Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Then the religious authorities began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
John 6:35, 41-41
Good morning, friends of St. Thomas’ Church. It’s wonderful to be with you. Special thanks to your good rector, the Rev. Lisa Ahuja, and members of the vestry for inviting me to preach.
The working title of this sermon is “The Story of Your Life,” an exploration of recurring themes and patterns that you might come to recognize over time, and how you can discover, to your amazement, “The Gospel of your Life,” that is to say, the ways that God, through the loving presence of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, shows up for you, and the ways you are uniquely wired to experience God and to be a witness for Christ simply by living your one, unique life.
Let me begin by asking you to think of times when you’ve heard either yourself or someone else say, “Well, that’s the story of my life.”
Casually, it’s a way we describe how luck seems to fall for us; in my case, for example, why it is that whenever I choose a check-out line in a grocery store, I always seem to wind up in the slowest line. I don’t know why, but it’s the story of my life. A friend once told me of her husband’s “parking karma,” because he always seems to be able to find a parking spot in the most crowded part of the city. It’s the story of his life.
In these arguably superficial yet uncannily true ways, we experience a significant part of who we are. “I never win at anything.” Or “I always seem to win.” “I’m a glass half-empty kind of person.” “I’m a glass half full.”
Our younger son, Patrick, was rather accident prone as a kid, to put it mildly. By the time he reached high school, his friends began to refer to what they called PRIs, or Patrick Related Incidents. In his case, it was more than simply bad luck, although he had plenty, it was also reflective of the fact that he had so much going on in his head at one time that his situational awareness suffered. Accidents became a big part of the story of his life.
These stories we tell about ourselves, or others tell about us, are powerful. They help account for recurring patterns–the things that just seem to happen, time and again, for good or for ill. Once a pattern is ingrained and the story is set in our minds, it takes real effort to change it, even if the data supporting them is suspect, or when what was once true about us is true no longer. One of the liberating aspects of moving to a new place or a new job, actually, is that we get to start over with the story of our life. While some of these patterns and stories are harmless and tend to be exaggerated, others are highly influential, with real implications for how others relate to us.
As I’ve been talking, I wonder if you’ve thought of an example from your life or someone close to you that is akin to what I’ve been describing? Are there any narratives that you’d like to change or you feel are changing? We’ve all been watching the fascinating storyline shift at the Olympics this year, with the highly unusual decision for world star gymnast Simon Biles to withdraw from competition at the final hour, citing concerns for her mental health. She and others like her are insisting now on a new narrative, one that takes into account for sportsmen and women the entirety of their lives, not simply the moments when all eyes are on their performance.
Let’s go deeper now to consider that part of your story that encapsulates, attempts to describe what you love best about you–what you love to do, the things that cause you to lose track of time because you’re so engaged in them, the people who make your hearts sing, the places that speak to you of home, or adventure, or joy. Another way to identify this part of your life is the deep sense of purpose you feel when what you’re doing matters to you, the sense of fulfillment and satisfaction you feel whenever you sense that the gifts God has given you are being put to their use, even when, or perhaps especially when, the effort involved requires real sacrifice on your part. Your dreams are also a big part of this storyline–what you hope for, what you really want for yourself and for others, so much so that you’d give up a lot of other things for that one pearl of great price.
Now that part of yourself–whatever it is–is sacred. It’s your personal connection to the creative, life-giving spirit of God. I would say that God really cares about that part of you. More about that in a moment.
But first I’d like to briefly consider the story of Jesus’ life, not the overarching narrative from birth to death, but rather the animating energy that drove him, the things that people knew about him—the Jesus Related Incidents, if you will. There are several to choose from, but one story about Jesus always rises to the fore–his passion for food.
Jesus loved food, and most especially, to share meals with other people. He’d eat with anyone–tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees–he didn’t care. He loved parties, and at one of them, he personally made sure that more wine flowed freely (and really good wine) after the host’s supply ran out.
It mattered to Jesus that people had enough food, which helped explain why so many were drawn to him. For Jesus walked among people who were almost always hungry–subsistence farmers, fishermen whose livelihoods and often next meals depended upon their night catch. Famine was common in Jesus’ day, as it is now in drought-stricken or war-torn parts of our world.
One of the most cherished memories about Jesus’ ministry was the time (and perhaps it was more than once) when he made sure that a hungry multitude did not leave his presence without being fed. As you may recall, he worked with what he had, what people gave him–a few loaves and some fish–to create a banquet enough for many to eat their fill, with food to spare. It’s one of the few stories about Jesus that shows up in all four written accounts of his life, which biblical scholars agree makes it a really big deal.
The other meal recorded in all four accounts was the most intimate one, the one we reenact every Sunday when we gather around this sacramental table–the last supper he shared with his closest friends on the night before he died. It was a time of final words and of reassurance that after he was physically gone, whenever they gathered together to break bread, his spirit would be with them.
What all this focus on food tells us about Jesus is that he really cares about human beings. He knows that we need food–good nourishment for our bodies–to be fully alive. He also cares about feeding souls. For all his love of actual food, he would also remind people that we do not live by bread alone, that there are other kinds of hunger. It mattered to Jesus, and it matters still, that souls are fed. Because we cannot realize the best, most true story that is our life without soul food, that which feeds and sustains the part of us that animates, our spirit and energy, passion and purpose. We can’t run on empty and live that part of your life.
So the first thing I hope you take with you from this sermon is the non-negotiable commitment Jesus has to your physical and spiritual well-being, and not just you, but every child of God on this planet. Anyone called to be a follower of Jesus will be invited into a life of first receiving the food that nourishes body and soul, and then ensuring that others are equally fed, no matter who they are.
You may remember a story about the time Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection while they were fishing on the sea of Galilee. They saw him from the boat and made their way to him. And the first thing he did was invite them to eat the breakfast he had prepared for them. Then he took Simon Peter aside for a private conversation to help Simon Peter to get past the guilt he felt for having denied him three times on the night of his arrest. You remember how he asked him three times, “Simon Peter, do you love me?” and Simon Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Each time, Jesus gave him this exhortation, “Feed my sheep.” Feed people. Give them food–nourishing food, for body and soul–in my name.
The second message of this sermon is a bit harder, although equally, if not more important. For it has to do with how Jesus can show up for us in those times when, in the story of our life, a part of us–a really important part–is going hungry. I’m not speaking about physical hunger now, but rather the other ways that we feel the ache of emptiness and lack. He knew it would happen to us; it happens to everyone; it happened to all him: disappointments and failures; dreams lost and roads not taken.
You heard and have printed in your bulletins a reading from the reading from the Gospel of John in which Jesus speaks of himself as the bread of life, even going so far as to say that whoever comes to him will not go hungry and whoever believes in him will never thirst. He’s clearly not talking here about physical hunger because any human being alive will experience physical hunger and thirst. It’s the way our bodies work. So what is he talking about?
First we have to consider the text itself. You may know that there is a radical shift in tone in the Gospel of John as compared to the other three accounts of Jesus’ life–in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. In the other three, Jesus almost never speaks of himself in the first person. He’s always talking about what the Kingdom of God is like, calling people to follow him in a life of radical service to others.
In John, by stunning contrast, written at least a generation after the other three, Jesus can’t stop talking about himself. He talks about himself all the time. “I am,” he says, “the light of the world.” “I am the Way, the truth, and the life.” “I am the bread of life.” In fact, John devotes two chapters to this one idea of him being bread, Jesus being our bread, our soul’s food. This is an extended reflection on the very story of Jesus feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and some fish, as if to say, “Don’t just pay attention to your bodies here. Let Jesus, let me be food for your souls, and food for your souls in the very places where you may not be getting what you want or what you need.”
Do you hear that? Jesus is meeting you in that place of want or need, and recognizing that what you want or need may not come to you in the ways that you desperately pray for. And this, as you know, is a significant shift in the life of faith. Historically, it’s the result of the passage of time, and the realization among Jesus followers a couple generations after the resurrection that whatever it meant for Jesus to return in glory, it wasn’t going to bring about a change in their life circumstances anytime soon. At the same time, they had the sense, a growing sense, of Jesus’ presence with them. It hadn’t gone away; in fact, it had grown stronger with time, albeit in a more mysterious, mystical way. It was as if they didn’t have to wait for Jesus to come back. Maybe he was already here, with them already in spirit and in truth. Whatever that meant for them, it had something to do with Jesus’ presence, in itself, being food for their souls–less focused on what changed externally and more centered on their inner life.
That’s the kind of food Jesus offers still. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the things that we want and need. But he also offers, where we need it most, sources of strength, resilience, forgiveness and grace that can sustain us even when, or especially when, we are experiencing emptiness and hunger in parts of our lives where our needs aren’t being met in the ways that we hope or want.
It’s a challenging shift. I wish it wasn’t necessary, that we could always have our needs met, but it is. The shift involves acceptance and letting things go, experiencing the emptiness inside, and allowing Jesus to meet us there and fill that space. It’s a different kind of food, and we may not want it, at first. We may want to hold out for the fulfillment of our desire. There’s nothing wrong with that. I hold out for as long as I can. But what Jesus says to me and to you, when we’ve run that course is, “Let me feed you in other ways.”
Here is a concrete example of this kind of food. Dear friends of ours, now in their 70s, married young and, as most young couples do, they wanted to have children. It was not to be. Their grief was real and long lasting, but by grace and with time, they found a path as a couple that has filled their lives with children for whom they are a blessing, including our two sons who love them fiercely. One of the couple told me years ago that in conversation with other childless couples, their story isn’t always well received. “They don’t want to hear that it’s possible to live a fulfilling life without children, because they still want children,” my friend told me. “How well we understand that.” As people of faith, they never minimized their grief, or pretended that their longing for children wasn’t real. But God gave them another path, another way to live fully. That’s the kind of food we hear Jesus offer us when we need to find another path and experience fulfillment in a different way than what we had hoped, and even when a part of us remains empty.
The African American theologian Howard Thurman writes powerfully of this kind of spiritual food in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. Writing as a black man in a deeply segregated, unjust America, in 1949, he asked the haunting question, “What on earth does Jesus have to say to the people whose backs are against the wall–to the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed?”1 He was far less interested in what Jesus had to say to those with power and privilege about sharing their resources and helping those in need. He wanted to know what Jesus had to say to them. He wanted answers for the people for whom this world is constant struggle, perpetual hunger, and stolen dreams. In Jesus, Thurman finds his answers–not in Christianity, but in Jesus, and his promise of inner strength, inner clarity, inner conviction of worthiness and power that enables those oppressed by others to live according to a different narrative, a different life story, born of the unshakeable conviction that they are beloved of God. With that story, they stand up to those who would tell them otherwise and work toward the fulfillment of God’s dream for all. Their immediate hunger for equity and justice may, as yet, go unfulfilled, yet a deep knowledge of their belovedness in God’s eyes, that Jesus is there for them, is food enough to see them through and, to quote Ghandi, a man Thurman deeply admired, “to be the change they wanted to see in the world.”
I leave you with the invitation with which I began: to consider the story of your life. Smile at the more quirky aspects, consider the narratives you are ready to change, and most especially, cherish the deeper story that speaks to the animating energy that is you. It is your gift to all of us, your sacred, God-given, God-inspired life. Jesus longs for you to have all the food you need to live your dreams and gifts into the world. But when they can’t be fully realized in the ways that you hoped, there he will meet you with the Gospel of your Life, the way he meets you in your empty place, holds it with you, and gives you, if you let him, the food of love and mercy, strength and deep assurance that you are beloved child of God. And that my friends, is enough food to live the life that is yours alone, and to live it well.
May it so for you, and for us all. Amen.
1 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (First published by Abingdon President, 1949).