Yesterday was outdoor worship on the lawn. There is no point in my trying to preach a traditional sermon with a bus stop at my back and birds on the wing, so we shared the responsibility of the gospel with one another. Here’s how that went.
There is an old saying in church circles: “Feed them and they will come.” Jesus says much the same to the people who track him down across the lake: “You are not here because you believe by the signs that I am doing that I am the Messiah. You are here because I fed you your fill of the loaves and the fishes.”
Which is, indeed, one way of getting the people’s attention. But it leads Jesus to push back a little bit. I think that he is asking them, during this whole exchange about bread and the signs of God: “What sort of Messiah are you looking for?”
When the people had been fed with the loaves and the fishes, they tried to capture Jesus to make him a king, but he slipped away. When they tracked him down, he confronted them, “Look! It’s not enough to want me to feed you miracles every day, loaves and fishes, manna and quail. There is more to the life of God, life with God, than the occasional miracle.”
Several years ago now, I read a story in the newspaper about a man who appeared before the judge for some petty crime. He had quite a record for petty crime, and the judge had little enough patience for him, handed down a fine and sent him on his way, but the man refused to go. “If you send me back out there,” he told the court, “I will carry on offending over and over again until you send me to prison. That’s where I want to go.”*
The people of Israel, freed from slavery, but complaining in the wilderness because making their own way into the promises of God proved to be no walk in the park; and no, it isn’t easy. Life can be difficult and challenging and hard. But it is our life, and God gives it to us, inviting us to live it in the company of Jesus, working together, rather than sitting on the mountainside waiting for a daily dose of manna and quail, imprisoned by our own helplessness, waiting on miracles.
*** So the question is raised, What kind of a Messiah are you looking for? Who do you want Jesus to be? What sign do you seek from him? ***
Several themes emerged; they were less about what we wanted God to do, it turns out, and more about the character of God: one of peace, understanding, forgiveness, unconditional love. Oh, and a bit of guidance and keeping us out of mischief wouldn’t go amiss.
My own answer was that I was looking for some reassurance that we are moving towards the light. It’s not a complete answer, and it’s the answer for one day; it’s not, to be honest, an easy question.
Back in the wilderness, the people of Israel, set free from slavery, complain rightly that this has not solved all of their problems. They are still hungry, weary, far from home. They still fight with their in-laws, worry about their children, fall ill and fall down. Restless, they wonder if they are any better off choosing their own path than they were confined by the whims of the Pharaoh. And although God is gracious, providing a daily meal of manna and quail will solve only one of their problems.
Loaves and fishes, manna and quail, gifts from heaven, but Jesus invites the people surrounding him to work for the bread that doesn’t fail, that endures for eternal life, to strive for the rewards of faith, to labour for the kingdom of God. God will take care of us, every day, all of the way; that has been demonstrated from the Garden of Eden through the Exodus from Egypt to the feeding of the multitude on the mountainside and there are people here today who can tell you stories of how God has provided loaves and fishes, manna and quail, our daily bread. But what of the rest?
“We must no longer be children,” says Paul, “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
We must grow up, we must grow in truth and love, if we are to build up the body of Christ, which is fed by love, love of God, love of neighbour, which is grounded in truth.
We hear the complaints of the people in the wilderness, because we ourselves are still wandering. We hear of injustice, of inequality; we hear the dull thud of violence that has become so commonplace that it is hardly noticed any more. We see the children still waiting for their daily bread, still hungry. What will we do? Wait for a miracle, or work together to build up the body of Christ, feed it with love, root it in truth?
*** So thinking about that messiah that we desire, who brings peace and comfort, the kingdom of God with all of its compassion and forgiveness and unconditional love: what is it that we are willing to do for it? How will we work for it? What are we willing to commit for the sake of building up the body of Christ? ***
We talked about how our baptismal covenant has some pretty good stuff in it: proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, seeking and serving Christ in all others, respecting the dignity of every person. It wasn’t an easy question either, though, it seemed.
We also talked about our spiritual practices: Bible study, prayer, showing up and sharing, listening. Speaking with our actions when our words seem to fall on deaf ears.
I confessed that my own answer seemed a bit anticlimactic; also a bit priesty. Keep praying, I had written. When I volunteered at a children’s hospital, I kept a prayer in my pocket: God be in my head, and in my understanding. God be in my mouth, and in my speaking. God be in my heart, and in my thinking. God be at mine end, and at my departing. It was a reminder to walk in love, to look with love, listen with love, speak only love, leave with love.
In some ways it is very simple: “This is the work of God,” says Jesus, “that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Of course, it is not always easy, day by day, to continue to grow in love, in truth, in trust, when there is still so much work to be done before we see the sun rise over the kingdom of God. But we see signs of it, and we are not left alone to wait, and we do not work alone.
The people of Israel had a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. They ate manna and quail. God did not leave them in the wilderness, even though their own feet had to carry them across.
We have one another, and the love that we share to build up the body of Christ. We have the bread of life and the cup of salvation that Jesus has given us. We have life, and life abundantly; we have all the signs that we need, even if we don’t see all of the miracles that we want, to assure us of God’s loving care for us, our daily bread.
“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.’”
*Andrew now lives in a group home with others whose addictions have left them compromised in their ability to deal with daily life. Where love for one another dictates social as well as personal policy, even a little bit, humanity is deepened, and strengthened, and life looks a little brighter. Or so it seems to me.