Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/jc2gjpZhnh8.
Pentecost 10B 15
Last week we talked about Jesus’ great sign of the feeding of the five thousand, and the following experience of the disciples when Jesus comes to them walking over the chaos of the sea and says to them “I am”, “Don’t be afraid”.
This week we go with the crowd and the disciples to hear Jesus’ words about that sign and what it means.
The crowd or at least some of them follow Jesus to Caperaum where they find him and Jesus’ own take on this is that they are hoping for another meal. Now, I don’t think that Jesus says this in a cross voice, but as the scholar Craig Satterlee suggests, Jesus is disappointed that they don’t ask him for more, more that is than bread. The problem is that in that culture as in many countries today, the daily search for food, and for work to provide that food becomes the only thing that you can think about, as Jesus himself understands. However, he wants to give them so much more because of his eternal perspective. “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.” Once again, in this gospel account Jesus isn’t terribly straightforward in his claim. He calls himself “the Son of Man”- a term he borrows from the OT and leaves it to the people to understand that he means himself- the clue he gives them is that God the Father has set his seal on him- and that might be considered to be more obvious, given that he has just fed them.
The crowd haven’t yet understood, however! When they come to him they give him the title “Rabbi” or teacher, which is precisely why Jesus needs to unpack and explain just what he has actually done in feeding them. They are still thinking of him as a great teacher who has been able to do this “sign” rather than recognizing that he is “I am”, and we need to remember that that revelation came only to the disciples who were in the boat.
Nonetheless, the people want him to teach them so they ask him what he means about the work that endures for eternal life and they recognize that this is the works of God. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” they ask. And they receive a very interesting and somewhat unexpected answer. When we think of doing God’s work, we presume that it will involve some kind of service, don’t we? In fact the phrase, “doing the Lord’s work” or “God’s work” has been used a lot in the past to convey that a person had a vocation in the church or missionary society or whatever. They were people set apart and often used their status as being set apart to avoid other responsibilities. But here Jesus brings the whole idea of “work” to a very different conclusion. Their work, and ours by extension, is to believe in him whom God has sent. Now that’s a peculiar statement isn’t it? How can it be “work” to believe in Jesus?
Part if the difficulty is that we have the wrong idea about what it means to “believe in Jesus”- we tend to think that it means to give intellectual assent to something, in theory at least. And there are certain things that we can believe in, in that intellectual sense, that do not impact on our day to day lives. We might believe that Elvis Presley existed, in fact some of us might believe that he is still alive, but we won’t go there! In fact we would all probably assent to the fact that Elvis lived from 1935- 1977. The difference is that some of us, or some people more generally believe that he was the greatest musician that ever lived. This also doesn’t matter much until you are dressed up in an Elvis impersonators costume on the train to Gulgong and somebody scoffs at you for loving Elvis. When you then get into a fight because you believe that Elvis was the greatest ever, then we are coming closer to the kind of belief that Jesus is talking about here. This isn’t an abstract intellectual exercise, this “belief”. “Belief” not just here, but all the way through John’s gospel, is about being in relationship. This “belief” that Jesus asks for is a laying down your life kind of affair. If you were to ask me why I stood around in the freezing wind with an unwieldy banner a couple of Saturday’s ago, I would tell you that it is because I believe, with my whole heart, that Asylum Seekers matter, and that their rights are very important. My belief results in a relationship that produces action in my life. This is what Jesus means! He is not asking his listeners to assent to the fact that he is there. He is asking them to be in relationship with him, to believe in him, as you might, or might not, believe in Elvis The King of Rock and Roll! Jesus wants us to be on that train!
It is clear that the people listening understand what he means because they ask him for a sign that they might believe in him. They want another work, they want him, in fact, to be as great as their father Moses, who gave their ancestors manna in the dessert. And Jesus is quick to point out to them that it was God who provided, not Moses. And we with our hindsight feel the slight that is offered to Jesus. They think he is good, because he has fed them once, but not as good as Moses who continued to feed them. Jesus is up against the kind of hero worship that a figure like Moses or Elvis for that matter, produces. And he is GOD! It is such an insult- he is so much more than the manna in the dessert- he himself, is the true bread from heaven. Plato, the Greek philosopher, had this theory that what we see here in our temporal world is just a shadow of the reality- that the reality is a type that we cannot grasp here and now. John is, of the gospel writers, the most influenced by the ideas of the classical world and here what Jesus says chimes with Plato. “You have bread here on earth, given by me, given by Moses, but the TRUE bread is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” And this is what we are to desire, the food that endures for eternal life.
The crowd have followed this argument pretty well, and they say to him, “Kyrios” or “Lord, give us this bread always.” They want what he’s got. They want this eternal bread, who wouldn’t? And they are beginning to understand that Jesus is far more than just a Rabbi.
And then Jesus, in the first of the “I am” statements, says, “I AM the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” It’s an incredible claim, Jesus is saying that he is our nourishment, or very life because without water and bread we cannot survive. And Jesus, just like his statement when he came to them across the water, is claiming to be God.
The question for us is: if we believe, that is have a relationship with Jesus, in what sense is Jesus the “bread of life” for us? In what sense do we feed on him for our very existence?
Well, the obvious answer is that we feed on him in the holy meal. We are about to celebrate that meal together- how important is it? Is it, as I was taught as a child, an act of remembrance when I sit and think about Jesus’ death and about my sinful nature that caused that death- well yes, but I would now say it is much more. Is it a re-enactment of the sacrifice as a pagan cult might do? Trying to make something happen by going through the motions again? No, I say to you, categorically, it is not. It is an act of communion, shared by us together and with God, in which God feeds us. How are we nourished? I don’t know but I know that it is so. Do we have to feel something for that to be true? Is it experiential in that sense? Well, maybe the answer here is Yes and No. Yes, we sometimes have a deep response and sense of God meeting us in the meal, but not always, sometimes it is about us turning up- we are fed, whether we are viscerally aware of it, or not. I know that for 31years I took communion once a month and it seemed enough and then I went to England for a year and attended a church where we partook of the sacrament every week and when I returned to Wollongong and monthly communion I missed it dreadfully. It did seem to really be important to me. And does it change us, strengthen us, nourish us? I believe, with all my heart, that it does. But of course, it is hard to prove because there can be no empirical evidence- no control group, to measure the work of God in the lives of God’s guests at table. We might, however, see the outworking in our lives. We might be more inclined to hospitality ourselves, in its various forms. We might be people who stretch out loving arms of grace to others or people who feed the hungry. The trouble is that it is impossible to know what we might have been like without the Holy Spirit working in our lives, changing us, as Paul says from one degree of glory to another.
Is the Holy Meal the only way in which we are fed by the bread of life? Stay tuned as we continue to explore this amazing discourse in the weeks to come.