Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren
Last Saturday, fifteen of us worked for a couple of hours at the Food Bank in Durham. We helped to process gigantic pallets of onions, onions that had been donated by a grocery store because they didn’t meet the standards to be sold on their floors. But the onions weren’t all bad, and with a couple of hours’ worth of work, we managed to salvage over 4,000 pounds of them that the Food Bank will distribute to our hungry neighbors across 34 counties in North Carolina.
What strikes me every time we go to the Food Bank is the tonnage of good food that would go to waste if not for the Food Bank and its volunteers.
This is a direct result of the way our food system works in America – a system that relies on corporations, cross-country transportation and far too few local and sustainable farmers and artisans. Our food systems are built to withstand a certain percentage of waste – the calculations of supermarkets and producers are created with waste included and expected. The USDA reports that between 30-40 PERCENT of the food supply ends up as food WASTE.
Our systems are built to expect and account for this. And the systems don’t just expect and tolerate loss of material goods – they tolerate and expect loss of human life. Our food systems leave 40 million Americans unsure about where their next meal is coming from. That’s 13% of our population, and it includes 13 million children. We have plenty of food – we just can’t figure out how to share it in a way that values people over profit.
In our text for today, Jesus declares “I am the bread of life.”
During the season of Lent, we’re going to spend some time with Jesus’ declarations about who and what he is. In the Gospel of John, Jesus utters seven of these “I am” statements – that is, seven statements that have a predicate nominative – or a thing or image that comes after the verb.
We’ve been hanging out with Jesus in the Gospel of John for the last few weeks – hearing about how he called the disciples, how he turned water to wine at a wedding, turned over tables in the temple, met with leaders of the Jews in the middle of the night and went out of his way to encounter a single Samaritan woman in the middle of enemy territory.
We’ve learned a lot about who Jesus is in the Gospel of John. But over these next few weeks, as we walk through the season of Lent and anticipate Jesus’ final days – the last meal with his disciples, his trial, crucifixion, burial and resurrection – we’re going to dive into the ways that Jesus defined himself, the ways that he talked about who and what he is.
My hope is that as we explore these “I am” statements, we’ll find ourselves ushered into a new kind of relationship with Jesus, the one who deeply desires to be in relationship with us.
Today’s clue about who Jesus is comes just after the story of feeding the five thousand.
This is the only story about Jesus that occurs in all four of the gospels. Mark and Matthew and Luke all tell this story, too, but there are a couple of differences in the way that John tells it.
You know the story:
Jesus has been traveling across the region, teaching and preaching. He’s just sailed across the Sea of Galilee, and a big crowd is following him, now. Jesus goes up on the mountain with his disciples – we assume that he’s looking for a bit of rest or respite, after long days of travel and preaching. But the crowd has followed him – a large crowd. He turns to Philip and asks, “Good grief! Where are we supposed to go to buy bread for all these people?!” Philip sighs, and says “Oh, Jesus, six months’ wages wouldn’t be enough to buy food to feed this many people!” Andrew, having surveyed the crowd earlier, pipes up: “There is a boy who has five loaves of bread and two fish. Maybe we could do something with that. But that’ll feed, like, maybe 20 folks and we’ve got thousands here.”
Jesus tells them, “Make everybody sit down, and give me the loaves.” He blessed them, giving thanks to God, and then Jesus himself started handing out lunch to every one of the five thousand people who had gathered. He did the same thing with the fish and people ate until they were full.
When everyone had eaten their fill, Jesus told his disciples: “No, go gather up whatever’s left – all the leftovers. Keep every last crumb so that we don’t lose anything.” They obeyed him, and they had twelve baskets of leftovers.
What’s different about John’s version – as opposed to all the other writers telling this same story – is that the disciples don’t distribute the food. Jesus himself take it, blesses it, and then goes through the crowd himself, offering men and women and children the basket of bread and the packet of fish. Jesus himself looks each person in the eye and gives them what they need.
After the feeding, Jesus recognizes that the crowd is sort of worked up into a furor and wants to kidnap him and force him to be their king, so he sneaks out to the boat with his disciples and crosses to the other side of the sea.
In the morning, the crowd, distraught that he has left them, sails across the sea to find him. They do, of course, and badger him with questions: “Why did you leave? How can we do these kinds of miracles that you do? What sign will you give us so we can believe that you’re telling the truth? Moses gave our ancestors bread in the wilderness, remember?”
Jesus looks at this crowd, desperate to believe him, to believe in him and to live with him, and he says “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven – it is my Father who gives true bread from heaven. The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Yes,” they said, “give us this bread always!”
And here it comes – Jesus says,
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
You hear what Jesus is saying: the manna in the wilderness was a harbinger, a taste, an example of what God will do to sustain and nourish God’s people. Jesus is saying: I am the manna. I AM the bread from heaven. God is sending ME here to feed you, to nourish you, to save you when you find yourself hungry and lost. I am here to do God’s will – and God’s will is that I “should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”
In this food system – this divine system of feeding and being fed, growing and producing and distribution – there is no waste. Nothing is lost. No crumb of goodness is left behind. In the system of God’s Kingdom, there’s no built in calculation for loss, waste, or write-offs. In this system, every single thing is accounted for – every single person, every single relationship, every single interaction. It all counts. Nothing is lost. Every last crumb will be recovered and raised up.
And, more than that – the food is good food. The people there with Jesus ate until they were full. There is plenty, and it is good, healthy, nourishing. Jesus says that “whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” This food system that Jesus is describing does not produce junk. It doesn’t load people up with sugar and carbs and send them on their way, only to crash from lack of protein in an hour. This is food that satisfies, that fills, that perpetually sates what can feel like an inexhaustible hunger.
Jesus’ declaration that he is the bread of life does mean that a spiritual relationship with him will be the most nourishing thing we can encounter. It does mean that, just like bread nourishes our bodies, his love nourishes our souls. It IS about the spiritual reality of being human beings in relationship with a God we cannot see or hear, but whose love feeds our hungry souls.
But Jesus’ declaration that he is the bread of life also means that he is invested, concerned, committed to the well-being of all people, the eradication of hunger, the practices of feeding everyone, even when that seems nearly impossible. And I think, in our encounter with this kind of Jesus, we are encouraged to be those kinds of people, too.
Jesus is inviting us into a relationship with him. He is telling the crowd gathered there and he is telling us that in the economy of God’s new order, we will be fed until we are no longer hungry with the gift of relationship in Christ. He is assuring us that this reality, this relationship, will keep us, will grow us, will nourish and sustain us.
And Jesus is also inviting us to be people who are invested, concerned, committed to the well-being of all; people who are deeply covenanted to a relationship with this Messiah will be people who are deeply interested in feeding the hungry.
I think, in our context, that might mean working at the food bank to ensure that thousands of pounds of onions aren’t thrown out. It might mean adjusting our own cooking and eating habits to keep fewer of the billions of pounds of American food from ending up in the trash. It might also mean working for an entirely new food system that refuses to tolerate loss and waste – of food AND of human life.
This week, I can’t help but wonder what God’s economy means in the wake of yet another loss of multiple lives to an attack with an assault rifle. Jesus tells us in this passage that he is the bread of life, that he has been sent to do the will of the Father, and that the Father’s will is that nothing will be left behind, nothing will be lost, that there will be no waste and no tolerance for systems that operate based on a huge tolerance for loss.
Our economies in America assume, account for, and become callous to a certain level of waste and loss – 30 percent of our food ends up in the trash and we walk on by and assume that is the way it has to be. Seventeen people are murdered with an assault rifle and we move on to the next news article because we assume that is the way of the world if we want to remain free.
Jesus teaches us that there is a system, an economy, a kingdom where we do not have to tolerate this kind of loss. Jesus gathers up every crumb, produces abundance from even the scarcest bit of bread and fish, and preaches to us that God does not tolerate allowing resources or people to be lost in the careless ways we do.
How can we follow Jesus into these ways of abundance and reclamation? How can we work for systems and economies that refuse to tolerate loss as collateral damage? How can we become people of God’s peace, people who declare that there is a way for all – ALL – to live abundantly?