What’s the best meal you ever had? Was it a big, fat steak or a pound-and-a-half lobster tail on your birthday or anniversary? Was it your, or a neighbor’s, soon-to-be-famous back yard barbeque? Perhaps it was even an unexpected combination of leftovers out of the fridge that turned out to be “just the thing.” Save that recipe… write it down! Or maybe it wasn’t so much the food… maybe it was the circumstances surrounding the meal. Was it a cozy repast in a little hole-in-the-wall joint you happened upon on vacation or while traveling? Was it homemade chicken soup, lovingly prepared and served up warm and savory one day when you were feeling under-the-weather? Some of you Moms might remember with fondness the first time your child(ren) brought you breakfast in bed. Sure, the eggs were cold and the toast a little burned around the edges, but the overall effect? Priceless. I remember returning to civilization one Thanksgiving Day after having been on the Appalachian Trail eating backpacking food for a week and happening across a little steakhouse buffet that was serving a feast of turkey with all the trimmings for just $11.99. I would have gladly paid $100.00.
I wonder if the crowd who pursued Jesus across the Sea of Tiberias in today’s Gospel lesson was similarly besotted by the relative “feast” he had so recently provided. The writer of the fourth Gospel tells us that, after consuming the loaves and fishes miraculously multiplied by Jesus, the people said, “‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ [and] When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:14). And the crowd still had “bread on the brain” the next morning when they took ship and followed Jesus to Capernaum. It must have been pretty good bread. I expect that the first thing the crowd asked Jesus when they arrived was, “When’s lunch?” But Jesus wasn’t going to cater to their need for physical sustenance today. “Do not work for the food that perishes…” he admonished them, “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” (John 6:27).
This reminds me of the story of the Transfiguration recounted in the Synoptic Gospels. We celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration tomorrow, you know. Our own patron Saint James was there, along with Peter and John. They, along with Jesus, went up to the mountain to pray. Suddenly, Jesus changed. His face shone and his clothes, which were probably pretty dusty and stained from travel, turned dazzlingly white. Then Moses and Elijah showed up! How cool was that??? And as the disciples debated whether or not to build “booths” for Jesus and the two Hebrew prophets, God spoke: “This is my Son, the Beloved [or in Luke’s gospel, the “chosen”]; with him I am well pleased; listen to him” (Mark 9:2-8). Wow. Interestingly, there is no account of the Transfiguration in John’s Gospel. John tends to let the awesomeness of Jesus stand on its own. In the case of today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the crowd that God has sent the Son of Man to give a new kind of food to his people, food that will keep them satisfied not just for a few hours, or a day, or even a week! This new food satisfies for all of eternity!
“Yum!” said the crowd. “How do we get this food?” And Jesus said, “It’s easy. All you have to do is believe in the one God sent. That would be me.” “Prove it,” said the crowd, whose stomachs were probably beginning to rumble. “Scripture talks about ‘bread from heaven (lots of nods)…’ you could start there.” Man, were these guys hungry! They just didn’t know what they were hungry for. And Jesus wasn’t going to let them off the hook: “[I]t is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God… is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Whatever,” said the crowd. “Just give us some.” “I am that bread,” said Jesus. “Follow me and you’ll never be hungry or thirsty again.” Sadly, this awesome “I AM” statement was not followed by a massive “altar call.” There were probably some in the crowd with ears to hear Jesus, but most were likely only listening to their stomachs.
How different are we from the crowd? How often do we focus, and even obsess, on things that provide instant gratification at the expense of pursuing things that are truly life-giving? And, I don’t know about you but, Jesus Messiah is the most life-giving thing I can think of. We say we love Jesus… and we do. It’s just that we’re so self-absorbed that we’re sometimes unwilling to put our money where our mouth is… to have faith, and trust God to give us what we need through his beloved, his chosen… and to set ourselves resolutely on the path that Jesus offers us. “But it’s so easy to get distracted,” we complain, in an attempt to rationalize our unfaithfulness. When times are hard, it’s easy to remember to ask for God’s help. But when life is good, we get so wrapped up enjoying the good stuff that we forget where all of that good comes from. Is that bad? And here’s the thing: I don’t believe God wants us to give up all of the good stuff, the things we love to eat and drink and do… and walk around being holier-than-thou ascetics all of the time. No. I don’t think God wants us to give up the worldly things that add richness and enjoyment to our lives, as long as we don’t pursue them in ways that are hurtful to ourselves or others.
But God does want us to be holy. God made us to be holy. Maybe you’ve heard me say this before: “God loves you just the way you are… but he’s not gonna leave you that way.” God loves us and wants what’s best for us, and joy in life and in creation is all part of that. We must never forget, however, that God has planted us at this place, and at this time in the history of the universe… for a purpose. And that purpose is to help bring about God’s Kingdom on earth. When Jesus offers us “the true bread of heaven,” he is inviting us to follow him… to give into God’s will for our lives, and to become his hands and feet to a world in great need of hope. And the trajectory of Jesus’ ministry throughout the Gospels tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how to do that: Love God. Love your neighbor. Don’t judge. Be kind. Tell the truth. Confront evil and injustice. Use your God given talents and other gifts to help others when you can. And yes, be happy.
As the writer of the letter to the Ephesians tells us, we are invited to “lead lives worthy of the calling to which we have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience… bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace—for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God… to maturity… to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” And you know, as tempting as it is, sometimes, to lose ourselves in the here and now, seeking first and foremost to satisfy our worldly appetites, I’m pretty sure that following Jesus and helping to bring about God’s kingdom on earth will be even more satisfying. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?