Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sermon for August 2nd: John 6:24-35

Hungering for the Right Things

When we lived in the Arctic in the nineteen eighties and early nineteen nineties, the difference between perishable and non-perishable food items was a very significant one for us. Transportation was a huge part of the cost of food, as there were no permanent roads into the communities where we lived. There were therefore two ways to bring food into the community (other than shooting it for yourself, of course!): by water or by air. Every summer, barges came into the community to bring hardware, dry goods, and non-perishable food items such as flour, sugar, tea and coffee, tobacco products, UHT milk, and – a major item – pop and chips! These items were a lot cheaper, because of course transport by sea was much less expensive than transport by air. But perishable stuff – like fresh fruit and vegetables, real milk and so on – had to be flown in every week by air, which made it very expensive. It seemed a bit perverse that it was often the stuff that was good for you – the fresh fruit and veg – that was really expensive, while the stuff that wasn’t so good – pop and chips, coffee and cigarettes – was less expensive! It would have been nice if we could have found a way to reverse that!

In our gospel reading for today Jesus has a lot to say about the ‘food that perishes’ and the ‘food that endures’. He’s being pursued by a crowd of people who saw him feed the five thousand – which was our gospel reading last week - and he tells them they’ve got their minds on the wrong things. In verses 26-27 he says to the crowd:
“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the 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”.

Jesus is obviously not happy with the fact that the crowd are so interested in getting more free bread. For him, the feeding of the five thousand wasn’t just about giving people free bread; it was a sign pointing to Jesus and his identity. He isn’t just a prophet like Moses or a king to liberate them from oppression; he’s the Bread of Life who God has sent to give life to the world. But the crowd are so taken by the feeding of the five thousand that they’ve got no time for the spiritual meaning of what Jesus is doing.

We might feel some sympathy for them. After all, it’s pretty hard to preach the gospel to people whose bellies are empty. You can’t blame hungry people for wanting food, can you? Isn’t Jesus being a bit unjust here?

No, he’s not. And he’s not rebuking them for being hungry. Obviously he wanted the crowd to be fed, or he wouldn’t have done it in the first place; the other gospels even mention that he had ‘compassion’ on them and wanted to meet their needs. But at the same time it’s important for us to realise that Jesus wasn’t just some sort of glorified social worker traveling around ancient Galilee looking for needy people he could help out. The gospels constantly emphasise his preaching and teaching ministry; to him, the urgent thing was announcing the kingdom of God and giving people an opportunity to repent and believe the good news. His healing miracles were signs of the kingdom, showing that the power of evil was being defeated and that God was at work to put this broken world to rights. But they were paying too much attention to the sign, and not enough attention to the thing the sign was pointing to. When you see a sign to show you the way, you’re supposed to follow its directions. You aren’t supposed to spend ages and ages looking at the sign, commenting on how beautiful it is, and driving around in circles again and again so that you can keep on seeing it as if for the first time.

What does this have to do with us today?

These folks from Galilee were coming to Jesus, not for his own sake, but for what he could do for them. I suspect that most people who begin attending church and decide to become followers of Jesus do so for similar reasons. Whether it’s helping us to be better husbands and wives or parents to our kids, or taking away our fear of death, or giving us inner peace of mind and heart, or healing us from a life-threatening illness – we’re seeking the giver because of his gifts, and not for his own sake – at least, not yet. And this is only natural; we’re just like the people in the gospels, most of whom came to Jesus because they wanted him to do something for them. And there is no hint that Jesus was reluctant to help them.

The problem comes if we get stuck in that place, and it’s a problem for two reasons. First, what we’re actually doing is enlisting Jesus to help us meet our own agenda, rather than honestly inviting him to tell us what his agenda is, and then asking for strength to fulfil it. Because Jesus is not just a glorified motivational speaker waltzing around the world trying to help everyone meet their personal goals and objectives. Jesus has his own goals and objectives, and he’s looking for people who are willing to catch the vision of his kingdom and get on board with his agenda.

The second problem is that we too easily assume that we know what our most important needs are. I might think that my most important need is to be healed right now of a particular illness that’s causing me trouble, whereas Jesus might see a bigger picture, a need for me to grow in patience and endurance. I might think that my most important need is to be rescued from the consequences of my own financial irresponsibility, whereas Jesus might see a bigger picture and know that if I have to deal with some of those consequences it might well motivate me not to get myself into the same sort of situation again.

Focussing on the gifts that Jesus gives, rather than the giver himself, serves to confirm us in our self-centred approach to life. Jesus is going to want to challenge that, and to lead us into a way of living that’s centred on God and his purposes for us. And so he tries to lead this crowd of Galileans away from focussing on the bread, and toward focussing on what the bread symbolizes: himself, and his role as the bread that endures to eternal life – because he is in fact ‘the bread of life’, as verse 35 says: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”.

Jesus is talking here about the deepest and most fundamental need of every human being, which is to be in right relationship with God. In a famous prayer, St. Augustine once said to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”. Or, as someone else has said, “There’s a God-shaped hole in every human heart, and nothing else can fill it”. The writer of Psalm 63 expresses this when he says, ‘O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water’ (v.1).

As physical food gives life and energy to our bodies, so being in right relationship with God sustains us in our spiritual life – by which I don’t mean ‘our non-physical life’ but ‘our total life as people made in God’s image in God’s world’. We can be tremendously successful in every other area of our lives, but if we don’t find this right relationship with our Creator, there will always be something missing right at the heart of our lives. We will be full in every other way, but starving at the very centre of our being.

Jesus claims to be able to bring us back into this right relationship with God. He is the one who gave his life to reconcile us to God; he is the one who taught us the way to live as God’s children. He is ‘the bread of life’; if we come to him and believe in him, our spiritual hunger and thirst will be satisfied.

But this raises a nagging question, at least for me, and I suspect for some of you as well. Quite frankly, I’ve been a Christian for a long time, and there are still many days when I do, in fact, feel spiritually hungry. So Jesus’ statement that ‘those who come to me will never be hungry, and those who believe in me will never be thirsty’ doesn’t seem to ring true in my experience. Why not?

Let’s get the obvious answer out of the way right off the top. Many, many times, the answer is because of my own sinfulness. Jesus has clearly taught me what a godly life looks like, but I choose not to follow his teaching, doing something that he has told us not to do, or neglecting to do something that he has told us to do. Or, even though I believe in Jesus, I still ‘work for the bread that perishes’ – in other words, I get my priorities wrong, giving major attention to stuff that’s not that important in the long term, and neglecting the stuff that is important. Or again, I don’t give the time to prayer and chewing on the word of God that’s necessary for me to grow in my conscious contact with him.

Yes, this is all true – but it’s not the whole truth. There are times when, as far as we know, we are doing our best to be faithful to Jesus, and yet we still feel spiritually hungry and thirsty. What’s going on?

I think part of the answer lies in the way I just phrased the problem: ‘We still feel spiritually hungry and thirsty’. Too often, we make the assumption that Jesus is talking about feelings, of emotions. We assume that when he says, ‘If you come to me you’ll never be hungry and if you believe in me you’ll never be thirsty’, what he really means is ‘If you come to me you’ll always be happy and joyful, or sense God close to you, or have perfect peace of mind’ and so on.

But that’s just not the case. The reality is that our emotions come and go. Good feelings are nice when they come, just as we enjoy it when we have food that not only does us good but also tastes good as well! But we don’t need delicious gourmet food to keep us going – ordinary, plain food will do just as well. And in the same way, of course we enjoy our Christian life more when we feel good – but we can still be fed by God, at a level deeper than our emotions – when those feelings are not there.

I know this from personal experience, and I’ll tell you how. Marci will tell you that if there’s a character from Winnie the Pooh who I resemble, she thinks it’s Eyore. I’m of something of a melancholic temperament, inclined to see the glass as half empty and to look on the dark side of things. I go through periods of what feel to me like spiritual dryness often, when I have to take God’s presence on faith, because I don’t seem to be able to feel anything resembling the joy I’ve been taught that he wants to give me.

And yet, this doesn’t stop God using me to bless others. Often when I’ve been going through those dry times, I’ve had a meeting with someone going through some trouble in their life, and they’ve told me afterwards that God really used me to help them. Or I’ve said something in a sermon and someone tells me afterwards that it was a real blessing for them. So obviously, in a very real way, God is giving me the spiritual nourishment I need, even at those times when I don’t feel it.

The truth is, you see, that religious emotion is one of the ‘things that perishes’ that Jesus is talking about here – and he tells us not to work for the things that perish but the things that endure. True soul food is deeper that religious emotion – it nourishes our life with God and sustains us to do the things God asks of us. We may not feel God’s presence all the time, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there – it means he’s working in a part of our psyche that’s far, far deeper than our emotions.

Having said that, there is no doubt that following Jesus does often lead to a deeper sense of joy, peace, and satisfaction, and when that happens, we can thank God. There’s a sense of well-being that comes from living in relationship with God, in harmony with the way God has created us. Earthly satisfaction will pass away, but true spiritual satisfaction – that satisfaction that comes from knowing God through Christ – will last forever.

Jesus says, ‘Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. So we are invited to come to him and put our trust in him. The call of Jesus to us in this chapter is an evangelistic call. Have you tasted of the bread of life? Or are you still ‘working for the bread that perishes’? Don’t be satisfied with moldy bread! Come to Jesus and receive the best and finest 100% whole wheat, the top of the line, the stuff that will keep you going forever!

1 comment:

paul said...

Aaah! Excellent use of Winnie the Pooh! In my sermon for this Sunday, I was referring to our habit of grumbling, and so Eeyore made an appearance!....I am preparing to lay out your prescription as I explore John 6 as we work our way through August...though not next week, as we're off caravanning in wet Wales! (I shall have to hope the Archdeacon preaches something coherent and contiguous in my stead!)...