PROPER 14 B
1 Kings 19:4-8, Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51
Jesus said to the people, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Coming as this does, shortly after the feeding of the 5,000, it’s meaning may seem clear. On the other hand, while most of us have never experienced real hunger or thirst, we know that some people have, even if they are Christian. So what is Jesus really promising us here?
Let’s start at the literal level. God fed his people who were wandering in the wilderness after their escape from bondage in Egypt with manna, a form of bread. Each morning the manna would appear and the people would gather it and eat, but they could not store it up for later meals, so they were totally dependent on God providing it each morning. All they could eat was enough.
Then we have the story from Kings today of God feeding Elijah in the wilderness. He received a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. Twice. And it was enough to maintain him for another 40 days in the wilderness. There’s that number 40 again – so do not get too literal about this. The point is that this God feeds his people in times of trouble.
And since bread was the staple food of the time, the word bread and the word food are often interchangeable. When Jesus fed the 5000 it was with bread and fish. In all of these examples the food is real and it serves the purpose food does for us: it sustains the bodies of those who eat. It meets their present need.
In the feeding of the 5000 we also get a message about the abundance of God, about how a little can become a lot, and maybe even about how sharing what we have can stretch small amounts into large ones.
But when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” he is not just talking about food for the body. He’s talking about food for the soul. To understand this as his audience might have, we have to go back again to the Jewish scripture.
In Ezekiel 34 the prophet says to the leaders of Israel, “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the sheep.”
And just in case you think the prophet is speaking literally, he goes on to say, “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
This passage makes it very clear that the metaphor of feeding is about more than just food. It’s about caring for your people, nurturing them, all the sorts of things Jesus tells us to do, and all the things he did for people and that God does for us.
Isaiah (40:11) uses the same metaphor: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” When Jesus says he is the bread of life, he’s talking not just about feeding us, but also caring for us in numerous other ways. Ultimately he is talking about the ability to live an abundant life, no matter what our literal circumstances may be.
As with bread, which represents food, which represents abundant life, the promise that those who come to Jesus will never be hungry or thirsty is metaphorical. Jesus is not saying that literally they will never experience physical hungry or thirst. Rather he is saying that they will be free of desire for stuff that doesn’t feed their souls. They will be free of seeking for more and more or whatever, whether money or fame or possessions or reputation.
I suspect that all of us have encountered people who are driven to chase after something so badly that they never have enough. They must continue to go after more, or feel that they are failures. This appetite is not about physical need, and to others it may be evident that they have more than enough, but they cannot be satisfied.
I believe that satisfaction can only come when we continue to ask ourselves, “What is enough?” and try to be realistic about it. I have a vivid, embarrassing memory about this.
I was visiting my cousins in southern Iowa one time, probably about 30 years ago. Joan fixed cold shrimp and served them in the sort of dishes you see in restaurants, where one bowl sits in another that has been filled with ice. I wanted them! Not to compete, but just thought they were so wonderful, cool, whatever. Eventually I bought a set of eight and put them in the cupboard. I have no idea now what happened to them, but I do know that they were never used. I often summon this memory when I’m trying to decide about what is enough, about what I really need versus what I want.
In our culture the word bread is often used to mean money. So to speak metaphorically, how much bread do you need? What kind of bread do you need? Especially in times of economic downturn, the fear factor enters into our considerations of money matters. This is understandable, but if we don’t recognize it for what it is, it can become a way of life – the habit of viewing the world through the lens of scarcity rather than the lens of abundance.
When Jesus offers us the bread of life, buried in the metaphor is the promise of a life of peace, which means a life without fear. This is hard to grasp and even harder to hold on to in a culture that is as fear-driven as ours is, especially since 9/11. When did gated communities become a standard part of our communal life? When did children quit walking to school? Or playing outdoors unsupervised? When did people start installing alarm systems or “safe rooms?” When did people begin to refuse to drive into the city or cities?
Walter Brueggemann, the OT scholar, claims that most of the 10 commandments are about creating a better neighborhood. I’d say that that’s what most of the teachings of Jesus are about too. If we accept the bread of life then we can live our lives as Ephesians suggested this morning.
“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
As one of the commentators noted, Christians should no longer need to protect their egotism with lies and so are free to speak the truth. They can surrender their pride, and confess their faults. Only in a fellowship of repentance and forgiveness can truth telling become fully possible.
At its best, that is what the church makes possible. And the ritual of bread and wine is a constant reminder to us that God, our shepherd, feeds us and encourages us to see and seek his kind of abundance. AMEN