The Rev. Dr. Ross McGowan Wright
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 5, 2018
Text: John 6:24-35
Think for a minute about what food means to us. Consider all the levels of meaning that we attach to food. Food is fuel. You probably ate something this morning before coming to this service. After sleeping for seven hours, you woke up and your body told you that you needed fuel for the engine. You may already be thinking about what you will eat for lunch today.
Food is a source of comfort; we talk about “comfort food.” Food is an expression of culture. There is a commercial by the Viking Cruise Line with the tag line: “At Viking, we know that one of the best ways to get to know a people is through their food.” The camera pans to a woman wearing traditional Austrian or German garb, opening an oven, and pulling out a steaming loaf of freshly baked bread.
Food brings people together. After a long day of work, you come home tired, depleted, and cross. But then you enjoy a meal with someone you love. Maybe you share in the preparation of the meal. And as you do, you are restored. Some years ago, I had a meal with an American who has lived in Israel for several decades. He told me that in certain middle eastern cultures, sharing a meal with someone establishes a bond that lasts for a lifetime. Of course, meals can also be a source of contention: there can be arguments about who does the cooking and who does the cleaning up; about how food is to be prepared; about who eats first and about how much we eat. We bring ourselves and our relationships to our meals.
One way to appreciate what food means to us is to go without food for a while. One of the benefits of fasting is that we discover how we have been using food to fill the empty places in our lives or to relieve anxiety. When we no longer have food to tamp down those needs, we become more acutely aware of our anxiety or about the empty places. Through fasting, we discover the living Christ as the source of our deepest needs. Through fasting, we learn the meaning of the scripture: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). You will remember that Jesus quoted this text to the tempter during his forty day fast in the wilderness. After fasting for forty days, the tempter says: “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” The fact that Jesus’ first recorded temptation was about food reveals the significance of food in the Christian life.
Recently, I read the spiritual writings of the early monks and the desert fathers on the matter of temptation. I was surprised to discover how often they write about the temptation of gluttony. You might think that temptations about sex or pride would be at the top of their list. But they frequently write about how becoming sated with food dulls the life of prayer.
So, food is fuel for the body. We turn to food to provide comfort when we are hurting and to fill the empty places inside. Meals are a source of entertainment; they provide opportunities for human community. We bring our selves – our identities – to the meals that we share with others.
With this in mind, we turn to the most the most famous theological discussion of food in history: Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse in the Gospel of John. When we left Jesus and the crowds last week, he had miraculously provided food for over five thousand people in a remote mountainous area in Northern Israel. This miraculous sign is crucial for understanding who Jesus Christ is for us and for the world. It is the only miracle in Jesus’ public ministry that is recorded in all four of the Gospels, and the discourse which follows is one of the longest recorded teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.
Following the miracle in the wilderness, Jesus leaves the crowd by boat and joins his disciples on the other side of Lake Tiberius – about six miles away. But shortly after he arrives, he discovers that the crowd has followed him, walking along the shore of the lake. This sets the scene for the Bread of Life Discourse, which consists of a teaching by Jesus and a vigorous debate as Jesus is sharply questioned by the crowd. It has all the verbal cut and thrust of an spirited interview on Firing Line or Face the Nation.
At the beginning of the exchange between Jesus and the crowd, it becomes clear that the crowd has misunderstood the meaning of the miraculous sign. Jesus tells them (to paraphrase): You have witnessed a sign, but for you, it is nothing more than food for your body – food that perishes. You have experienced the sign, but you have not grasped the meaning of the sign. Jesus concludes this first round of the debate saying: “Do not work for food that perishes but for food that endures to eternal life.”
We are amphibious creatures. We have been created to inhabit two worlds simultaneously. We are created for this world: to breath earth’s air; to dwell in a body, which is created from the earth; to eat food from the earth. The Christian faith blesses the life of this world: because God has created this world and our bodies, they are good. And yet, God has created us for another world, the world of eternal life. He has created us with a longing and an ache for this other dimension of life. Eternal life includes life on the other side of the grave, but it begins now. God has created us to breathe the air of eternal life now; God invites us to eat the food of heaven now.
Jesus Christ is the food that endures. Our Lord’s provision of the bread and fish points beyond the miracle itself to a whole new way of life; a new order of being, which is eternal life; abundant life. The purpose of the Bread of Life Discourse is to help us recognize the difference between food that is for this life only and food that nourishes the life of God in us.
Jesus asks the disciples, “‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’” Andrew says: There’s a kid here with five barley loaves and a couple of fish – but what good is that for a crowd this size? In others words: We don’t have enough.
Where in your life right now; do you feel that you do not have enough? Where do you find yourself saying: There’s not enough time. There’s not enough money. I don’t have enough energy. There’s not enough love. Not having enough of something is a lousy feeling. It makes us anxious. The fear of not having enough is part of our instinct to live. We want to have enough to flourish. We want to use the resources that we have been given by God so that we can really live. We don’t want to be like King Nebuchadnezzar: “Weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
But God has enough for us. He is the God who created us and who created this beautiful world. And because he is Lord of his creation, he gives abundantly. Jesus not only feeds the multitude; he provides enough that when everyone has eaten their fill, there are 12 baskets of food left over. At Cana, when he turns the water into wine, there is more wine than the party can drink. He is not a God of scarcity but a God of abundance. His life never runs out.
So, where are you lacking? Where are you fretting because there is not enough? You know, your instinct is right: you don’t have enough. Jesus says to us: what you have is not enough. But it does not need to be enough. It was never intended to be enough. There is only One who is enough: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the bread of life. He is the God who creates something out of nothing. He raises us from the dead. We have come here this morning empty, needing to be filled; tired, needing to be renewed; dead, needing to be raised to new life.
The risen Christ stands with us. He has given us the sign of the loaves and the fish to reveal his power to give us life – through the bread of his teaching and through his flesh, which is real food. He can give us life, because he is the life of God who has come down to heaven to live among us. So taste, and see that the Lord is good. And I stand before you like the woman in the Viking Cruise Line commercial: Here is spiritual food like a loaf of freshly baked bread. Don’t you want some? Aren’t you hungry?