Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, August 2
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Bread of Life
God of the lowly and the mighty, you know the ugliness of your people when we harm and destroy one another, yet you offer us forgiveness of our sins if we but turn to you. Expand our hearts to receive the mercy you give us, that, in turn, we may share your grace and mercy with others each moment of our lives. Amen.
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 he 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.
All Readings For This Sunday
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a with Psalm 51:1-12 or
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 with Psalm 78:23-29
1. How does "bread" represent God's love for humankind, both spiritually and physically?
2. What questions would you have asked, if you had been in the crowd around Jesus that day?
3. How do you respond to Benjamin Sparks' commentary on the mission of the church?
4. What does it mean to walk in the footsteps of Jesus?
5. Do you need to see a miracle in order to believe? Why or why not?
Reflection by Kate Matthews (Huey)
Last week, we heard the story from the Gospel of John about Jesus multiplying bread (and fishes) to feed a huge crowd on a hillside (with plenty left over), followed by his mysterious, walking-on-water appearance to the disciples, in a boat during a storm. Each of those stories could teach us something about who Jesus is: the One who feeds and comforts us. However, it seems that John doesn't want us to read, or hear, these stories on their own, but as part of a larger story, one that resembles several that we've heard before. This is one way that John wrestles with the profound question of Jesus' identity, and what it means to have faith in him. Remember Nicodemus in chapter three, who couldn't get his mind wrapped around the whole notion of being "born again"? He got stuck on the image (or sign) and missed the deeper meaning. And then there was the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter four, who struggled a bit (but not as badly as Nicodemus, the learned leader) with the idea (or sign) of "living water."
In both cases, and in today's reading as well, the listener-learners are perplexed but earnestly interested in what Jesus has to say. And in each case, Jesus speaks at length in ways that, to be honest, confuse and confound not only his conversation partners but those of us who read the Gospel of John today. We still hear the echoes of the poignant questions and pleas they raise: "How can these things be?" (3:9). "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water" (4:15). "Sir, give us this bread always" (6:34). The questions and pleas echo in our own hearts as well.
Scholars generally agree that the story of the loaves and fishes is also a "sign" that points to other things: the feeding of the Israelites with manna when they were wandering in the desert, for example, and the meal that we Christians share in memory of Jesus, but most of all, to Jesus as the Bread of Life, the source of our life, in the deepest meaning of that word. The Jewish people following and questioning Jesus have manna on their minds: what kind of gift from heaven could Jesus provide? They also want some clarification about just who Jesus thinks he is. This is not an unreasonable request; John Pilch points out that, in their tradition, true prophets, in a sense, had to back up what they were saying with amazing works, or "signs"--that's how they proved themselves. Of course, we might point out (from our supposedly superior vantage point) that the crowd had just witnessed an amazing sign on the hillside the day before, when five loaves and a few fishes fed a multitude.
Perhaps it's even more ironic that the very sign they ask for recalls the feeding of their ancestors with manna in the wilderness. However, in reaching back to this moment in their history, the people are trying to make sense of this Jesus, this teacher who clearly upsets all their categories and understandings. Wayne Meeks says that they're trying to figure out Jesus--we might say, "get a handle on" what he was about--"by using the best tools their religion supplies: the evidence of miracles, tradition, and Scripture." But these tools don't work too well in this situation, Meeks says, especially the miracles, which, instead of faith, more often seem to bring "confusion, division, and hostility." (We know that throughout the Gospels, anger at Jesus builds, at least in some quarters.) Jesus meets their question about manna by up-ending their presuppositions and their traditional understandings. Meeks describes Jesus' response in verse 32 this way: "The subject of the sentence, he says, is not Moses, but God, and the tense needs to be changed to the present: Do not read, 'Moses gaveÖ,' but 'God is giving.'"
Which kind of hunger?
We can't know what was in the hearts and minds of the people following Jesus around, asking him questions, asking him for bread (or living water, or understanding). Scholars seem to think that the crowd had their minds on their stomachs, and Jesus had his mind on something much more important, much deeper in significance. For example, Dianne Bergant says that Jesus knows why the crowds are there, and it wasn't for spiritual or religious reasons (if we differentiate between the two), but because they were hungry, and they knew Jesus could and would feed them. However, Bergant observes that Jesus expands their understanding of their physical hunger to encompass a greater, spiritual hunger, and "a different kind of food." With Christopher Morse, we might wonder, "Are they after him to have their 'fill of the loaves' but not the fulfillment of their lives?"
The people ask for signs and bread, and Jesus talks about faith. Not just faith, actually, but bread, too, but not bread in the same sense that the people mean. He exhorts them to have faith, to believe, in the "bread" that God gives right there, right before their eyes, because God has given them Jesus himself. Again, this is not an easy thing to grasp, so they try to figure out what they have to do in order to get this bread "that endures for eternal life" (v. 27). Fred Craddock writes that "they still want to be in charge, even of faith itself. Show us a sign, we will see, we will weigh the evidence, we will draw the conclusions, and we might even decide to believe" (v. 30). Does that sound like us, at least sometimes?
Which kind of bread?
Is there a tension here, between the two different meanings of the word "bread"? Is the spiritual meaning really somehow deeper and more to the point, more significant, more valuable than the physical meaning? Is there, in the life of Christian faith (commitment to Jesus, no matter what), such a far distance or sharp divide between the two kinds of bread, the two kinds of hunger? If we read the story of the loaves and fishes as a sign, pointing to the profound reality of the gift of God in Jesus, we most likely do so on a full stomach. "Yet," Pilch observes, "it is difficult to think lofty thoughts when one's stomach growls from hunger."
Benjamin Sparks makes an intriguing comment on this text when he compares the crowds to "those who 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." Certainly it's possible (and perhaps too common) for us to shop like consumers for the church that meets our own needs best, and it's no wonder that this also affects our stewardship. However, Sparks goes on to suggest the following as "all the wrong reasons" to invite people to church: "for the 'right' kind of worship; for political engagement on behalf of the poor and downtrodden; for the sake of a Christian America; for a strong youth and family ministry," or for mission work nearby or abroad. 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, "'soul food,'" which is more lasting and more unchanging, the kind of food that will nourish us even after our physical hunger is satisfied and the world is as it should be. He even calls the gospel preached by North American Christians "a broken, truncated gospel." His words could inspire some lively conversation among church folks.
A spiritual question
If there is a tension here, it may reflect a theology broken in two, or perhaps a false dichotomy, that separates "lofty thoughts," "soul food," and "deeper significance" from the reality of sisters and brothers who are hungry. Nikolai Bordyaev's words haunt us here: "The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question." Even more wrenching is the testimony of an American woman in Haiti, whose story is told by John Dominic Crossan and Richard G. Watts in their book, Who is Jesus?: "[In Haiti] I have seen a little girl try to ease her hunger by eating dirt. When I approached her, she covered her lips to conceal the mouthful of grit and pebbles, but tiny telltale stones glistened on her lips and chinÖ.I feel so stirred and inspired by Crossan's description of Jesus as a radical egalitarian who broke down barriers to celebrate table fellowship with all manner of people. I just wish we could set a table for the little Haitian boy who cried in my arms last nightÖ.I asked him why he looks so sad. He burst into tears, eyes full of pain, and whispered, 'I'm hungry.'"
The good news (there is always good news!) is that there is no such split, no broken theology, no false dichotomy, in Jesus. The One who, in Luke's Gospel, announced his "agenda" with words from Isaiah about bringing good news to the poor and setting the oppressed free, is the same One who, at the end of this passage in John (which is the beginning of a long lesson), says, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty" (6:35). Fred Craddock reminds us that Jesus didn't neglect the physical hunger or suffering of the people even as he preached the good news of the reign of God and the Bread of Life, and we in the church should follow his example.
How do we proclaim the gospel?
If Sparks believes that we have slipped into the trap of the consumerist culture by meeting the needs (demands?) 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"? Or is a true witness someone who, like Jesus, tends to the urgency of empty stomachs even in the midst of responding to spiritual hunger? I'm nagged by un-ease about theological conversations being held without sensitivity to the hunger of children in this very city, and in nations around the world, while we live in a land of excess where our surplus could feed those hungry mouths. In Louise Murphy's powerful novel, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, these words about hunger are echoed by what the children, indeed the whole Polish village, in the story experience during World War II, waiting in terror under the Nazi boot for "freedom" once the impending Russian advance drives their occupiers out. (Of course, history tells us how that turned out.) How terrible it is to consider the suffering of children! Pilch's words, again, are so true, about the difficulty of theoretical conversations on an empty stomach, and we should feel uncomfortable as well about having them on a full one.
William Willimon offers both inspiration and wise caution as we approach this text. When he reminds us that "the spiritual is incarnational, tied to the stuff of this life, present, here, now," it sounds right that we come to the table hungry in more ways than one, and leave it to feed a world that is hungry in more ways than one, engaging in those things that Sparks mentioned: right worship, youth ministry, urban ministry, mission trips, and so on. Aren't we walking in Jesus' footsteps, if not on water, at least in our own world and our own time, seeking to bring good news to the poor, and to set the oppressed free? Isn't that what being a true disciple of Jesus looks like?
A difficult truth
Willimon's reflection may give the preacher pause as we approach this text and the whole Gospel of John. He cautions us strongly against the urge to over-simplify a deeply complex text and Gospel, or even suggesting that we in our great wisdom and understanding can clarify what may not have been expressed clearly enough in the passage. No, Willimon says, the Johannine Jesus "is not trying to obfuscate the truth but rather to reveal a difficult, counterintuitive, countercultural truth." It does seem that too many words, too many ideas and statements, too much explanation, makes this passage heavier than it really is. In that case, music may speak to our hearts better than long sermons and commentaries, just as the table itself, and our sharing of this bread of life, lead us deeper into the mystery, and the gift, of Jesus. In his beautiful song, "I am the Bread of Life," John Michael Talbot doesn't "simplify the complex" but does speak to the heart ñ our own hearts, and the heart of this passage, describing the way the bread we share reveals God's love to us, and heals our brokenness. This is true of communion, but it's also true of the food we share with one another, especially with those in need. I can not erase that image of a child crying in hunger.
God's love revealed. Perhaps the best way to approach this "difficult, counterintuitive, countercultural truth" is to end with a question. According to Adele Stiles Resmer, scholars suggest that the text really should end with the crowd's request, "Sir, give us this bread always." If we departed from the lectionary there, instead of ending with Jesus' comforting words, Resmer writes, we would be left with a very different feeling, "a sense of openness" to Jesus, who surprises us just as he often surprised the crowds, and his own disciples, long ago. We might find ourselves with the crowd once again, hungry for more, hungry in more ways than we know how to express.
A preaching version of this reflection (with book titles) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/august-2-2015-eighteenth-sunday.html.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread."
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, 20th century
"Hunger of the body is altogether different from the shallow, daily hunger of the belly. Those who have known this kind of hunger cannot entirely love, ever again, those who have not."
Elie Wiesel, Night, 20th century
"Bread, soup - these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time."
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread."
D.T. Niles, 20th century
"Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread."
Bishop Desmond Tutu, 20th century
"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."
Victor Hugo, 19th century
"The need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal."
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