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Sometimes our failures stick with us and this isn’t a bad thing necessarily. We can learn from them and continue to learn from them. We were in a small town in the Chapare region of Bolivia 11 years ago. We were at a church in their courtyard and there were kids everywhere. We had brought some soccer balls and things like that along and the scene was chaotic. Children from the village were lined up outside hoping to get in. After a little while the kids settled down somewhat and our host and guide Ivan asked me if I would teach them a Bible lesson. I was a little more unprepared than I should have been. I should have expected such a request and such an opportunity to share with the kids. I read the story of the boy with the loaves of fish and said some things about it. My main point that I can remember anyway is that God will provide for you.
I should have done something better with this passage or any other passage. I would have been better singing “The Fruit of the Spirit” with the kids and talking about the kinds of things God will do in our hearts. Those kids knew privation and they weren’t best served by me moralizing this story. But you learn and we’re not going to moralize this story here this morning. We see throughout John’s Gospel that things point to other things. Jesus is not talking about rebirth when he speaks to Nicodemus. Jesus is not just talking about water or thirst when he speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well. When we talk about Jesus feeding 5,000 plus people we’re not just talking about food. We’re not just talking about bread and fish. We’re not just saying that Jesus will supply our material needs. Sometimes material needs aren’t supplied after all. We’re not just saying that if we bring our gifts to Jesus he will multiply them, though there is that.
“But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) That you may come to believe for the first time or that your belief will be deepened. We looked at the first of Jesus’ signs two weeks ago that pointed to something else – to a new age of deliverance in Christ. Something new happening which came out of something old. When John tells us in v4 that it was near the time of Passover, we can start to think that we’re not just going to be talking about food. We’re going to be talking about deliverance. When we read that there was a great deal of grass in the place and the crowd sat down, we are going to think about the one about whom the Psalmist sang makes us to lie down in green pastures. It’s not simply about the food. It’s not even simply about the miracle. It’s about to what the signs pointed. Or more specifically to whom the signs pointed.
The bread and the fish point to something else. The talk of bread speaks to hunger. This was a people who knew what it meant to not know where their next meal was coming for. People who knew what it meant to live a hand to mouth existence. It can be hard for us to know this unless we’ve known food insecurity. Often we eat for fun or out of boredom (if you’re like me). Something I’ve been doing for Lent the past few years is to stop eating meat for Lent (except for fish on one weekend day). It leaves me feeling a little bit hungry most of the time. It’s part of the human condition. Hunger. “We all have a hunger” is how one song puts it. “Everybody’s got a hungry heart” is how another song puts it.
Bread is a good way to point to a deeper meaning because we’re all wired for hunger. There’s something which has been called “The Breast Crawl” which has been described like this – “We are born hungry. A newborn infant, seemingly helpless in every respect – eyesight undeveloped, gross and fine motor skills at a bare minimum, not even strong enough to hold her head up on her neck – will if left alone, follow a clear and discernible pattern of behaviour which results in that newborn finding her food source – mother’s breast – and initiating feeding. The baby is literally hardwired in those first few moments of life to do nothing other than use all five senses, every spare ounce of strength, in order to seek food. Before memory, before words or understanding, before acquiring any skills, before our neural pathways have begun to form rational thought, each of us is born hungry.” I am the bread of life. We’re talking about more than bread here. Now you may be saying this is easy for me to say as I’ve never known privation or food insecurity or a hand-to-mouth existence. You may be saying “Aren’t you the one who’s always up there talking about how matter matters and to God the material is not immaterial.” It’s true we are not to forget Jesus’s words “I was hungry and you fed me” or his words “You yourselves give them something to eat.” It’s still not just about food. If we are feeding people here on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings that is wonderful and something for which to be thankful. If we are not offering people the Bread of Life than we are missing something. We are offering the Bread of Life, by the way, this is not a concern of mine.
Let us not miss this. Let us not be like the crowd who followed Jesus because they ate their fill of the loaves. People were filled by the way, because this life in Christ that we’re talking about is life abundant (and again I’m not talking about food but this abundance was pointing to something else). Some were following Jesus because they were interested in what they could get out of it. The classic case of “What’s in it for me?” May God save us from presenting the good news of Christ to people in terms of what’s in it for them. People were wanting to put Christ in a pigeonhole of familiarity. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say ‘I have come down from heaven.’” (John 6:42) Let us not be people who try to tame Christ by saying things like he was a well-meaning first-century rabbi who had some good things to say. If we call him Lord, let us not try to make him in our own image. Christ the loving socialist. Christ the clear-eyed capitalist. Christ the chill dude on our dashboard. Christ the fearsome avenger who’s going to make sure everyone gets theirs. Let us remember that scene before his arrest when Jesus says “I am he” to that group of followers and soldiers later on in this story, that they all fall to the ground. The untameable Christ.
What are we to do then? How are we to perform the works of God? Believe in him whom he has sent. The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
In this is life. In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. In this is love and light and life. That thing for which we hunger. That thing for which we seek in all kinds of different places. That thing which we are called here to make the foundational underpinning truth in our life. I’m saying that thing but I should be saying that person. That bread. That bread of life. The one in whom we have a life now. The one who promises to raise those who believe in him up on the last day. Give us this bread always, says the crowd. It’s good to know what you want. This was Jesus’ question to people so often wasn’t it? What do you want? Give us this bread always. Jesus continues to up the ante during this talk. This bread that I’m talking about is my flesh. He ups it some more. “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53)
We’re not just talking about food anymore or eating and drinking. We’re still talking about a hunger though I think. May God put that hunger for Christ in our hearts and may we respond to it fittingly and well. There are many things going on here. The deliverance which is ours through faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. This deep abiding with Christ, this deep sharing of his life – compared elsewhere like to a branch that abides in a vine. This resting, this staying, this being with Christ in indescribable intimacy. This seeking of Christ and hungering for Christ in his body the Church. We can’t ignore the references to gathering around the Lord’s Table here. Matter does indeed matter and gathering around the table of the Lord often and meaningfully together matters. Rowan Williams described the church this way in a sermon – “Here we are then… the people who have not found the nerve to walk away. And that is perhaps the best definition we could have of the Church? We are the people who have not had the nerve to walk away; who have not had the nerve to say in the face of Jesus, “All right, I’m healthy. I’m not hungry. I’ve finished. I’ve done.” We’re here as hungry people, we are here because we cannot heal and complete ourselves; we’re here to eat together at the table of the Lord, as he sits at dinner in this house, and is surrounded by these disreputable, unfinished, unhealthy, hungry, sinful, but at the end of the day almost honest people, gathered with him to find renewal, to be converted, and to change.”
May we count ourselves among that hungry honest number.