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.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" 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. 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." Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." 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? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" 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. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."
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. (John 6:24-35)
My heart broke a few times this past week.
It broke for the sorts of things you’d expect: families in grief, people in the hospital, friends dealing with illness and anxiety and crisis.
It also broke when I watched Michael Phelps swim the 400-IM and not medal, though it also broke when I watched him win gold medals in subsequent events, and it broke every time I watched athletes from any country up on the medal stand, singing and weeping to their national anthems.
And my heart broke this week over one particular news story, over one particular photograph of a mall food court, lines winding all around the space as people waited to eat and show their support for Chick-fil-A. My heart has been breaking over this news story since it first broke, because it has brought out the worst in people and has confused consumerism with faith.
From the online publication that quoted Chick-fil-A’s owner endorsing one particular view of marriage to the outrage expressed by opponents, from the reactionary move to stage a coordinated eat-in in support to the corresponding reactionary move to stage a coordinated kiss-in in protest, through all of it, my heart has been breaking over the hurtful words hurled by both sides of the debate, and over the misconception that one’s entire value system can be summed up by whether or not you choose to buy a chicken sandwich.
I had no plans whatsoever to talk about this in my sermon this week. No inclination to say anything about it. That is, until I read today’s gospel:
Jesus said, “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 the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Today’s gospel is all about the food behind the food, about striving for higher things, about seeking that which brings true life and not short-term satisfaction. It is also about a crowd of people who absolutely miss the point.
I have to laugh when I read this gospel, because they just don’t get it. They've just seen something incredible happen: thousands of people being fed by five loaves of bread and two fish. Their bellies are full and when Jesus goes off by himself, they follow him.
They follow Jesus because they’ve seen this crazy and miraculous thing happen, and yet when Jesus tells them to believe in him, they ask for a sign, as if that huge fish and bread picnic hadn’t just happened. And it takes them far too long to catch on to the fact that JESUS is the living bread from heaven which has been promised them, which they so desire, the bread sent to earth to give life to the world.
In short, the crowds, over and over again, totally miss the point.
They think it is about the food. They think faith is about going in search of miracles and salvation is a matter of signs and wonders. But Jesus came to earth not just to feed crowds or do amazing things. Jesus came to earth to bring eternal, abundant life.
And so I think that the crowds in our gospel reading are no different than the crowds eating at or kissing in Chick-fil-A…and no different than any of us, really. Because how often do all of us live as if it were all about the food rather than about eternal life?
It is so so tempting to stand in long lines for food that will perish. To put in long hours at work for the perishing food of success and wealth. To devote all free time to sports practice and music rehearsals to work for the perishing food of making first chair or, yes, even winning a gold medal. To give in to long workouts, restrictive diets, new nutritional supplements, and any manner of skin-care products and fashion trends to work for the perishing food of our cultural ideals of youth and beauty.
Every day, we are bombarded by messages that try to convince us that it is all about the food that perishes. But it’s not. Our purpose and our hope in this world are all about the food of life. Eternal life. True life. Real life.
The gospel message of God’s promises of light and life cannot be reduced to whether or not you buy a chicken sandwich, no matter how valid or impassioned your reasons are for doing so. And the hope of life and reconciliation given to our weary world cannot be contained in any of our symbols of abundance: food, wealth, homes, cars, education. Because no matter what blessings we have been given, and no matter what signs we have seen, God is yet bigger. And God has bigger plans for us.
The challenge in today’s gospel is to choose life. Put in a little different way, the challenge in today’s gospel is to decide what food is worth standing in line for.
I think about Hesed House, the homeless shelter we support in Aurora. I think about the way that the dining room becomes an overflow room overnight, with mattresses squeezed in between tables, and even people sitting at tables sleeping, with their heads laid down upon their arms. And I think of the way that they flip the lights on at 5 a.m., and the mattresses get shoved away, and the line for breakfast begins. Men and women, young and old, some very clean, some very much not, some looking very put-together, some looking absolutely disheveled – they all line up to grab a Styrofoam plate and move down the line to fill that plate with biscuits and gravy, eggs, potatoes, bacon, and toast. For each and every person in that line, they know deep in their hearts that the food they are standing in line for is more than food. For each and every one of us who has been on the opposite side of the steam table, serving that food, we too know that what we are doing is about much more than food. It is hope and light and life. It is sharing the abundant life of God with our neighbors.
And I think about this center aisle here in the sanctuary each week, each pew filing out to stand in line to receive bread and wine that are food but yet so much more than food. Each of us stands in solidarity with fellow children of God to reach out and receive Christ in, with, and under the bread that our souls so desperately long for, because in this meal, we are assured the full measure of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love.
So which lines will you stand in this week? Which food will you pursue?
Jesus says to each of us, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, the bread of God which gives life to the world. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
And our hearts cry out, “Sir, give us this bread always.”