August 5, 2018 – Pentecost 11B
24When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were [beside the sea,] they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26Jesus 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. 27Do 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.” 28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So 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? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32Then 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. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35Jesus 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.”
I imagine several of us have tried, at least a little bit, to learn a new language. There are a lot of reasons to learn a new language – it exercises your brain and helps you think more quickly, it helps you communicate effectively with more people, and you begin to appreciate the intricacies of your own language. Perhaps you work with people who speak a different language and don’t want to rely on an interpreter. Maybe you’re traveling internationally and you want to be able to order at a restaurant without looking and feeling completely lost. Or maybe it’s just a requirement for school. Regardless, learning a language, even your own, is a hard endeavor. Language is tied to culture and time and it can be rather difficult to translate between what you want to say and what you meant to say. But something that seems to carry over, regardless of the language or culture, is the use of metaphor. Metaphors, of course, will vary and change depending on dialect, class, and culture, but they’re there.
In this gospel reading, Jesus describes himself as the true bread of heaven and like any metaphor, it will bring about a different meaning for all of us. Maybe the bread of life image conjures up for you a memory of the smell of fresh bread from the oven, lovingly made by a family member. Or perhaps the memory of bread is related to the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches you used to get in your lunch box. When I think of bread, I remember traveling through Europe for a month in college and, through a mishap with my ATM card, I was left with very little money for about a week. I ate a baguette for lunch almost every day on that trip to save what little cash I had. I relied heavily on that dense, grainy bread to get me through the day. In these memories, we encounter the God who provides.
For some, the metaphor conjures a memory. But for others, the food itself becomes a metaphor. There is a poem by an anonymous Indian woman, a refugee, who encountered God not in the metaphor, but in food itself.
Every noon at twelve
In the blazing heat God comes to me in the form of
Two hundred grams of gruel
I know him in every grain
I taste him in every lick.
I commune with him as I gulp
For he keeps me alive with
Two hundred grams of gruel
I wait ‘til next noon and now know he’d come:
I can hope to live one day more
For you made God to come to me as
Two hundred grams of gruel
I know now that God loves me-
Not until you made it possible
Now I know what you’re speaking about
For God so loves this world
That he gives his beloved son
Every noon through you.
In our gospel today, Jesus calls himself the true bread of heaven, which tells us more than what he can say. Jesus is telling us that he cares for those who followed him across the Sea of Galilee and for us. Jesus fed them bread, a miraculous sign of his abundant love and grace, but also a sign that he cares for their bodies, too; that Jesus comes to satisfy their spirits, yes, but also their physical needs. This is keeping in line with God, who gave manna to the Israelites in the wilderness. The Israelites gathered this manna every day because, just as we do, they got hungry again. As an illustration to this, we see that the people asking for more bread, more signs, are the same people Jesus fed with a few loaves and fishes last week. They, like we, grow hungry again. Jesus understands their physical needs but we also come to realize that Jesus isn’t just meeting physical needs. Hopefully we can see that metaphors are complex.
They’re even more complex when we consider that every metaphor for God eventually breaks down. We use metaphors to describe God because we can’t completely know God. Unlike bread, for instance, Jesus does not grow stale, nor does he require kneading and baking. Despite the beauty of the metaphor which we hear today and for the next few weeks, a metaphor cannot tell the whole story. Jesus is the true bread, the true God, but as the true God, he will not be restricted and confined to one metaphor.
We, like those who ate their fill and followed him asking for more, do not see the whole picture. We can’t. Metaphors help us know a bit about God, but they are unable to take us the whole way. What they can do is set up an encounter with the living God and each encounter shapes us a little more to carry out the life-giving ministry and carry the life-changing good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to the world.
This metaphor, Jesus as the true bread of life, urges us on to enact and practice that metaphor for others. We cannot know God completely, but we can encounter God and often this comes in our response to God’s love and grace. Jesus died and rose again to be your bread, your sustenance on the journey of your life, and our response is to care for those among us and around us who are looking for bread, both the spiritual bread and the physical bread which gives them hope and life.
Ultimately, the best way to think about the metaphor is to look at the one who said it. Jesus is the bread of life and gave that life away for the good of all. As followers of the bread of life, we will do the same. Our response to God’s love is not to ask for more, but to give what has been given, understanding that it will never run out. As we come to eat the bread and drink the wine, as we experience God’s presence with us in these ordinary things, we leave and show that love to others. We not only reflect on the bread of life, but as followers of Jesus, we act it out. We practice it. As Jesus gave of himself, feeding, teaching, and comforting, so we give of ourselves. As we receive the bread of communion, fed by the life of Christ, we become the bread that God serves to the world. That’s what the followers of Christ do – see the hungers in the world and then work to address them.
So, whatever your hunger, the table is set. The bread of life is given for you. And we, like those Jesus spoke to, say “Give us this bread always.” Amen.