John 6:24 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. 25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" 26 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. 27 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." 28 Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" 29 Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." 30 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? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" 32 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. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." 34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always." 35 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.
Out of Nowhere in the Middle of Nowhere
I think it is safe to say that the crowds that were following Jesus were driven. They had seen enough of Jesus to know that whatever he had, they wanted more of it. The Sea of Galilee is not a large body of water, but it is large enough. Yet the crowds follow Jesus across. Free bread may not be enough to do that. But Jesus had given them more than free bread. The bread that Jesus gave them wasn’t just free, it came out of nowhere. And it came to them in the middle of nowhere. It is no surprise that John mentions that they crossed back to Capernaum. They crossed back to the Jewish side of the lake (from the Gentile side). They had been in the wilderness. They had been the people of Israel on the move. And like of old, they had received bread out of nowhere in the middle on nowhere.
Now they wanted more, or at least they wanted a repeat performance so that they could be sure they had seen what they thought they had seen. My Old Testament professor from seminary, Ron Hals, used to say, “Miracles don’t lead people to faith. They just say, ‘do it again, slower.’” The people ask just that of Jesus.
As I look out over the landscape today, I see that we are in search of food in a wilderness of our own as well. People in our world are either desperate for food at all, hungry each night and hoping for relief, or else we have all the food that we can eat with leftovers, yet our lives are curiously unfilled, or unfulfilled. The rich say to the poor, “How can you still be hungry? There is more than enough food for everyone in the world!” The poor say to the rich, “How can you still be hungry? You have so much already!”
Could it be that Jesus words to those chasing him across the sea those many years ago still have truth today? “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.“ Our culture, especially in the wealthy west, has a hard time hearing those words. It flies in the face of most of the things that we have treasured. Aren’t we supposed to be building wealth?
The Bread which Perishes
I played a game with my brothers and friends when I was growing up. It was called “The Game of Life.” And it wasn’t about life really, but life as we were told it ought to be. You had choices along the way: go to college or not, get married, have a career (with the highest salary being the best). There were pitfalls and shortcuts to “retirement” which was the finish line. But the goal was not to finish first. Rather the goal was to finish with the most. Whoever had the biggest stack of cash at the end was the winner.
This is a not so subtle way for us to teach our children a purpose in life. But the astute children would always notice that at the end of the game, after a winner was declared, the game would be put away. All the money that was made was just paper, and it disappeared until the next game when pursuit of “bread” in the form of money would be repeatedensue. It was some years later that I noted the game didn’t count death as a part of life. (Our culture’s denial of death might have something to do with this.) The real end in “The Game of Life” if the truth be known is always a tie. Everyone loses everything in death. The proposed “purpose” in life to gather a large stack of money turns out to be an illusion.
Like those in the first century, we seem to be chasing a Jesus who will continue to give us the bread that perishes. Look at the continued popularity of the prosperity Gospel that is launched like missiles from televised pulpits week after week. They dangle the hopes of future riches before those willing to part with cash in the here and now to fund their ministries and pay for their mansions. In today’s religious landscape P.T. Barnum was certainly right. And many do not catch on until it is too late.
You would think that with so many people “winning” the world’s game of life we would be a culture that is more satisfied than most as a whole, since we have more than most as a culture. Yet our hunger persists, and is pernicious in its effect. The more we have, the hungrier we become, and the less satisfied we are. And those in our midst who are satisfied are termed “unambitious” and even “lazy.”
In the scheme of things, our desire to make a big splash in the world, our need to build up our pile of possessions, is nothing more nor less than a desire to deny our mortality. If we leave something of our pile behind, then we leave something of ourselves behind. We have a chance to endure beyond death. We fall into trap of our own making. We fall into what the author of Ecclesiastes calls “VANITY!” We fail to see that this bread that we try to use to satisfy our hunger, this drink we use to slake our thirst is more akin to the “kool-aid” that Jim Jones gave his followers to drink in the jungle. It leads not to life but to death.
The Bread that Gives Life to the World
The manna lessons from the wilderness were important for the people of Israel. They learned that Yahweh would give them the things they needed. They also learned not to hoard their bread (it would smell if you kept it for more than a day) and to share it with those who could not gather for themselves. It was the bread that Yahweh gave them as they were learning how to be the servant people they were called to be. In John’s Gospel, the chasers of Jesus remembered the manna, but not the lessons of the manna. So Jesus begins to teach them again about what the true bread from heaven does.
But then he makes a bold move. He says, “I AM the bread of life.” He identifies himself with Yahweh, the great I AM. He identifies Yahweh as the bread of life for the world. This is in contrast to the bread which feeds but does not satisfy. The question is how? How is Jesus the bread of life? How does Jesus satisfy hunger and thirst? How does Jesus provide life for the world.
One analogy, suggested by Walt Wangerin Jr. in his book, Ragman and Other Cries of Faith, is found in a particular species of Spider. While most spiders leave their eggs in a sac and wander off, one species does not leave them thus to chance, but stays to protect them and find food for them. Like all spiders, when this one eats, she injects her poison and digestive juices into her prey and the victim becomes her stomach as she sucks out the life and the food from the bodies empty shell. Except when there are no victims. When there is no food for the little spiders, the mother of this species will inject her poison into her own body and give her young one last meal, herself. She dies and gives them life. (*)
Against such a backdrop, Wangerin sees in the Christ of the Cross one who gives himself for the life of all. When we feast at Christ’s table, it is his own life poured out for us that becomes our bread. It is in the giving of himself that he is most alive, even as he dies. And those of us who follow rather than chase Jesus learn the simple truth from his Living Word: we are only filled full when we empty ourselves. Jesus is the bread of life not for what he puts into our stomachs, but rather for how he teaches us to live, really LIVE. In the meal of communion he is shaping us into his body and preparing us to give ourselves in the same way as he gives himself. Those who have dared to follow this radical way find life in more vivid color, find purpose and meaning beyond “winning” the game of life. Ray Makeever describes our worship as a “Hungry Feast” in his hymn of the same name.
“We come to the hungry feast
hungry for a word of peace,
To hungry hearts unsatisfied
the love of God is not denied.
We come, we come to the hungry feast.
We come to the hungry feast
hungry for a world released
from hungry folk of every kind,
the poor in body, poor in mind.
We come, we come to the hungry feast.
We come to the hungry feast
hungry that the hunger cease,
and knowing, though we eat our fill,
the hunger will stay with us still.
We come, we come to the hungry feast.”
The hunger that Jesus satisfies for purpose and meaning beyond ourselves, awakens in us other hungers, for peace, justice, loving kindness, and a humble walk with our God. No matter how often we feast at God’s table, these hungers never leave us. That is why the offering at worship is gathered as part of the celebration of the meal. We are offering ourselves into the service of the one who gives himself as food for us. We are allowing our lives to be reshaped by Christ into his own body for the world. We become bread like his bread. And all of this not by getting something, but by giving everything as Christ has given to us. Come hungry for life, leave hungry to give life, full of Jesus, the bread of life.
Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman
Tree of Life Lutheran Church, Conroe, TX.
(*). Wangerin, Walter, Jr. Ragman and Other Cries of Faith, Harper and Row, Publishers, San Francisco, 1984, pp. 26-27.