Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 14B/Lectionary 19] - August 9, 2015 (John 6:35, 41-51)

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

Jesus makes a lot of very bold claims about himself, but these promises about no longer hungering and no longer thirsting are some of the most impressive. No longer being hungry? Never again being thirsty? Really? It all sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, doesn’t it?

On the one hand, you and I can be pretty sure, I think, that he’s not talking about a physical hunger of the body or of a thirst that’s felt in the mouth, but I wonder how these bold words are heard, for example, for those who literally do not have enough food, for those who must travel miles to get clean water, for those who must send their children to bed most nights with grumbling stomachs? Do they feel that Jesus has satisfied some hunger within?

What about those who have some type of emotional hunger? What about, for example, people who thirst for another person on this planet to befriend them honestly and fully, those who hunger for companionship, or those who thirst for some type of closure to a pain or regret that still lingers. Are they supposed to feel as though Jesus satisfies that longing, too? Is the presence of Jesus somehow expected to fulfill those deep crevices of the heart?

Perhaps, then, we say, Jesus is talking about spiritual hunger. That is, the terms hunger and thirst here are metaphorical, not physical or psychological. Jesus, as the bread of life, satisfies a particular hunger and thirst of our spirit. Like bread to people in a first century, middle-eastern economy, Jesus is a staple intended for daily intake which we receive into our souls. In this sense, then, Jesus is enough, and will quench the spiritual longings we experience.

That sounds fine on many levels, but, then, what about that feeling some have—maybe even you—that there are things about Jesus that don’t compute, or that don’t answer all the questions they have about life, death, and the important things in life. We take Jesus, we say we know him, but deep within we still find ourselves at times grumbling and complaining like the Israelites in the wilderness, like the crowd of Jewish leaders who don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. We hear and worship Jesus, but sometimes we still feel an emptiness that one may describe as hunger.

There’s a line in one of U2’s most famous songs that voices this perfectly. The song itself is written almost like a creed. The singer states in simple form things he knows to be true about his life, things he’s achieved. And then, right at the end, he mentions his relationship with Jesus:

“You broke the bonds/
And you loosed the chains/
Carried the cross of my shame/
Oh my shame, you know I believe it.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

It’s been a magnificently popular song in large part because it gives voice to that spiritual hunger anyone might deal with, even those who are so sure of what Jesus has done for them. There is a sense that each of us may know and trust Jesus, but sometimes we still feel ourselves searching, wandering. All this is true, and yet Jesus’ words still hang out there in the air for us to deal with:“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.”

The people Jesus is talking with in this morning’s lesson, the Jewish leaders and the crowd of people who are tracking him down after his sign of multiplying the bread and the loaves, are familiar with the story of bread from their ancestors’ lives. They would have remembered the story about ancient Israel’s hunger in the wilderness and how God provided them bread from heaven, called manna. And when they thought about that bread they would have thought about something that could be collected, possessed, passed out. When the next day’s hunger came, they simply went about getting more manna, picking it up, claiming it as their own.

One of the differences that Jesus, the bread of life, wants them—and us—to see is that he is not something that can be picked up, collected, owned. Jesus doesn’t say, for example, “Whoever has me will never be hungry” or “Whoever possesses me,” or “Whoever has asked me into their heart” will never be thirsty. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me.”

In fact, what he says to those crowds is a perfect echo of the first words he ever speaks in John’s gospel. When the first disciples asks Jesus where he is staying, Jesus responds, “Come and see.” “Come” is a word of invitation, a word of ongoing relationship, a word of friendship. Jesus means to offer himself a little differently than God offered the manna. He has been given by the Father to draw people in. Faith in him is a process, then, not a moment or a single event. It is ongoing, not once and done. It involves coming to him, learning to believe, seeing over and over, sometimes more clearly than others, how we are made a part of his body, and if a part of his body, then an individual that will be raised to eternal life.

At some point we begin to understand that with Jesus, God has begun to address the main hunger we each deal with even though we may not admit it: It is the hunger caused by our mortality, our separation from God through death. It is the hunger caused by our fear that God is not with us in suffering, the thirst that our poor souls will cry and not be heard by the Lord. And on the cross, that hunger is truly satisfied. That thirst is fully quenched.

In the first congregation I served I spent a good bit of time eating with a small group of women who formed the last living core of what used to be a large WELCA circle. About once every three months I’d drive them in my car down to Mary Lux’s house, which was in a community about 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh. Sometimes we’d pick up Mary, age 92, and take her with us to a little Italian restaurant called Woody’s, but every once in a while, especially when the weather was nice, the women would actually make lunch ahead-of-time, pack it in porcelain and Tupperware containers, and take it to Mary’s and we’d eat a little picnic together on her back patio.

And as I sat there and listened to these 80 and 90-year-old women share food and talk, I began to notice that they usually prepared dishes that their late friends had been known for, recipes that had been shared by friends in their circle who were now deceased. Leah would pick up some dish on the table and, taking a spoonful, would ask, “Oh, is this the chicken salad that Martha used to make?”

“Yes,” Helen would answer. “That’s her recipe.”

At the table on Mary Lux's back patio, preparing for communion (c. 2005)
And if it wasn’t Martha’s chicken salad the next time we got together, maybe it was Betty’s cornbread, or Gladys’s lemon bars. I bet if they tasted it with their eyes closed it was almost as if Martha, or Betty, or Gladys were there, the sweet memories of decades of women’s luncheons and church picnics, baptism parties and funeral dinners flooding from the past into the present. And as they broke bread, as they ate, they found the friendship still nurturing them, the hunger and thirst of communion with their friends satisfied, at least until the next time they gathered and passed those dishes around. It took several of these visits to Mary’s before I realized that I was receiving a better lesson on Holy Communion than I’d ever received in seminary. On Mary’s simple backyard patio, we were being drawn each time to the presence of those blessed relationships, and food was filling far more than a physical hunger.

At the worship conference Kevin Barger and I attended last month in Atlanta, one of the presenters encouraged us to think about the ways in which our worship is or is not addressing the world’s hunger for community. It is a form of community that government can never offer.

It is not even the kind of community that family can offer. Does what we do here bring about an encounter with the God we trust so that that trust is strengthened? Those questions are good to ask, but just when my mind started to spin out into all kinds of thoughts about music styles and liturgy and preaching and reading the Bible, the presenter got very concrete: “It is to a table,” the presenter said, “that worship draws us.” Indeed, Jesus doesn’t say, “I am the good, helpful thoughts of life.” He says he is the bread of life. Mary, Helen and Leah demonstrated that. It is to a table, away from the distractions of the world, where God intends to assemble us and remind us that his grace is about a relationship, not possession.

It is around a table that we gather, sharing and praying with one another and for another, even as we complain about world and its ongoing suffering. It is around a table that God draws us extending that invitation to all people again and again: Come to me. Come and see.

And around this table we pass the bread and cup and remember that the body was given up for us and that the blood was poured out for us. We do these things and we remember, yes, that he’s broken the bond and loosed the chains, carried the cross of our shame. And, by the by, as we taste and see these things a hunger begins to fade away. We are drawn once more to a God that loves and forgives and feeds us forever.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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