By Pastor Tracey Leslie
One of the things many of us have missed over the past year is eating out at our favorite restaurants. Take out just isn’t quite the same because a really good restaurant is about more than filling out tummies. A really good restaurant is an experience. Take a moment to consider: what is it about your favorite restaurant that makes it so special to you?
Today’s bible story reminds us that deep inner nourishment goes beyond simply eating food. It is something more.
The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fish is the only miracle recorded in all four of our biblical gospels. But, only John takes an entire chapter of 71 verses to engage with this miracle.
We’re currently in the midst of this Lenten sermon series entitled “What Do You See?” Aside from the first week, all of the bible stories we are examining are from the gospel of John and all of them build on one another. So, if you’ve missed either of the past two weeks, I’d encourage you to check them out on Trinity’s website, FB page or YouTube Channel. In the gospel of John, there is always more to see than what appears on the surface. It is like peeling back the layers of an artichoke. In John, each story gets better and better the deeper you dive into it and that is certainly the case this morning.
As this story begins, all four gospel writers tell us that Jesus is on the move but that the crowds are stalking him wherever he goes. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus teaches all day before his disciples remind him that they are far from any towns and this crowd must be getting hungry. But, in the gospel of John, from the moment the crowds approach, Jesus has their hunger in mind and asks one of his disciples, Philip, about how they can be fed. The disciples are dubious, but Jesus already has a plan in mind. I point out that distinction only to remind us that Jesus does not make light of the crowd’s physical hunger. Hunger was a constant threat in the ancient Palestinian world and Jesus takes the need seriously. But Jesus also wants us to recognize that we “do not live by bread alone.”
Now, John’s gospel concludes this miracle dramatically when he tells us that this miracle inspires the crowd to try to take Jesus by force in order to make him their king. And so, like in Matthew’s and Mark’s account, Jesus retreats to a mountain by himself. His disciples get into the boat to cross the sea and the winds are strong and the waves are rough and Jesus comes to them, during the night, walking across the water and they are terrified.
The next morning, the crowd, realizing that Jesus is now on the other side of the sea, tracks him down once again. And that is where this morning’s scripture reading picks up. Before I read it, a couple things to keep in mind: first, our gospel narrator tells us that this feeding miracle occurs around the time of the Passover, that great Jewish festival that commemorates God liberating the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and miraculously providing them with bread from heaven as they journeyed through the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land. Second, in the gospel of John, the miraculous things Jesus does are not called miracles, but signs. They are called “signs” because they point to who Jesus is. It is the who, not the what, that is most important.
25 When the crowd found Jesus on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 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. 27 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.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you trust in him whom he has sent.” 30 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? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 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. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35 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.
Within this portion of this story, Jesus very quickly names the crowd’s motivation for seeking him: they want another free meal. But, although Jesus cares about their hunger – remember, it was his idea to feed them in the first place – he doesn’t want their journey to stop at their bellies. Jesus wants to inspire a deeper seeking.
But notice how the crowd responds. They ask: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Just tell us what to do Jesus and we can check it off the list. Their question seems to imply that faith is something transactional, a kind of quid pro quo.
I read a blogger this week, Payam Banazadeh. I don’t know anything about him, but his blogpost was good. In it, he wrote: “Transactional relationships are by nature optimized around getting the most you possibly can in exchange for as little as possible on your part. They are all about you and what you can get, and not about what you can give.”
The crowd is focused on what they can do to earn something Jesus offers to them for free. A funny story… The last time Britt and I were in Cincinnati, we needed air in the tires of my car. Britt went to one gas station and their machine wasn’t working. He went to another. The machine was working but not the card reader. So he went inside to see if he could get change. The cashier said she couldn’t open the register unless he bought something. In frustration, he pulled into Midas. He walked in and asked, “Can I buy some air?” “Buy it?” the employee said. “It’s free.” “Well, how do I get it?” Britt asks. The man responded, “Just pull your car around and I’ll put it in for you.”
The crowd wants to know what work they must do and Jesus responds and reminds them that it isn’t about something they do. Their only “work” – if you could ever possibly label it as such – is to enter into a relationship with Jesus; to put their trust in him.
The crowd next shifts the conversation, pointing out the work that Moses did on behalf of the Israelites when he supplied them with food in the wilderness. Remember, it is nearly Passover and that is what is on the people’s minds. So Jesus must correct them. As wonderful as Moses was, it wasn’t Moses who laid that manna on the ground for them every morning. That manna was given by God. It was heavenly bread. But it didn’t endure. It didn’t last indefinitely. When some of them tried to hoard it by storing it overnight, they discovered worms in it the next morning. The people needed a fresh supply of manna every morning.
But, Jesus tells the crowd, the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. Jesus has already explained to Nicodemus in chapter 3 that he is the only one ever to come down from heaven to give life to the world. Jesus is the true bread of heaven who sustains us in ways far deeper than simply filling our tummies.
Famous Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes a meditation on this miracle of the multiplication of the bread and fish in which he reminds us that Jesus’ teaching that he is the Bread of Life is about receiving Jesus into us in a very intimate way. To eat the bread of communion is to invite Jesus into us. The substance, the nature, the character of Jesus, through bread and spirit, reside within us. Again, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Even though Jesus gave us the bread, we still eat an idea… That is why we have not been able to nourish our true faith, our true love. We have grasped ideas and notions as food. That is why we have never satisfied our hunger… We try to eat the word bread, or the notion of bread.”
Once again, as I always say friends: Christianity is not a belief system. It is a relational system.” Christianity is not an idea or a theological concept. Nor is it about doing lots of work to earn God’s approval or reward. All we need to do is trust Jesus and welcome him to enter within us in an intimate way and trust that, everything we need to sustain and nourish us, comes from God through Jesus.
I imagine some of us remember having a celebrity crush while we were growing up. We might have hung posters on our wall or bought magazines featuring interviews with our favorite celebrity. Or, now in days, follow their fan page. We may have even fantasized that, if only we could meet our celebrity crush, they would fall in love with us and we could move to Hollywood and live a magical life in a mansion filled with romance and adventure.
But then we grew up and we realized that our adolescent celebrity crush was just an idea and a notion. It wasn’t real. And many of us eventually met an average every day person with whom we became intimate. They probably didn’t buy us a mansion or a sports car or take us to vacation on the French Riviera. But, they loved us and nourished our souls in a deep way.
And friends: that is an analogy for Christianity. For some, Christianity is still like an immature celebrity crush. People admire Jesus from a distance and ask him for a glamorous life with lots of bling or at least a few miracles along the way. They may hang his picture on the wall or put his book on a shelf in their home. But it is not a true relationship. It is an idea.
But Jesus is real and he is the true bread of heaven and if we welcome him, truly, into us, we will be nourished and loved in such deep ways. We need to read his book, not just put it on a shelf. We need to spend time with Jesus through prayer and meditation.
I hope you all have been reading and appreciating the Lenten devotions provided by our Lafayette churches. Today’s reflection was written by Pastor Abby Lietz. She shares a story of how God answered a prayer for healing when she was young. She was wowed by God’s instant response to her request, like those ancient Jews wowed by an abundant free meal of bread and fish. But Abby also recognized as she grew older that God doesn’t want us to remain immature children with the gimme’s. The best gift God offers isn’t a loaf of bread or even physical healing. The best gift is God’s very self which we are invited to receive, to take into ourselves so that we are nourished from the inside out by the very presence of God.
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Jn 6:25–35.
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