The Bread of Life
July 29, 2018 John 6: 1-21, 24-35
by Rev. Barry Padget
When I was growing up, my grandparents lived in Iowa and Wisconsin. Consequently, we drove to Iowa and Wisconsin every summer just about this time, that is, the hottest time of the year, when the heat and humidity make places like Iowa and Wisconsin nearly unbearable. Fortunately, just about the time my brother and I were ready to kill each other in the back seat, and my father was ready to throw us both out of our un-air conditioned car, we got to that tourist Mecca of the United States, South Dakota. I have seen every tourist attraction that South Dakota has to offer, Mount Rushmore, Reptile Gardens, Jewel Cave, Wild Bill Hickock’s Grave, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, and of course, the highlight of the trip, Wall Drug. No one can pass Wall Drug by. I mean they have your jackalopes, your dancing chickens, the stuffed white buffalo, everything a tourist could want right there.
Basically, that is what is going on in the scriptures for today. The roads are filled with people making the trip to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover at the temple. And John is just a touch cynical here. He sees this great crowd of people stopping off to see Jesus the same as you would stop at Wall Drug, just to find out what all those signs are about. That is what they are looking for is a sign, that is, a miracle, something to amaze and entertain them on a long trip.
And boy, do they find something to amaze them. Jesus is up in the mountains surrounding the Sea of Galilee. He looks out and sees a huge crowd of people coming up to see him. It is just about dinnertime, and so he asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people?” It is a good question because all of the villages are down on the shore of the lake. Philip’s response is not where would they buy the bread, but where in the world would they get the money to pay for that much bread. He says six months wages would not buy enough bread for each person to get just a crust of bread. John assures us Jesus already knows where and how he is going to get this bread. One of the disciples comes over with a little boy whose mother has obviously packed him a lunch for the day, five little barley loaves and two smoked fish. The boy offers his lunch to Jesus. There is something touching about this little boy who would so graciously and unselfconsciously give over all he has to eat for the day just because Jesus needs it. And who in his innocence doesn’t realize what a pittance this is in the face of so much need. He gives because that is what he has, and Jesus needs it.
Jesus doesn’t even seem to notice how ridiculous this is. He has the people sit down, blesses this trifling bit of bread and then begins to pass it out, along with the fish. Everyone has all they can eat, and afterwards there are twelve baskets full of food left over. Well, the people are very much impressed. They begin calling Jesus a prophet, and were going to make him king whether he wanted to be one or not. In the confusion, Jesus escapes up the mountain by himself while the disciples take the boat across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus catches up with them by walking out across the water during the night, which understandably scares the disciples half to death.
The problem for Jesus is that the people see what they want to see. They wanted a tourist attraction, and that is what they got, Wall Drug with miracles. Jesus was hoping that they might get more out of the miracle than just a full stomach and a little entertainment in the middle of a long trip. In the second half of the scripture, Jesus talks to some of those people from the crowd he fed after they caught up with him on the other side of the sea. Jesus is pretty blunt with them. He tells them that they are looking for him just because they had a full stomach, and they want another free meal. What they should be looking for is not bread that perishes, but the bread the brings us eternal life. They ask him where they might find such bread and Jesus tells them plainly, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Part of the reason that we celebrate communion is to remind us who the bread of life is, that finally life is more than getting enough to eat, it is what you feed your soul that makes you fully alive.
I still believe even in such a consumer driven society as ours that people crave lives of meaning and purpose, that given the opportunity, they will seek more than the bread that perishes, however slickly presented, that people long for the bread that gives eternal life. Maurice Lamm talks about the Jewish story of the treadmill. On a treadmill, several donkeys were harnessed to a large wheel, which they spun as they trotted around, thereby generating power. The donkeys wore blinders in order to block them from seeing the wheel. Day after day they kept trotting around and around, but the blinders affixed to their heads tricked them in to thinking they were going somewhere. One day someone pulled off the blinders and the animals slowly discovered that they weren’t actually going anywhere. They came to a stop, and would go no further.
“Even the dumbest animal,” writes Lamm, “cannot saunter purposelessly, going in circles all day, and getting nowhere…” I have come to believe that really terrific and even pleasant treadmills are still just treadmills, and that when people find the blinders suddenly taken off, when they discover there lives going in circles, they do finally stop and wonder if there should not be something more to life than this. Once those blinders are off, it is really hard to put them back on again, and be content. We need purpose, a direction, something beyond ourselves, something more than the bread that perishes. That is what Jesus saw in these people, people with full stomachs and lives going in circles. He urged them to seek for more, for the bread that endures for eternal life.
There was an article from The Cut magazine recently called How to be Happy. It is about the most popular current course ever at Yale University which is about Happiness. It is a most provocative course. For example, one of the questions the professor poses is this: If you were hit by a car today and paralyzed from the neck down, do you think you’d be happier in five years than you are right now? Or less so? While you are thinking about your answer, let me ask you another question: If you won 10 million dollars in the lottery today, do you think you’d be happier in five years? Or less so. Think seriously about your answers, because the real answer to both questions is: neither. Neither of those circumstances, in the end make much difference in our basic happiness level. Not only that, it doesn’t take five years. People in both circumstances return to their previous happiness level in about 3 months. Now given the choice I’d take the ten mil every time just to, you know, test the theory out… but it is probably true, the money wouldn’t make me happier. The reason is that changes in outside circumstances are not what make you happy. What makes you happy is a change that happens inside, and it has to do with what the professor calls, a meaningful life.
That is why we receive communion. We do it to remember that our lives are meant to be meaningful, that life is not about just what we want but what God wants for us, what Christ has done for us. We do it to celebrate Christ’s presence with us. We do it to act out that our lives are not about the bread that perishes but the bread of life, the bread that endures for eternal life. We do it to say that we listen to a different voice, that Jesus is the focal point of our lives, and our salvation, now and forever.