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Text: John 6: 24 – 35
“Money won’t buy happiness. We do not live by bread alone. Love is all you need.”
We say these things, too often as a way of dismissing someone who is actually in need of money, bread, or something other than love, so that we don’t have to give any of our money or bread or something more material than an insubstantial and pretty non-committal “love.”
We find in this passage Jesus responding to a crowd who basically chased after him after the miracle of feeding the crowd. Who would do this? They followed him to the other side of the lake, they we hounding him, all for bread? Who would do this but people who really, really needed bread? Who were genuinely very hungry?
I suppose it’s possible that they thought they had found a breadmaking machine; that they were going to have Jesus make a lot of bread and sell it and they could be rich, but I’m not sure.
A lot of the commentaries I’ve read on this passage, the ones meant for preachers to give us starting points for our sermons, suggested the people following Jesus because they thought he had bread were like those people who only come to church for a comforting but unchallenging message, or to be with friends, or whatever “trivial” reason, and not to truly be changed to be disciples of Jesus.
And I thought about that, and realized I really don’t like the judgement in it. “You’re coming here for the wrong reason, you’re doing Christianity wrong, you individual believer. It’s all on you.”
Not on me, the preacher. Not on us, the church collectively. You.
No. While I do think that we, middle-class Liberal and mostly white Christians, tend to prefer a comfortable pew and really resist any message that challenges our comfort—I always wonder just what would happen if I honestly preached “give everything to the poor”—but I also don’t think it’s my place to judge the reasons why people come to church.
If someone comes in in the middle of winter because they’re homeless and they just need a place to be warm and maybe some of the food after the service, is that coming to church for the wrong reason? Do we judge them?
If someone comes to our church who is gay and doesn’t really believe in God, but we’re one of the few churches that will welcome them with open arms, does that mean they’re coming to church for the wrong reason?
And if someone comes and just likes the music, just wants to be with their friends, doesn’t contribute to either the collection plate or sit on any committees or have any interest in justice and probably falls asleep during the sermon, are they coming to church for the wrong reason?
Judge not lest ye be judged, right?
It isn’t on me to say what you should believe, what you should do, to be part of this community. I am not a gatekeeper; none of us are. And maybe I’m a bit too much of a Calvinist, but really, if your heart needs changing, God’s the one who’s going to do it, whether you’re coming for the right reasons or not.
But I do think this story does have something to challenge us in our complacency. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”
The people, I think, immediately get what Jesus is saying. They’re not fixated on the bread, so they ask, “Well, what does God want us to do?”
And Jesus says, “Believe in me.” And put a pin in that “believe in.” It’s a bit challenging, and we’ll come back to it. Especially since I kind of just said that believing in God is not necessary to come to church or be part of the community.
In me, and who Jesus is becomes key to understanding what we have to do.
The other three Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are concerned with what Jesus does. John’s Gospel cares about who Jesus is. So, the most important words in the Gospel are whenever Jesus says “I am…”
It has been slowly lurking in the background for a couple of chapters—Jesus says “I am” when the Samaritan woman at the well says “I know that the Messiah is coming” and he says “I am” when he appears to the disciples walking on the Sea of Galilee. “I am . . .”
I am what?
And now, finally, the theme is heard in full. “I am the bread of life.” He is the one who fills and fulfills. “Those who come to me will never be hungry and never thirst.” The Samaritan woman draws water from the well and is thirst again; the multitudes eat bread and are hungry again, but Jesus will fulfill their needs permanently.
It is patently not true. At least, in the way we usually interpret it. We are here, and I don’t just mean that we follow Jesus and still hunger and thirst, because obviously. But to hear some people talk about it, you’d think that following Jesus means you’ll never have any emotional or spiritual or material needs or wants ever again. You’ll never be lonely again; you’ll never suffer again; you’ll realizing being poor was all in your head.
And that’s not true, any more than the idea is that believing in Jesus will take care of all your physical needs. We come to church because we still have those needs; because we need to be warm, because we need to be accepted, because we need to be around friends.
How does believing in Jesus fill those needs permanently?
We think we just have to believe the right way; that if we follow the one true religion, believe the one true doctrine, everything will be unlocked for us.
But no, it isn’t about that. It is in the same way that Jesus fed the thousands: in the act of breaking the bread and sharing.
Believing in Jesus doesn’t mean thinking that he exists or is the son of God or whatever; it means believing in the things Jesus is. Love, hope, compassion, mercy, justice, peace. Believing in Jesus means living in those values, making them the cornerstone of your life.
Believing in those means that when we see another hungry or thirsty, we give food and water, and someone gives food and water to us because they believe in those things, and someone gives food and water to them because they believe in those things . . . and soon, we are no longer hungry or thirsty, ever, because we are always giving. That’s how it works.
When someone shows up needing a place to be warm, we do not judge, but we give them a place to be warm, and we are made warm ourselves. When someone needs acceptance, we accept them without precondition, and find ourselves accepted. When someone needs friendship, we offer it to them without asking anything in return, and in return we have a new friend.
It’s really hard for us to understand, because we see the world in terms of transactions and reciprosity, but God’s love isn’t like that. It’s more like life—just by existing, it makes more of itself. That’s the kind of love we believe in, and when we believe in that love, we will never want for it. Amen.