Saturday, August 01, 2009

"We Want More!"

A sermon on the gospel lesson for Ordinary 17, Yr.B

John 6:24-35

by rivkah

“There was a name in nineteenth-century China, and perhaps all over Asia, for persons who came to church because they were hungry for material food. They converted, were baptized, joined the church, and remained active members as long as their physical needs were met through the generosity of the congregation. But once their prospects improved and they and their families no longer needed rice, they drifted away from the church. Hence, missionaries called them “rice Christians.”[i]

Obviously this is not a new phenomenon. Ever since Jesus miraculously fed the 5000 seated on the hill, he has had this crowd of people following him around, rather like a pack of stray dogs hoping for some stray crumbs to be dropped. They are fixated only on where their next meal will come from. Rather odd, wouldn’t you say, for people who had just witnessed such a miracle as the one they themselves were part of. “But these were the ones who saw the feeding miracle as an end in itself rather than the sign it was meant to be...”[ii]

They don’t realize that this miracle points to something beyond itself. Upon first witnessing the miracle feeding, they want to haul Jesus off and crown him king. THIS was what they wanted in a Messiah, someone who could feed them, make it so they wouldn’t have to work for their food, make life a little easier. They have been satisfied physically and so their eyes are fixed only on physical things. They have no idea that there is much more at stake.

Jesus and his disciples have finally gotten a much needed break on the other side of the sea when the crowd realizes he’s slipped off. They go searching for him and when they find him, they complain that he has left them. “When did you come here?” In other words, “Why aren’t you where we left you, so we could find you again?” But Jesus knows they have not come to find the one who could fill their souls. They have come to find the one who had filled their bellies.

It is a slavering beast, this crowd. Hunger in their eyes. The hungry crowd wants more. More bread. More to eat. They are worried more about the immediacy of their stomachs than the future of their spiritual lives. But Jesus tries to explain to them that they are merely wasting their time coming after him in this fashion. “You’ve followed me around all over the countryside, hoping for more bread and never realizing you’re going after things that will mold and spoil. Don’t follow me around for barley loaves that merely fill you, follow me for the bread that will fulfill you, not just for a few hours, but for eternity. This is the bread that God has sent to you”

Well, they hear ‘follow,’ and ‘God,’ and thinking they have the right idea, want some clarification, just to be sure. “Ok, how can we follow God?” or as John puts it, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” They are so eager to please their Master that they don’t fully listen and understand what he is saying before jumping in with more questions, entirely missing the point of Jesus’ words. Now, from everything I’ve read, I’m pretty sure that Jesus was a really patient guy, but I think he must be rolling his eyes at these folks about now.

So, he tries to put it as simply as possible. “The work of God is to believe in him whom God has sent.” Couldn’t be easier, just believe, right? Their eyes brighten at this thought. “Oh! We can do that,” they think. “And then maybe he’ll give us more bread.” They want to get it right, I really think they do. They just don’t know how. Their eyes were just not opened to the higher meaning in Jesus’ words. So they eagerly ask him, “What sign will do give us so that we can see and believe?” Then the synapses fire and they remember another time when God had sent food for their people. And wanting to show off their smarty pants, they remind Jesus, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat,’”

I can’t help it, but every time I read about Jesus telling someone, “Very truly I tell you,” I picture him doing a big ol’ forehead smack. It always precedes something that should be painfully obvious, but that the listener in the story just doesn’t seem to get. A lot of Christians today actually miss that the ‘he’ who gave the manna to the people in the wilderness was referring to Moses, not God in that verse. That is why Jesus points out to them that it was not actually Moses who gave them the bread, but God. “It was God who gave the bread that satisfied their hunger for one day only. The same God now gives them bread from heaven that will satisfy forever.”[iii]

Forever. That’s a hard concept to wrap our heads around. And bread that would satisfy forever. There must have been more than a few bemused souls in the crowd that day, hearing about bread that would last forever. Perhaps even many of us are still a bit befuddled at the idea. But this line is just the beginning of John’s exposition on what it means for Jesus to be the bread of life. We’ll hear more about this in the next few coming weeks. But in this passage, Jesus just introduces us to the idea. Plants the seed.

“For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” he explains. This isn’t just manna. It’s far more than food we can chew and swallow and eat our fill of. It even goes beyond the miracle of the food that lasts only a day, that no one can hoard. It’s very appropriate that the Israelites reaction the first time they see the bread from heaven called manna is to say, “What is it?” It’s quite a similar reaction to the one people have when first meeting the bread from heaven named Jesus. “Who are you? What are you?” There is a distinct lack of understanding that God is providing for them exactly what they need at that time. The Israelites needed food for their bellies and God provided manna in abundance. The Jews needed food for their souls and God provided Christ in abundance.

We who already know the story understand that Jesus was sent by God to fulfill God’s promise of everlasting life. We know that his body and blood are the food and drink of eternity. Yet in the text for next week we will see the confusion deepen as Jesus tries to explain this to the people and they can not get past the literality of seeming cannibalism—with a couple more, “very truly” forehead smacks from Jesus thrown in.

Miracles, in the Fourth Gospel, do not easily bring faith to those who witness them, but more often confusion, division, and hostility. These ‘rice Christians’ following Jesus that day are more than a little confused. They want the free food, the handouts. They think they understand about the manna when Jesus brings up bread from heaven. Ah, now we get it. Miracle food, or dare I say it, “wonder bread.” He’s got their interest. But they’re so sure they’ve got his number that they don’t really listen to the rest of what he says. “It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Yes, yes, they think. Bread coming down from heaven—that’s manna, we know about that, we get it. That’s what we want. Never have to plant or harvest or knead or bake again. But they miss the essential word, the last word of that phrase. This bread gives life to the world—not just a few, not just Israelites and their descendants—the world. Yet, thinking they’ve got this mystery sewn up, they get a little ahead of themselves. “Sir,” they say, “give us this bread always.”

What we know that they don’t know is the cost of eating this bread. This crowd that is so enthusiastic about following Jesus around when they think he will feed them with barley loaves and fish, quickly disperses when thing heat up with the Pharisees. Fair weather friends, indeed. And as we know, even Peter will deny Jesus three times when the going really gets tough. Yes, eating the bread of heaven is harder than it sounds. Towards the end of chapter six, even Christ’s closest disciples admit that these teachings about the eating the body and blood are difficult. Many more people turn away from following him at this point, shaking their heads as if to release these difficult and perhaps dangerous teachings they’ve heard.

But today, this crowd is still eager, wanting this bread that they think Jesus is offering to them. But he has one more curve ball to throw at them. A crux so important that the lectionary pulls it back in as the first line in next week’s text. He tells them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Now whoever chose to stop the lectionary here must have a flair for the dramatic. It just stops right there at one of the most well known verses in John or even in all the gospels. Can’t you just hear the collective intake of breath as what he’s just said sinks into the minds of the crowd? We’re left at this cliff hanger, not knowing what the reaction of the crowd is to such an astonishing statement. It’s an outrageous claim.

And of course, they still don’t really understand. Perhaps they think they misheard him. “I am the bread of life? No, he must have said, I have the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry. That makes much more sense.” Their misunderstandings will be clarified next week, when we find out just, in fact, how difficult they begin to realize his teachings are.

So difficult that even John does not attempt to explain them in full. He lets us linger in the mystery of the body and blood for about half of this long chapter. John knows that to endeavor to explain this mystery would be to do it a great injustice. As John Calvin once said when asked to explain the Eucharist, “I would rather experience it than to understand it.” And indeed, “to feed upon the truth who is Jesus Christ, to find primary sustenance in him, is better even than to understand him.”[iv]

So we are left at this climax. The crowd who has been seeking out bread for their bellies, believing that they have witnessed the same sort of manna miracle as their ancestors, now get the shock of discovering that Jesus himself is the bread that they seek. Will they be ‘rice Christians?” Or perhaps “barley Christians” would be more apt. Will they simply drift away as so many of us do when the good feelings aren’t there anymore, when our own wants and desires aren’t being fulfilled, never mind what it is that we truly need.

Or will they stay, will we stay, and learn more about what it means for Christ to be the bread of life? Will we stay to hear more about how we can be fulfilled, rather than just filled, never to hunger or thirst again? Will we stay and feast on this bread of life? I invite you now, come to the table, come and feast! Amen.

[i] Sparks, O. Benjamin. "John 6:24-35, Pastoral Perspective" Feasting on the Word. Year B, Vol. 3. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, KY, 2009.

[ii] ibid.

[iii] ibid.

[iv]Willimon, William H. "John 6:24-35, Homiletical Perspective " Feasting on the Word. Year B, Vol. 3. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, KY, 2009.