The Gifts of Bread and Baptism
Last week we heard the first of five readings from the 6th chapter of John, which form the lectionary series on “The Bread of Life.” We heard the story of the feeding of the multitudes, and we encountered the revelation in this story about our essential neediness – the truth that we are made to hunger, and that Jesus invites us to let go of our instincts to try to control that need away, or defend ourselves against it.
In Jesus we find the good news that our hunger is not something to be afraid of. Jesus affirms our neediness, our hunger, and responds to it. The sign of the feeding of the multitude teachers us that hunger is a gift because it turns us toward the One who feeds us.
I would have been pretty happy to leave it at that.
But today Jesus has a conversation with the crowds, and – frankly – it starts to get a little confusing.
To set this up, we need to remember that at the end of last week’s reading, Jesus and the disciples had crossed over the Sea of Galilee,presumably to get away from the crowds. So, now, it’s the next morning and the crowds have come looking for him.
Immediately, Jesus calls them out. He questions their motives, essentially saying that they don’t actually want to learn from him; they just want another free lunch.
That’s probably fair – on both sides. It’s fair for a group of impoverished peasants eking out a living in an occupied territory to be interested in a free lunch, and it’s also fair for Jesus to point out that they shouldn’t be calling him Rabbi – which means teacher – if what they really want is food, not teaching.
But then we run into my first alarm bell, because suddenly Jesus starts talking about work. “Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”
I find this disconcerting. The day before, Jesus saw hunger and he responded with abundance. No means-testing. No work requirements. Just – “have the people sit down.”
Sitting down is kinda the opposite of work! But now, he is criticizing the people for following him, and he’s telling them that they need to work for the food that endures for eternal life!
Maybe I’m a little over-sensitive to the w-word because I’m a Lutheran preacher, and we’re all “salvation by grace through faith and not by works.” Or maybe I’m reacting because to the Christian sub-culture I grew up in, that had all kinds of expectations (especially for women) about how you have to act, and pray, and dress, and speak, and sleep in order to be a “real” Christian.
I suspect that the ways I was taught to hear “work” are quite far removed from what Jesus means here, especially because Jesus immediately says that the Son of Man will give them this food that endures to eternal life.
But it still begs the question… what is this work that Jesus is referring to?
It’s a question for the crowd as well. They may have come looking for lunch, but they stay for the teaching. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” they ask.
Jesus’ answer rings my second alarm bell: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” It’s a common enough formulation of the gospel, and I affirm its truth. But I also flinch a bit, because one key word in that statement reflects a translation decision. The Greek word πιστεύω (pisteúō) word has two potentially-related meanings in English. One of them is “believe” and – when separated from the other meaning – this one word had led to a whole branch of Christianity that teaches that salvation depends on intellectual assent to specific doctrines.
I was raised in that version of Christianity. Apparently, commentator Debie Thomas was as well, and she offers this description of our common background:
“Growing up, I was taught that being a Christian meant understanding and believing the right things. To accept Jesus, to be ‘born again,’ was to affirm a set of doctrines about who Jesus is and what he accomplished through his death and resurrection. To enter into orthodox faith was to agree that certain theological abstractions about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the human condition, the Bible, and the Church, were true.” (emphasis added)
This worldview makes faith subordinate to theology – to having all the right answers and never having any doubts. turned my faith into a WORK I had to perform, rather than a gift of God that worked on my life to bring about transformation.
But the other meaning of πιστεύω pisteúō means to trust, to place your faith in.
It means believing in SOMEONE rather than in some list of doctrines – and not in the sense that you assent to the truth of Jesus's existence, but in the sense that you entrust yourself to him.
It’s a powerful call – to put our trust in the one whom God has sent to provide what we need…
But the people don’t seem to get it. Maybe they still really just want that free lunch. Or maybe this idea that the work of God is not really work at all, but just the submission of trust – maybe that’s too far outside their expectations.
Whatever the reason, they go back to asking about signs; back to what they are familiar with; back to the way that God has worked in the past – with Moses and the people in the desert, when God gave physical bread from heaven. After all – this was a story of repeated provision. This was their precedent for asking for bread again the next day…
In the desert, God told the people NOT to store up manna for the next day. The people had to trust that God would continue to provide, day after day. And that’s what the people wanted, so that asked Jesus to repeat the pattern and give them another sign, another meal.
But the meal Jesus is offering is not the meal they are expecting. What Jesus was offering is the most uncomfortable thing he says in this whole conversation: “I am the bread of life”
In other words: “You want bread? I’m it. You have to eat me.”
Woah there! Can we go back to working for our salvation? Or believing all the right doctrines? Because at least those ideas make sense. Earning God’s approval by our morality or our beliefs sounds reasonable… probably impossible, but at least reasonable.
But eating Jesus? Aside from the ickiness factor, what does that even mean? What does it mean to take in Jesus as our bread?
I think the answer to that question is actually the answer to all of the other discomfort I have shared – about the idea of having to “work” for eternal life, and about having to “believe” the right things about Jesus – because in calling himself the Bread of Life Jesus is saying that our way to God is NOT about earning a reward or understanding everything perfectly. It’s about receiving sustenance. It’s is an invitation to connection, to intimacy.
Again, Debie Thomas says it better than I could:
“What is at stake for me in this strange invitation is whether or not I will move past religion and into intimacy. Past abstraction and into communion. Past self-sufficiency and into radical, whole-life dependence on a God I can taste but never control.”
In order to eat the bread of life which is Jesus, we need to let him inside and discover that we can no more live without God than we can live without food.
It’s an experience of trust that goes so much farther than just believing faith statements about Jesus. It is a trust that comes to God ravenous. Knowing that all we have to offer is our hunger, our need… and that’s all God requires. Because when we experience soul-deep hunger for God, that’s when the Bread of Life can transform our lives.
That transformation is what God offers to little Aria today.
When her parents and sponsors bring her to the font in a few minutes, she comes with no works. She has done nothing to earn a gift from God. And she comes with no beliefs of her own about God. The adults around her come with faith, and they promise to nurture her in faith, but her baptism – her welcome from God - is not dependent on the perfection of their beliefs. God comes to her in this water as pure gift.
Because gift is what she needs for eternal life. That’s what we all need.
Our reading from Ephesians unites us all in this one beautiful gift: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
Above all and through all and in all. That’s why we need to eat Jesus. To open ourselves to receive the one thing that we desperately need and cannot create for ourselves.
Today, I’d be willing to bet, that Aria doesn’t know how desperately she needs the Bread of Life. I’d be willing to bet that most of us don’t feel that hungry either. We tend to be pretty good at filling the void with all kinds of things that distract us from our hunger without really nourishing our souls.
But as she comes to this font today to receive the gift of God through the waters of baptism, we all have a chance to pay attention to how hungry we are. And to witness how faithfully God responds to our hunger.
Thanks be to God.
 See this Sunday's first lectionary reading, Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15.