From 1984 to 1991 our family lived in the Arctic, and in those days the difference between perishable and non-perishable food items was very significant for us. Transportation was a huge part of the cost of food because there were no permanent roads into those communities. So if you wanted to eat something other than wild meat, there were two ways to bring it in: by water or by air.
Every summer barges came into the community to bring in non-perishable food items like flour, sugar, tea and coffee, tobacco products, UHT milk and – a major item – pop and chips! These items were a lot cheaper because transport by sea was less expensive. But the perishable stuff – fresh fruit and veg, real milk and so on – had to be flown in every week by air, which made it very expensive. It seemed a bit perverse that the stuff that was good for you was really expensive, while the stuff that wasn’t so good was cheaper! It would have been nice if we could have found a way to reverse that!
In our gospel reading for today Jesus has a lot to say about ‘food that perishes’ and ‘food that endures’. He’s being pursued by a crowd of people who saw him feed the five thousand – which was our gospel reading last week – and he tells them they’ve got their minds on the wrong things. In verses 26-27 he says:
“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal”.
Jesus is unhappy that the people are so interested in getting more free bread. For him the feeding of the five thousand wasn’t just about giving people free bread – it was a sign pointing to his own identity. He isn’t just a prophet like Moses. He isn’t just a king to rescue them from their enemies. He’s the Bread of Life who God has sent to give life to the world. Just as God fed his people with supernatural bread while they were following Moses in the wilderness, so now he’s come among them in Jesus to be their true Bread, the real nourishment they need for their life with him. That’s who Jesus is.
But the people are dazzled by the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, and they’ve got no time for all this spiritual stuff. And maybe we feel some sympathy for them; after all, it’s pretty hard to preach the gospel to people whose bellies are empty. You can’t blame hungry people for wanting food, can you? Isn’t Jesus being a bit unjust here?
No, he’s not. And he’s not rebuking them for being hungry; after all, he was the one who fed them! But it’s important to remember that Jesus wasn’t just a do-gooder traveling around ancient Galilee looking for needy people to help out. The gospels constantly emphasise his preaching and teaching; to him, the urgent thing was announcing God’s kingdom and giving people an opportunity to repent and believe the good news. His healing miracles were signs of the kingdom; they were meant to show that the power of evil was being defeated and God was at work to put this broken world to rights. But the people were paying too much attention to the sign, and not enough attention to the thing the sign was pointing to. When you see a sign by the side of the road, you’re supposed to follow its directions. You aren’t supposed to spend ages and ages looking at the sign, commenting on how beautiful it is, and driving around in circles again and again so you can keep on seeing it as if for the first time!
What does this have to do with us today?
When we make a decision to start attending church and following Jesus, we usually do so because we want him to do something for us. We want to be better husbands and wives or better parents to our kids. We want to get past our fear of death. We want peace of mind and heart, or healing from a life-threatening illness. Whatever our particular felt need might be, we’re seeking the giver because of his gifts. And that’s natural – we’re just like the people in the gospels. Most of them came to Jesus for the first time because they wanted him to do something for them, and there’s no hint that he was reluctant to help them.
The problem comes if we get stuckthere. It’s a problem for two reasons. First, what we’re actually doing is enlisting Jesus to help us with ouragenda, rather than inviting him to tell us about his agenda. I say again: Jesus isn’t just a do-gooder, travelling around helping people meet their personal goals and objectives. Jesus has his own goals and objectives. He’s looking for people who are willing to catch the vision of his kingdom and get on board with it.
The second problem is that we assume we knowwhat our most important needs are. For instance, I might think my most important need right now is to be healed of a particular illness that’s causing me trouble. But Jesus might see a bigger picture, a need for me to grow in patience and endurance. Or again, I might think my most important need is to be rescued from the consequences of my financial irresponsibility. But Jesus might see a bigger picture; maybe he knows that if I have to deal with those consequences myself, it might motivate me to avoid getting myself into the same sort of situation again.
All too often, when we focus on the gifts Jesus gives, rather than on Jesus the giver, we’re just confirmed in our self-centred approach to life. Jesus is going to want to challenge that. He’s going to want to lead us into a way of living centred on God, and God’s purposes for us. And so he tries to lead this crowd of Galileans away from focusing on the bread. He wants them to focus on what the bread symbolizes: himself, and his role as the bread that endures to eternal life – because he is ‘the bread of life’, as he says in verse 35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”.
Jesus is talking about the deepest and most fundamental need of every human being: to be in right relationship with God. St. Augustine once said to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”. The writer of Psalm 63 expresses this: ‘O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water’ (v.1).
As physical food gives life and energy to our bodies, so being in right relationship with God sustains us in our spiritual life. And when I say ‘spiritual’ I don’t mean ‘non-physical’; shoveling a driveway for an elderly neighbour is a physical activity, but it can also be a very spiritual thing to do! No, I mean our total life as people made in God’s image in God’s world. Jesus wants us to know that we can be tremendously successful in every other area of our lives, but if we don’t find this right relationship with our Creator, there will always be something missing. We will be full in every other way, but starving at the very centre of our being.
Nicky Gumbel used to tell a good story about this in the ‘Alpha’ course. He had a Chinese friend who said to him, “Nicky, it’s like we Chinese have two stomachs: one for rice, and one for everything else. The stomach for everything else might be full, but unless we’ve had rice, we still feel empty!” And life is like that; you can be perfectly happy and content in every other area of your life, but if you aren’t living in relationship with God, there’s still going to be a basic hunger deep down inside you.
Jesus can bring us into this right relationship with God. He’s the one who gave his life to reconcile us to God; he’s the one who taught us the way to live as God’s children. He is ‘the bread of life’; if we come to him and believe in him, our spiritual hunger and thirst will be satisfied.
But this raises a nagging question. Quite frankly, I’ve been a Christian for a long time, and there are still many days when I feel spiritually hungry. So Jesus’ statement that ‘those who come to me will never be hungry, and those who believe in me will never be thirsty’ doesn’t always seem to ring true in my experience. Why not?
Let’s get the obvious answer out of the way first. Many times, the answer is because of my sins. Jesus has taught me what a godly life looks like, but I choose not to follow his teaching. I do something he’s told us not to do, or I neglect to do something he’s told us to do. Or, as he puts it, I still ‘work for the bread that perishes’. In other words, I get my priorities wrong – I give major attention to stuff that’s not that important, and I neglect the stuff that isimportant. Or again, I don’t give the time to prayer and listening to the word of God that’s necessary for me to grow in my conscious contact with him.
All this is true, but it’s not the whole truth. There are still times when we’re doing our best to be faithful to Jesus, and yet we still feel spiritually hungry and thirsty. What’s going on?
I think part of the answer lies in the way I just phrased the problem: ‘We still feel spiritually hungry and thirsty’. Too often we assume Jesus is talking about emotions. We assume that ‘If you come to me you’ll never be hungry and if you believe in me you’ll never be thirsty’ means ‘If you come to me you’ll always be happy and joyful, or sense God close to you, or have perfect peace of mind’ and so on.
But that’s just not the case. Our emotions come and go. We enjoy good feelings, just like we enjoy eating food that not only does us good but tastes good as well! But we don’t need delicious gourmet food to keep us going – ordinary, plain food will do just as well. And in the same way, we naturally enjoy our Christian life more when we feel good, but we can still be fed by God – at a level deeper than our emotions – when those feelings aren’t there.
I know this from personal experience, and I’ll tell you how. Emotionally, I have my ups and downs. I have many happy times, and I can smile with the best of them, but the truth is that I’m often quite melancholic – inclined to see the glass as half empty and look on the dark side of things. And I often go through times of spiritual dryness when I have to take God’s presence on faith, because I don’t seem to be able to feel anything like the joy I’ve been taught that he wants to give me.
But funnily enough, I’ve noticed this doesn’t stop God using me to bless others. Often, when I’ve been going through those dry times, I’ve had a meeting with someone going through some trouble in their life, and they’ve told me afterwards that God really used me to help them. Or I’ve said something in a sermon and someone tells me afterwards it was a real blessing for them. So God’s obviously giving me the spiritual nourishment I need, even when I don’t feel it.
The truth is that religious emotion is one of those ‘things that perishes’ that Jesus is talking about here – and he tells us not to work for the things that perish but the things that endure. True soul food is deeper than religious emotion – it nourishes our life with God and sustains us to do the things God asks of us. Maybe we don’t feel God’s presence all the time, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there – it means he’s working in a part of our psyche that’s much deeper than our emotions.
Having said that, it’s still true that following Jesus often does lead to a deeper sense of joy, peace, and satisfaction, and when that happens we can thank God. There’s a sense of well-being that comes from living in relationship with God, in harmony with the way God created us. Earthly satisfaction will end one day, but true spiritual satisfaction – the satisfaction that comes from knowing God through Christ – will last forever.
Jesus says, ‘Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. So we are invited to come to him and put our trust in him. So now, before I finish, you want me to give you the list of three ways of doing this, don’t you?
Practical people love lists like that. The crowd in today’s gospel certainly did. In verse 28 they asked him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” They were probably looking for an Old Testament to-do list: offer these sacrifices, avoid these unclean foods, keep these holy days. But Jesus’ reply is completely unexpected: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (v.29). In other words, “More important than the laws Moses gave our ancestors is this one thing: that you trust me, because God has sent me”.
We can’t get away from relationship, and relationship isn’t easily reducible to a to-do list. Jesus uses metaphorical language to describe it: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (v.30). To ‘come’ to him describes a movement. It might not be a physical movement, but it’s a choice to turn away from the things that perish and focus our attention on Jesus. And to ‘believe’ in him means to trust him – to trust him enough to put our lives in his hands. To trust him enough to listen to what he tells us, and build our lives around it.
I said that this movement isn’t necessarily a physical movement. There is, however, one way in which it is physical. In some churches, when they celebrate Holy Communion they sit in their seats and wait while people bring the bread and wine to them; I was in a church like that last Sunday. And if you have mobility issues, there’s no problem with that. But for most of us, I like the fact that we’re invited to get out of our seats and come to the front of the church. It’s like the Anglican altar call! We come as spiritually hungry people; we hold out our empty hands, asking the Lord to fill them. We come with as much faith as we can muster, asking him to make up what’s lacking there. We eat the bread – we drink the wine – receiving for ourselves the great love he pours out on us through his death and resurrection.
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (v.35). You and I are invited to come to Jesus and put our trust in him. You can do that day by day as you turn to him in prayer. And you can do it this morning as you come forward to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. So come and meet the one who can satisfy your spiritual hunger. As the psalm says, ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’ (Psalm 34.8).