TEXTS: John 6:24-35
I have a confession for you. There are times when I just don’t get the Common Lectionary.; and we are in the midst of one of those times right now. Two weeks ago the gospel lesson centered upon the feeding of the five thousand in our core gospel, the gospel of Mark. Last week the gospel lesson was centered upon that very same feeding miracle as it is told by the writer of the gospel of John. And now this week, AND for the next three weeks, we will deal with the aftermath of the feeding as John continues with exchanges between Jesus and the people in a way that the other three gospels do not, since for John the whole business of bread becomes much more than a central item in the daily diet of the people. For John bread is a symbol. All I can say, folks, is that by the time we get to the end of August, you are going to know all there is to know about bread, physically and symbolically, or you’re going to be so discombobulated by it all that you won’t be able to tell a loaf of rye from a saltine cracker!
So, very briefly, here is where we are in John’s story. Jesus has fed a great crowd with just a few loaves and a couple of fish. Jesus has escaped the crowd as only Jesus can and has gone to the mountain by himself. The disciples have headed back to their home base at Capernaum by boat. Jesus walked on water to join them, scaring the disciples to death. The people searched for and found both Jesus and his disciples in Capernaum and are mystified at how Jesus got there. And now we get one of John’s classic conversations, again offered as only John can, where Jesus and others seem to be talking past each other.
We begin with the question posed by the people, “When did you come here?” which many Biblical scholars believe has two sides to it (again because we in gospel John). The first side is purely physical, “We saw only one boat; we saw the disciples row away in that boat without you. How in the world did you get from there to here without a boat?” The second side is much more existential and is related to earlier questions that we have encountered in the gospels, “Who are you?” “Are you just a man with some special talents?” “Are you an angel from heaven or one of the prophets reincarnated?” “Are you truly the Messiah?” “How did you get here? (And by here we are not talking about geographic location, but rather, “How did you come to be?”) It’s a sort of, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” question (for those who are old enough to remember that tune) where “all” doesn’t simply refer to things happening in front of you at the moment, but rather a whole universe of things; all as in everything; all as in the whole universe and maybe even beyond the universe.
Whatever the case, the people asked the question and Jesus, in his typical Johannine exchange style, answered the question with a statement that seems to be completely off base. The people wanted to know how he got there; and Jesus answered that the only reason they were looking for him at all is because they got their fill of bread and fish, and not because they were able grasp in the least the greater message that he was trying to get across!
This had to have been a source of constant frustration for Jesus throughout his ministry; trying to get people to grasp the big picture, the heaven and earth picture with the emphasis on the heaven part. Meanwhile the people are absolutely fixated on their immediate physical conditions. They were drawn to Jesus not because he had the power to enlighten them about God but because he filled their bellies, healed their sick and injured and cast out the demons that accosted them. And friends, I get that; I understand how the physical reality of our lives and our immediate condition often takes precedence over greater concepts and especially concepts of the divine.
Many of you have seen me wear a little black brace on my right hand. I use the brace to stabilize the joint at the base of my right thumb. That joint has the ability to give me some dandy pain from time to time. At the root of the whole business is osteoarthritis, which I have suffered from for decades. This past Wednesday I saw a hand specialist to discuss my options (options that I already knew). It was decided that we would begin with a cortisone injection in the joint itself. As Dr. Lopez suggested, the injection hurt like the dickens when it was administered, then calmed down quickly because of the anesthetic that was in the mixture, and then came back after a few hours. By Wednesday evening I was in a pretty high state of agony. I will tell you in all honesty, if Jesus himself had walked into our home that Wednesday evening to share the good news of the Kingdom of God with us, I would have worked very hard at being attentive and hospitable. But what would have been central in my mind? ”Hey Jesus, I know that you can work miracles. Do you think you could do something about my thumb here?” “Never mind all that Kingdom of God and eternal salvation business, can you fix my pain?”
As we read on through today’s passage from the Gospel of John, we see Jesus continually trying to elevate the consciousness of the people and the people never really able to rise out of the mire of their immediate situation. “Do not work for food that perishes; I will give you food that endures.” says Jesus. “How do we get that food?” says the crowd. “Believe in the one whom the Father has sent to you.” “What sign can you give us so that we will believe?” And then the people fall right back into the whole physical food business, “You know Jesus, Moses gave us food in the wilderness.” “No, God gave you food in the wilderness, and God gives you something now that beyond physical food.” “Sounds good, give us some of that then. In fact, give us that food forever!” And I have to believe that they were still hearing their own stomachs rumbling through the whole conversation. They were still stuck in the physical world and in their physical needs and physical desires.
The question for us today, for you and for me and for all who profess faith in God Almighty through Jesus Christ our Savior, is “Have we evolved beyond John’s depiction of crowds confronting Jesus here is John’s sixth chapter?” Can we grasp the enormity of the message that Jesus is trying to communicate even today just as he tried to communicate it to people of Galilee nearly two thousand years ago? Can we see that he is indeed the ‘bread of life’ which sustains us even through our physical deaths to life eternal in God’s realm, God’s eternal home? Or do we simply want our fill of the loaves? Are we driven only by our rumbling stomachs or our throbbing thumbs, or even by our greed and our incessant desires? And this is a greater question than simply are we willing forego an offer of one potato today for sake of a promise of a whole bag of potatoes at the end of the week. This is not simply a problem of delayed gratification, but rather a problem of where we center our entire being!
Neither can we simply ignore our physical condition or the physical condition of the world around us. My pain this past Wednesday was quite real; real enough to keep me up most of the night, and no amount of prayer or meditation or positive thinking, no amount of concentration on the Kingdom of God and eternal life was going to make that pain go away. As the writer of the letter of James notes in the second chapter, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill.’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” Physical hunger is real. Physical pain and suffering is real. Mental and emotional anguish is real, and as the people of God, sisters and brother of Christ our Savior, we must do all that we can to address such challenges in our personal lives and in the world around us.
AND, we are also a people of the gospel of the promise of Jesus Christ, which means that we must also strive personally for the greater awareness and proclaim that greater awareness to anyone and everyone who will hear us. We have that opportunity here each and every Sunday as we share in the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Eucharist. That little wafer of bread that for centuries no one has ever been able to get to taste much better than piece cardboard; that little dram of wine – this morning no more than a few drops clinging to that cardboard wafer, are not enough for us forego lunch or even to avoid that cookie or doughnut and cup of coffee and the end of this service. They will not sustain us physically. But on a greater plane; in the divine arc of the reality of God’s eternal Kingdom, they have the ability to, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “address a hunger that not even the blue plate special can touch!”
So come, let us share in the one who is and will ever be the Bread of Life. Amen.