“Bread Alone?”

A Sermon for 2 August 2015

A reading from the gospel of John 6:24-35. And before I begin reading, it’s helpful to know that the gospel of John puts this story pretty much immediately after the miracle of the multiplication of the fish and the loaves: the infamous feeding of the five thousand. In the gospel of John, it’s an amazing feat done from the generosity of a little boy who shared his lunch of five loaves and two fish. By the way, the photo on the front of the bulletin captures the image used still at and near the Galilean spot called Tabgha, which is believed to be the site of this incredible work of Christ. You’ll notice it has just four loaves in the image – the same way the mosaic at Tabgha is shown in order to emphasize that the fifth loaf was the one Christ took, blessed, broke, and gave to the people. When the great crowd had eaten their fill and the left overs were properly secured, the gospel of John tells that the people wanted to take Jesus by force in order to make him king over them. After all, when last did they know such a leader who had provided so abundantly for their needs? . . . Jesus withdrew, but the crowd persisted in looking for him. At last, as we’re about to hear, he’s found by them. Listen for God’s word to us in this reading immediately following such events.

“So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but 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.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This is the word of God, for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Have you heard of “rice Christians?” Supposedly in nineteenth-century China, missionaries were encountering a lot of these (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3; O. Benjamin Sparks, p. 308). I don’t think they intended the name to be as derogatory as it might sound. They simply observed many folks who were in pretty bad shape. For one reason or another they would turn to the church. I guess they had heard word of generous, compassionate missionaries and other Chinese Christians who were the church in their midst. When times were tough, people would head to the church in order to be fed. Literally. They were seeking rice to feed themselves and their families. They lived in such joy as the church was meeting their physical needs. After all, it’s common to be grateful when you’re at rock bottom and someone throws you a rope. But as these new Christians slowly made their way out of the rock-bottom pits of their lives, the missionaries noticed that the “rice Christians” were less and less involved in the life of the church. It was as if they were standing on solid ground with God as long as their needs were being met. But when things in their life improved, they were nowhere to be found. Rice Christians: those who were tight with God and God’s people when they needed it, but took off once they perceived they had gotten their lives together. I wish we could say such rice Christians only were a nineteenth-century phenomenon in China. . . . But a look in the mirror reminds that the tendency is in us all.

Because isn’t it true that so many of us need something from God in order for us to remain faithful. As long as we’re getting something out of the relationship – with God or with God’s church – we’re solid. In worship every week. Saying our daily prayers. Serving with great joy. Giving of tithes and offerings. Growing deeper with God on the journey. But what happens when it feels as if no one’s listening? When week after week worship here becomes life-less – routine? When God seems nowhere to be found whether we’re in our deepest despair and desperately need some sort of affirmation, or maybe when things are improving and we just can’t recapture the gratitude we had when it seemed God had delivered us from what could have been the absolute worst disaster? . . . What happens with our life with God and God’s church when whatever needs we envisioned would be met no longer are?

Back in the Fourteenth Century, an amazing little book was written by an English monk who remains anonymous to this day. It is entitled: The Cloud of Unknowing. The book was meant to be sort of an instruction manual for our lives with God. Almost as if we’re being encouraged from some 600 years ago, the writer reminds us that as we go deeper into relationship with God, it can be like entering into a misty cloud of unknowing. It’s entirely possible that all words, all familiar images, all the previous ways we experienced God with us may fall away. In The Cloud of Unknowing, we’re told that it has to be this way. One author expounds on it claiming that if we’re going to go deeper into a relationship of love with God, then it must be through this mysterious path of unknowing. This scary, unpredictable, uncontrollable experience in which it can seem God really is no longer anywhere to be found. The author writes: “It comes down to this: if God wants to work in your soul, God has to work in secret. If you knew (what was going on), you would get puffed up, you would run in fear, you would try to take control of the process, or you would close down the whole Mystery with your rational mind.” The author continues: “We each must learn to live in the cloud of our own unknowing” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation: The Cloud of Unknowing, Part II; 24 July 2015; Center for Action and Contemplation). The point of pure trust – even in the darkest mystery of our lives.

It takes us right back to the crowd from the gospel of John that’s on a man-hunt for the one who just filled up their bellies with the five loaves and two fish. They want someone over them – some power, some authority that will fill their personal needs as effectively as Jesus just filled up their rumbling bellies. And why not? They want perpetual bread – the physical stuff that you can touch and smell and taste. They want their physical needs met, when Jesus is standing before them as the Bread of Heaven. The Bread of Life that will satisfy the cravings in their spirits that they haven’t yet begun to recognize – no matter the circumstances of their days. It’s not to say that God doesn’t care about the real needs of our lives. It’s just that God wants something so much deeper with us than being some sort of magic gumball machine that always will give us exactly what we want. God wants intimate connection with us. Deep union in our hearts and minds and spirits through the good, bad, and indifferent of all of our days. Soul connection that allows us to experience the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit always, even as God lives in and through us each day mysterious working on us to continue to bring life to the world. It’s so much better than getting a taste of the fish and bread that fill up our bellies but leave us lacking for the real Bread of Life. . . . It’s the point in our lives with God when things go from a sort of parent-child relationship in which God always is there to give us what we want, to a relationship of awe in which we simply trust the One with whom we’ve fallen in love. We trust the Bread of Life – the true gift of heaven – to feed us always. Like an overflowing fountain that perpetually washes over us in waves of renewing love. It’s the food that endures forever. . . . the Bread of Life come to give life to all the world.

Thanks be to God for such an amazing gift!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

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