“I am” as you’ve heard me say repeatedly through this John 6 series, is the name of God in Hebrew. The writer of the Gospel of John certainly knew this, so when he places these words on the lips of Jesus, he knows full well what he’s doing – he’s pointing to the identity of Jesus as God.
Over the past couple of weeks we’ve heard Jesus say: “I am. Do not be afraid.” as he walked on the stormy sea to meet the disciples in the boat. And “I am the bread of life.” as he compared himself to the manna God provided for their ancestors as they wandered in the wilderness. And in a verse that’s repeated this week from the end of last week’s Gospel, Jesus expands on the meaning of his identity as the bread of life, saying: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
But there’s a real danger at this point of either over or under spiritualizing things. There’s a real danger of hearing this and all of the other references to hunger and thirst in this 6th chapter and throughout John’s Gospel, and making it all about spiritual hunger and thirst. And that’s not to say that the spiritual hunger and thirst aren’t important. They absolutely are. I mean, when Jesus confronts the woman at the well in John chapter 4, she ends up leaving her bucket behind, because she’s found Jesus to be the source of living water – a water that one can drink and never be thirsty again. That’s about spiritual thirst. And it’s a striking parallel to this story in John chapter 6, where the people come looking to be fed again the day after the miraculous feeding, but instead receive, not more bread and fish, but a discourse on Jesus as the bread of life.
So, I’m clearly not saying, and John’s Gospel is not saying, that spiritual hunger and thirst are unimportant, but we must be honest about the conditions in which people live, and think about such teachings of Jesus on a more practical level, as well. After all, this whole chapter starts with Jesus realizing the crowds need for food, real food to fill the crowd’s real physical hunger, and it’s important for us to keep that in mind, as well as the spiritual hunger. Jesus doesn’t leave the people physically hungry while teaching them that there’s more to life than physical realities. He deals with the physical realities first, and then addresses the issues of spiritual hunger and thirst…
Let me share a parable with you. It’s about an old tribe that lived together in a circular compound on a tropical island. They’d received a great blessing from their god, and so the chief called for a communal celebration, to which everyone was supposed to bring a jug of palm wine to share. But one of the men in the tribe was stingy, and he didn’t want to share his palm wine, believing that his wine was far superior to the palm wine made by all his fellow tribe members. So when the time came for the celebration, the chief set a large vat in the middle of the compound and everyone brought their jug of palm wine and poured it into the vat to share. But this man brought a jug of water instead, thinking that, since palm wine is clear, no one would know the difference. Plus, he figured, what difference will it make if one jug of water is added to the large vat of wine? So he did as he planned when it was his turn to contribute to the celebration vat.
Once all had poured their offerings into the vat, the chief called each one forward again, this time to draw a jug of wine off of the vat, in order that all could return to their hut and make final preparations for the celebration. At the appointed time, all were to stand outside of their huts and together they would drink of the communal blend of palm wine. So when the time came, and all had been made ready, everyone gathered around the compound, standing outside of their huts, and raised their glasses in celebration. And when the chief gave the sign, they all drank. A collective gasp rose from around the compound, for, you see, it was not just one man in the tribe who thought, “It will make no difference if I add just one jug of water to the communal vat of wine” but all had thought the same thing.
The fact of the matter is, as we’ve read from Ephesians for two weeks now, and as our prayer of the day today says: We are to live as Christ’s body in the world. But this requires that each and every member does its part as part of the whole body, with Christ Jesus as the head. If any of us fail to do our part, if any of us begin to think that it’s okay for us to add a little water to the palm wine, then we need to watch out, because, before long, all we’ll have is a vat of water!
We’re all in this together, and each of us have been gifted by the Spirit in one way or another for the good of the whole people of God, and, for that matter, for the good of the whole world. So when one person withholds their gifts, the whole community suffers. And, as the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr so powerfully taught, when one member of the community suffers, we all suffer.
With this in mind, I share these facts:
- In our nation, over 45 million people live in poverty, and
- We have the highest childhood poverty rate of any major nation in the world
Each and every one of us as individual disciples of Jesus, and each and every community of faith, has an important role to play in addressing the immediate needs of our neighbors. But it can’t stop simply with addressing the immediate needs of our neighbors. Charity, the meeting of immediate needs, is good and it’s necessary, but it only gets us so far!
It’s like the old CARE slogan: Give a person a fish, and they eat for a day. Teach them to fish, and they eat for a lifetime!
We need real change in the deep social structures that serve to perpetuate the need for charity.
- One such structure is youth unemployment. Some 30% of white and Asian youth, 17-25 years old, are unemployed, and for Blacks, that percentage goes up to 50%!
That is simply unacceptable! We’re creating a generation of people who will be hard pressed to ever dig out of the hole we’ve dug for them!
- Women continue to earn more than 20% less than their male counterparts for doing the same work, and households suffer because of it.
- Far too many people work for wages that do not provide a sustainable living, and it’s all well and good to say they should work more than one job – I did it when Jill was a baby – but what if I had been a single parent? Do we consider the harm we’re doing to families by essentially requiring people to work multiple jobs in order to survive?
And if we don’t address these real life conditions, if we don’t address such very real examples of physical hunger and thirst, how can we ever expect anyone to take us seriously when we try to share with them the good news of Jesus’ saving love and mercy? It just ends up being like so much more water added to the vat, when what the world needs is for us to share our very best.
Who’s ever going to take us seriously, if we talk about Jesus as the bread that ends all hunger, when we’re not willing to do our part to address the root causes of the crippling hunger that 45 million of our neighbors face as a daily reality?…
In verse 41 Jesus expands on the metaphor, and draws us back to the comparison of himself and the manna from heaven as he says: “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” And in verse 50 and 51 he extends it further still, saying: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” And we’re drawn to the flip side, to the spiritual side, once again. Jesus says that those who eat this bread will never die, but we know the sad reality of death is still very much a reality we all face. But Jesus calls us to consider spiritual realities beyond even this most stark physical reality.
Those who believe in Jesus, those who receive him as real food and real drink, receive the promise of eternal life in him
- A life beyond physical death, through this Christ who loves us with a love that is stronger than death
- A promise sealed by his own death and resurrection
- A promise that continues to be shared with us each time we gather at the Lord’s Table, where God in Christ feeds us with the broken body and shed blood of Jesus – broken and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins
- A promise spoken through Jesus in these words that will begin our Gospel reading for next week: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
To be continued…