Community and the Bread of Life

Sermon Given August 1, 2021

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.

I wonder who stayed around after the feeding of the five thousand? Who was it that got into their own boats the next day to Capernaum, looking for Jesus? What was it that they were seeking? 

I imagine each had their own reason. I imagine quite a few of them had been following Jesus around before. They were his “groupies” so to speak. But I’m sure there were others who had simply been at the meal. What was it about Jesus that kept them coming, even when Jesus snuck away during the middle of the night? 

When they finally find Jesus, hanging out near Peter’s house, as he often does, they ask him how he got there. He tells them that they aren’t looking for him because they saw his signs, they’re just trying to find him because he fed them. Essentially, he tells them that they see the surface level things but don’t understand the deeper truths. He tells them, “Don’t work for what perishes, but for that which lives on forever. I can give that to you.” They need to step back from their worldly needs and see the bigger picture. But it’s not easy for them, in fact it’s a little scary. 

Remember, these aren’t the well to do people. Many of those people are in Jerusalem for the Passover, not in Galilee talking with Jesus. These are the ones at the bottom of the economic food chain, the ones who struggle on a regular basis to get bread on the table. Jesus seems to be telling them to forget about their daily struggles and just focus on him. It sounds kind of naive. Did Jesus really want them to ignore their reality? 

So they push back on Jesus. Yes, they want signs. They need something that makes a real impact in their world. They remind him, “When our ancestors complained in the wilderness, when they were on the brink of starvation, God sent manna, bread from heaven. We need manna in this world. We need something that provides for those of us who are completely without.” 

Jesus says, “Yes! God sent that. It wasn’t from a mortal person, it was from the immortal God. God does give enough for life to thrive on this world. Your physical health and wellbeing matters deeply to God. But God provides even more than that. Look deeper. I am the bread of life.”

What is the bread that we need today? What is it that we hunger for more than food or shelter or clothing? 

On this planet, right now, we have absolutely everything we physically need. We know this because when we talk about what is needed to end things like hunger, it becomes a financial conversation, not a scientific inquiry. It’s a question of distribution, not how to create enough. 

Even with the pandemic, we have everything we physically need. What started in 2019 as unknown is now well known and amazingly enough, research into what would become the vaccine had started several years before Covid came into our lives. I can’t help but think that’s God’s way of giving us some relief, because scientists were relatively far along in their research of coronaviruses, Covid’s virus family. They had already seen and researched SARS and other coronaviruses, the equivalents of Covid’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles. There was already the beginning of a scientific inquiry into using spikes from these viruses for vaccination purposes when Covid became a worldwide pandemic. They created a vaccine in record time with this research and God’s grace. We have all that we physically need. 

But we all know that people are still getting sick at alarming rates and that the vaccine hasn’t even made it to some countries. We know that people around the world die from hunger, including in our own country, despite all its wealth. We need more than physical stuff. We need the bread of life. 

Many of my conversations this week have centered on the delta variant and worry for our children. I’ve heard the frustration and disappointment, I’ve felt the fear with them. There’s a deep question that I believe looms in many hearts, one that has been with us since the beginning of this pandemic, “Are we able to work together for the common good or not?” Are we able to see each other, respect each other, and do things for the benefit of the other, even if the other is vastly different from ourselves?

I see this pandemic illuminating a trend in our society towards building ideological silos, close-knit groups, which gather around ideas and cling to them, refusing to listen to any challenges. Their relationships with each other are predicated on them all holding tightly to their beliefs despite evidence against their beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with building a tight-knit group. What’s wrong is the refusal to see others outside of the group as valuable and worthy of respect. What’s wrong is the shunning that comes when challenges are raised  Rather than seeing challenges as something worth thinking about, the group closes in on itself and buckles down. Their ideologies, their beliefs, are their communal identity. The thinking goes that if you challenge their ideologies and beliefs, you are essentially attacking them as people, and they will rise up to protect themselves as if you were an intruder in their home. Their viewpoint is right, no matter what evidence shows them. There can be no respect for others when you are in this type of survival mode. Yet, even in the most closed off groups, there are those inside these silos that are subverting the system and creating their own paths. If we think of these groups as completely unified and cohesive, we might despair. But there are plenty who might nod to the values of their own group, but then do things that are surprising. Never underestimate those without leadership in a group. 

We are meant to bond together, but not in siloing ways. These closed off silos do not give life. They damage people, both inside and outside of the groups. Because when your beliefs can’t be challenged, when they can’t be critically examined, you can’t grow. And we’re not designed to stop growing. We’re designed to mature. Paul reminds us that we are called to grow into the full stature of Christ. We have to be willing to be built up in love, to let critiques and challenges help us grow. We do best when we ask the big questions, when we allow others to influence us, when we are able to say, “I am not the same person I was five years ago.” Life is a journey, and if we refuse to be challenged, we are stopped in our tracks on the trail, unable to move forward. 

So how do we bond together in healthy ways? How do we hold our beliefs while being open to critique? What does it take to bond our society together? We have to have something at the core of all this. In Christianity, we have Christ that glues us together. There is a love and mutuality that is at the core of our identity, the greatest commandment. We are bonded together through God’s love, found in the bread of life. 

In our particular flavor of this faith, we believe that Christ is really present in the bread and the wine. We don’t have one particular belief about how this happens, you can hold several different ones, we just believe that when we ask Christ to come into the elements, Christ comes. We physically take the bread of life, the body of Christ into our bodies. Christ physically dwells in us and in a very real way brings nourishment to us. Christ dwells within us. 

Christ doesn’t just come to us in sacraments though, that’s just a sure way to see Christ’s presence. God in fact never leave us. All we have to do is build upon that relationship. Relationship is the key to all of this. We are not people of a book, we are not people of an ideology, we are people of a relationship, a relationship with Christ, the bread of our lives. That relationship enlightens and informs all our relationships. There’s a reason why we’re called Christians. The word Christian means “little Christ”. We’re meant to know Jesus and to act like Jesus in every moment of our lives. We are meant to have that relationship and allow that connection to shine through in everything we do. 

And just like other relationships, our relationship with Jesus is meant to change and evolve and grow. I hope your relationship with Jesus isn’t the same several years from now as it is today. It’s not meant to stagnate. It’s not meant to devolve into a list of what we can and can’t do because of what the Bible says. It’s meant to be an ongoing journey, certainly one informed by the Bible, but one that is always willing to ask big questions and go beyond rote answers. We don’t need to be in an ideological silo. We can in fact be quite open to the other, without fear of losing ourselves. It’s all about being grounded in Christ. 

Think about it like the relationship that is supposed to exist between parents and children, healthy, stable relationships that we know not every child gets, but every child needs. Parents work hard to instill their beliefs and ideologies into their child. They want their child to value what they value. But parents allow their children to go into other households. They allow them to be exposed to other cultures, other ideologies, other ways of being in this world, knowing that their child may not hold all the beliefs of their parents when they grow up. They don’t worry about that exposure breaking their relationship, because their relationship isn’t built on holding certain beliefs, their relationship is grounded in something deeper. Their relationship is not built in an ideological silo. Their relationship is grounded in love. That love is what feeds their relationship and sustains it, even if they disagree. Why do we think God is so different? 

If we are to have a common good, we need a common relationship. We need a thread that holds us all together, and Jesus offers himself to us as that thread, the bread of life that can sustain us, not in a way that holds tightly to and protects a certain ideology, but in a relationship like a loving parent, a way that is open to the others around us. It is a way of openness, a way of maturity, that can sustain us, not stifle us. We have all that we physically need. What we need is a spiritual center, a safe space we can return to, grounding us in the midst of the changes and challenges of this life, opening ourselves to see everyone as human and worthy of life. It challenges us to build systems that uphold the dignity of everyone, not silos that seek to simply protect our own. 

We can find grounding in the bread and the cup, growing into Christ as Christ physically comes into us. We can find it in prayer, in contemplation, in those moments when we make space to listen to what God has to say. We can find it in study, in joining together to examine the experiences of God written in the Bible, and critically reflect on how those experiences inform our own. We can find it in mission, in reaching out to those we don’t normally interact with, learning how to care for one another in this world. All of these ways of grounding ourselves are vital and necessary, and they all root us in relationship with the one who opens us up to see each other as worthy, valuable, and loved. It is in the grounding that we can find a way forward. Amen.