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The Bread of Life

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Aug 05

Text: John 6:24-35

When I was a kid, I recall haggling with my mother at our kitchen table about different kinds of hunger. I boxed myself into a corner one night when I badly wanted dessert even though I had just declared that I was “too full” to eat more vegetables or the other healthy stuff on my plate. My 6 year old brain went to work on the conundrum. I managed to conjure a new anatomical fact that our appetites and bellies had different compartments. Parents in the house, I’m guessing you’ve heard this one before! My vegetable compartment was a full tank right up to my esophagus. Meanwhile, my dessert compartment was dangerously empty! This so-called “second stomach” tactic was as unoriginal as it was unconvincing, but even my mom had to give me points -if not a cookie- for using my imagination! In the end, it all came down to a major difference in what my mom and I considered to be genuine nourishment. My belly today may well be a sign that the struggle persists!

Humor me, if you will, and consider for a moment that a similar dynamic is at play in today’s reading from John. It follows last week’s passage about the feeding of the five thousand, that miraculous multiplication of 5 loaves and 2 fish to create an abundance of food for all, including the disciples. Jesus seems to grasp that the miracle of the bread and fish may have encouraged them to follow him for the wrong reasons—Stick with this guy and we’ll never again suffer from hunger. Whereas Jesus is preaching that if you stick with me and the God I serve, your condition of human suffering will have new meaning and purpose. That you will find a way of love throughout it, instead of being motivated to theft, war, vengeance or any other all-too-human reaction to suffering. Not that he’s saying all that in this passage, but I believe he’s trying to head them in that direction.

Bread is a powerful biblical metaphor. As one commentary notes, John 6 is the very “locus classicus [the classical place] for New Testament iconography of bread.” Bread is referred to in four different ways here: as loaves, as bread from heaven, as bread of God and finally as the bread of life. Jesus is teaching important distinctions throughout the passage.

Are they hoping for another free meal as they align themselves with the ancient Israelites and allude to Moses’ gift of manna, which after all perished after one night? Or are they hoping for a sign, something, anything to sustain them in their journeys of life and faith? Jesus makes it clear: Manna was not a gift from Moses, but from God. It’s not that edible “bread from heaven,” it is the “bread of God.” They seem to be grasping it when they ask: “What must we do to perform the works of God?,” as in ‘Can we labor for this kind of bread?’ Jesus presses them further still. "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me....Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life! He seems to be saying this is not about your work or your efforts, but about God’s. Well...then, “give us this bread, always” they say! But still they are asking for something to eat, and who can blame them, or anyone like them, who is “food insecure.” Jesus tries once more. “I am the bread of life! Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Ultimately, Jesus had compassion for the thousands of hungry bodies around him yet here he is not merely interested in feeding their bodies ,nor in giving them dazzling distractions or the instant gratification of perishable signs or munchable miracles. He wants to satisfy an inner hunger and he knows that the wonder-filled abundance of the loaves and fishes is just an appetizer, a starter, a taste of the everlasting goodness that God in Christ has in store. As with me and my mom at the dinner table, the tension may lie in a different understanding of what constitutes genuine nourishment - for body, mind and soul.

Consider what we consume that we think will fill us up and make us feel like we are living good and wholesome lives. Forget for a moment about our actual diets, for better or worse, or our media diets. Forget about the related systems of production, consumption and capitalism in which we all participate, like it or not. For now, I want to focus on that, call it mid-level hunger, we all feel to do right and to be a good person. At the start of our story, the disciples here are already following Jesus. Check! Let’s assume they are already on the right track— and so are we! After all, here at First Church, we crave opportunities to be part of something that is making a difference in our all too broken world. We crave and consume opportunities for making justice and making beauty, both here in this place and in our wider lives. Many of our plates are overflowing with an abundance of important causes to which we devote our time and money. And just when we think we are too full -we’ve had enough, thank you- we often find a way to stretch ourselves further to do even more. Whole parts of our selves, our church, our wider community, are nourished by these appetites and efforts. (And we keep looking for signs and miracles, for that “manna” to keep us going! Give us this bread, always, we say!) And yet, for us too, I wonder if there still some confusion. For some of us, even our best efforts to “own our privilege” or make it work for the good of others, can sometimes look a lot like we are trying to earn our privilege, and the “blessings” it affords. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” At the end of day, when we are honest with ourselves, our appetites to do right and be good can sometimes leave us depleted and feeling as if we too are missing something. These days especially, we may even wonder if the fruits of our labor are perishing, like that day-old manna in the wilderness.

Enter Jesus, not in the role of a prophet or a king, but as the revealer of wisdom. What if he knows we’ve had our fill of grains and vegetables, of doing right and being good? What if he is instead offering a deeper invitation to imperishable union and communion with God, a union that will truly sustain our labors with inner and everlasting hope and freedom, the ability to find joy even in the midst of despair and most importantly, the ability to keep loving as God is loving.

When the disciples ask: "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?,” their question anticipates the last supper and this very table, itself a living memorial to the way, the wisdom and the life of Jesus.

When I step back these days, I can sometimes find myself aware of that ‘second stomach’ of my soul, feeling as though the first one has had its fill after feeding that craving to live a good and just life. But there’s a new and different compartment that is increasingly seeking grace for myself along with grace for those from whom I can barely stand to hear another word. In my efforts to do and be a good person, however fraught, there is sometimes a dualistic clarity that creeps in. I’m right and they’re wrong. Even the important and necessary judgments I make about who are “victims” and who are “perpetrators” have been starting to confuse me lately. All of it, I think, is blocking my ability to taste of that grace-filled goodness, sweetness and joy. Jesus and God present us with a mysterious, hard to fathom road to always choose love no matter what is happening around you. This still means saying NO to the wrong, but also, being able to say NO in a way that considers the humanity of the others doing the wrong, including each of us. Call it our shared “perpetrator” humanity… So the point of this grace, and going to the communion table, is to touch again that mystery of how to eat up, drink in, and share God’s abiding love. Connected to God, to the communion of saints, to the LOVE commandment, only from there can we rest and renew and go back to all of our “changemaking efforts” in the way God wants us to, with true love for self and others. This is the only way real change will happen. I not only forget that this bread of life and cup of joy is for me, deeply flawed as I am. I also forget that it’s for everyone, even for those that my right self deems wrong, even for the perpetrators, even for the ones who would betray us, as Judas betrayed Jesus. He was there at the table too, however bittersweet that must have felt! Yet how can God’s joy be complete, let alone our own, if we exclude parts of ourselves or deny any member of our human community a seat at the table? Allow me to close with a story from my recent sabbatical.

In Berlin, as part of my research on how others are remembering and owning their histories of racial and xenophobic terror, I visited almost 20 different memorials. Each one offered unique lenses and sober, profound lessons. Of the many questions I came away with and that I’m still wrestling with: At what point do we consider the humanity of and mercy for the perpetrators, and how can challenging our victim-perpetrator dualisms break the cycle of a new kind of scapegoating, shame, and violence? These questions may be way too much to ask a holocaust victim to hold, but surely it’s not too much for God? A relatively small scale and out-of-the-way memorial that I saw on my last day there stood out to me in this regard. It seems almost tucked away, on a relative side-street and in the corners of a small urban park. It’s called the Rosenstrasse Memorial. The victims it recalls are 8500 Jewish men who worked in a nearby factory and who were deported and killed in 1943. It also remembers the heroic acts of hundreds of non-Jewish women, some who were married to these men, who protested in the streets after the men were jailed but before the deportations began. They saved hundreds of men, who were released because of these women’s actions. In one corner of the park is a statue dedicated to the Rosenstrasse women. In an opposite corner is another statue, though part of the same memorial. It’s of a man who is sitting on a park bench and looking past the women, as if to not even notice them. One explanation is that he is there to commemorate the fact that Jews were outlawed from using park benches. Another interpretation is that he represents the role of a bystander. I was at once disturbed and deeply moved by his presence, by the fact that the memorial made room to include him. His presence held a paradoxical warning: On the one hand, “Don’t be a bystander,” on the other, “We are all bystanders.” Of course we are all bystanders at some level to the human evil and suffering that is within and around us. Why do I tell you this now?

This table is itself a public remembrance, a memorial meal, rooted in tragic suffering and death, yet transformed by the gift of that sweet, inner grace-filled bread of life to everyone - good and bad, saint and sinner, victim, perpetrator and bystander. Take and eat, Jesus says, to Peter, to Judas, to you, to me, to everyone. That deep of a gesture of love and grace - one that cuts through and finds mercy for every internal and external dualism and division - is exactly the kind of tender, healing love and, yes, joy that I find myself craving now more than ever. I’m wanting to taste it as badly as my six year old belly wanted for that dessert! Christ is here; Christ is now, offering our souls the profoundly sustaining nourishment we need. God is raining this grace down within us constantly and it is imperishable! The bread of life, the cup of endless joy. A new community and communion of all-inclusive love.

As you approach the table today, please consider all the different dimensions of your hunger! Come to the table with a little faith or a lot, but believe - or act as if you believe - that here you can find a taste of whatever your heart needs most. Hope. Healing. Love. Joy. Laughter. Peace. It may not look like much, these outward signs, but their inward and invisible grace abounds. Come with all compartments open! Come with patience (after all, this is a practice). Come to this table and taste the very bread of life! Amen.

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