August 5th – 10th Sunday after Pentecost

Today we continued chapter six of John’s Gospel, which, on the surface, seems pretty straightforward. Jesus had gone away alone – no doubt exhausted after preaching to and feeding the crowd of 5000, and walking across the water to the boat in which his disciples went across the lake to Capernaum. But the crowd was having none of this – after what Jesus had done, they wanted more. And isn’t that typical? No matter how much we are given, we want more. If we go to a concert, we applaud for encores; if we have an amazing meal, we crave dessert; and if we see miracles, we expect them to continue.
But today, that’s not what Jesus is about. He isn’t performing miracles, or – as John calls them: signs – for the crowds. Rather, he is talking theology, in much the same way as he did before in this Gospel. Remember, if you will the stories of Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman. I was warned when I was in seminary that I couldn’t just say something like that and expect everyone to know what I was talking about, so I will just refresh your memory, so that you won’t need to frantically and quietly search through the pew Bible to find the references.
Nicodemus was one of the important religious leaders of the time, and came to Jesus under the cover of darkness to ask what he needed to do in order to be saved. Jesus’ reply perplexed him more than it helped him, when he told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again in order to enter into the kingdom of God. Of course, we in the 21st century understand this term “born again” to refer to a spiritual rather than a physical thing, so it kind of makes sense to us.
And the Samaritan woman – Jesus was sitting at a well, when she came to draw water, and he asked her for a drink. Then they had this whole discussion about living water, the water which would take care of thirst forever. Actually, she seemed to understand Jesus better than Nicodemus did, which tells us that great amounts of education won’t necessarily make a person smarter.
Now, back to today’s reading. The people came looking for Jesus. Why? Jesus is pretty pragmatic here. He said to them: You are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Now, one of the things that we often fail to understand is that Jesus was speaking to a particular people, a people who were educated in a particular way, a people who would have understood references that may escape us. In much the same way as when I use illustrations in sermons – I choose them in the hopes that they will be understood by the people who hear them. Unfortunately, this means that people who do not have the same background will often be left looking puzzled, as they try to figure out the underlying meaning. And that is why we explain Jesus’ references. That is why we need to study Scripture, to discover exactly what Jesus meant.
His audience would have understood – which we really don’t – the connections between what Jesus did and what was done in the book of Exodus. His walking on water directly referenced the fact that Moses was able to part the sea for the Israelites to cross over on their way to the Promised Land. And feeding the 5000 – of course, while the Israelites were wandering, they needed food, and Yahweh provided manna for them. But John’s purpose was not to show that Jesus is a new Moses. Unlike Moses, he is not simply leading the people out of bondage into a land flowing with milk and honey. Rather, he is delivering us from slavery to sin and death and into eternal life.
But the people following Jesus in today’s reading don’t seem to grasp that. They see Jesus as a wonder worker, as one who can perform signs and fill stomachs, and that is all they want from him. They ask him: What miraculous sign will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Sadly, that is often the case today. People are searching for something to believe in, for something to hold onto, but they want some kind of proof before they believe. But he can give them – and us – so much more. He offers the true bread from heaven, the food that endures to eternal life. And he offers it as a gift. What is so difficult to understand about that?
I am sure that you have all heard the comedy sketch called “Who’s on first?” Well, often, when I am reading John’s Gospel, I feel as though the people are in that sketch. Jesus is talking to the people, and they are replying to what he says, but there is a definite disconnect in the conversation. Jesus says: Do not work for food which spoils. They say: What must we do to do the works God requires? He replies: The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. In other words, we don’t have to DO anything – just believe. Why was it so hard for them to accept this? Why is that so hard for us to accept this? Just believe, and you will be given the bread of eternal life.
You see, Jesus knew that the bread of this earth will not long satisfy us. He knew that we crave something more. St. Augustine said: My heart is empty until it rests in thee. And this is what we are craving. We know that there has to be something more, and here Jesus is, offering it to us – free for the taking.
If you will remember, when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, and being given manna for each day, some of them tried to gather more than they needed. This extra rotted overnight, and was filled with maggots. That is what happens when we try to get more than we need. And that is why we pray: Give us this day our daily bread. Not our bread for the week or the month or the year. We ask for our daily bread, the bread which satisfies, the bread which fills us. This bread is only to be found in Jesus Christ. And, you know what? That is the most amazing thing, the most miraculous thing, the most wonderful sign. It is only to be found in Jesus Christ. We don’t need to look anywhere else. We don’t need to church shop, as many people. All we need to do is to find Jesus Christ, and there is the bread of eternal life, waiting for us.
Look at the world we are living – this world of the 21st century. Despite the huge advances since the time of Jesus, very little of substance has really changed. It is still populated with people who, having had their fill of the bread of this earth, long for something more, and who seek that something more – not only in the pursuit of more earthly blessings, but in the empty spectacles and false promises provided for them in the pleasure palaces and cultic coliseums of our world.
The Romans called it “bread and circuses” and their rulers believed that if they provided enough of each their citizens would be happy and their
civilization would last forever. And they were wrong. We call it “reality TV”, and believe that it reflects what life is really like. And we are wrong. There are more important things to seek than the bread which spoils; there is more to life than the pleasures of the flesh which are fleeting at best. And Jesus offers them to us – in the bread of life.
In a former life, I used to be an English teacher, and became familiar with much of Shakespeare’s work. One quote from Hamlet, I believe, fits in nicely here. Speaking to Horatio, Hamlet said: There are more things in heaven and in earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Truer words were never spoken, especially when applied to what happened in today’s Gospel reading. Last week, one of the hymns we used was: Jesus Calls us Here To Meet Him, and we will be hearing the melody again during the time of meditation. We are called, not only to meet him, but to share the bread of life with him, to become part of him.
But for some people, that isn’t enough. They STILL want signs; they STILL want proof; they STILL want bread. And Jesus talks about faith. Fred Craddock wrote: they still want to be in charge, even of faith itself. Show us a sign, and we will see, we will weigh the evidence, we will draw the conclusions, and we might even decide to believe. We MIGHT decide to believe? How arrogant can someone get? We MIGHT decide to believe. First of all, I don’t think that one can DECIDE to believe. Either you do or you don’t. But, you know, that sounds like us sometimes. Sometimes I hear people say: I decided to believe. I have to confess, I find it difficult to keep silent when people say this. It is like DECIDING to have blue eyes. Obviously, I can’t reference hair colour, since we CAN decide on that, but our eyes – well, what we get is pretty much what we have. What we CAN decide as far as faith is concerned is whether or not we accept what it is that Jesus offers. We can decide if we are going to take the living bread or leave it. We can decide for or against eternal life.
I have read about people who view faith and church membership as something pragmatic. Such people see faith and church membership instrumentally, as something they can choose for themselves to use for their own needs or to pursue their own interests. Now, it IS possible to look for a church which meets your own needs best. After all, we live in a consumer-driven society, and we are used to getting those things which suit our personalities, our pocketbooks, and our philosophies. But there is more to faith than that. Benjamin Sparks wrote an interesting commentary on people like this. He devoted part of it to a list of the WRONG reasons to become a member of a church, and I would like to share them with you. While I am reading them, think about whether or not any of these reasons ever drew you or anyone you know to a particular church. Because, of course, there are many reasons we go to church. We come for the fun and the fellowship. We come because we’ve always come, because our parents and grandparents instilled in us the responsibility of coming to church. But eventually, all of these reasons aside, we have to ask ourselves why we are really here. What is it that makes us come back again and again when there are so many other demands on our time, when we are already too tired out, when we already have plenty of other people and events to fill our busy lives? We come for the same reasons the crowds came, pressing on Jesus. They asked for signs, they received healings and even loaves and fish to eat. They wanted to see miracles. But they wanted more than that, more than they even knew or were able to articulate. Jesus knew what they needed – they needed the living bread, the living water. We too come for more than the fellowship, really. We really do come for more than a sense of obligation, though sometimes we let ourselves believe otherwise. The truth is, if we only felt a sense of duty, or we only came to meet with friends, we could fill these needs elsewhere. Something draws us back to this place, to a community of faith, to a time of worship. Why are we here? What and who are we looking for?
Some of the wrong reasons suggested by Sparks are as follows. He says that we should not go: “for the ‘right’ kind of worship; for political engagement on behalf of the poor and downtrodden; for the sake of a Christian America; (Or Canada, in our case!) for a strong youth and family ministry; for the opportunity to practice mission in a downtown location, or to go on mission trips to Africa or Central America.” I have to confess that several of those seem to me to be very good reasons to invite someone to become part of the life of the church. However, Sparks claims that we offer something much greater than all of these, something which he calls ‘soul food,’ which lasts forever and does not change with the changing circumstances of the church or the world. Does this sound familiar? Does this not sound like the Bread of Life offered by Jesus? Sparks says that this is the kind of food that will nourish us even after our physical hunger is satisfied and the world is as it should be. He refers to the gospel preached by North American Christians as “a broken, truncated gospel”.
Sadly, I have to agree with him in too many cases. There are far too many faith communities which do not live their faith. They do good works, of course, but tell me of any group of volunteers which does NOT do good works. But there needs to be a difference between us – the Presbyterian Church in Canada – and the Rotary Club or the Shriners. If Sparks believes that we have slipped into the trap of the consumerist culture by meeting the physical needs of those who come through our doors rather than “proclaiming a gospel that offers us faith in the only begotten Son,” we might examine more closely how we go about proclaiming the gospel: are we, as he claims, “good marketers rather than true witnesses”?
In this church, we do not preach a social Gospel. We are not here for the feel-good aspect of feeding others, even though we give to the food bank regularly. Why, then, are we here? We are here because we don’t need to look elsewhere. We are here for the bread of life, for that which will satisfy us and everyone for all eternity. In my research this week, I found a quote by Bishop Desmond Tutu which says it better than I ever could. I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Now is that political or social?” He said, “I feed you.” Because the good news to a hungry person is bread. And the bread for which we all hunger is offered to us, freely. Thanks be to God.

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