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The Unearned Bread of Life

Not too long ago I met a man at the shelter who seemed out of place. When I arrived at the shelter before lunch, I saw a man sitting by himself directly in the middle of all the chaos of folk waiting for lunch. Outwardly, I could tell he had been on the streets for several days; his dark tan and dirty clothes gave that away. However, I could also tell by his dress and mannerisms that he had not been homeless long. The way he sat and carried himself gave him away as someone with roots in the middle class. Sitting there alone with his backpack of stuff, out of place, not knowing what to do, waiting for lunch I could sense (and observe) that he was not in a great place.

After I blessed the food and had some small-talk with the folk lining up to eat, the man — let’s call him Karl — motioned for me to come over and talk to him. With all the finesse of a co-worker met at a soccer game, Karl began to ask about the shelter, my church, and how he could help. He spoke as if he were there to volunteer, not as someone needing help. Behind his middle-class graces, however, I could see the redness in his eyes.

Karl kept on talking for a while, and I let him. Finally, however, he slipped. The facade broke and the real reason for his situation came out. Karl’s drinking had lost him his wife and stable job. Now, he’d injured himself. The pain was intense and alcohol the only relief from the excruciating pain. Through tears, Karl declared his desire to get sober, but his inability to deal with the pain any other way.

Karl knew he was in a bad place physically and spiritually. For both ailments, his plan was to work to earn favor. Work at the shelter to earn his shower and meal. Work at the church to earn God’s grace to overcome alcoholism. Work at impressing a priest with his piety to earn an intercessor. Karl’s problem, however, was that he was in too much pain and too drunk to accomplish any of these things. He wasn’t able to do anything for me, the church, or God.

How many here among us can honestly say we don’t often live our lives with a working theology like Karl here? We recognize where we’ve messed up and — as good, middle-class church folk — we , more or less, acknowledge our sins. When we’ve done wrong or required help, we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and work our darnedest to make things right. We work to pay off our debts. We work to regain trust and favor. We work to earn what we’ve been given.

The people Jesus spoke to earlier in John chapter 6 were very familiar with work. Even without digging into the historical research, a cursory reading of the gospels makes it very clear that neither Rome nor the Jewish hierarchy offered a comprehensive social safety net. If you ate, someone worked very hard for it. For the people of Jesus' day, manna in the wilderness wasn’t just a cool story, it was a gracious gift of rest, freedom from hard work, and time for prayer, worship, and family.

Egypt was grueling work for barely enough bread to eat. God’s wilderness freedom was the gift of plenty without labor. Pharaoh was served in toil and death. God was served in joyous receiving and worship.

The people of Jesus' day knew that the coming messiah would, like Moses, provide them with manna once again. The messiah would come as a great warrior, overthrow the Romans through military force, and reestablish the Davidic empire of old. Like Ceasar and Pharaoh before him, the people would pledge their allegiance to this messianic king and serve him. For a right portion of their labor, the king would protect them and ensure the right worship of God in the temple. Right worship, the work of the law, ensured God’s continued protection of Israel from her enemies.

Just before the discourse we read today in John’s gospel, Jesus had miraculously fed 5000 people from a few fragments of bread and some fish. The people, enjoying a day without work and instead having a time full of rest, worship, and learning — with full bellies to boot — wanted more. They wanted another short-term fix. They wanted another day in the wilderness eating labor-free food and dreaming about a future free from Rome that seemed almost too real to be true. Despite what they have witnessed, the people are still led more by their bellies than their hearts.

Jesus sees through it all immediately.

Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.

Further, Jesus knows their theology of work. He knows that they are still working from a model where serving the rightful messiah through worldly labor and serving God through adherence to the law will earn them another day. Looking for the messiah and adhering to God’s law are both great things, but they are setting their sights too low. They’ve forgotten the Exodus. They’ve missed the point of what God had been declaring through the prophets.

God’s people always seem to forget the unearned, free grace of the Exodus. Though it never seems to work out well, we sure do love the idea of working our way to God’s favor.

Jesus responds:

Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.

Manna rotted before the next sunrise. The fish and bread Jesus miraculously multiplied the day before was already growing stale. The Law, the prophets, and the Davidic kingdom where not the end goal, but pointed to a full restoration of the seed of Adam. What if the future wasn’t free bread and a nice king, but the eradication of hunger itself and union with the eternal king of all kings? What if God had more planned than another David?

Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”

The people are starting to get it. This Jesus guy isn’t talking about Moses' manna. He’s talking about something different.

But, still, they can’t let go of working. They want to earn this bread. They want to know the special prayer or sacrifice required to get this new manna. They want a sign to know who their new Moses is.

They still can’t let go of the idea that Moses somehow earned God’s favor and that Moses, and not God, was the one making manna fall from the sky.

Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.

And here we have it. There is no work sufficient to receive eternal life. There is nothing we can do to free ourselves from our desperate situation.

Moses and the bread that God gave the children of Israel in the past, isn’t going to qualm our present hunger. Though Jesus can miraculously fill bellies, today they will once again be hungry.

Belief. That is what God desires. He doesn’t want their works. He doesn’t want them to earn it. He doesn’t want to give them bread because of the manna he gave once before. No. God now gives them the “true bread from heaven.” God gives “life to the world.”

It’s happening now. In the present. Before they believed. Before they were able to fain some small meritorious work. “Let it be to me according to your word.” and it was done. The “true bread” came down from heaven to give “life to the world.”

After Karl dropped his facade and revealed his true self, he, like a good church-going person from the middle-class, quickly recovered. Knowing the direness of his situation and his inability to work a way out, he had to change the conversation to funny stories from his youth.

I smiled and nodded and pretended like I was listening as Karl spoke. In reality I was waiting for the Holy Spirit to give me the right words to say. Close up now, I could see his physical pain. I could see how drunk he was. I could feel how distant he felt from God. He felt unworthy of the church’s charity and unworthy of God’s love.

After a while, I stood up to move along and share my time with the others at the shelter that day. Before I prayed for him, the Sprit had me place my hand on Karl’s shoulder and look him directly in the eyes. “God does not hate you because you drink, Karl.” I said. “Never for get that. God loves you and is with you every step of the way. You will stumble and God will still be there. God never gives up on you, so you can’t either.” At that, I prayed for Karl and, as I prayed, I could feel a burden being lifted from him.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.

Sisters and brothers, I don’t know what everyone is dealing with at this present moment. What I do know is that we live in a culture that loves condemning folk by unwritten laws. We are made to feel like we are never enough. Seemingly no matter how hard we work there’s always someone else who has done more. We’re always hungry and never satisfied.

To this I say, come to Jesus. He truly is the “bread of life.” In him alone are we completely fulfilled. Through him alone can we know the fullness of what it means to live.

Come to this table and remember the grace Jesus freely gives. In this bread and wine we are united to him and, through him, to the saints who were, are, and will be.

He is the very source of our life. In him alone are we freed from sin and death. In him alone will we experience the eternal feast of God’s love.

Don’t settle for a free meal. Don’t settle for a quick-fix or the short-term feeling of earned grace.

Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life… believe in him whom [God] has sent. … [God] gives you the true bread from heaven. … the bread … which comes down from heaven … gives life to the world.

In the words of the old gospel hymn:

Nothing can for sin atone,/ Nothing but the blood of Jesus./ Naught of good that I have a done,/ Nothing but the blood of Jesus./ This is all my hope and peace,/ Nothing but the blood of Jesus./ This is all my righteousness,/ Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Though we “are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs” under Christ’s table, he feeds us with his very body. In his body, broken and beaten, Jesus conquered sin and death. In his body, we receive eternal life and grace upon grace. Jesus is the bread of life. Come to him and never hunger again.

In the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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