PROPER 14 B
1 Kings 19:4-8,
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.
Last week we heard Jesus say to the crowds who followed him after the feeding of the 500, “Very truly, I tell you, y ou 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. . .”
Jesus knew that many came for more free bread, but each literal feeding only lasts for a day.
But when Jesus says today, “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. It’s about all the sorts of things Jesus did for people, that he tells us to do, and that God does for us.
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 of whatever, whether money or fame or possessions or reputation or food.
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. 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.
Living life by the precepts Jesus taught is more satisfying and more meaningful. Building strong relationships is more sustaining to our souls than building a strong stock portfolio. Helping others and sharing what we have is more satisfying to our spirit than climbing over others to get ahead. Building a better neighborhood, community, or country is more significant than building a highly profitable business that makes its profit off the backs of its employees.
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 millionaires get bumped from the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans because there are now so many billionaires (I think it was 80 some millionaires who did make the list this year!)?
I know a woman, now in her eighties, whose husband was president of a huge bank in Minneapolis. He died at 55, about 30 years ago. His salary was less that $100,000 per year. Top executives today make millions. What does a person do with that much income? Does anyone, whether bank president or football player, deserve that much salary, especially when so many more people are falling into poverty?
Warren Buffet, one of the billionaires, defies all the stereotypes of Wall Street barons. He lives simply, he is giving away most of his money, and will not leave millions to his children for their own good.
So – how much bread do you need? How much bread is enough? Imagine winning the lottery and decide what you would do with the bread. Would it help you to live a more abundant life?
As you receive communion today and go forth to another busy week, ponder these questions for yourself. Remember that 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 God’s kind of abundance, a life of peace, love, joy, and gratitude. AMEN