Moving beyond the food that perishes
August 5, 2018
Last week we began what is known as the Bread of Life discourse. Each of Jesus’ discourses in John’s Gospel are explanations of some sign, or miracle, he’s performed, so it’s important for our understanding that we recall what that sign was. Anyone remember what we heard last week? [Jesus feeding the 5000.] I’m sure you remember this story – Jesus and the disciples are all out, far away from town, and everyone gets hungry. One boy shares his lunch (five small loaves and two small fish), and miraculously everyone ends up with plenty to eat, with 12 baskets left over. It is one of Jesus’ seven signs that we see in John’s Gospel.
The next part of the story happens the next day. Folks have gone to pretty great lengths to track down Jesus, and they find him, and today we will be hearing the conversation that ensues. As always in John, conversation with Jesus is characterized by a lack of understanding, because Jesus is always talking from up here, in the heavenly realm, and people respond from down here, in the earthly realm. They totally miss what Jesus is really saying, because they are so stuck down in the world of the flesh. Not that we can really blame them. This is tough stuff Jesus is saying. Jesus is totally blowing their minds here.
One more quick comment about our first reading: for Jesus’ disciples, it is this story of being fed in the wilderness has been the defining story about how God provides. It is so foundational, that it is what the crowd refers to in trying to understand who Jesus is. So listen carefully, and then hold onto that story as you listen to what Jesus says about being the bread of life.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are some chores I really hate, and some I don’t mind doing. Some aren’t so bad because at the end of them, there is a sense of satisfaction, and accomplishment. Like folding laundry. I sort as I go, so by the end, I have all these nice little stacks all organized, which then go neatly into a basket, to be carried upstairs and put away. Satisfying!
What I do mind, however, is when the clothes I’m folding belong to my kids, who get very excited to see their clothes all clean, and come barreling into what I’m doing, grabbing their favorite items out of what is inevitably the center of the pile, and totally undoing 15 minutes of effort. All that time, wasted.
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” I’m not sure Jesus had in mind folding laundry with toddlers around when he said this, but sometimes life can feel a bit like that! Isn’t it so frustrating when you work diligently for something, only to find that it means nothing moments later? Or maybe weeks or even years later? I think about all the people in the Rochester area, many of you members of this congregation, who worked for Kodak, developing film technology… a technology now made mostly obsolete by digital photography. It can feel a bit, can’t it, like all those years were work for food that perishes, that does not endure. It is incredibly frustrating and disheartening to pour so much time and energy into something that does not, in the end, endure.
And yet, this is exactly what we do, isn’t it, not just in our careers, or daily chores, but also in seeking joy and depth and fulfillment in life. With so many demands on our time, not to mention, of course, the pressure to build up savings and retirement accounts, and making sure everything in life is in order… who has time to meaningfully seek joy and fulfillment? And so what we do instead is try to find that life elsewhere, somewhere quick and easy: shopping, or working more or harder, or a bag of chips, or binge watching a TV show, or scrolling through Facebook or Twitter to look at silly cat memes, or to comment on the latest outrageous news story, or to superficially connect with people who may or may not hold meaningful places in our lives. All these things give us a quick buzz, a brief moment of satisfaction, but ultimately, it doesn’t last. It doesn’t bring enduring life or joy. We work for the food that perishes, not the food that endures for eternal life. And then we wonder how it can be that we are working so hard, and keeping so busy, and yet not feeling full of life.
So where do we find this food, this nourishment and sustenance that does fill us up, that does endure for eternal life? Well, Jesus tells us: the Son of Man will give it to you. The crowd is as eager about this as we are: “What does that mean? What do we have to do to get it?” Simple, Jesus says. Just believe.
Simple, but not easy – for them or for us! I have often thought, “If I could just have been there, and met Jesus, and seen the signs he performed and the ways he touched and taught people, faith would be so much easier!” But here the crowd proves that theory wrong. They have just witnessed the feeding of the 5000, and Jesus walking on water, and yet still, they ask for a sign. They even bring up God’s past faithfulness, just like I do: “Well if only I could see the sort of thing God used to do, like for the Israelites, like when they were in the wilderness and Moses gave them bread from heaven. Show me something like that, and I’ll believe!”
Can’t we always find some excuse for our lack of faith, some way that faith would be easier “if only”? “If I could just see a sign… if I only had more time to devote to prayer, or if results and gratification from prayer came faster… if I knew more about the Bible… if God would just prove to me that all this effort will be worth it in the end… then I would have more faith!” But all that sounds hard, even impossible, and so instead, we continue to work for the food that perishes, throwing ourselves into activities and mindsets and ways of life that give us a quick fix, but do not offer us the sustaining goodness that we will only find in Christ Jesus.
During one Lent, I tried as a discipline doing what’s called the examen. At the end of each day, I answered in writing two questions: when did I feel full of life today, and when did I feel life draining out of me? Then at the end of the week, I looked at what I had written, and looked for patterns. Did I consistently feel life draining out of me during an activity that I, nevertheless, continue to devote time to? Did I feel full of life doing something that I don’t make enough time for? I admit to you, that it was a very revealing exercise – a bit too revealing. I didn’t like what I saw. I quickly recognized some patterns that I knew should change, but I also knew it would be so hard to change them. It would be easier to ignore this revelation, and keep doing what may not be as life-giving as something else, but was much easier and was, in the end, not great, but fine. I continued to work for the food that perishes, rather than the food that endures for eternal life.
Yes, friends, I regularly fail at this. I’m guessing you do, too. We are a people who consistently work for the food that perishes. I wonder if a part of the reason for that is that we fancy ourselves to be self-sufficient. We think, if we work hard enough, keep busy enough, learn enough, then we will succeed. We will live! We will have full, satisfying lives. We are quite accustomed to relying on ourselves, and we are quicker to trust ourselves than anyone or anything else.
And yet, remember what Jesus says. “Do not work for the food that perishes,” he says, “but for the food that endures for eternal life… which the Son of Man will give you.” This food, this thing that fills us up and sustains us and does not disappoint us – it will be given to us, by Christ himself. It will be given to us when we read the Word, when we do as one old prayer says, “hear the words of scripture, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” It will be given to us when we notice God’s movement in our daily lives, giving credit to our Maker for all that we have and not to ourselves. It will be given to us when we talk to God regularly, living into that abiding relationship God so wants with us. It will be given to us when we come forward to this table, stretch out our beggar’s hands, and don’t take, but rather are given grace itself, the bread of life, and told, “This is my body, given for you… even though you regularly fail. It’s given for you anyway, my beloved child. Take and eat it. This is my body, given even for you.”
Such a gift of grace is hard to accept, for a bunch of folks accustomed to working hard (even, working for food that perishes). We don’t have to earn it. We don’t deserve it. We don’t have to check all the boxes and do all the things that we or society tells us we need to do in order to be valued members of society. This grace is merely given, to us bunch of failures, to us bunch of beloved children of God. This grace is given to us, so that we might have an abiding relationship with our loving God, not because of who we are or what we accomplish, but because of who God is and what God has accomplished.
That’s a message I know I need to hear, to be reminded of again and again. I need to be told, “Johanna, you’re gonna drop the ball sometimes. You’re gonna totally blow it other times. You’re gonna work your behind off and feel like after all that, you got absolutely nowhere… and in the midst of all that, God loves you so much, that God actually still wants to be in a serious and committed relationship with you, and will go great lengths to do so.” That is life. That is enduring. That is a promise to sink your teeth into. And so we shall.
Let us pray… Bread of life, we work so hard in hopes of being valued by ourselves and others. But this is food that perishes. Remind us every day that we are already valued because we are loved by a life-giving God. Fill us up with your life and your love. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.