A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
August 5, 2012
We are often drawn to Jesus because of what we think he can do for us, but soon discover that it is Jesus himself through which our lives are truly satisfied.
What’s in it for me? It’s hard to avoid thinking about that calculation in any endeavor or relationship. Our instinctive sense of fair play makes it hard for us to put aside completely any thought of the return on our investment we should expect to receive for the time and effort we invest in something. Just as we would hesitate to deposit our money in a bank that offered no interest and charged us monthly fees to keep our money safe, we often hesitate to invest ourselves in ventures that do not promise something in return. We would be slow to admit it, I’m sure. You go to work every day not only because you want to make some contribution to the world through the use of your talents and abilities, but you expect something in return. At the very least, you expect a fair wage, and hope for some benefits that provide financial security. And it’s nice if every now and then someone notices your hard work and thanks you for it. We’re slower to admit it, but we often have this thinking in the back of our minds in our most intimate relationships. We are often drawn to love people not just because they need our love, fidelity, and support, but because deep down, we hope that they can provide something for us—acceptance, affirmation, fulfillment, joy. We know that as parents, the direction of love should flow from us to our children. But you have seen more than one parent/child relationship that is corrupted because a manipulative parent needs so much in return from the child. And if we are truly honest, we all are drawn to God, not simply because we want to ground our lives in the reality of the one who created us, not simply because we want to give ourselves to some greater cause and purpose that draws us beyond our own egos, but because we have needs—legitimate needs for forgiveness, for a sense of self-worth, purpose, and yes, resources to deal with our greatest fears—abandonment and death. So, we should not be too surprised or shocked to discover that many of the people who were drawn to Jesus were interested primarily what they thought he could do for them.
The Crowds Search for Jesus
After feeding the five thousand, Jesus tried to get away. And he did. The crowds, in awe of the way that so many had been fed with so little, were ready to make Jesus king. They found Jesus in Capernaum. Jesus didn’t offer a very hospitable greeting, “very truly, I tell you,” he said, “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” He assumed he had their motives pegged, and he was probably right. They were chasing after Jesus because they had a long list of things they could use a miracle worker to do. Oh, he could keep feeding them when they got hungry, he could perform the miracle they all thought the Messiah would perform by crushing the Romans and liberating Israel. He could restore Israel to a place of prominence on the international scene.
Jesus went on, “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.”
Yes, he was genuinely concerned about real human need. He did not want truly hungry people to go without the bread that fills the stomach and maintains the body. But there was something more to him. He wanted to show people that it was possible to attain all the physical blessings and rewards this world could offer, but never be truly satisfied. No, he did not say that physical well-being was unimportant to God. But he did want this crowd to know that there was much more to life than bread, much more to life than financial or cultural superiority, much more to life than political and military supremacy.
What are We Looking For?
We make the same mistake, don’t we? We chase after all kinds of physical, earthly things thinking that they will satisfy our deepest longings. We often hear from political leaders, sometimes in subtle and other times in not so subtle ways, that there is something almost innately superior about people who have gained more of this world’s wealth and its goods. We assume that those people are happier, if not more secure than everyone else. We look for forms of spirituality that promise to give us security, health, prosperity, and position. We are interested in what is in it for us.
An e-mail circulated not long ago about signs found in real kitchens of real people. Here are some of those signs:
“A messy kitchen is a happy kitchen and this kitchen is delirious.”
“A clean house is a sign of a misspent life.”
“If we are what we eat, then I’m easy, fast, and cheap.”
“Thou shalt not weigh more than thy refrigerator.”
“My next house will have no kitchen, just vending machines.”
“A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.”
They’re funny. And our obsession with food has a humorous side—until that obsession turns into obesity and the obesity turns into diabetes, heart disease, and a host of other problems. Some people don’t have enough daily bread and some of us have far too much.
And those of us with far too much are often using food not as a source of nutrition and energy to meet life’s demands, but as a substance to fill a great void in our lives.
We often discover that the things we thought would fulfill and satisfy our deepest longings don’t really deliver on those promises. We get the job, we get the car, we get the money, we get the accolades, we get the partner—and still we feel like something is missing.
What the People Needed
Jesus just wasn’t being cantankerous with the crowd who came looking for more signs, more miracles, more spectacular displays of divine power. He knew there was more to life. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life which is what the Son of Man will give you.”
In some ways, Jesus was frustrated not that the people were drawn to him because he’d filled their stomachs with bread, but that they weren’t bold enough to ask for more! Yes, enough to eat is important. And yes, living in a more just world, free from the arbitrary dictates of tyrants is important. But Jesus had so much more he wanted to give the people who came looking for him. He wanted to give them more than bread, more than freedom from oppression. He wanted to give them something else—life.
There are two different Greek words for life in John’s gospel. The first is psyche and refers to this present physical life that one day comes to an end. The other is zoe which refers to life that nothing can ultimately diminish or destroy. When John talks about eternal life, he’s not just talking about life after death, but he’s talking about a quality of life that begins here and now—a life that is worth living, a life that has meaning and purpose, a life that is filled with joy regardless of whether we are rich or poor, famous or obscure. It is a kind of life that death cannot destroy or end. Jesus linked two powerful biblical symbols bread and life. Bread was the basic component of the diet of most people in his day, supplemented by fruits and vegetables, and if you were well off maybe meat now and then—but bread was essential to life. And then life. Life filled with joy, purpose, meaning—life that death could not exhaust, end or destroy. And he says something bold and amazing, “I am the bread of life.”
Do you hear what he’s offering? He’s offering himself to us and all the world as the source of life, love and power. He’s offering to us a constant and abiding relationship that nothing can steal or end. In Jesus, we find something that will fully and truly satisfy our deepest longings and desires.
How do you see God? Do you believe God has it in for you? Do you sometimes think that because of some flaw, weakness, or failure, God wants to punish you? Do you sometimes wonder whether God loves and cares for you? Hear Jesus words, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus wanted to give the people who came to him much more than they thought of asking for. He wanted to give them life!
What We Need
And that’s what Jesus wants to give us—life. You know every Friday, we offer the physical bread needed to sustain life to many people who need it. But every once in awhile, I think we get a glimpse into the possibility that through the offer of that bread, people find living bread—they find life.
The other day, I was on one of my walks around downtown. It’s amazing what you see when you get out and start looking. I found at least 6 restaurants I didn’t know existed. I saw three new buildings where apartments and condominiums are being built. There is a lot going on right around us. But I ran into one of the guests who have been coming for lunch on Fridays. His name is Manuel. He recognized me and greeted me with a big smile. He immediately began thanking me for what our church had done for him—offering a meal every Friday. He went on to tell me that he was from Mexico and had had a tough time since coming here. But things were looking better. New possibilities for a better life were coming his way. He’d gotten a job working on the construction of one of the new apartment complexes in the Manchester neighborhood. He said he might not be seeing us much more on Fridays, but he could not stop expressing his gratitude for what our church had done for him.
I think he was so happy because he was finding life. And though he didn’t articulate it this way, I hope that he is finding the bread of life that Jesus can offer.
The bread of life is being offered to you and to me today. We connect with the life force of Jesus that heals, forgives, transforms, and empowers in many ways. We do it when we pray, when we read the scriptures and meditate on them, when we worship, when we reach out in concern and service to others. And we connect with that life in a special way this morning, when we come to the table where Jesus is the host offering us the gift of God’s healing and transforming presence and grace through these ordinary elements of bread and wine.
Yes, many of us, like those crowds in Galilee come to Jesus because of what we need him to do for us. And folks, that’s all right. Because Jesus wants to give us more than we could ever ask or imagine. So, we’re invited to come today, asking God to do what only God can do for us—to give us life! And if that happens, then we will become God’s gift to others and to the world around us.