiness that not even the Blue Plate Special can touch.” [Buechner, Wishful Thinking]
Our desire for food, or our resistance to it, speaks of a restless hunger that knows not how to fill itself. You know how you get when you get home from work and you are so hungry that you go frantically searching the cupboards or the fridge for that impulse food, that filler food? We all have our impulse foods that we are shoving in our mouths before our brain kicks in. Mine is tortilla chips. I’ll have downed half a bag before I come to my senses. (I wish carrots were my impulse food, but it’s not…it’s tortilla chips.) “I know I want something… I just don’t know what it is I am seeking.”
Well, here we have this desperate crowd searching for something beyond themselves and they try to find Jesus to get him to produce it for them. Buechner also said, “To be lonely…is to have something missing which you cannot name.” [Buechner, Wishful Thinking] That restless hunger, that emptiness, that you can not name but you know you have to fill it.
Of course, physical hunger as well as emotional hunger is with us and it’s true that we are in a global food crisis. It’s harder for most of us to know that living in our country. The June National Geographic has an article on the frightening rise of world wide hunger and the horrifying reality of diminishing grain. As nations grow in their prosperity, so their animal food intake grows. And with a more meat-centered diet comes the need for more grain. “35% of world grain is used to feed livestock instead of humans… It takes up to five times more grain to get the equivalent amount of calories from eating pork as from simply eating grain itself – ten times if we’re talking about grain-fattened U.S. beef.” [Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute] So physical hunger is real and God is very concerned, and the church will need to be more concerned about, physical hunger in the days ahead. We all will.
The crowd asks Jesus, “What must we do to perform the works of God? Are we to feed the people on the hillside like you did back there?”
Our response might seem obvious: “The work of God is to feed the poor, to feed the hungry.” And it is.
But Jesus answered, “This is the work of God – This is the work of God that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” That you believe in God whom He has sent. That’s the work of God.
Belief is not an intellectual assent to a doctrinal truth. Belief means we put our trust and faith in God through Jesus. Belief is a verb. It’s an action. It’s a commitment. It’s loyalty, and solidarity. [Pilch]
I talked with a friend who was in the Bible and Bagels group that meets on Wednesday mornings – they were reading this passage – and she asked: What is the difference between being a follower after Jesus – like those in the crowd – to becoming a believer in Jesus?
The famous preacher, Fred Craddock, writes this so well, “When told that the work of God is faith in the one God sent, they [the crowd] still want to be in charge, even of faith itself. ‘Show us a sign, we will see, we will weigh the evidence, we will draw the conclusions, and we might even decide to believe.'”
We become a believer when we risk putting our life into the hands of a trustworthy God. Belief is a verb.
“So what work are you performing?” they asked. “Moses gave us manna to eat.” Are you like Moses?”
And Jesus thought, “Oy vey! It wasn’t Moses who gave the bread; it was God! The manna pointed to the Giver. Now God has sent the living bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
The manna sent daily from God to the people in the wilderness, as you may recall, spoiled daily. There was no hoarding that bread. But Jesus, in great contrast, never diminishes. He is the bread that lasts eternally, the Alpha and the Omega. His life gives life, his body gives nourishment.
In many languages, “bread” is the same word for “food.” In lifting out the most common and necessary image of what is central to our lives – bread or food- Jesus revealed our central need for him, the living bread.
And like the crowds, we find ourselves longing for something of permanence, something of substance. I read the review in yesterday’s paper of the new Adam Sandler movie, “Funny People.” The description of the main character is that he had all the signs of outward success but when he had to face a medical crisis, he realized his soul was empty. He had nothing of substance in his life. He had the food that perishes. The story line is a spiritual one. What do we have that goes deeper than outward signs of accomplishment which are like bread that perishes?
In place of genuine bread, we are prone to partake of pitiful substitutes. Each of us must discern what we are substituting for real bread in our own lives.
Each person carries “the ache-of-not-enough from long ago” as one writer put it. I can guess that the ache probably comes from our childhoods. Some are more profound than are others, but nonetheless we all have them. The liberating news is that our unmet hungers do not have to control our lives. We are not defined by or reduced to our wounds, our hurts, or the ache inside.
Jesus told the woman at the well that he was the Living Water and anyone who asks will never be thirsty again. Here he says he is the Living bread and anyone who partakes shall not be hungry again.
Men and women, young and old, are longing for an authentic relationship with God. An engagement that is authentic enough to feed their souls, not just for one or two meals, but for a lifetime.
When people come to us looking for bread that can truly fill, we cannot offer them only donuts.
Theologian and social critic, O. Benjamin Sparks, writes, “What we have to offer in Christ and by Christ and because of Christ – first and foremost – is ‘soul food,’ which lasts forever and does not change with the changing circumstances of the church or the world. It is soul food we desire, and soul food in which we will rejoice, long after our bellies our full…and our lives know justice in a free society.” Sparks goes on to ask, “[Has the church] become good marketers rather than true witnesses”?
In John’s gospel, Jesus says that he is “I AM” alluding back to the moment when Moses encounters the burning bush and received his new vocation – to get God’s people out of Egypt! “You will show the Pharaoh signs that prove my power,” said the voice from the bush. When Moses asked him, “When the Pharaoh asks who has sent me, what shall I say?” God answered, “Tell him ‘I AM’ sent you.”
Seven times Jesus said: “I AM.” “I AM the bread, I AM the light, I AM the gate, . . . the good shepherd, the resurrection, the way, the true vine.'” Jesus always used common metaphors genuine to people’s lives. Beneath the metaphors is the claim to be the source of all life.
Jesus promises today to feed people’s deepest hunger and to quench the thirstiest thirst. The church doesn’t have to have all the right answers to all the questions people ask – we need to offer the One we trust who does. If your neighbor is hungry, feed him. If your child asks for bread, would you give her a stone? Of course not. As one theologian put it, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”
Men, women and children are longing to hear that there is bread for their restless hunger for their bellies as well as their souls. This is the good news to share: our deepest hunger can be filled. It can be filled by the One, Jesus, who was given as a gift of God to the people of God; to you and to me as the bread from God who gives life, and gives it abundantly.
Believe the good news…and share it.
Thanks be to God.