10 Pentecost, Proper 13 – August 1, 2021
Last week we talked about the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ view of opportunity or abundance, rather than scarcity. The disciples had viewed the situation as impossible, and Jesus suggested possibility. The crowds then ate the multiplied bread and their physical hunger was satisfied, but they were apparently so focused on feeling full that they missed what was really happening at that free lunch. Jesus, in today’s story, uses bread as an extended metaphor for who he is—someone capable of sustaining life.
John’s gospel presents Jesus as manna, the miraculous bread God provided and through which Israel learned to trust God’s word. The crowd brings up to Jesus how their ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and they are asking for some kind of similar sign from Jesus.
That manna story resonates broadly with the story John is telling here today. The Israelites experienced God’s salvation in the Red Sea crossing, but they still failed to trust God to take care of their needs. Faced with hunger, they immediately thought to turn back to Egypt. In the same way, John’s recently-fed crowd misunderstands the nature of what Jesus has offered them and its implications for the present time.
When the crowd asks about what works they must perform, Jesus answers about believing in him. When they ask for a sign, Jesus says he is the sign. Jesus is the bread of life.
So, like the crowd, how do we hear what Jesus is saying? How do we move past self-sufficiency into radical, whole-life dependence on a God we can taste, but never control? You’ve heard that saying “you are what you eat”….well what are we becoming? What food are we eating on a daily basis?
In her beautiful meditation on Jesus as bread, theologian and Episcopal priest, Lauren Winner writes: “In calling himself ‘the bread of life,’ — and not, say, crème caramel or caviar — Jesus is identifying with basic food, with sustenance, with the food that, for centuries afterward, would figure in the protest efforts of poor and marginalized people. No one holds caviar riots; people riot for bread. So to speak of God as bread is to speak of God’s most elemental provision for us.”
Which raises all sorts of questions: Am I hungry? If yes, what am I hungry for? If no, what has made me full? Am I ashamed of my hunger? Does fullness scare me? What kinds of bread do I substitute for Jesus? Do I feel in my gut that Jesus is “elemental provision?” Not appetizer, not dessert, not occasional-dietary-supplement, but essential, everyday food without which I will starve and die?
So, yes, we are talking to about far more than literal food. We’re talking about security. Safety. Provision. Protection. About whether the world we occupy is an abundant, generous, hospitable place — or a barren, empty, dangerous one.
As Debi Thomas shares — Jesus invites the crowds to recognize the deep hungers beneath their surface hungers. Of course they’re hungry for literal bread; they’re poor, food is scarce, and they need to feed themselves and their families. There’s nothing wrong, substandard, or “unspiritual” about their physical hunger — remember, Jesus tends to their bodily needs first, without reservation or pre-conditions. But he doesn’t stop there. Instead, he asks the crowds to probe the soul hungers that drive them restlessly into his presence — hungers that only the “bread of heaven” can satisfy.
What are those hungers? A hunger for security and belonging? Meaning and purpose? A longing for connection, communion, intimacy, and love? A desire to know and be known? A hunger for delight, for joy, and for creative engagement with the world in all of its complexity, mystery, and beauty? An ongoing hunger for wholeness, redemption, and courage? A craving for the healing of old wounds?
What would you add to this list?
It’s one thing to name our hungers, but quite another to trust that Jesus will satisfy them. After all, we’re so good at finding substitutes for communion with God. A few examples include perpetual busyness, social media, books, movies, the 24-hour-news-cycle, exercise, chocolate, and other people. Do we really trust that Jesus is our bread? Our essential sustenance? Often, the answer is no. Very often, Jesus is an abstraction. A creed. A set of Sunday rituals. Why? Maybe because we don’t come to him ravenous. We don’t recognize our daily, hourly dependence on his generosity. Maybe we just plain don’t expect to be fed by Jesus. Instead, we hide our hunger, because we’re ashamed to want and need too much.
In a powerful sermon on God’s generosity, Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber describes the shame that often keeps us from feasting on Jesus: “It’s hard to accept not just that God welcomes all, but that God welcomes all of me, all of you. Even that within us that we wish to hide: the part that cursed at our children this week, or drank alone, or has a problem with lying, or hates our body. That part within us that suffers from depression and can’t admit it, or is too fearful to give our money away, or is riddled with shame over our sexuality, or cheats on taxes. All these parts of us we wish Jesus had the good sense to not welcome to his table are invited to taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Do we want to “taste and see that the Lord is good?”
So where should I — or we — go from here? Once we’ve named and probed our deep hungers, once we’ve moved an inch closer to trusting God with the scariest desires of our hearts, where do we head next? Into contemplation, perhaps. Into silence, openness, and vulnerability. Into a willingness to truly “eat” Jesus — to take him into ourselves day after day after day, through whatever spiritual practices work best for us. Prayer? Meditation? Lectio Divina? Song? Jesus wants to be so much more than a creed, a good example, or a teacher in our lives. He wants to be food. He is food. Are we hungry for him? Will we allow his substance to become ours? The bread of heaven is ours for the tasting.
May we absorb it. May we share it. May we desire it above all things. May its nourishment permeate us through and through until we, like Jesus, become life-saving bread for the whole world. Amen.