Note: I preached a version of this sermon on August 5, 2012 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was a young boy, I remember sitting around my family’s dining-room table while my grandfather told stories about the war. He didn’t do this very often–he maybe had an extra glass of brandy that night, who knows. Anyway, he was talking about being at large in German territory after escaping from a prisoner of war camp in Poland. And he and the guys he was with stole a pig from a farm, and they cooked it and ate it (presumably in the woods). I remember him specifically saying that it tasted delicious, that it was sweet like white bread.
“White bread?” I remember thinking. White bread doesn’t taste like anything special. But of course I had never been hungry like my grandfather had been hungry that winter. In fact, he used to say that after he got back from the war, he promised himself that he would never be hungry, never be dirty, and never be cold. This, I am told, is why we always ate dinner at 5 p.m. when we were visiting, why he was always impeccably shaved and dressed, and why his house was always 78 degrees in the winter. The war took away whatever religion my grandfather grew up with, but he certainly believed in that: being fed, being clean, and being warm.
Our lessons today start with the fear and need of a crowd. And I trouble the memory of my grandfather because I want us all to sympathize with the crowd. There is nothing like being hungry or being in danger or being afraid. These things can level cities. They can overthrow governments. They can kill our freedom, and they can kill our love for God.
Now when a crowd shows up in ancient literature, it usually stands for human nature at its most basic and unimproved. The crowd is not very smart. The crowd is not very patient. The crowd is not very reasonable. The crowd is prone to fear. The crowd is fickle and impulsive. The crowd is like a child: when it hasn’t had a good night’s sleep and something to eat, it can become difficult.
In our reading from Exodus, the congregation of the Israelites has just escaped from Egypt, making their way toward the land God is going to show them. In just the last chapter, they were singing praise to the God who had rescued them from the violent hand of the Pharaoh. Today, they are suddenly very worried. There is no food. And they complain, sort of passive-aggressively, against Moses: “If you had just let us die in Egypt, at God’s hand, we would have eaten bread and meat enough.” (You may recognize here the voice that always complains against freedom–the voice that pulls us back into an abusive relationship, that pulls us back into addiction, that stops us from resisting injustice because at least in Egypt, when we were slaves, we were not hungry). So God, being God, tells Moses that he will provide bread for the people–remember, God doesn’t mind a little complaining. Go ahead and complain to God when you’re in need. And God sends quail to eat at night, and in the morning, when the dew dries up, there is this fine, flaky bread on the ground–manna. The Israelites gather this manna freely and eat it for 40 years.
So in the Gospel, we have a story about Jesus that echoes the manna in the wilderness. If you remember last week, Jesus has just fed 5,000 peope with five loaves and two fish. The crowd he feeds goes looking for him. And today they find him on the other side of the lake. “Rabbi, when did you come here?” the crowd asks. Now notice that in both stories, the crowd speaks as one person. This is an old story-telling device, and it’s not to be taken literally. It’s a sign that the crowd is standing in for you and for me, for regular people with regular needs and desires and limitations.
And so Jesus rebukes the crowd: You came here for more bread, not to seek God. Seek the food that endures unto eternal life, Jesus tells them.
Right right right, says the crowd. How do we do that? How do we perform the works of God?
Jesus says: The work of God is to believe in the one God sent. The manna in the wilderness didn’t come from Moses, but from the Father of Jesus, who gives the true heavenly bread, the bread that gives life to the world.
Now, the crowd thinks, we’re getting somewhere: Sir, please give us this heaven-bread always.
And then Jesus gives the punchline: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never by thirsty.”
Can you imagine what a disappointment this must have been to the crowd? We were looking for bread, we were looking for miracles, we were looking for protection from life’s needs or at least some religious insight. Instead we get this self-styled Son of God explaining that he–he!–is the Bread of Life.
And here’s the thing: they were not wrong to be disappointed. Hunger is very, very real. The need for a mortgage payment is very, very real. The need for a job and income is very, very real. God knows we need these things, and I do not believe that God willingly deprives anyone of them.
We humans want and need so much, there is so much we are afraid of, there is so much we need protection from, and we want our religion and our religious people to secure those things for us. And when you encounter those needs, even second hand, you’ll do just about anything to have them met. Dear God, please spare me the pink slip. Dear God, please spare me the cancer. Dear God, please help me find some food, some work, some place to live. I will do any work you ask of me. I will offer any sacrifice. I will believe whatever you want me to believe. Just please, keep me safe.
But the challenge Jesus faces throughout his ministry is that he is promising people something they don’t yet know to yearn for. Here the words of Jesus start dividing his followers. Up to this point in the Gospel of John, Jesus is gaining in popularity. Today, the words of Jesus start driving people away.
Because Jesus is not simply offering to meet our needs or quell our fears or answer the hopes we already carry around in our hearts. Jesus is trying to get us to want more. Not a fresh loaf of bread every day forever and ever, but bread that endures unto eternal life. Not a job that you can’t ever lose, but the never-ending work of believing in the one God sent to give birth to a new creation. Not having bread, but having–truly possessing–the bread of life itself. Not the hereafter as one day after another with no sickness and no sorrow, but a complete transformation of life into the fullness of the image of God.
The ancient church father Tertullian taught that when we pray for our daily bread, we are praying for more: we are praying to live forever in Christ, and to be an undivided part of his Body.
This week, try thinking of the world this way. Try thinking of every blessing in life as something that comes from God–like manna from heaven, which it is. But then think of it as a pledge, as a sign, of something God has in store for all the faithful in the world to come. The meals we share, however simple, are a foretaste of the wedding feast that will never end; the work of our hands will become the play of the kingdom of God; the love of spouses anticipates Christ embracing the Church; a night’s quiet will be the endless peace of the New Jerusalem; stolen meat hides a flavor sweeter than we would dare hope for–the sweetness of the bread of angels. If you have heard the words of Jesus, and if have come to yearn for these things, you’ve already started to receive them. Amen.