August 2, 2015
William G. Carter
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw 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.”
Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
The experience is a common one, at least in my house. It’s about 9:00 in the evening. The shadows have begun to fill the house. I will get up from whatever I am doing and wander into the kitchen. Maybe I will get a cup of cold water. Then I will open the refrigerator, look inside, and stand there for a few moments.
If my wife looks up from her knitting project, she might say, “Are you hungry for something?” I don’t know. “Didn’t you eat enough at supper?” Sure I did. Just look at me. “What do you want?” I’m not sure; maybe it’s in here. We are blessed that our fridge is almost always well stocked. “Well, if you don’t know what you want, don’t stand there with the refrigerator door open.” OK, fair enough. But I stand there for another minute or two.
Do you ever do that?
What was I looking for?
Was I looking for a late night snack? A slice of smoked gouda cheese to put on a couple of crackers? A jar of salsa for a handful of chips? Or do I really want a glass of cold milk with a squirt of Hershey’s chocolate? It’s difficult to say. I know I’m hungry, but it isn’t always for food.
I can understand why some people went looking for Jesus. The day before, he fed them a hillside banquet. The menu was simple – barley bread and fresh fish – but it was more sustenance than those country folk expected, more food than they had ever seen in one place, more abundance than anybody believed possible. Nobody actually knows how everybody got fed, but there was no question about the leftovers. And there was no question that Jesus was at the center of it all. So they go looking for Jesus.
Are they looking for something to eat or are they looking for something else? Yes! They don’t exactly know what they want, but they are looking for it, looking for something, looking for him. And in this light, they are like just about everybody else in the Gospel of John.
The Gospel of John is written with the conviction that everybody is looking for God. That is the single human quest: to find God, to know God. On the very first page of his book, John says God is the Source of all things, so John calls him “Father.” All of life comes from God. God’s life is the light of all people. Light and life are all around us. Yet no one has ever actually seen God. Some see the light, all breathe the life, but nobody has seen the source.
On page two of the Gospel of John, Jesus is walking along and he is spotted. A couple of people start following where he is going. He stops, spins around, and asks, “What are you looking for?” They don’t have a good answer. They simply stay with him. Pretty soon, they are the ones who want to enlarge the circle. We don’t know anything that he said to them, don’t know if he did any miracles that they could see. But there is something about him that they want to be around.
That vignette gets repeated over and over again in the pages of John’s book. On page three, a religious leader named Nicodemus goes looking for him. On page four, it is a heretic woman, a Samaritan. On page five, it is a royal official with a sick child. One after another after another, they look for Jesus. By the time we get to chapter six, it’s an entire crowd. They have heard about the healings, they have sensed his power and presence – and then he feeds them somehow, and then he disappears.
You see, that is the other side of the story: you can go searching for Jesus, but he is free to withdraw, to stay out of sight, to remain ten steps ahead of where you want him to be.
Not everybody has the courage to say so, of course. To hear some people talk, life is always sunshine at high noon, faith is obvious, the Bible is crystal clear, and Jesus answers every prayer. Well, good for them. I find such simplicity to be artificial, a bit thin and empty, and unrealistically amplified.
On the night my father was dying, I prayed distinctly, “Lord, come to us and give us a sign. Relieve my dad’s distress. Take away his pain.” I really wanted this … and there was silence. If there was a response, it was at a frequency that I could not hear. If there was a sign, it came earlier in the day, in the words of the Psalms that I had put into the air for my family: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” “I lift my eyes to the hills; my help comes from the Lord.” “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not his benefits.” Those words were the bread that sustained the dark night’s journey.
And when the final help came, about 12:40 in the morning, most of us weren’t there to see it. My mother called to wake us up, saying simply, “His pain is over now.” I never doubted the help, but neither was I surprised that I missed it when it came. That’s the nature of faith – we reach for something that we cannot quite see, we chase after a God whom we cannot capture. And in that ambiguity and apparent absence, we hunger for the fullness of God. Nothing else will do. Nothing less than God.
This is hard work for a lot of people. When they realize that they cannot grab hold of God, sometimes they give up on the whole faith stuff. Most of the time, however, they grab hold of something a whole lot smaller than God. The alcoholic reaches for the bottle, the foodaholic stares into the refrigerator, the workaholic gets high on work, the shopaholic is intoxicated by acquisition. The sports junkie gets hooked on all the babbling commentators, the anxious soul feeds her fear addiction by watching the 24-7 Angry News Channel, and the cultured despiser spends way too much energy making fun of Donald Trump.
And can you see what all of this is? It’s a tremendous distraction from the fundamental human hunger, and that is the hunger to know God.
Jesus looked at the hopeful crowds and said, “You chase after me because you ate a lot of bread.” He sees through the superficiality. Yesterday’s bread soon goes stale and moldy. The Real Bread, the bread from heaven, is the bread that stays fresh every day.
It is hard to believe there is a bread that stays fresh, of course, so when some of them heard this, they play a little Bible game with Jesus. They meant well, but it was a goofy thing to do, especially with him. They said, “We remember where it says in the Bible, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” They remember an old story about Moses and the grumbling tribe of escaped slaves. They lick their chops and rub their bellies and wait for the manna to fall on command.
But Jesus won’t play that little game. There is something more to real faith than remembering ancient Bible stories of what happened way back when. Jesus expands the verb tenses. The God who gave bread through Moses is the God who gives bread right now. God is not an ancient relic, locked away in the pages of an old book. God provides for us and for all - past, present, and future. There is a hidden benevolence in all things.
The trick, of course, is seeing such heavenly generosity, or at least trusting it if we don’t see it right now. That may be the most elusive pursuit of faith, but once again, it is the essence of what faith is all about. We trust God enough to pursue God. Jesus says, “The work of God is for us to believe.” If I might translate, that means it is God who desires that we have a life of depth and well-being. It is God who takes responsibility to create belief and trust in our hearts. As we chase after God, it is God who ultimately finds us.
Remember that. Trust that. If doubts plague us or if other shiny objects distract us, my suggestion is that we pay attention to our own deep spiritual hunger. Listen to the deepest yearnings of your heart. Don’t settle for worldly razzle-dazzle or other-worldly religious hype. Look for the Real Bread. Seek after what is life-giving, not merely for you, but for others. Spiritual hunger is a spiritual gift, because it can propel us more deeply into the God who is the Source and Destination of our lives. Be a good steward of your deepest longing.
Today as we gather around the feast table of Christ and his saints, I am still thinking of my father, of course. It is a way of longing for our heavenly Father. Years ago when I was young, our family was having Sunday dinner. It had been a communion Sunday in our church, and the conversation turned to the small size of Wonder Bread cubes that we had been served at the Lord’s Table that morning.
Suddenly one of my family members blurted out, “I think I know why the church is so stingy on the bread. They want us to stay hungry for the Real Thing.”
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.