Bread of Life 08/02/09

Scriptures:  Exodus 16:2-15 and John 6:24-35

Well, here we are at the beginning of our journey together: my first Sunday as your pastor.  For the time being, our paths lie together and now is the time when we are just getting to know each other and our ‘travel habits’. It just so happens that our lectionary texts are also about people journeying together and seeking a common destination in God.   We are also given a little bit of a puzzle to work out, as Jesus tells us he is the Bread of Life.  As we begin to look at these two texts, we will find, I believe, that the Bread of Life is what brings us together, what sustains us on our journey, and even what directs our steps forward.

The Israelites were on a journey.  After having been freed from slavery in Egypt, they crossed the Red Sea and now they are traveling in the wilderness, the desert really, and they’re starting to wish they hadn’t left – or that they’d had more time to prepare.  I can’t imagine they had a lot of time to gather their things, or collect enough dried meat and fruit to sustain them.  Really, they didn’t even know how long they would be traveling before they reached the land promised to Moses by God.

A few Sundays ago, Jesus told the disciples to go out in pairs (Mark 1-13) and to take nothing with them – nothing!  No bread, no bag of supplies, no money.  They are to go with themselves and a walking staff.  Both the Israelites and the people following Jesus grow weary of traveling; they get uncomfortable, tired, hot, hungry.  Some of them were probably dehydrated, others may have blisters on their feet.  All of them are in need of physical sustenance.

Both groups are fed.  The Israelites receive manna from heaven, enough to sustain them for each day.  Just before our passage in John (vv. 1-21) is when Jesus feeds the five thousand with a few fishes and loaves of bread.  Implicit in both these journeys is the understanding that God will provide.  But after Jesus feeds the multitudes, he retreats across the sea and the people seek him out in Capernaum and try to get him to be more specific about who he is and what he can do for them.    They want promises of what is to come and they want to know what they can do to bring it about.  They even parallel their experience with that of the Israelites and ask for the bread from heaven.  Jesus then takes the concept of bread from heaven to the next level, and states that he is the bread of life, God’s gift of life to the world.  Here, the followers of Jesus have something to add to their understanding of God.  They know that God will provide … now they find that God will be what is provided for the fulfillment of their needs.  In a confounding way, God points to God’s own self as the provision and food necessary for the journey we are called to as Christians. As John Pilch says, “The gift and the giver are one and the same.”

There is a puzzle here.  There are two spheres: one on earth and one in heaven.  We have bread that fills our physical bodies and we have bread that satisfies our longings to be made whole.  Jesus seems to be pointing out a key difference between being filled and being fulfilled.  Our physical hunger is temporary … and it always seems to come back.  Our spiritual hunger, however, can be fulfilled once and always by Jesus.  There are countless ways that we try to fill our emptiness with physical things when really we need to be meeting our spiritual needs to be completely happy or contented.  But as the followers of Jesus know, life on earth is often difficult.  The social psychology Abraham Maslow put together what he calls the hierarchy of needs.  And in order to be able to think on a higher plane and become self-actualized (or what we might call fully mature and able to experience our full potential) a person must first have their basic needs met.  The puzzle or the problem is that we separate these two spheres (the earthly and the heavenly) too much.  We have both physical and spiritual hunger and both needs to be met.

O. Benjamin Sparks talks about how we Christians in America are inviting people into their churches for “all the wrong reasons.”  He suggests that “all the wrong reasons” to invite people to church are: “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; for the opportunity to practice mission in the local community, or to go on mission trips to Africa or Central America.” Several of those seem to me to be very good reasons to invite someone to become part of the life of the church, but Sparks’ point is that when the church is busy trying to market itself to the neighborhood or meet the consumeristic needs of the culture, we often lose sight of what is so important in the first place. As Sparks continues he says, “what we have to offer–in Christ and by Christ and because of Christ–first and foremost is ‘soul food,’ which lasts forever and does not change with the changing circumstances of the church or the world. It is soul food that we desire, and soul food in which we will rejoice, long after our bellies are full.”  ‘Soul food,’ as he call it, is the Bread of Life – Jesus, the teacher of Compassion, the lover of all people regardless of one’s place in life. Sparks calls the gospel preached by American Christians “a broken, truncated gospel” because all too often we focus on either the spiritual aspect of our faith or the physical/material needs of the people in the world.  The truth is, Jesus did both!  He fed his followers before he told them to focus on more important things than food.

We, however, have difficulty balancing the two spheres and we tend to emphasize either the need to help the hungry and meet people’s physical needs or we stress the spiritual hunger of the world.  The tension between these two spheres is easy to see in practice.  There are two examples of it in India, a country with one of the highest rates of poverty in the world:

Mahatma Gandhi said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”  There are places in which it would be ludicrous and probably just plain rude to begin to talk about the spiritual rewards of faith when there are so many struggling to survive.  On the other hand, Mother Teresa told us, “there is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”  The Christian message is one of hope and it can be profoundly moving and important for people in all walks of life … people who are super wealthy by the worlds standards but still feel empty until they find satisfaction and meaning in Christ and people who struggle daily for life and find in Christ a way to be free of the restrictions of this world, a way to move forward expecting more both in this world and the next.  The truth is all of us have a hunger of some sort.  One of my favorite quotes is this, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” (D.T. Niles)  We are all starving beggars who come to this table to be fed.

Jesus picked up on the image of bread quite deliberately.   Bread and eating is essential to one’s survival … by stating that he is the Bread of Life, Jesus is making it clear that belief and reliance on him is just as essential to one’s life and faith.  It is appropriate, then, that as we begin our journey together, we take the Lord’s Supper.  In this way, we can take the body of Christ and in consuming the Bread of Life and allowing Jesus to dwell in us, we can, as a group, become the body of Christ, living in Christ and walking in Christ’s path.

There are several things that will help us on this journey.  One, we must learn each others stories.  I’m sure many of you already know most of the stories of your travel partners, but others of you may not.  Certainly, it’s going to take a little while for me to get to know all of you and vice versa.  I think the best things we can do is to be honest and patient with one another as we get to know each other and as we grow together.

Next, we need to get to know each others’ ‘travel habits’.  Just as I know that Joe likes to keep the air a little cooler in the car than me (so I take a sweater), we will start to get used to the way that each of us do church in slightly different ways.  As we journey together, worship will grow out of our relationships and out of our combined faith and efforts.  Until then, we’re just going to take things a day/week at a time.  Our traveling together is going to create new opportunities and new growth in each of us just as believing in Jesus, the bread of life helps each of us grow and change.  When you take communion, you literally take in Christ.  Christ is in you and you are in Christ.  This changes you and changes your path.  Let’s walk that path together.

Finally, let’s take some bread for the journey.  Jesus Christ is both the giver and the gift, and it is no surprise that a large portion of Christian fellowship happens over food.  As we travel, let’s remember to enjoy the company and enjoy the awesome experience of worshipping God together.  Will you pray with me?  Loving God, we come to your table hungry in heart as well as hungry in our stomach.  Thank you for filling both.  May we forever find our fulfillment in you and walk in your way.  Alleluia and Amen!

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