This past week, I had an interesting encounter with a young homeless man. He came to the reception desk at Grace and asked to speak to me. He said he needed assistance and counseling. I brought him up to my office and began asking him questions, trying to figure out what he was looking for, what he needed. Eventually, he told me that he needed money to go somewhere. The story he gave me was rather flimsy, so I ended up not providing financial assistance.
I remembered that he also had asked for some counseling, so I tried to engage him in conversation around his life, the struggles he was having. Whatever had led him to ask for counseling, by the time he got into my office, he was not about to share anything substantive about his life. So I led him out of the building and sent him on his way. But a few minutes later he was back. This time, he wondered whether we had a computer he might use. Of course, we don’t, but I pointed out to him that public computers are available in the Central Library, and that Bethel has a computer room as well.`
On one level, that series of encounters was like encounters I have almost every day, like encounters many of you have. Someone asks us for help, for a few dollars. Sometimes, they’ll ask for more, or something else. And some times, if we engage them in conversation, we’ll find out more about them. We’ll hear a story about how they got to the place they are today, what they hope for the future. If we talk long enough, we might learn about their hopes and fears, their spiritual needs, their family connections. Alongside the request for money or food is a deep yearning for something else, for connection, for meaning, for stability.
But let’s be honest. When someone struggles day to day to find food, or a place to stay at night, or somewhere cool to rest in the middle of the day, they don’t have much time or energy left over for filling those deeper needs. The struggle to stay alive can be all-encompassing. That’s true for many people today, throughout the world, and unfortunately here in Madison. It was also true in Jesus’ day.
When we hear the stories of Jesus’ miracles like the feeding of the five thousand, our tendency is to focus on the event itself. For us, such miracles, when we believe them, are evidence of Jesus’ divinity, proof of his power, and a reason for us to believe in him. But the gospel writers often have very different intentions in mind when they are relating these stories. Sometimes, those intentions are subtly conveyed; other times, as in John 6, we are given an extensive commentary on the miracle.
Part of the problem for us in understanding this story is the role food plays in our culture and economy. While we hear a great deal about food insecurity these days, the fact of the matter is that most of us don’t go to bed hungry at night. There is a safety net, and while the gaps in that net are growing, few of us have had to worry where our next meal, or our children’s next meal was coming from.
Not so in first-century Palestine, and not so in many parts of the world today. In Jesus’ time, food was relatively scarce and most people lived in a constant state of malnutrition as well as worry about their next meal. To have their hunger sated for once, to have eaten and be filled, and furthermore, to have plenty left over, that must have been amazing on so many levels. To experience all that, it’s no wonder that they pursued Jesus.
The crowd came after Jesus. They had been following him for some time. In last week’s gospel reading, we were told that they were pursuing Jesus because of the signs he had worked among the sick. They saw and experienced the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and John tells us that in response to that miracle, the crowd sought to seize him by force and make him king. He made his escape, and with the disciples crossed back over the lake. But the crowd came after him and finally find him in Capernaum.
Why did they keep pursuing him? Perhaps they wanted to see what else he could do. Perhaps they hoped for another meal, another opportunity to have their stomachs filled at no cost to themselves. But Jesus dashed those hopes. There, Jesus confronted them. He told them that they were following him because they had experienced the miracle and they wanted more.
There’s an interesting play on the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition going on here. The crowd wants another sign, pointing out that Moses fed the Israelites in the wilderness. But Jesus contradicts him. It was not Moses who gave them bread, but God: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” And then he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
“I am the bread of life.” This is the first of a number of I am sayings in John’s gospel. They are moments when Jesus reveals something about himself, his relationship with God, and offers his listeners and us, a way of thinking about and experiencing him. It’s no accident that these statements begin with “I am.” By using that language, Jesus is drawing on God’s revelation of Godself to Moses on Mt. Sinai. When Moses asked God what God’s name was, God replied, “I am who I am.” In John’s gospel, when Jesus says, I am the bread of life, or I am the good shepherd, or I am the vine, you are the branches, he is not only trying to explain to us who he is, he is also identifying himself with the Father, as he says elsewhere in the Gospel, I and the Father are one.
We’re likely to interpret such language metaphorically. When Jesus says, I am the bread of life; of course we don’t think he’s actually bread. But while it’s appropriate to interpret him in this way, it’s also important to remember that the physical thing matters. Bread matters. Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us. He offers us physical, as well as spiritual sustenance. When we ask in the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread” we are asking that God provide for us the things we need to sustain our lives.
It’s unfortunate that we use wafers for our communion bread. We do it for a lot of reasons, custom, habit, and because it’s so much easier—easier to clean up and easier to manage the amounts. But it’s barely bread. It’s hard to make the connection between the bread and wine of the Eucharist and the bread and wine at a good dinner party or restaurant. Because Eucharistic bread doesn’t really sustain us physically, it doesn’t really remind us of a good crusty sourdough loaf that engages all of our senses, we don’t necessarily see the connection between bread of the Eucharist and the bread of life. In a sense, we have done just the opposite of the crowd. Having eaten bread, they want Jesus to provide more, while Jesus wants to offer them bread of life. On the other hand, we don’t want to mess around with the real stuff, especially here in church.
That’s a shame, because if we don’t see the connection between them, between ordinary bread, Eucharistic bread, and the bread of life, we will never fully experience all that God offers us. We limit God’s activity, and our experience, to one dimension, when God engages all of us, body and soul, all of our senses, taste, touch, sight and sound. Our deepest yearnings for God and for relationship may be inspired by any of those senses. Bread and wine, shared around a table, shared around this table, can be a taste of heaven.
Even as we experience the joy of the Eucharistic feast, as we taste the bread of life, we need to remember those who struggle to find their daily bread, whose bodies and souls hunger. May we continue to work to provide food to the hungry, and as we do that, may we be mindful of their spiritual hunger as well.