I am preaching this morning at North Madison Congregational Church UCC, a congregation in the town next to us whom I have gotten to know over the years. The passage this morning is John 6:24-35, where Jesus describes himself as the Bread of Life.
I did something in July I had not done in over a year: I got on an airplane, which also meant I had to deal with going through Bradley Airport, mask and all. On my return trip, I was waiting for my plane to board. The woman across the aisle from me had her laptop open and facing me was a sticker on the lid of the computer that read, “Everyone is doing the best they can—which is terrifying.”
At first, I chuckled, then I wrote down what the sticker said so I wouldn’t forget. As I read our passage for this week, I came back to those words, but not for the humor. I came back because it almost feels like John feels the same way as he describes the people interacting with Jesus. He says that “the people” or “the crowd” did this or said that, as if they moved and spoke in some sort of anonymous choreography—and they always seem to have a hard time grasping what Jesus is saying to them.
Our passage today picks up the day after Jesus fed over five thousand people starting with nothing more than five loaves and two fish. They kept following him, but Jesus went by boat (or by walking on the water) and they had to walk between Tiberias and Capernaum—about six or seven miles—so they were surprised that Jesus had gotten there ahead of them, and they ask him why, or at least someone in the crowd asked. Jesus answers by saying they only showed up because they wanted another meal, which leads to more questions.
The pattern follows one that John sets up early in his gospel. Someone comes to Jesus, or encounters him, and asks questions and Jesus does a sort of back-and-forth banter until the whole thing culminates in Jesus making a bold claim about who he is and why he is here. In John 3, Nicodemus comes by night, and they go back and forth about being “born again” until Jesus says the words we know as John 3:16. In John 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well and they go back and forth about water until Jesus begins to talk about not ever having to thirst again. Then he tells her he is the Messiah. Here in John 6, Jesus accuses the crowd of just showing up for a free lunch and then starts talking about bread that lasts for eternity, which leaves people both confused about what kind of bread he’s talking about and wishing they had some of it.
In the course of the conversation, someone asks, “What must we do to carry out the works of God?”
Jesus answers, “This is the work of God: to believe in the one whom God has sent,” much in the same way he had answered Nicodemus and the woman at the well.
Here’s the problem, I think, when we come to these stories. When John wrote the accounts of all these encounters, he had no idea we would be reading them and, that by the time we got to them the word believe would carry a different meaning than it did for him. We hear the word believe and we think of an intellectual assent, in the same way we say we believe in a particular doctrine or thesis. But Jesus wasn’t asking them for intellectual assent, he was inviting them into relationship. Perhaps it would be better to translate Jesus’ words to say, “This is the work of God: to trust in the one whom God has sent.”
I imagine that everyone shuffled uncomfortably for a minute, trying to grasp what Jesus was saying before someone blurted out, “So what are you going to do for us to prove that we should trust you? What will you do?”
John is the only one of the gospels that doesn’t include an account of the temptations of Jesus, and these two questions give me a hint as to why: this whole story is a kind of live action version of what Jesus faced in the wilderness. The people asking what he will do are basically saying if he wants them to follow him then he needs to turn the stones in to bread. And just as he did in the desert, Jesus will have none of it.
Instead, he offers himself: “I am the bread of life.” And he goes on, “No one who comes to me will ever be hungry; no one who believes in me will be thirsty.”
Even as those words ring in our ears, I am mindful that hunger is a part of life. There is no way to live and not get hungry. When this service is over, we are all going to go eat something because that’s what we do. To say we are held by the love of God does not mean all our needs are magically met or that we will never have problems. It means in the middle of the hunger and the grief and the questions and the pain and the joy and whatever else we might add to the list, we are loved. We can trust the love of God to sustain us, to make life mean more than a scramble for our basic needs. The apostle Paul wrote that he had learned to be content regardless of the circumstances he faced because he knew God loved him. Maybe that’s what it means to never be hungry again.
The meal we share at the Communion table isn’t intended to fill us up. We take a morsel of bread and a sip from the cup. We don’t come to the table to stuff ourselves, we come to reaffirm our trust in the one who called himself the Bread of Life. We come to re-member the Body of Christ, to put ourselves back together in Jesus’ name. When Paul wrote about Communion, he said we should reconcile with whomever we need to before we came to the table. Each time we gather we are offered the chance to build an altar of remembrance: Who is no longer here with us? Who is new to our table? What has happened since we last shared this meal? How has God sustained us? How has God fed us?
When we walk away from the table after the meal, we will still be hurting and grieving; we will still face difficult circumstances; we will still have difficult decisions to make, and we have the promise that God is with us, and God’s presence—if we are willing to trust it—can take away the gnawing hunger for something other than reality. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Love wins. If love hasn’t won yet, then it’s not over.”
In another story that John didn’t tell in his gospel, an angel visited Joseph after he found out that Mary was pregnant. They were not married. He knew he was not the father. The visit didn’t change any of those circumstances. What the angel did say was, “Name the child Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”
“What will you do?” they asked Jesus.
“Nothing,” Jesus answered, “because it’s not what I do that matters, it’s who I am. I am the bread of life. I am Love Incarnate. I am with you. Trust me.”
As I said earlier, To say we are held by the love of God does not mean all our needs are magically met or that we will never have problems. It means in the middle of the hunger and the grief and the questions and the pain and the joy and whatever else we might add to the list, we are loved.
Everyone is doing the best they can—which may be terrifying–and God is with us. Amen.