John 6: 24-35
Sunday, August 5, 2018
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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 we do to 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 ate the 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.
One of the responsibilities of being a minister is not one that most folks would choose. In essence, you voluntarily relinquish being just James or just Alison, and become instead an official face of the church. You are held to a higher level of scrutiny. And that means that how I live at the gym and the grocery store and walking my dog matters. Alison and I represent you to the world. It’s a privilege and an awesome responsibility and sometimes a pain in the behind, because sometimes our messy humanity gets in the way despite our best intentions.
Here’s a case in point: a few years ago, I went into a deli right across the street from the church I served in Manhattan. It was completely chaotic in there, as it was on most days for the lunch rush. I made my way through the crowd and ordered something simple: two scrambled eggs on 7-grain toast. And then I waited for it to be made. And I waited and I waited and I waited. Most of the time this would not have bothered me as much as it did, but on that day, I was really hungry. I was so hungry, in fact, that I had the shakes. That happens sometimes when I don’t eat. I get weak and dizzy and nauseated… and yes, grumpy. Finally, when I felt like I couldn’t wait anymore, I went back to the counter and the same man who had taken my order looked up at me as if he had never seen me before. “Where is my egg sandwich?” I asked. He turned and asked the cook where it was. They went back and forth with each other, looking inside the bags that had already been prepared with other people’s lunches, but to no avail. In the chaos of that place, they had simply forgotten mine.
“Oops” the guy said, “so how do you want your eggs?” --“How do I want my eggs?” I asked. “15 minutes ago, that’s how I want my eggs. But I don’t want them anymore.” And out the door I huffed, a fine representative of the church!
I probably wouldn’t have been so huffy had I not been so hungry. Hunger can drive any us to do some things that might otherwise be out of character for us. It might make a minister act unministerial. Our bodies are programmed to be fed on a regular basis. And when they are neglected, things can get desperate.
But for most of us, it’s a temporary inconvenience. But for about 800 million other people in the world, the results are much more drastic. Those people don’t have enough to eat to sustain their lives on an on-going basis. Of that number, about 16,000 children will die today from hunger-related illnesses. In this world of plenty, it’s a moral outrage, worthy of God’s judgment.
Despite these grim statistics, modern people still have it better than ancient ones did. There were more hungry people, per capita, in Jesus’s day than in our own. That fact helps to set the scene of last week’s Gospel lesson about the hungry crowd pursuingJesus to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. You will remember that Jesus took a little boy’s five loaves of barley bread and two fish and fed 5000 hungry people in a world where people were often hungry. No wonder they wanted to make Jesus king. But Jesus didn’t want to be their king. He didn’t come to this earth to be a king. And so he escaped them by fleeing up a mountain. And what a desperate picture of desperate people that paints – a mob literally chasing the Lord up a hill.
Jesus escaped, but these desperate folks hunted him down and eventually found him in the town of Capernaum. “Rabbi, when did you come here?” they asked. And Jesus, who could be a bit cheeky sometimes answered: “You’re not looking for me because of the signs you saw or the teaching you received. You’re here because you want more food.”
Well, yeah, Jesus. And what’s wrong with the hungry looking for food? And why shouldn’t they look for it from you since you had miraculously supplied it?
There was nothing wrong with these folks looking for food. There was nothing wrong with asking Jesus to give them some more food. It’s just that Jesus understood that a full stomach was not all they needed. We humans are more than our basic needs. We’re hungry all right, but not just for bread. We’re hungry for purpose and dignity and meaning.
And so, Jesus used this teachable moment to tell the people about another kind of bread. “Don’t just workfor the food that perishes,” he said. “Instead,workfor the food that endures for eternal life.” And then Jesus said a rather strange thing about that work is: “The work of God is to believe in me.”
And at first glance that seems like a plain invitation to believe in Jesus. And we do receive spiritual sustenance from our trust in him as Savior and Lord. Jesus is, for us, the very Bread of Life. But that’s where a lot of Christians stop. They think that simply believing in Jesus is enough. But Jesus was not really talking about we believe, in our minds, about him. When Jesus said that the work of God is to believe in the One whom God has sent, the Greek word for believe is “pisteuo”, an active verb which implies not only to have faith, but to give evidence of that faith, to do something that expresses that faith in the world. And that’s a Mediterranean way of thinking – faith, not merely as intellectual assent, but faith as commitment, loyalty, and solidarity. It is faith expressed imitation. So then, the bread that we work for is to believe in, that is to imitate Jesus Christ. And in that imitation, our starving spirits are fed.
Do you see what Jesus was doing? He invited these people that no one else cared about to a richer, fuller kind of life. Jesus took those poor, hungry, uneducated, desperate people and invited them to do what he did; to reach out to the least, the last, and the lost; and to feast on purpose and meaning and dignity for the perhaps the very first time in their lives. Scholars say that one reason Christianity took hold the way it did was that it challenged the class structure of the day by insisting that everyone was equally important. And no one had said that before. It was revolutionary. It still is.
And that begs the question: how do we share the Bread of Life that Jesus offers - the bread of dignity, meaning, purpose, and respect in 2018. How do we share that food with the hungry as individuals and as a congregation?
And that brings me right back to that grumpy preacher in a New York deli. I thought about that deli guy this week and I wondered: what might it have meant for that tired, overextended man to have been greeted, not by my anger, but by my understanding for his tired feet and his homesickness and his struggle with a new language? What if I had smiled and looked him in the eye like an equal and said “No worries.” What if I had fed him with some respect and dignity? How would that have changed him, and me? And how then might that have changed the way he responded to the next person in line?
In just a moment, we will come to this table where the Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing await us all. It is a time for us to come close to Jesus, the Bread of our lives. And it’s a time for recommitment to do the things he did; to literally imitate him in everydayness of our lives. That’s the bread we all need. And it endures for eternal life - for those who give and those who receive.
Thanks be to God. Amen.