I enjoy eating.
In fact, over the course of my life, I have actually made eating a habit that I repeat a number of times throughout the day. In fact, if I don’t “feed” this eating habit, a few times each day, my body reminds me of the negligence.
And I know that I am not alone.
To the contrary, the activities in this church attest to the same conviction. Many of our gatherings include food, not only for ourselves, but also for the thousands of people who come into this church, throughout the year, for a good meal (in passing, if you have not yet volunteered to help cook or serve at a Tuesday morning Out of the Cold breakfast or a wintry evening’s Monday night Out of the Cold dinner, you should. You’ll come to a deeper level of understanding of how God blesses this place).
But enough of that.
We’re here at church, and supposed to focus our attention on the Bible.
Today’s suggested reading from the Gospel of John centers our reflections on a fairly common scene in the early and middle chapters of the Gospel accounts. A crowd of people were seeking to find Jesus so that they could hear what he had to say, and benefit from his wonder-working power to heal and transform people’s lives.
The disciples were there, as well, both listening for what Jesus had to say…and, as so often happened, fully and completely misunderstanding him.
In a previous scene, the crowds had been miraculously fed, their physical hungers satisfied. And they wanted more.
Jesus knew that – but he seemed to state a concern that the reason why they were coming to him — that is, because he had fed their physical hunger – was not quite as important as the deeper significance of what he had come to do, and what he wanted to do for them.
As he himself stated, “very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
He knew that they enjoyed eating, and wanted more food. But Jesus wanted them to want more.
And Jesus suggested that what they really needed – what all of us really need, and what he was both willing and able to provide – was a different kind of sustenance, a deeper satisfaction.
“Do not work for the food that perishes,” he said, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
They were being called to believe in, and to place their trust in the one who had come to give them what their souls were truly hungering for.
I, said Jesus, I am the bread of life.
I am the bread of life.
We sometimes forget that the image of bread is more important, in the Jewish and Christian spiritual traditions, than we sometimes fully ponder. Not only does one of the central sacraments of the Christian faith involve the breaking and sharing of bread during the celebration of communion, but in that most famous of all of the prayers of our faith, we are invited – and actually instructed — to pray that God would “give us this day our daily bread.”
Jesus’ subsequent words in today’s passage about the ancient story of the giving of bread to the people of Israel while they were on their long journey in the wilderness only serve to reinforce his intentions.
Most of you will remember that story. The people of Israel had been led out of Egypt in the time of Moses, but rather than finding their way, quickly, to a liberated existence in that promised land flowing with milk and honey, they had found themselves, instead, wandering in a bleak and seemingly God-forsaken wilderness. They did not have enough water, they did not have enough food, they did not know the way, their supposedly divinely appointed leaders — Moses and Miriam and Aaron — certainly seemed to have no clue about what they were doing or where they were going, so the poeple grumbled and complained. Had God led them astray? Had their leaders failed them? Had God forsaken them?
And to prove that point — again and again — they were invited to learn to trust. They were invited to see God’s power at work on their behalf, even in the most desperate of circumstances and situations. Water flowed out of a rock; they were guided by a cloud by day and a fiery pillar at night; they were saved from poisonous snakes; they received the Ten Commandments while they were encamped at the base of Mount Sinai – which provided a moral compass that has yet to be proved irrelevant; they were provided with quail to eat; and – in light of today’s reflections – the people were blessed with a strange snowy bread-like substance, six out of seven days, that they called manna.
As such, “give us this day our daily bread” – and “I am the bread of life” – were not phrases uttered in a spiritual vacuum. Rather, they were clear and explicit references intended to remind the people of God that God was willing and able to meet people’s needs, and provide for their needs – as the people of Israel had been provided for — on a daily basis.
But the way that the manna was given to them was also meant to be a lesson for them. The manna, their daily bread, came to them each day, and they were invited to only collect up enough to satisfy their needs, that day. If they collected more than a day’s worth, the surplus that they collected would go bad by the next morning.
Which meant that the gift of manna was not only to satisfy their physical hungers – it was meant to teach them, and to remind them, that the God who cared for them, who guided them, who provided for them, who walked with them today would also care for them, guide them, provide for them, and walk with them tomorrow. Each day, they needed to trust in God, and each day, they would be provided with sufficient reminders, and sufficient provisions, to help them to realize that God was worthy of their trust. They could live and continue their journey in the confident, joyful trust that each day, they would be given manna, each day they would receive the bread that they needed to live.
And the people to whom Jesus spoke knew that story.
Which means that when he said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” he knew that they would know what he was saying.
And what he was saying was this – those who heard him, and responded to him, were being invited to a daily faith, to a daily trust in the One who can, and does, and will provide for the very deepest of each one of our needs.
Which is always an important message for us to ponder.
After all, there are times when we relegate faith to certain moments, certain times, certain ritual occasions. We go to church, on a fairly regular basis, or we focus on our faith during certain moments in our lives, certain moments that are set apart from the regular, daily activities of our lives.
But when we find ourselves doing so, it can be good to remember that eating – and manna – and Christ’s presence – is not meant to be a rare activity. In fact, to expect that our spirits, our Christian discipleship, can be fully nourished by focusing on it for an hour or so on Sunday morning is about as ridiculous as thinking that eating once a week is going to keep us healthy.
We need to eat on a daily basis. Sort of like the people of Israel, in the wilderness, needed to do. And sort of like what Christ invites us to do.
After all, he did not say, “I am the gourmet meal to end all gourmet meals.” Or “I am the meal after which you will never need to eat again.” Or “I am so incredible that you only need to eat, once a week, at 10:30 or 11:00 on a Sunday morning, depending on your congregation’s chosen preferences.”
Nope. What he said was this — I am the bread of life. And the sustenance that he was offering to them was offered to them each day, every day, in every moment of their lives.
Which, for me at least, is a tremendous consolation. After all, what Christ is offering to us is his presence not just during times of solemn, worshipful, ritual gatherings, nor only at certain times in our lives.
Rather, what he was offering to those who accept his gift is the promise that we can turn to him, and be fed by him on a daily basis – and that he would provide what we truly need, to the very depths of our souls.
Most of us need to be reminded of that promise, at least from time to time. We can get so caught up in the tasks and activities of our lives, in the vocational and leisure pursuits that we embrace, in the stresses and frustrations of life, in the joys and challenges of our existence that we can neglect that which is most important to the sustenance of our souls.
And what is most important is this.
Christ is the bread of life. And he wants to feed us with what our souls most desperately need, so that we can be strong for the journey, faithful even in the wilderness, trusting throughout all of the changing seasons of our lives.
Which means that each and every day, we are invited to take time to draw upon the presence of the living Christ in our lives, the One who is the bread of life, and who can feed us with that which will sustain us not only through the trials and tribulations, the joys and challenges of this life, but into an eternity beyond our imagining.
I am the bread of life, said Jesus.
And for that, what else can we say, but this.
Thanks be to God.