2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51:1-13; John 6:24-35
As most of you know, I love musical theater. One of the greatest joys of our nine years in New York City was being only a short subway ride away from Broadway. I still do my best to see as many musicals as possible.
Today I am thinking in particular about “Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim’s romp through the world of fairy tales. The show explores the consequences of its characters’ wishes and quests. One of the things I like most about it is the overarching construction of the plot: Act One begins with, “Once Upon a Time,” and ends at, “Happily Ever After”; Act Two begins with, “Once upon a Time…Later.” We learn that the characters are still wishing—still not content. And there are consequences to all the plot twists that led to a Happy Ever After.
As I studied our gospel lesson for today a line jumped out at me that I had forgotten. Jesus is speaking to the crowd following him and the disciples. You remember that this comes after the story of the feeding of the five thousand, where Jesus blesses five barley loaves and two fishes and they become more than enough to feed all those gathered. Now, in speaking to this growing crowd, he says, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” It feels like we are getting a glimpse of what happens after the story is over. The people are miraculously fed, and instead of being grateful, they want more.
And I think those crowds following Jesus in today’s reading have a lot in common with us modern-day church-goers. Jesus has something they want. Jesus and the disciples have been travelling around the Galilee region, healing as they go. The people have been miraculously fed through the actions of Jesus—and they continue to be literally and figuratively hungry for what Jesus is giving them.
But they don’t really seem to understand where the real value is in his offerings. You get the distinct feeling that, if the healing stops and the food is no longer served, the crowd will thin dramatically. They see the miracles as ends in themselves, rather than what they really are: signs pointing to the real identity of this man Jesus.
It’s easy to identify with them, isn’t it? We all have needs; and most of the time, life seems to be about the race to fill those needs for ourselves, and for our families. When something is offered that can meet those needs, even temporarily, we flock to it. But perhaps, in doing so, we miss the point.
In today’s gospel passage it seems that Jesus and the crowd are really talking past each other. The people ask Jesus a series of questions, and he barely answers any of them!
Take a look. First they ask, “When did you come here?” And he gives that answer analyzing why they have been following him.
OK, fine. They take his lead. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” they then ask. Well, he sort of answers that question. He tells them they must believe in the Son of God. Following that logic, they ask how they can be sure he is the Son of God. That’s a really good follow-up question, you know. At this time in history there are a lot of people wandering around that region, acting as healers and claiming to be the Messiah. Just because this man Jesus is charismatic, that doesn’t automatically mean he is the One. So they ask for a sign, like the manna that came to the Israelites, which took care of their bodily needs and therefore served as a sure sign that God was with them.
But again, Jesus’ doesn’t really answer them. He says that they are looking for food for the day—but what God offers is nourishment forever—living bread, he says. Well, that sounds pretty good. Naturally, they ask for this gift.
And Jesus answers in that phrase that is so familiar to us: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The people around Jesus must have been disappointed. They were looking for real food. And Jesus offered himself, promising to take away their hunger and thirst forever.
As most of you will recall, last week I talked about our month-long foray into the gospel of John, breaking away from this year’s task of readings from the gospel of Mark. We are in the midst of the sixth chapter of John, which focuses on the idea of Jesus as the bread of life. We are using this extended metaphorical focus as an opportunity to look at the Eucharist—to think about what this central ritual of our worshipping life means to us, and what it might grow to mean for us. All of this will culminate in an instructed Eucharist in two Sundays, on the 19th, where we will pause at various moments in the service to talk about the actions we take and the words we say
When we come to communion, what are we looking for? Often we are looking for that elusive thing that always seems out of reach. No matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to get it. We are looking for something that will, once and for all, finally satisfy us.
Most of us are looking for the fulfillment of the promise Jesus makes. We are looking for satiation – for something that will take away the longing that gnaws at us.
We are looking for the living bread that Jesus promises. We are hoping to calm the voices inside our heads—voices that might say, “You’re not good enough,” or “You’ll never amount to anything,” or “Shape up!” We are looking for assurance that we are OK – and that everything is going to be OK.
Jesus helps the seekers in this story understand that, as long as they look for satisfaction of their needs from worldly things, they will ultimately be disappointed. But if they turn instead to God, and put their trust in the eternal, they will find the satisfaction they long for.
So Jesus offers us solace and satisfaction, the gift of which is ritualized in the actions of the Eucharist. And if we get it—if we accept that gift, what then? Why should we come back? Will we fall away once our current issues are settled? Well, we might. We all know that there are people who come into our church family in times of crisis, and as the crisis abates, we don’t see them anymore.
But there will always be another crisis. That’s true for those people who fall away, and for those of you who stick around. Even if we are temporarily satisfied, we will always need these things again. I think that’s a major reason we gather around this table every week. We know that we need to be constantly reminded of the living bread. When things get better, we sometimes think we can do it on our own. But coming to this table should remind us that we are where we are by the grace of God. And that, even if right now we don’t feel a burning need for the gifts that Jesus offers, we will need them again.
And community is a vital part of this equation. The body of Christ as it is manifest here at St. Paul’s, Stockbridge, around this table, is a living sign of that everlasting bread! That’s why we gather here week after week for communion.
Like some of you, I grew up as a mainline Protestant. In the Methodist Church when I was growing up, we had communion once a month, and there were some Methodist churches that did it even less frequently. Communion was important, but it wasn’t the center of our worship.
Coming to the Episcopal Church, it took me a little while to get used to the idea of communion every week. (Of course, for those of you who grew up in the Episcopal Church, you know that this has not always been a standard in the Episcopal Church either. Until the advent of Vatican II, which led to liturgical reform and renewal throughout Christianity, and also led to our current Prayer Book, Morning Prayer was the standard for Sunday mornings in the Episcopal Church.) When I first became an Episcopalian, I didn’t quite understand the Eucharistic focus of our worship.
But now I find that I am fed each week by the ritual of bread and wine that reminds us of God’s love for us, and of Jesus’ sacrifice as a sign of that grace. We always need the gift of abundant life that Jesus has given. In the hard times we come here to be reminded that we are not alone—to be buoyed up by the community of faith, and to receive these reminders of God’s care for us. In the good times we come here also to remember, and to praise God for the tangible gifts in our lives—for food on our tables, and a community of love—as well as to be that community for others.
We come to the table not only to remember God’s goodness towards us, but also to be the body of Christ gathered. To be the tangible signs of Christ, the Bread of Life. To receive the “happily ever after” that comes from God through Jesus Christ. Praise God for these good gifts, and for this community of love that gathers week after week to gratefully receive them. Amen.