Every three years, the Revised Common Lectionary, which is the fancy name for the cycle of Scripture readings we use in our worship, features these readings from the 6th chapter of John. Because the gospel writer John fashions the chapters of his gospel as single scenes or themes from Jesus’ ministry, with often one whole chapter devoted to a specific occurrence or teaching, we end up getting five weeks in a row of bread.
Well, that’s one way to put it. Really what we get is five weeks in a row of Jesus talking with various crowds and his disciples about the bread of life. It’s a fascinating and meaningful episode of Jesus’ life and teaching, but, used in worship so repeatedly, it does start to feel like bread, over and over again. It’s like going to a restaurant on several Friday nights only to discover the same bland thing on the menu. This theme actually began with our gospel offering last week. As some of you may remember, we heard the story of Jesus’ miraculous sign in which he multiplied five loaves of bread and two fishes to feed 5000 people. Those crowds follow after Jesus and his disciples and pretty soon this long conversation ensues about why Jesus performed that sign and what it all means. It will continue for a few more weeks…so prepare yourselves!
Here’s the funny thing: we pastors notoriously complain about these five weeks of bread talk. It’s like carb-loading, homiletically-speaking. If you think it’s bland to hear so much on one topic for five weeks, just imagine preparing sermons and choosing hymns for it. Nowhere else in the lectionary (that I know of) do we spend so much time on one chapter and motif. And, yet, as I reflect on it—on this overabundance of bread readings—there seems to be some wisdom to it, and maybe a bit of prophetic justice, too. Who am I to complain, for example, about five straight weeks of talking about Jesus as the bread of life when most of the world must subsist on nothing but bread? Who am I to demand some variety in church Scripture readings…or in the words of the hymns…or even in my own preaching…when most of the world has absolutely precious little variety in much of anything?
We live in a corner of the world where just about any amount of any kind of food we can imagine is but a five-or ten-minute drive away. Many, however, still live in places where the energy of each day is literally given to making sure the belly doesn’t grumble too loudly at night. The focus on bread here in our worship these weeks could, in fact, mirror the real world’s focus on real bread, spurring us to consider how we view food and how we might share from our abundance. Furthermore, a steady diet of the same thing might force us to come to terms with how necessary we really think Jesus is for life, or how central a choice he is on our busy menus.
You see, the people who followed Jesus in his day and age probably had the same type of relationship to food and bread as those who live in developing nations today. There’s rarely enough to go around, and you have to work hard just to get that. They encounter Jesus as he miraculously feeds a multitude—or maybe they just hear about it—and he is instantaneously popular. In fact, in the portion just prior to today’s reading, they try to make him king. He manages to escape that plot, but they track him down, no doubt looking for more bread. It is easy to understand their M.O.: if this man can provide it so easily, then they need to find a way to keep him around.
In fact, this whole episode reminds them of the days their ancestors trudged through the wilderness and survived on the bread their leader, Moses, provided bread for them. It was a constant, never-failing supply, this strange manna. They didn’t really know what it was, but they learned to receive it and live on it. Each morning they would walk around picking it up, using just what they needed that day because if they tried to collect more and save it, it would get wormy. The manna got them where they needed to go, a day at a time.
Granted, it was not always delicious. It was nothing like the sumptuous selections they supposedly fondly remember from Egypt, but the manna was always there, and they didn’t have to do anything to receive it, other than follow God’s instructions. And although they probably could not explain why, they knew it satisfied them.
So it appears to them that Jesus can provide the same kind of sustenance that Moses did, the same kind of hope for survival, but it also appears they are missing the point on at least two accounts. You see, Jesus has not come to give God’s people the kind of bread that Moses did. In fact, Jesus has not come to bring us bread at all. Jesus is here to be bread. God has rained him down on us from heaven so that we may have life. His words, surely, are something for us to live by, but it really goes beyond that. His actual life is what humankind longs for: that is, a perfect devotion to God our Father, as well as a pure compassion in community with each other.
Sin has left us empty, starving. Jesus will be the feast that fulfills us at all times and in all places…even when we betray him, when we turn our backs on him, when we look elsewhere for spiritual nourishment. The crowds want him to given them this bread always. On the cross, he will even die to make sure that will happen.
The second point they are missing is that they don’t have to do anything to receive this bread of Jesus. It is human nature to make faith into a work: to think that we must do something to deserve the goodness of God. In this case, the people want to know—thinking of their ancestors with those baskets—what they need to do for this bread to be theirs. Do we need to perform daily devotions? Come to worship each week? Perform a good deed each day? Say prayers every night? Get the kids in Sunday School? What can we do to ensure we’ll get our share? What’s our end of the bargain and how can we control, contain, commodify this bread that will never leave us hungry?
|The feeding of the multitude|
In the questions of the crowd, we hear our own deductions about how God works, that there is some hidden this-for-that that we haven’t considered. But Jesus promises them that’s not how his bread works. God simply provides it. Out of great love and a desire that we flourish, God provides his Son, that we may have life. Trust in him is what follows on our part—but it never depends on it. We don’t love Jesus and follow him for the things he can provide us. We are to love and follow Jesus because he alone is exactly what we need to truly live. Like the bread and the fish that multiply without explanation, life with this person is so much greater than without him, and we can’t always explain why.
The crowds misunderstood Jesus and the bread he gave and therefore wanted a way to keep him around so that he could keep on giving. Little did they know that he would find his own way to stay present, tangible, real, right at the heart of their community. They could gather and share another set of loaves. Again, inexplicably, he would be there, multiplying forgiveness and love like he did the night before he died.
We have just had a week where and awful lot of attention was given to eating. In this case, it two pieces of bread with a piece of chicken in between. Next week it will probably be something else. People assigned all kinds of social and political meaning to the decision to eat at Chik-Fil-A or to boycott their food because of the actions and words of the owner. Trust me: I am not going to wade into those dangerous waters today or any day and tell anyone which restaurants they should or should not patronize, but one thought did cross my mind.
Namely, what if people of God on all sides of any issue were not primarily known by their participation in or absence from a meal at a fast food chain, but instead by their association with this meal? What if people of faith on either side of this issue made a bigger deal about showing up for sustenance here, taking a place at a meal that reminds us all of true freedom? Forget about the social or political statements we make by eating or not eating at Chik-Fil-A. What about the bold statement you proclaim weekly that you come here and nowhere else for nourishment, for forgiveness, for hope? The world is often a wilderness, with people taking sides, pointing fingers, sitting in judgment, and looking in all sorts of places for the bread that lasts. Yet every week you line up to “eat more Jesus,” and declare to the world that the bread of life has been given for you.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.