It’s hard to find a straightforward, simple conversation with Jesus in the Gospel of John. Nicodemus tried that late one night and ended up talking about being born again or born from above and how do you do that when you’re a grown man? Or, the Samaritan woman at the well, who was shocked when Jesus asked her for a drink of water, out there in plain sight, in public, and he ended up talking about giving her living water, so that she would never be thirsty again.
And now here, in this morning’s reading, the crowd comes to Jesus because the day before he had just fed five thousand of them with five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus knows they’ve gone to great pains to find him–gotten in boats and crossed the Sea of Galilee– because they think they’re going to get another free lunch,–and who doesn’t want that?– but he also knows that they’ll never really feel full, never be satisfied, with that bread. “Do not work for the food that perishes,” he tells them, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God has set his seal.” Understandably, genuinely, they ask him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” and Jesus answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one whom God has sent.” They refer back to Moses, who gave them manna to eat in the wilderness, but Jesus reminds them it wasn’t Moses, but rather, God who gave them bread and is giving it right now. “Sir,” they say, “give us this bread always,” and Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
These are not transcripts of tape recordings of the words coming out of Jesus’ mouth, but rather over half a century’s distillation and interpretation of teachings and experiences with the One who reveals so much of God that his face and his voice have become the very face and voice of God for John’s community. Who Jesus was and is for them is the very embodiment of the Wisdom that keeps the Chaos Monsters at bay; that gives them strength and hope in the midst of persecution and peril; that reassures them that even in the face of suffering and death, Love abides in and with and among them, able to bring life in abundance, even beyond death, deeply weaving them together and into the very fabric of creation.
Indeed, it could be said that John’s whole gospel is a discussion of who Jesus is and what it means to have faith in him. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says in John’s gospel, intentionally using that phrase “I am,” which was the name God told Moses to use when referring to the One who sent him. “I am who I am.” “I am light in the darkness,” Jesus says elsewhere in John, “I am the gate to safe pasture, I am the good shepherd who sacrifices self for the sheep, I am the resurrection and the life who conquers death, I am the true vine, I am living water that quenches your deepest thirst, I am the bread of life that satisfies your deepest hunger.” “Sir, give us this bread always,” the crowd says. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water,” the Samaritan woman says to Jesus at the well. Where can we find that bread and that water?
The people who came to Jesus looking for bread were no doubt hungry–the empty stomach, never having enough kind of hungry. There are children in Haiti and the Sudan and third-world parts of our own nation who cry themselves to sleep each night because they are hungry. They eat dirt to ease the pains, and then end up with more pain. “There are people in the world so hungry,” Gandhi said, “that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” We must not hear Jesus’ saying, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry” as a dismissal of our responsibility to feed the hungry, to work for systems that assure that all people have enough to eat. In fact, in the research to find out as much as we can about the historical Jesus, it is his insistence upon sharing table fellowship–real meals– with everyone, his radical inclusion of all without regard to status or ability to contribute, that stands the test of time. It is what distinguished the early Christian communities from other groups–that they fed not only their own poor but the poor of the city. For Jesus, there was no split between spiritual hunger and physical hunger. “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
But he knew how to feed all those hungers. We, too often, mis-identify our hunger and try to feed our hungers with all sorts of things that will always leave us wanting. Mother Teresa said, “There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.” “Money, sex, war, fame and power are only a few ways that we try to fulfill the deepest desires of human nature,” one commentator writes. Shopping, gaming, eating, drinking, drugging, and other addictions are other ways. Perhaps you have your own personal method for filling that ache in your soul.
The French mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote that our insatiable desires are like an abyss that must filled, but can only be filled by God. “There is a God-shaped hole in each one of us.” Augustine famously wrote in his Confessions, “Thou has made us for Thyself; and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” “I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
“Believing in” was and is not just an intellectual agreement, like “I believe that the earth is round,” or “I believe in the force of gravity.” It doesn’t matter whether you believe in gravity or not. It simply is, and you can live your life taking it into consideration or not. The only thing is, if you choose to jump off a building in defiance of gravity, you will no doubt simply prove its existence when you end up in a lifeless heap on the ground. “This is the work of God,” Jesus said, “that you believe in the One whom God has sent.”
“Believing in,” or really “into,” as the word implies, was more than intellectual in Jesus’ culture. It meant loyalty, commitment, solidarity. “Believe into me. Stick with me, no matter what.” It was the social glue.” (John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Year A)
So what does that mean for us? “What must we do to perform the works of God?” What does it mean to “stick with Jesus?” Well, for one thing, Jesus would be quick to say that it is God who provides the bread and Jesus is the conduit. It is really “believing through” Jesus in God, if you will. It is really the work of God, that is, what God does, to “stick with us,” to “believe into us.” Regardless of what we do, God is for us. Believing that, like believing in gravity, allows us to align ourselves with that power, with that sustenance, with that healing, with that connection.
What we come to believe into through Jesus is that we are all connected, all inter-dependent, and all in relationship with God. When we live apart from that reality, that promise, nothing will satisfy us. When we live into that reality, “aware of our connections with God and one another, every meal is Eucharistic,” as Bruce Epperly writes. “Connected with divine abundance, there is no need to horde; no need for injustice, manipulation, or marginalization. We experience the peace that comes from connecting our well-being with the well-being of others, not only our community but the whole universe. Nourished by divine bread, we become large-spirited, having the mind of Christ that embraces the body of Christ not only in the church but in the world–in all its wondrous variety.” (Adventurous Lectionary, 8/5/12)
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said, with all the layers and nuances of what “bread” means for us. A religious community of sisters who live on a farm, producing food for themselves and others, wrote this affirmation of what they believe this means for them.–
The heart of our participation in the furtherance of the adventure of Life is food. We understand that we arise from and are held within the arms of a Eucharistic Universe; all energy exchange is costly–individual life is given, in part or in whole, in order for other individuals to sustain life for a time. This is a holy, sacrificial and sacramental exchange that we honor and celebrate, and which is clearly reflected in our Christian heritage. At the same time, eating is a joyful experience, suffused with thanksgiving and celebration. As we partake of the great banquet of food offered by Earth, we enjoy the delights of this bounty.
(Melrose Customary, cited by Suzanne Guthrie in Soulworkfor 8/5/12)
“This is the joyful feast of the people of God.” We come remembering those who are hungry for bread to fill their stomachs. We come, perhaps more aware of what our hunger really is. We come, living out the reality that we are all part of one loaf, which is a gift of God. We come for the Bread we need, and pray that we might also become the bread God needs to feed all God’s children. Come, let us keep the feast.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark