August 5, 2018
In his characteristic prayer that Christians use at least daily, the Lord Jesus has us ask God to “give us this day our daily bread.” Jesus recognizes that bread is obviously important as food for our bodies. It is something we all need to survive. I would even call bread or food a fundamental human right. Jesus himself has just fed 5000 people on a hillside with miracle bread. Feeding people physically is important to him.
God places us in a creation of astounding abundance where there is more than enough to feed everyone, even a population of 10 billion humans. The fact that this doesn’t happen and we have hungry people and a yawning gap in the world between a very few who have way too much, and almost everyone else with way too little, is a product of human sinfulness, egocentricity, selfishness, and greed. It is like this because we choose to mess up the distribution.
Jesus comes to change the world. If we can be liberated from the bondage to greed and the fear which spawns it, we can see a new economy emerge in which all are fed. Those who witness that miracle of the bread are on board with this new economy. They are all about the provision of bread; they want to see everyone fed.
So when Jesus weirdly disappears after they want to take him to Jerusalem and make him king, they pile into boats and try to find him somewhere along the coast of the Sea of Galilee. Eventually they do locate him, predictably, in his headquarters-town of Capernaum.
They want more bread. They want to build on the bread experience. They want to use Jesus to do the good work of providing bread for all, especially the hungry. They want to build a better distribution system, and fulfill Jesus’ prayer about giving all of us this day our daily bread. Indeed, they want to fulfill Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 about serving him by serving the needy. “I was hungry and you gave me food.” They’re all about that. They want to be one of the nations that is received into the joy of the Lord because they served the least of these, the destitute, deprived, disenfranchised, diseased people on the bottom of society.
I totally get that. All my life I have been on the side of a socially active, progressive Christianity. And I noticed at the recently concluded General Assembly that our denomination has never been so focused on addressing the injustices that pervade our society. We’ve never been more about feeding the hungry, no matter who they are. You’d think I’d be ecstatic! And you’d think Jesus would be all over us with approval and accolades. Well done, good and faithful servants!
And yet, when faced with the enthusiasm of people who want to change society and change the government and get hungry people fed and make Jesus the king, Jesus himself says, “Not so fast. You’re all still focused on the physical, literal bread. That is important. But it is not the most important thing. It’s a superficial and derivative thing. It’s secondary. That food eventually perishes. Don’t work for the perishable food. Work instead 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.”
Then they say to him, “Okay, whatever… but what must we do to perform the works of God? Give us our marching orders! Show us what we need to do to install this new order where everyone gets fed. Tell us the new policies you advocate. We’re ready to get organized. Send us out with some of that bread. We want to do God’s work in your name!”
Jesus answers them, “You want to know what the work of God is? Here it is: that you believe in him whom he has sent.” In other words, the work of God is not primarily going out and doing good things. Doing good things is important and essential; there is no eternal life without doing good things as Jesus teaches and exemplifies. But the good things we do are secondary and derivative; they are the results and consequence of something primary, essential, and deeper happening within us. That has to be unlocked and accessed first.
The point for Jesus is not going out and changing the world; it is changing people… who then go out and change the world. And it is not changing people into something new and different; it is changing them into who they really are and always really were, but didn’t know it.
That’s what he means by “believe.” It is not about our opinion or what we think. It is certainly not our views about historical events, or our verbal and cognitive acceptance of certain theological doctrines. Believing means trusting in who we really are as human beings created in God’s Image. God has revealed this to us in Jesus Christ, who is the Son of Man, or the Human One, with whom we each share in true humanity. It means placing our wholehearted faith, hope, and trust in Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Not at first out there, but within. It means his is your way, your truth, and your life. Christ becomes real in you; more to the point, in him you become real. You participate in him and therefore in the divine nature itself.
And real people do real things and make a real difference in the world.
Don’t get obsessed with the superficialities, says Jesus. Don’t get swept away by the turbulence. Go deep. It’s not about the bread; the bread points to something more profound and real. As long as it’s just about the bread then we are stuck in politics and economics, where even if you throw out the corrupt old boss you discover the new boss is just as bad, in insignificantly different ways, because we haven’t changed anything fundamental. We just moved some pieces around on the board.
But if you turn away from the old boss in your heart and soul and mind, and allow the true boss, Jesus Christ, the Image of God, the One sent from heaven into the world, to emerge in you, then everything changes. Then you will be spiritually fed by “bread” that doesn’t perish, but feeds you for eternal life. Then you live forever because you have discovered that forever actually lives in you.
So when Jesus says that what we must do to be doing God’s work is believe in him, it doesn’t mean do nothing. It means, as they say in 12-step groups, “let go and let God.” It means “give me the steering wheel of your life.” It means “become the me that is in you.” It means “follow me.” We do God’s work by having Jesus work in and through us.
Jesus says, “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
God’s “bread” which gives life to the world is God’s holy Word, who is Jesus Christ. Just as bread gives life to people when they eat it and it literally becomes them, so also God’s “bread,” gives life to the world by becoming flesh in Jesus and being “consumed” when people hear and follow his teachings, and when he gives his life on the cross. In this way his life comes to permeate the whole world.
We come to him and trust in him by participating in him and his mission, which means we are also, in his name, the “bread” that gives life to the world. We empty ourselves of our self-important, self-righteous egocentricity, and identify as he does with the world’s brokenness and weakness, its failure and disease, its rejection and exclusion. We offer ourselves in love for the world, as Christ does, and so the world is redeemed in him through us.
In a sense, we who follow Jesus are the “bread.” We are broken and distributed when we share the love of God with others, enabling them to find the bread, the Presence of Christ, within themselves. Together we gather to share the bread of his life and teachings together. Which is why the epitome of Christian life is expressed in this Sacrament where we share the bread and the cup and so share in Christ himself. The idea is that this sharing becomes our way of life, and its pattern is extended in the way we live once we leave this place. We continue as a people of self-offering and redemptive sharing, spread throughout the world like light, or salt, or leaven.
We have to be the bread now. We have to be the ones who bring life and blessing into people’s lives. We have to be the catalysts for healing, enabling others to know the faith that is in them that they never realized was even there.
We have to be the people of humility and generosity, gentleness and joy, openness and acceptance, freedom and peace, compassion and hope, witnessing always and only to the living Presence of Christ in the world, in our hearts, in the soul of everyone and everything that God makes. We have to be the ones who are sent into the world, not to condemn the world or anyone in it, but that the world might have life in Jesus Christ, the bread of life.