The Bread of Life
Dr. R. Alton Lacey
Free food. If you want to draw a crowd, give them something to eat. This summer our food service provider served a free lunch to all employees. I saw people I did not even know worked during the summer! The cafeteria was full! When we want students to show up for events we often have free food. Every Founder’s Day we have cookies and milk after chapel. Consider it a benign bribe. Politicians have long known the value of giving away food to curry favor. In my part of the country it was gumbo or crawfish boils. Feed us and incur our favor. In Washington the practice of giving way something to constituents in return for their votes became known as “pork barrel politics” probably derived from the practice of putting out barrels of salt pork which equated with having “plenty.” My first week as a seminary student, I was visited by some folks from a local church. Understand, I had not studied religion in college and I was new to some of the lingo. One of the visitors said, “They really feed you at our church.” He kind of went on about it, and I truly thought he meant real physical food like fried chicken and mashed potatoes and covered dish suppers. We were broke and could have used the free food. I was ready to sign up. When I told my wife, being a Baptist University graduate, she politely informed me that they were not talking about that kind of food. We joined another church. Face it, we all like to eat.
Galilean peasants also liked to eat but they did so with an urgency that few of us understand. About all they got from the farmers and landowners they worked for was enough to keep their bodies alive. These are people who were basically wandering and searching for their next meal. You can understand then that when Jesus showed up and fed several thousand that they were pretty excited. You know the story. Jesus was teaching his disciples and a huge crowd showed up around dinnertime and Jesus took some loaves and fishes from a boy and fed them all, as many as five thousand. They were ready to make him king! That’s what a free meal can do for hungry people. This is where we pick up the story.
Word began to spread and the next morning a crowd gathered and started looking for Jesus. They were looking for food, some more of that magic bread. I really can’t find much fault with that. Jesus had given them food so it is natural to expect he would help them out again. Jesus was nowhere to be found though no one saw him get into a boat with the disciples. If you remember the story, that’s because he had walked out across the water when it was about four miles out and got in the boat. They did not know that. So they piled into some boats that had just come over from Tiberius and crossed the lake and found Jesus and said, “Jesus, how did you get here?” Jesus ignored the question. Instead he said, “I know why you are looking for me. You’re here because I gave you free food. But you now what? You are worried about the wrong things. You are worried about things that don’t last, like food. You ought to be looking for eternal life and I’m the only one that can give you that.” Now here is where I want to make my first point to you.
Christians are often more concerned about the by-products of Christianity than they are Christianity itself.
Media evangelists understand this as their stock in trade. If they can convince you that by sending them money you will become richer, get a better job, a better house, a bigger salary, and nice car, then you will send them money, because most people want those things. But the problem is more subtle than that. All of us to some degree become consumed with perishable things: ipods, Tivos, PDA’s, Razer phones, chocolate phones – just to name a few. Even churches cater to our material and physical needs with all kinds of peripheral programs. Even our worship services are often longer on entertainment than worship. There is nothing wrong with fun and enjoyment. Christians ought to value those things. But if that becomes more important than the worship of God, then it begs the question. So how do we keep from chasing after all this stuff that has little final significance in our lives? That is pretty much what the crowd gathered around Jesus wanted to know. “Okay, Jesus, what does God want us to do?” Pretty simple He says “Believe in me.” The crowd responds “Then we are going to have to see some proof.” You see, there were two things in play here: If a prophet who had not been recognized could give a sign or wonder, then he had to be listened to, otherwise he could be ignored; and , it was a rabbinical tradition that when the Messiah came he would bring manna down from heaven. So the crowd asked Jesus for a sign so they could believe in him. And they wanted to know, “Why should we believe, why should we want these spiritual gifts? What we really want is bread like Moses gave our ancestors when they wandered in the wilderness. Give us some of that magic bread.”
Here were people standing in the presence of the Living God wondering why they should give up their stuff for eternal food. We are not so different.
Jesus tells them, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus is always full of surprises. He has taken something as common and ordinary as bread to shed light on something extraordinary, namely, the risen Christ.
This leads to my second point. There are far bigger and more satisfying things within your grasp than you have ever realized. Most of you come here thinking too small. Have you ever had an epiphany? Have you ever solved an equation or read a poem and understood it or hit a perfect golf shot and suddenly realized, “Now I get it.” You had one of those moments of pure joy of knowing, learning. No material gain came to you. You just experienced an “aha” moment. What if you had the power to conquer selfishness, or resist temptation, or master your life? Wouldn’t that be better than having stuff? That is exactly what Jesus is offering to us. On this day you are full of opportunity. Faith is trusting in the poetry that says Jesus is more than you can wrap your mind around. Faith takes imagination. Faith takes getting beyond your limited thinking. John’s gospel has one story after the other that involves people seeking one thing only to find something else. Nicodemus came seeking new life thinking he had to reenter the womb. The woman at the well was seeking living water thinking she could draw it from Jacob’s well.
Your soul will never be satisfied with the things that fill your belly, or your wallet, or your house. The big things of life come from following Christ. Just as you are capable of things in your intellectual and personal life that you have not yet even dreamed of, so are you capable of more in your spiritual life.
My last point is that everything is not about you or me. These Galilean folk had come to Jesus with the attitude of “What are you going to do for us? After all, isn’t that the only reason we should believe in you?”
Many years ago I was teaching a course in counseling. I had a student who was a tennis player from California. Nice guy. He had the long blond hair, cool tennis clothes, and sunglasses. He would come to class with his tennis bag. He always made a point to talk with me. (Hey dude, saw you ought there hitting the ball). When he got his grade he had earned a “C.” He was extremely disappointed and made an appointment to see me. He told me that he thought the grade was unfair and that I had singled him out because he was an athlete. I explained to him that he had done average work on the tests, that he had missed several classes, and that he had received poor marks on his group project in which I had students grade each other. In fact, he had hardly participated at all in the group project according to his group mates. I told him that it was far from personal. This was a course in counseling and what was being judged was his performance, not his personality. His problem was that he wanted to make it all about him instead of a grade on how much he had mastered the material.
The attitude is reflected somewhat humorously in our culture through the development of popular magazines. When I was growing up the popular magazine was Life, an all encompassing viewpoint. Later the most popular magazine was People, a somewhat narrower view. Then there was Us, narrower still. I was waiting for a magazine called Me but instead we have something called Facebook and it really is just all about you!
It is obvious that we are trained by our culture to consider that everything is about us. We take everything personally. If someone cuts in front of us on Highway 40, we take it personally. If someone gets our order wrong at the restaurant, we feel our dignity and all our progeny have been insulted beyond repair. If we have trouble with financial aid or our bill from the business office or getting a ticket from security, it becomes a personal affront. They are out to get me. So what if I parked in the Dean’s spot? That’s no reason to boot my car. It’s because I’m (fill in the blank). Everything…. people, experiences, events, organizations, and relationships ….are judged by what they can do to or for adorable me.
I am sorry to be the one to tell you this. I know it will come as a shock. You are not the center of the universe.
C.S. Lewis said it a bit more bluntly in his book Miracles…”Men of sensibility look up on the night sky with awe: brutal and stupid men do not.”
I thought about his quote this August when I went out in a rural part of the county to watch the Perseids meteor shower. Every July and August the tail of the comet named Swift –Tuttle passes near Earth. Small particles traveling 132,000 MPH hit the atmosphere and vivid streaks of light…meteors, shooting stars…are formed as they disintegrate. The meteors fly out of the constellation Perseus, thus the name. In good years you can see hundreds of meteors. This year the full moon and clouds obscured much of the view, but I still saw a few meteors. One year I was backpacking in the wilderness of Colorado, camped above 10,000 feet during the Perseids meteor shower, and I will always remember a celestial light show that would rival any fireworks display. Looking up into that vast night sky can make anyone feel pretty small.
In saying it is not all about you or me I am not saying that you are insignificant. I am saying that the most interesting thing about you is that in this entire universe God has chosen you with all your inadequacies and failings to do good work for Him. Your significance comes from what you do outside of yourself. Many of our students know that already. This summer Kinsy Kell, Luke Mcanally, Brittany Klaus, Stacie Cathers, Clayton McKibbin, and Pat Anderson worked to minister to people who were victims of Katrina. Brook Miller helped people in the remote villages of Romania and Kate Murphy helped people in Belarus. Many of you worked got outside of yourselves to help people all over our country and abroad.
You see, you may be a wonderful person, your achievements may be impressive, and you may have many good attributes but the Christian faith keeps reminding you that it is not about you, it is about God, a God who loved us so much that he sent his son to give significance to our lives that we could not give them on our own.
For those who do believe, who embrace the man who is the bread of heaven, there is eternal life.
My freshman year in college I had a chemistry professor who would often reach a certain point in the explanation of a complex chemical reaction and would say, “It’s the nature of the beast.” I tried using that on a test once and it didn’t work. I wish I could give you a formula for life that would explain how everything works and how to manage all the challenges you will face, but sometimes you have to accept that it is just the nature of the beast. That’s why in John water is not really water and wind is more than wind and bread is not only bread. It points to something greater, something more than itself. There are things you will experience that you will not understand.
But I do know this. Jesus says, “I am bread. I am bread come down from heaven to nourish you forever.” I believe in such bread. When you come to him you will be fed forever.
The Interpreter’s Bible; John.
The Gospel of John, William Barclay, Volume 1, 1975.
Pulpit Resource 28:3; 31:3; 34:3, Sermons by Will Willimon, Albert Mosley, Thomas Long