Tenth Sunday After Pentecost

TEXT: John 6:24-35

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life …” (John 6:27a)

In today’s gospel lesson, we catch up with Jesus the day after he performed that famous miracle where 5,000 people were fed from a small boy’s meagre lunch (John 6:1-14). Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes until everyone present had eaten their fill—and then there were 12 baskets of leftovers remaining.

The people have followed Jesus all the way to the other side of the Sea of Galilee because they want another free meal.

They have come looking for physical nourishment—and who can blame them? But now Jesus wants to offer them something else, something that is even better. He wants to give them spiritual sustenance. “I am the bread of life,” he tells them. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In John, the emphasis is on spiritual blessing—on “food that endures for eternal life.” Less than 24 hours earlier, these people had witnessed Jesus’ miraculous provision of bread—and now they want more of the same. They want another miracle like that—like the manna which sustained the physical lives of their ancestors.

You remember the story about the manna, right? It’s found in chapter 16 of the Book of Exodus. In the midst of their long journey through the barren desert wilderness, the people had difficulty finding enough food to eat. So the Lord provided for them.

“Out of the blue,” bread rained down from heaven. Always, just enough bread for that day. On the sixth day, there was enough bread for two days, so the people could rest on the Sabbath.

It is this story from Israel’s history which the people hold up when they come to Jesus and ask him for a “sign” (John 6:30). They want the future to be like the past. They figure that the thing which worked so well previously is what they still need in their present circumstances.

And why would they not desire something that’s “tried and true”? When Moses was their liberator, God gave them food for their bodies. Why can’t they expect the same thing from Jesus?

Well, of course, they can! The experience of the previous day had shown them they could. But Jesus wants to give them something more—something greater.

He wants to provide not merely bread to feed human bodies, but eternally-enduring food to sustain the human spirit. He wants to give them a taste of another kind of bread—bread which will sustain them in and for the future.

Most of them don’t get it. In fact, as we read further in chapter six of John’s gospel, we hear Jesus trying to enlarge their understanding of bread—and of life.

In verse 48, he tells them again, “I am the bread of life.” And then he says, “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever …” (vv. 49-51).

But all that talk just weirded them out. If Jesus wasn’t going to repeat the “bread” miracles of the past … Well, they wanted no part of the future he was offering them. And in verse 66, we read the sad commentary: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

They stood at a turning point. Jesus wanted to lead them in a new direction. Not because their walk up to this point had been evil or bad, but because their old ways of thinking—and doing—belonged to the past.

They had come to a dead end. To move into the future, they needed a new way of thinking, a new way of doing.

They needed a new path.

Jesus wanted to show them the way forward … but most of them refused to look.

However, the “bread from heaven” being offered by Jesus is not about the past. Rather, it points to the future—to “eternal life,” in fact.

Yes. Eternal life. Not only in heaven after we die, but right here, right now, in our earthly future, as well.

Not only in the distant past, but also in the very recent past, the church has been blessed by “manna from heaven”—gifts which have come to us from “out of the blue” just when we needed them most. And of course we should give thanks for that.

But, today, I find myself wondering whether—just like those people who wanted more of the same old kind of bread—we, also, have reached a turning point. Are we, I wonder, being called away from the manna which has sustained us in the past?

Is Jesus offering us a new kind of bread? Bread which is able to sustain us as we journey onward? Is he offering himself to us in a fresh way?

Is he, I wonder, calling us out of our usual places? Our familiar sanctuaries? Our traditional ways of doing things?

Is that idea shocking?

Is it more shocking than the ongoing discoveries of unmarked graves at former church-run residential schools?

Is it more shocking than the realization that we have used the gospel as an instrument of colonialization?

Is it more shocking than the “greying” of so many of our churches? In my own denomination, it’s obvious that in most congregations, at least three-quarters of the membership is over 60 years of age. As one astute observer commented: “Viewed from behind, we look like a box of cotton swabs.”

In Canada today, less than 15% of self-identified Christians attend worship services even once a week, according to a recent poll.

I’m certain of this much: we cannot any longer go on the way we have been. Something has to change.

I confess, this scares me at least as much as I know it scares some of you. Change is never easy. However—if it’s the right kind of change—it breathes fresh air. It brings new life.

On this first Sunday in August of 2021, many of us will approach the Lord’s Table.

As we taste the bread and drink the fruit of the vine, we will be participating in a sacred feast which is not only about remembering the distant past, but also about looking forward. As we celebrate the community of which we are part—a community which exists not only on earth, but also in heaven—we are celebrating hope. We gather to proclaim our trust in the God who gives us “the true bread from heaven”—the bread which gives life to the world. The bread which can give life—abundant life—to us, today … and tomorrow.

And that, my friends, is something to be grateful for! Thanks be to God.

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