Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
“Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom [God] has sent.’” John 6:28-29
One of the delights of being on vacation is enjoying some wonderful meals in local restaurants. My family has a few favorite spots for seafood when we’re at the beach, and my sister Claire and I recently got some excellent advice about places to eat up in Saratoga Springs. The wait staff at all of these places brought us bread as a start to our meal. It’s common practice, as you know. Sometimes it’s dinner rolls, sometimes freshly cut slices; sometimes it’s sweet, sometimes savory. Sometimes they bring you a little butter to slather on that bread, and other times you’re given some rich olive oil in which to dip it. Whatever form it takes, that bread is delicious.
There are many theories about why restaurants bring us bread before our meal, including the notion that it keeps customers from being less annoying while they wait for their food to arrive. Chef Jonas Luster presents a more inspired reason, noting that bread has always been a sign of hospitality. He says: “[Bread is] not something fancy or expensive but it is a staple. To share it with guests means to welcome them and make them part of your family. When days were bad, bread was what people had. When days were good, bread is what people made every day. This hasn’t changed for most parts of the world.”[i] I love Chef Luster’s idea of bread as a family food, an essential food that can fill us even when times are hard.
Whatever the reason that restaurants give us bread, my favorite part is that it just shows up. We don’t have to ask for it. We don’t choose it from the menu. It’s simply there, warm and delicious, nourishing us while we wait for what comes next. It feels like a gift, especially when that melted better seeps into the crevices of the bread.
Last week Pastor Sease may have given you a heads up about this strange season we are in. Every three years the designated readings for the summer land us in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John. It begins auspiciously enough with that great story of Jesus feeding thousands of people on a mountain near the Sea of Galilee. But now we enter four consecutive weeks of talking about bread. Jesus loves a good metaphor. I am the bread of the life, he says – but then he spends 71 verses fleshing that out for us. (Pun intended.)
Not to worry. There’s plenty in these 71 verses to feed us for four weeks. For a lifetime, really. Let’s see what today’s slice of scripture serves up.
What’s most striking here is the difference between how the people understand being fed and how Jesus understands being fed. We begin as the crowd has chased Jesus down. You can’t really blame them. What if your stomach had been growling up there on the mountainside and then someone conjured up a generous picnic that more than filled you up? You’d be intrigued by the person who made that happen, wouldn’t you? So off they go until they find Jesus again.
Jesus sees their hunger for what it is – a desire for more literal food. They want those bread baskets to keep on coming to their table. But Jesus has other ideas in mind. Having addressed their physical hunger, he wants to meet their spiritual hunger.
The people are confused by this shift from the literal to the metaphorical. They know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, so they expect to be given a way to earn more bread. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” they ask. It’s a natural question. What do we have to do to get this enduring food you’re talking about? What must we do? They can’t imagine that it’s anything other than transactional. We do something. We get rewarded with the bread. We don’t understand what this bread from heaven is exactly, but we know how bread works. We work, and we receive it. We perform, and we are rewarded.
Imagine their surprise when Jesus defies those expectations. No, this bread is not something for which you labor. It’s something for which God has already labored. You are given this bread. Just like that manna showed up morning after morning for your ancestors out there in the wilderness beyond Egypt, so too does God provide you with nourishment. Day after day, moment by moment you are given the true bread that sustains life and hope. It is pure gift. All you have to do is believe – to trust that the manna will be there again tomorrow morning and the morning after that and the morning after that.
It’s exactly what our reading from Ephesians captures so beautifully when it says: “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” The measure of Christ’s gift. Not according to the measure of our net worth. Not according to the eloquence of our latest self-righteous rant online. Not according to what we wear or how our children behave or our current mood. Not even according to the good deeds we’ve done. We are given grace as a gift from the one who is our true bread.
That true bread isn’t fancy or expensive but is a staple, whether it comes to us in loaves or crusts or crumbs. To share it with others means to welcome them and make them part of the family. When days are bad, that true bread is what we have. When days are good, that true bread is what we have.
The true bread himself is given to us freely. He shows up at this table – the Lord’s table – without any deserving on our part. This is my body, given for you. The true bread – the true life – is ours for the taking.
In the spirit of that true bread, I offer you this poem by one of my colleagues, the Reverend Layton Williams. It’s titled “Small Comfort,” and it captures how grace can show up in the ordinary moments of daily life when we feel least worthy of it:[ii]
Some days are just hard
for no good reason,
other than that you feel lonely
and maybe lost or sad
and a little small.
I think of these as mouse days:
when you wake up,
shivering in the cold cave
inside you where fear lives.
On mouse days, this tiny hole
seems like a perfectly good
hiding place, even though it’s
a pretty inhospitable space.
On days when I feel this small,
I am grateful for a God
who lets me be a little mousy,
a little pouty,
but doesn’t leave me
I am grateful for the tiny
that life offers me:
a good laugh,
a kind word,
a soft breeze,
or a warm ray of light.
These simple gifts
are like a gentle kiss
that doesn’t take,
but only gives.
They are crumbs
God sets at the mouth of my cave
to say: Stay as long as you need.
I’ll be just out here, waiting,
and whenever you’re ready
we will feast.