Whenever I read these passages that describe Jesus in conversation with a crowd, I must admit that I can’t help but think of it as a little bit like a Monty Python sketch. I mean no disrespect to the Lord, or to the text. It simply seems slightly comical to have a crowd speaking as one with Jesus. I think that there is some implicit humor in the text, though.
They had all gotten in boats to follow him across the Sea of Galilee. When they catch up to him they say something like, “Hey, Rabi. Fancy meeting you here!” Of course Jesus calls them to account by telling them that they are working awfully hard for something that is not going to last.
That is the core of the Gospel teaching today – the tension between things that are temporary and things that are eternal. All of us get caught up in that same struggle from time to time. In fact, the struggle is so prevalent in our lives that everyone who has ever worked in retail knows how hard their employers work to motivate you, the customer, into confusion over needs and wants. I can describe it in three words: end cap display.
These are the items at the end of the aisle in the grocery store that demonstrate sale prices for items that are obvious needs – like potato chips and Kevlar plated omelet pans. Oh, we need these things because sometimes we just have to take care of ourselves, right?
It is true that we need to exercise self-care. It is true that binge watching an entire season of commercial free TV and eating ice cream make you feel good when you are enjoying them. Yet these types of things – whatever your vice may be – confuse the temporary with the eternal when they become something that we expect to give us meaning and purpose.
That can be true of anything that we set up as something to orient our lives around. Anything that becomes a primary center of value is essentially an idol. And while my love of sci-fi might be a far cry from the sin of David, it can lead to the same place. When David hears of the rich man who takes the poor man’s lamb without compassion, he condemns him. When he realizes that he is as guilty, he does not say, “I have sinned against Uriah.” Nor does he say, “I have sinned against Bathsheba.” He says, “I have sinned against the Lord!”
Likewise, in our desire to be complete selves – or just in our efforts to feel better about things – we may find that we have forgotten about our relationships with those around us. I’m not suggesting that we need to feel guilty for the choices that others make. I am saying that we must consider how our choices impact others. And when we find that we have been selfish or neglectful, it is good and right to realize that our sin is not just against our brother or sister. It is against God.
Now, the idea that sin is not simply an individual thing but rather something that truly impacts the people of God and their relationship with God is found throughout the Old Testament, but it is particularly important for David as the anointed King of Israel. And as followers of God’s anointed Messiah, it is particularly important for us.
And that is why Jesus wants us to understand the difference between things that are temporary and things that are permanent. In the midst of this story about bread and hunger is the word work. Jesus tells the crowd they are working for the bread that perishes rather than the bread endures for eternal life – which he will give them freely.
You can see their confusion. “We should work for this bread that you’re going to give us?” They must have gotten it a little bit, because they asked how they could perform the works of God. “Perform” and “work” are literally the same word in the Greek text. It’s as though they’ve picked up a new piece of tech and said, “How do you work this thing?” And Jesus tells them that all they have to do is believe that he is the bread of heaven.
They respond by asking for a sign like when Moses fed the people with manna. And Jesus simply clarifies to assure them that the manna came from Heaven, just as he had come from God. Now, it’s important to remember that this story is on the heels of the Passover feast – a time when Jews remember their salvation from slavery in Egypt, and particularly from the plague of death that passed them by. Jesus is essentially telling them that asking for more bread to eat is short sighted. Asking for signs from the one whom they are following because he has healed them and fed them and demonstrated God’s love for them is simply missing the point.
Jesus is not simply the one who calls for bread or produces it. Jesus is the One who is the bread. He is the one who satisfies our deepest needs, who assures us of God’s presence in all things, and who pulls us into the eternal embrace of the One never lets us go.
And to those of us who have heard this all before, Paul begs us to lead lives that are worthy of the gift of eternal life given to us by Jesus. I have to admit, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” is a little awkward for those of us that believe that our calling as a follower of Jesus is not a merit badge. We don’t follow Jesus because we are the right kind of people. We follow Jesus because we are deeply aware of our ability to mess things up, and because of our deep appreciation for the God who inspires us to greater heights!
And God not only inspires us – literally God’s indwelling Holy Spirit is the source of our greatest thoughts and actions – but God gives us gifts in order to bind us together in love. These gifts are given to empower us in ministry and build the church – not the building or the institution, but the ever present witness to the active presence of God in this world!
Over the past five years the constant question has been, “How can we offer a more faithful witness to God’s grace in this community?” Although that question can get old after a while, the good news is that this congregation has been asking and answering this question for 140 years.
In fact, I recently came across a report from 1995 that attempted to answer the question of how well suited our facilities were for meeting the needs of the community around us. That was the inspiration for the last renovation that resulted in a larger kitchen and renovated offices and meeting spaces.
While we continue to use these facilities to serve the community through our relationships with CUPS, Meals on Wheels, and the Living Sober AA group, we must continue to find ways to be in relationships with those in need, with those in power, and with those who God calls us to encourage and be encouraged by.
More than all of this – or perhaps at the heart of it all – I believe that in receiving forgiveness from the one who is from God we may come to see that all things are from God, even our challenges and limitations. All things, even horrible and terrible things, can draw us closer to God. If we can remember the difference between the temporary and the permanent, then we can be assured that our sin will not define us, our challenges cannot confine us, and our trials will only refine us so that we become knit together as the body of Christ – which continues to grow in faith and in love.
As we come to the table today and say that the bread is Christ’s body which is broken for us, we are not simply remembering what Jesus did for us. We are proclaiming what God is doing for us – here and now, in this place and every place. Jesus is the bread of life, and we come knowing that our sins can no longer separate us from God. Just as Paul begged those in Ephesus to lead lives worthy of their desire to follow Jesus, so he begs us now; not because we need to earn it, but because of what we have been given.
As we move from the table, I pray that we may continue to deepen our understanding of these gifts together, that we may continue to speak the truth in love, and that all who enter these doors will go out with a renewed understanding of the things that last. Truly there are only two permanent things in this world. The first is change. People, places, even ideas and concepts that we believe to be facts can change. The second thing is God’s love, which is unchanging.
So, let us frame all things in the unchanging love of God that has been expressed in Christ Jesus. Let us celebrate the gifts God has given us through the church, and let us demonstrate the unchanging love of God when and where we can. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.