Year B, Proper 13 2009
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 25 When they found him 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 believe 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.
Have you ever done the right thing for the wrong reason? Most of us have, and that appears to be the case in today’s Gospel Lesson. The crowd is doing the right thing – looking for Jesus – but for the wrong reason: because they ate their fill of the loaves. Last week, Jesus miraculously fed the crowd of 5,000 with just five loaves of bread and two fish. This week, we get to eavesdrop on this follow-up conversation between Jesus and the crowd, as Jesus tries to help them understand what that miracle was meant to teach them. And as we eavesdrop on this conversation, we get an important refresher on the real nature of Jesus’ mission, then and now.
First, helps them understand that this meal of bread and fish meant more than just filling their bellies. He says in verse 27: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.
So what is this perishable food that he is referring to? It’s more than just food, of course. It is all the stuff of life that we work for, that we think will give us some measure of happiness, but which we can never seem to get enough of. It never seems to satisfy.
Perishable food is the bigger house, the nicer body, the better-paying job, the more exciting vacation, the new relationship. It is all the stuff that we are tempted to think will finally fill the hunger and the longing that we have, but that never seems to do it.
When we spend our lives trying to get this perishable food, we spend our lives unfulfilled, with the nagging feeling that there is more to life than what we have found.
I used an illustration six years ago when I preached on this lesson that I found helpful, and I thought I’d share it again today.
A Japanese woman once tried to explain why the Japanese must have rice at every meal by saying that it is like the Japanese have two stomachs. In one goes all the meat and vegetables and everything like that, but in the other goes the rice. And no matter how much they have to eat, if they don’t have rice, that other stomach is still empty.
[I used to use the same analogy with my parents. I used to tell them that I had two stomachs, and the second one was for dessert. They weren’t convinced.]
It’s a simple illustration, really, but it can help us to understand what this meal that Jesus provides for us is really all about.
It is like we have two stomachs, and in one goes all the perishable food. All the material possessions, all the physical pleasures of life, all the security and happiness and well-being that this life can offer. But no matter how much we fill that stomach, we will still feel hungry unless we feed the other stomach, which hungers only for the food that endures for eternal life. And that is Jesus Christ. As a famous Christian once said: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing.” It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.
The crowd, at this point, is beginning to understand that Jesus wants to offer them more simply a free lunch. He wants to offer them the food which endures for eternal life. He wants to offer them the only food that will satisfy their spiritual hunger.
But they don’t yet understand what this food is. They think it must be like the Manna that fell from heaven when their ancestors traveled through the wilderness on the way to the promised land. And so, they ask Jesus for some of this bread that will endure for eternal life, thinking that they will get something like Manna from heaven.
But then, Jesus lays it on the line, and tells them exactly where to find this bread, and it is not at all what they expect. He says, in that famous verse that is at the heart of this entire chapter:
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
The food that endures for eternal life turns out to nothing other than the Son of God himself. He alone is the bread that satisfies. There is no other that can feed our spiritual hunger. That quench our spiritual thirst. Nothing else can fill the God-sized vacuum in our souls. It is Jesus and Jesus alone.
But it is the work of a lifetime to come to believe this more and more. To recognize more and more that nothing else we might hunger for in this life is really going to satisfy us. This usually takes a lot of detours and dead-ends, a lot of disappointments. It is really the work of a lifetime. But it is true, I am convinced.
One of the real privileges that I have as a pastor, and that I share with our Church Council, is to bring the bread of life to our homebound members. We bring Holy Communion to those members who cannot come to church. Some of these people cannot leave their home, or leave it only rarely. Some have difficulty walking, or seeing, or hearing. The days are long past for many of them of wishing for a bigger house, or a better body, or a better-paying job, or a more exciting vacation destination, or for any of those things that we so often hunger for and are almost consumed with.
But despite all that – or maybe because of all that – when I bring them the bread of life, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus, I can see in their eyes that they hunger for Jesus. And it humbles me.
And it reminds me of the truth of what Jesus said. The truth which he tries to communicate throughout this conversation with the hungry crowd. The truth of the gospel. The truth which we can spend a lifetime learning, but which we give thanks for this day. The truth which will bring us all to the altar in just a moment, when we will extend our hands and receive the food that endures for eternal life.
I am the bread of life, he said. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Thanks be to God. Amen