John 6:1-15; 27-35
Lent 4

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    “Give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray.  And the Catechism teaches us that the “daily bread” for which we pray is everything we need to support this body and life–from the sunshine and rain, to the farmer and baker, to the truck driver and the grocery store, not to mention the roads and the general peace.  Daily bread sustains life; without daily bread we die.

    In today’s Gospel we hear about the Giver of daily bread.  These verses occur right after Jesus had fed the five thousand with 5 barley loaves and 2 small fish.  They ate their fill of miracle bread, but they did not perceive the sign or believe in the One who fed them.  Like the Old Testament people of Israel who ate the manna in the wilderness, their attention was fixed not so much on the Giver of the bread, but on their bellies, their appetites.  If Jesus could feed thousands with five little loaves, just think of what He could do for the economy of Israel.  Let’s make Him our political leader, an earthly king!   It’s not unlike even many Christians today who are much more passionate about politics and political causes than they are about God’s Word and the Church.  The attention of these Jews was focused not on what was eternal and heavenly, but on what was temporary and worldly.  They should have seen that this miracle was a sign, pointing beyond itself to Him who is the Living Bread from heaven.

    And so that is where Jesus wants to move us today–beyond daily bread to true, eternal food; to bring us from barley bread to the Bread of Life.  And to do that He has to break through three barriers.  

    The first barrier is the belly and our appetites and desires.  Jesus says, “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.”  The prophet Isaiah said the same thing: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?”  

    There is perishable food and there is eternal food.  Perishable food is what freezers, preservatives, and expiration dates are all about.  I like how a colleague of mine put it quite starkly: your refrigerator is basically a morgue, a place where you store dead things, dead plant and animal products to keep them edible.  Even those freeze-dried emergency food rations and MRE’s that you can get still only have a shelf-life of 20 or 25 years.  

    You are what you eat.  Perishable food feeds perishable life.  “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food” cried the pleasure-seeking Corinthians. “And God will destroy both one and the other,” came the sober warning from the apostle Paul.  That puts both food and the belly in perspective.  The foods we eat do not last forever, and neither do the people that eat them. It’s good to try to eat well and stay in good shape for the sake of your vocation and serving your neighbor.  But in the end the wages of sin is death, and no earthly diet is going to alter that fact.  As the saying goes, you’ll just die healthier. :-)

    The two kinds of food feed two kinds of life.  There is our natural life born of the flesh, the life that we received through our parents when we were conceived and born.  Then there is spiritual life born in Baptism by water and Spirit.  Both must be fed.  In the same way that we eat the food of our work, so also we are given to eat the food that comes from God’s work.  The life born of flesh is fed with the perishable bread of the earth, bread that is earned by the sweat of our brows and the strain and stress of our everyday work at the office, at the shop, at home.  It is as perishable as this week’s paycheck and last week’s loaf of bread.  The life born of the Spirit, however, is fed with the imperishable Bread of heaven.  This bread is earned not by the sweat of our brows, but by the sweat of our Lord’s brow–by His anguished prayer in Gethsemane, by the mistreatment and flogging He underwent, by the offering up of His body on the cross to make payment for our sins and to conquer our death.  The Bread which Jesus earns is as imperishable as His resurrected body.  Only Jesus gives food that endures to eternal life.

    We must remember that this heavenly food comes not by our work but by Christ’s.  And that is the second barrier through which Jesus must break.  For we want to be able to take some credit for getting it.  The people ask him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”  The question was a natural one.  Jesus had said not to labor for the food that perishes but for the food which endures to everlasting life.  What exactly did that mean?  What does God want us to do to get that food?

    Jesus could have replied with the Ten Commandments or the two commandments to love God and love the neighbor.  Those are works God gives us to do.  But Jesus stands the question on its head. Ultimately it is not our works but God’s work that counts.  It is not the works we do for God, but the work God does for us that feeds forever with imperishable food.  “This is the work of God,” Jesus replied, “that you believe in the One He has sent.”  That’s it.  The work that feeds us with imperishable, eternal food is no work at all on our part, but the work of God on and in us, namely that we believe in Jesus Christ whom the Father has sent.

    It’s faith, not works.  Faith is the work of God in us, opening our mouths to receive the holy food of Christ.  Faith is to soak up the vitalities and the energies of God’s life in Christ, just as the body soaks up the vitalities and energies of daily bread.  We no more work for the food that feeds forever than the five thousand labored for the barley loaves and fishes.

    The third barrier, then, is unbelief, that inborn, hard-hearted resistance to being given to by God.  “What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You?”  The people wanted proof, a sign, a miracle, which was strange coming from those who had been among the five thousand on the hillside.  But faith in miracles demands a continual diet of newer and bigger miracles to feed it, and it shrivels and starves when the miracles quit coming.  “Show us something new.”  But if we trust Jesus only as far as He is able to supply today’s miracle, or quiet today’s grumbling belly, or solve today’s problems, then how will we truly trust him with the big, eternal things–like forgiveness of sins, eternal life, salvation, the resurrection of the body?

    Jesus draws his hearers, and us, beyond the miraculous manna of the wilderness and the multiplied barley bread of the hillside to the true Bread, Himself.  He draws us out of and beyond our needs and hungers to the one great need and hunger that only He can fill, our need and hunger for life in Him, life in the fullest sense of the word.  We may try to fill that hunger with other food, other bread.  We may try the fluffy Wonder Bread of believing in yourself, following your heart, looking within for the answers.  We may be intrigued by the foreign foods of ancient nature religions and pagan spirituality.  We may sample the elegant pastries of material possessions and worldly praise, or chew the hard, 10-grain bread of work, achievement, and success.  But in the end only one Bread can fill the eternal hunger that makes us cry out, “Lord, give us this bread always.”

    Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”  Jesus is the Manna of these end times, God’s Bread come down from Heaven to feed His New Israel, the Church, as she wanders in the wilderness between the Red Sea of Baptism and the Promised Land of the resurrection.  Jesus is the Bread of God; and He says, “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”  In His birth among us, Jesus incorporated the vitalities and energies of the life of God into His flesh and blood, and now He feeds that life of God into us with His very flesh and blood.

    And this is much more than a clever figure of speech.  This is very literal and real.  For in the Lord’s Supper, we are given to eat daily bread which is also Living Bread.  Jesus said later in this same chapter of John, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  For My flesh is real food, and My blood is real drink.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.”  Here at this Altar, Jesus the Bread of Life feeds Himself into You and nourishes You with Himself.  He gives you to eat His true body and drink His true blood–not to be merely digested as earthly food, but to be received as imperishable, heavenly food which gives everlasting sustenance.  The real flesh of Jesus brings real bodily resurrection on the Last Day.  Jesus comes to us in this way that He may live in us and we in Him, tangibly and concretely.  

    Ordinary food is transformed into the eater.  You eat the food and it becomes a part of you.  But the Living Bread from heaven transforms the eater into the food.  You become what you take into your body.  This is the only instance in which it can be literally said, “You are what you eat.”  You are the body of Christ, as it is written, “Because there is one bread (namely, Jesus), we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

    The Psalmist said, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”  This, then, is the menu of faith, the words and the supper of Jesus.  There is no faith apart from these things, regardless of how often somebody assures you that they’re still Christian and they still believe.  Here is Bread the way the world cannot bake it, a Bread that satisfies eternally, a Bread that doesn’t simply provide health for this life, but the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

    Such a Bread has come down from heaven to feed you.  He gave Himself for you on the cross; He gives Himself to you now in this service on the altar.  Draw upon Him through faith.  Believe in Jesus when He says to you, “Every one who sees the Son and believes in him has eternal life; and I will raise Him up at the last day.”  “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.”

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla)