1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
My best friend and I are what you might call “eating friends”. She lives in Pennsylvania, but when we know we are going to get together- we immediately start making a list of restaurants in the area in which we will be. We make choices about which days to eat the big breakfast, lunch, OR dinner. We also have foods we both buy or bring, only on trips, because they are our vacation foods and because we enjoy eating them together. For us, the experience of eating together is a fun part of our relationship and our memories of things we have done together. (For the record, we do things other than eat. I think.)
What are some of the reasons we eat? We eat for pleasure. We eat because it’s time. We eat because we’re hungry. Anyone who has worked at losing weight knows that it’s easy to fall into the trap of eating because you’re lonely, bored, or sad. We eat when we’re celebrating and when we’re grieving. But when it comes down to it, we eat to stay alive. We eat because without eating, we cannot function.
So, we understand that while we often have many, sometimes overlapping reasons for eating, there is one basic reason why we eat- to stay alive. So here’s my follow-up question to that: why do we trust in Jesus? What are some of the reasons why we put our faith in Jesus, a Jewish man of two centuries ago, who some say was the Messiah of God?
We may have faith in Jesus the Christ because of some experience- internal or external. We may trust in our tradition and the tradition of our families, a part of which is belief in Jesus. We may still be questioning in our hearts, but feel that Jesus is the best bet for an anchor in a rocky sea. We may be seeking our best life now and a great return for bread cast out upon the waters. Of all these reasons, when it comes down to it, why do we believe in Jesus?
We want eternal life.
We want eternal life. We want to stay alive. We want heaven. We want the reunion with those who have gone before us. In a way that is beyond our imagination, we want the banquet and the rejoicing and the tree of life and city beyond imagination and the parade of nations and the drying of all tears and abounding joy. We eat to stay alive and, often, (more often than not) we look to Jesus as our ticket to doing the exact same thing. We treat the bread of life like a ticket to heaven. We look at the table as a foretaste of the feast to come and, when it doesn’t turn to ashes in our mouths, we see it as insurance and assurance that we will be at that feast.
But the life of faith is so much more than that. More importantly, Jesus is so much more than a ticket to ride or insurance toward immortality. In today’s readings, God’s story unfolds to help us understand that bread of heaven (and bread from heaven) is for the life of the world, eternally. Which is wholly different than being for eternal life.
When Elijah is fleeing from Jezebel (the actions preceding today’s excerpt), he travels to the end of the known world and then goes one more day- just to be on the safe side. He’s ready to die. He wants to die. God sends a messenger to Elijah, bringing him food and telling him to eat. Why does Elijah need to eat? Because his work is not done. He has to eat for life- his own life and for the life of God’s word in the world. As a prophet, his work of speaking truth, of revealing God’s power, of bringing hope to God’s people is not yet over. Thus he receives bread for the journey because it is not time for him to die. Elijah receives bread from heaven, the bread of life, for his life here on earth (and for the other lives whom he encounters as well).
When the crowds gather around Jesus, they grumble about what he has to say- even though he’s fed them, healed them, and generally amazed them. Still, they know his people, they’ve seen his followers, they know he sleeps and has physical needs. What’s this about heaven? Yet, he tells them the One who has come from God is the bread of life. The bread of life comes for the life of the world. Jesus explains that the bread of life feeds us for eternal life and for life right now.
Like the crowds, we do not always like that “life right now” part. What does that look like? The writer of Ephesians says it is a life of uplifting speech (no slander, no backbiting), a life of kindness and gentleness, a life of forgiveness and imitation of Christ. Would this be the same Christ who gave up his life for the sake of the world? Are we supposed to imitate that Christ?
That’s where our experience of Jesus gets tough- where we’d rather think about eternal life, than what’s happening right here and now. When the imitation of Christ means loving our enemies, not the ones far way, but the ones next to us, the ones who we see in the grocery store, at the family reunion, at the communion rail… When the imitation of Christ means trying something new and uncertain… When the imitation of Christ means admitting that you’re not, that we’re not in control… When the imitation of Christ means living by faith, and faith alone… all of that makes the bread of life seem a little dry and to catch in our throats.
Eternal life, whatever it is like, will be fantastic. But we are here now. The bread of life… the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we experience in communion, in Word, and in community… this bread of life is food for this journey, nourishment so that we can live, sustenance so that we can live right now, provisions so that we can live right now for the sake of the world. Fuel for the imitation of Christ.
Our faith is not a retirement plan. It is not a moral system that we use for guidance on occasion. We have been given the gift of faith, so that the world might know the joy of salvation, the salvation that has come through Jesus the Christ. We have been baptized into God’s history for the life of the world, the life of the world right now. We are fed- as a community and as individuals- in communion and in prayer- through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are fed so that we can stay alive. Alive in faith. Alive in Christ. Alive to do the work to which we have been called and to which we are being led.
We are eating friends, food friends, bread sharers. Being fed from heaven right now- for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the world.