John 6:25-35 – The Bread of Life

The Breaking of the Bread by Sr. Mary Stephen

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

So, they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (NIV)

Christians everywhere hold to Jesus as the Son of God, Lord of the universe, and Savior of all. However, for most people who were following Jesus around in the first century, this was not their understanding of Christ.  In his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke in ways that introduced people to who he really was and sought to bring them to a point of following him based on his identity. 

Jesus wanted the crowds to him for who he really is – themselves for what they really needed – and follow him based on the deepest needs of their lives. I believe Jesus is the hope of all nations and all people, and in him humanity’s most basic and profound needs are met for forgiveness, love, and purpose in life. To address this, I ask three basic philosophical and theological questions of life:

What should human beings seek the most and work the hardest for in life?

The responses in history are legion. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle thought a proper appreciation for an ethical and virtuous life found in practical wisdom was where people’s most concerted efforts should be.  Karl Marx, the father of communism and socialism believed the proletariat should use their heads and their hands to rise above their economic conditions and oppression. In the late 1960’s, Bobby Kennedy said we ought to be working the hardest to achieve justice and not advance ourselves on the misfortunes of others. In more recent times, the Harvard Business Review is continually on the lookout for the best ways of being efficient, productive, and making the most of time because work itself is paramount.

Jesus said people are not to work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.

He said this coming off one of his most famous miracles of all, the feeding of the five thousand.  Afterward, Jesus withdrew overnight to a place of solitude and prayer. He did another miraculous event by walking on water out to his disciples in a boat. In the morning, he and they were on the other side of the lake. The crowd did not know where he was and went looking for him.

Jesus knew the crowd of people wanted more. What they got was perhaps unexpected. Jesus told them to put their efforts into getting the bread that keeps on feeding. Jesus wanted the people to pursue and follow him not only for the things he could do for them, but to seek him for who he is. 

Jesus had further aspirations for the people beyond providing a supper – he desired the people to feast on himself – to ingest him, to take him into their lives in a deep and profound way as the fulfillment of all the hope and promises of the Old Testament. 

Jesus Feeds the Crowd by American artist Eric Feather

Jesus is the bread, the basic staple of life, that meets the cravings and needs of all people everywhere. Starving people, both in body and spirit, find in Jesus a meal which keeps on giving, a feast of grace that is both delectable and unending.

The answer to my own question is that, for me, one’s highest pursuit and greatest quest is Jesus. Apart from Christ, I will starve. Furthermore, Jesus is not some cheap fast food off a value menu; he is real soul food to be ingested and enjoyed with others.

I believe people need Jesus. A passionate seeking of Jesus, to follow him, live for him, center life around him, is my most ardent desire. I do not simply desire Jesus for what he can do for me; I vigorously chase after him because if I do not have Jesus, I will die, I will starve to death. 

For me, Jesus is so much more than a nice addition to my life, like a new puppy; Jesus is Lord and Savior. I must consume him, or I will be completely undone, and I will not survive! Jesus is my bread, my food, my life!  I cannot survive on a daily crumb, but I feast on every word that comes from the mouth of Jesus because in Christ there is the life that is truly life.

What should human beings be doing to do the works of God?

The short answer: believe. To have and keep faith in the One God has sent, Jesus, is the primary “work” that pleases God. Jesus communicated to the crowd that they can do so much more than follow him for another earthly meal – they can place their faith and hope in him for food that will last, food that will transcend the three-dimensional world.

Faith is more than an intellectual recognition to some facts about Christianity. And belief is not about always having clarity and certainty to every facet and loci of Christian doctrine. No, Christian faith is complete trust in Jesus as our hope and our life. Education, economic uplift, political stability, and institutional peace and justice are important activities for this world. For the Christian, the accomplishment of these and so much more comes from the grace of God in Christ. As people come to the end of themselves with their homebrewed and half-baked attempts at being satisfied, Jesus stands at the door and knocks, the Living Bread who offers himself for humanity’s deepest needs.

Giving kudos to Jesus might be nice, yet Christ himself cares about folks placing their trust in him for grace, forgiveness, and hope in their world. Jesus longs to reconnect people with God through giving himself as the means of making that happen. All the works we do in this life, every good deed we accomplish, and each positive action we do are all helpful and necessary… and they all pale in comparison to the greatest work of all, to believe in Jesus Christ as the hope of this world, the hope of your family, the hope of the church, and the hope of your life and mine. And it is all accessed by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.

Who really does the will of God?

Answer: Those who come to God through Christ. The person who comes to Jesus will never go hungry, and the one who believes in Christ will never be thirsty. Such persons do the will of God. They do not settle for signs of Jesus but desire him and find their ultimate satisfaction in him.

Yet far too many people settle for signs of Jesus rather than Jesus himself. It would be silly if I drove to a sign on Interstate 94 that said, “Milwaukee” and sat there under it, believing I was really in the city of Milwaukee. And it would be weird if I looked around for the art museum or other places underneath the sign.

Church buildings and furniture, stained-glass windows, pews, and even the Bible are not Jesus – they are simply and hopefully signs which point to him. They are all designed to lead us to Christ so that we may come to him. And coming to Christ is what the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and any other description you want to give about ingesting Jesus is about. The elements of bread and cup bring us to Christ so that we can experience Jesus and be joined to him by faith in a mystical union of human and divine in the unseen heaven.

Conclusion

Where will you find true satisfaction and hope? Probably not in the clearance aisle at Wal-Mart. Likely not in conforming to cultural Christianity or embracing generic forms of Jesus as merely good teacher and moral example. Furthermore, life’s ultimate satisfaction and hope are not to be found in a spotless house and perfect kids; in working more hours and making more money. Nor will we find contentment and peace in the radical independence of doing things my way.

Jesus is the Bread of Life. Through ingesting him, passionately pursuing him, believing in him, and coming to him in everything, we find the life that is truly life. Do not settle for any substitutes to Jesus. Come to the real person.

Lord God, you said that when we seek you with all our hearts, you will be found.  As the deer pants for streams of water, so we, your people, long for you in a dry and weary land.  We hunger and thirst for your righteousness.  We deeply desire your presence in all things. So, we die to ourselves and surrender to your will and way for us, by faith trusting you will come into our lives and completely take over. May your blessing rest upon us as we seek Jesus. Amen.

By Forever Be Sure

Psalm 42 – Sadness and Hope

As a deer gets thirsty 
    for streams of water, 
    I truly am thirsty 
    for you, my God. 
In my heart, I am thirsty 
for you, the living God. 
    When will I see your face? 
Day and night my tears 
    are my only food, 
    as everyone keeps asking, 
    “Where is your God?” 

Sorrow floods my heart, 
    when I remember 
leading the worshipers 
    to your house.  
    I can still hear them shout 
    their joyful praises. 
Why am I discouraged? 
Why am I restless? 
    I trust you! 
And I will praise you again 
    because you help me, 
    and you are my God. 

I am deeply discouraged 
    as I think about you 
from where the Jordan begins 
at Mount Hermon 
    and from Mount Mizar.  
Your vicious waves 
    have swept over me 
    like an angry ocean 
    or a roaring waterfall. 

Every day, you are kind, 
    and at night 
you give me a song 
    as my prayer to you, 
    the living Lord God. 

You are my mighty rock.  
    Why have you forgotten me? 
    Why must enemies mistreat me 
    and make me sad? 
Even my bones are in pain, 
    while all day long 
my enemies sneer and ask, 
    “Where is your God?” 

Why am I discouraged? 
Why am I restless? 
    I trust you! 
And I will praise you again 
    because you help me, 
    and you are my God. (CEV) 

Sadness. Every human on planet earth knows the feeling. Since we are emotional creatures, profound sadness even to the point of depression and/or despondency will happen. Yet, despite the universal nature of discouragement and tears, many Christians buck the sadness.

Far too many believers focus so exclusively on victory in Jesus through his resurrection, ascension, and glorification that they use religion as their denial when unwanted emotions like sadness come banging at the doorstep of their soul. 

So, I most emphatically say: Depression is not sin. To be discouraged is not the Enemy. Experiencing sadness is neither wrong nor selfish. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is necessary to sit with our emotions and feel the breadth and depth of them. Both our spiritual and emotional health come through an awareness and robust engagement with our feelings. To refuse to feel is to put the stiff arm to God.  

The psalmist does anything but deny his feelings. He brings them before the Lord and spreads them out before the Divine. Why am I discouraged? Why am I restless? Why the sadness? Could it be that God has forgotten me? Where is the Lord? Is God angry with me? Are my troubles the result of divine wrath? 

To blandly say we have never uttered or thought such questions is a telltale sign of denial. The bottom line for many folks is that they do not want to feel because such emotions complicate their lives. Besides, discouragement and sadness hurt. “Why feel,” we reason, “when it only brings pain?” 

Ah, yes, the avoidance of pain. And there is no pain quite like emotional and spiritual pain. Much like an open wound which needs a liberal application of painful peroxide, so our spiritual wounds must sting with the salve of emotional feeling. Healing is neither cheap, easy, nor painless. It typically hurts like hell. 

The psalmist’s own pain revolved around feelings of alienation from God, being cut off from fellow worshipers, and harassed by others around him. Understandably, he experienced despondency and loneliness. The psalmist wondered if anyone, including God, even cared what he was going through. In other words, he is desperate for God to show up. 

I am going to make a simple observation about this psalm: The psalmist did not get any answers to the several questions he posed. He even repeated them, to no avail. The only form of comfort the psalmist received was to remember what God had done in the past. Somehow, someway, this will help with the difficulties of the present. 

There are times in life when we must recall what we know about God, ourselves, and others. If the Lord has delivered in the past, God can do it again. If others helped before, perhaps they will be present in the here and now. And just maybe, even likely, you and I will discover a resilient spirit within. We already possess everything we need to not only survive but to grow and thrive in life. 

Hope arises from holding the big picture of the past, present, and future together at the same time. When present circumstances are difficult, and it appears we are about to swallowed up into the now, we must hold the past and future along with it, in careful tension. Then, we shall find the ennoblement to keep going. 

Trust in the future, a confident expectation of hope, is born from the trustworthiness of the past. A prayerful song in our heart will carry us through till our hope is realized. 

Genesis 49:1-33 – The Long View

Blessing of the Twelve Tribes

Then Jacob called for his sons and said: “Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come.

“Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob;
listen to your father Israel.

“Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might, the first sign of my strength,
excelling in honor, excelling in power.
Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel,
for you went up onto your father’s bed,
onto my couch and defiled it.

“Simeon and Levi are brothers—
their swords are weapons of violence.
Let me not enter their council,
let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger
and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
and their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob
and disperse them in Israel.

“Judah, your brothers will praise you;
your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons will bow down to you.
You are a lion’s cub, Judah;
you return from the prey, my son.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.
He will tether his donkey to a vine,
his colt to the choicest branch;
he will wash his garments in wine,
his robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes will be darker than wine,
his teeth whiter than milk.

“Zebulun will live by the seashore
and become a haven for ships;
his border will extend toward Sidon.

“Issachar is a rawboned donkey
lying down among the sheep pens.
When he sees how good his resting place is
and how pleasant is his land,
he will bend his shoulder to the burden
and submit to forced labor.

“Dan will provide justice for his people
as one of the tribes of Israel.
Dan will be a snake by the roadside,
a viper along the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
so that its rider tumbles backward.

“I look for your deliverance, Lord.

“Gad will be attacked by a band of raiders,
but he will attack them at their heels.

“Asher’s food will be rich;
he will provide delicacies fit for a king.

“Naphtali is a doe set free
that bears beautiful fawns.

“Joseph is a fruitful vine,
a fruitful vine near a spring,
whose branches climb over a wall.
With bitterness archers attacked him;
they shot at him with hostility.
But his bow remained steady,
his strong arms stayed limber,
because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob,
because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel,
because of your father’s God, who helps you,
because of the Almighty, who blesses you
with blessings of the skies above,
blessings of the deep springs below,
blessings of the breast and womb.
Your father’s blessings are greater
than the blessings of the ancient mountains,
than the bounty of the age-old hills.
Let all these rest on the head of Joseph,
on the brow of the prince among his brothers.

“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf;
in the morning he devours the prey,
in the evening he divides the plunder.”

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him.

Then he gave them these instructions: “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites.”

When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people. (NIV)

The theme of confidence works its way through the patriarch Jacob’s deathbed prophecies and blessings – a resolute conviction in the promises of God, that he will accomplish what he said he would do. Jacob expressed the hope and sure belief that God would bring the Israelites out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan as their inheritance – and, ultimately to the City of God, the eternal inheritance.

The Christian will find much in Judah’s blessing as the promise of the coming Christ, Jesus. Mentioning the implements of “staff” and “scepter” are symbols of authority. And, the reference to a donkey communicated a ruler was coming, as donkeys were the preferred mounts of royalty in ancient times. What is more, the washing of garments in wine, and eyes darker than wine, are allusions to the future blessing and abundance there will be through the tribe of Judah. In fact, the first miracle of Jesus was turning water into wine – a deliberate attempt by the Apostle John to connect Jesus with Old Testament messianic prophecies of abundance and blessing. (John 2:1-12)

long hallway

It is important for us to take the long view of life, keeping in mind that it took eighteen centuries for Jacob’s prophecy of Judah to occur. This long view is what gives us our confidence in life and provides the patience and perseverance we need right now.  Keeping in mind the big picture of God’s work in this world is necessary because if we do not, we will likely become discouraged with the circumstances we face right now.

The reason Jacob makes it into the great Hall of Faith is not because he was squeaky clean and perfect in how he lived his life, but because he took the long view, the big picture, and saw that God was going to fulfill his promises to Israel:

By an act of faith, Jacob on his deathbed blessed each of Joseph’s sons in turn, blessing them with God’s blessing, not his own—as he bowed in worship upon his staff. (Hebrews 11:21, MSG)

Furthermore, when we string the following three verses together across both Testaments, we see the long view of God’s purposes:

It is true that you planned to do something bad to me. But really, God was planning good things. God’s plan was to use me to save the lives of many people. And that is what happened. (Genesis 50:20, ERV)

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)  

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28, NKJV)

In the Christian faith tradition, all God’s promises come together and are fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. He is our salvation, our inheritance, and our hope.  To give our lives to him in complete trust of faith is both our challenge and our privilege.

May we live by faith, and not by fear.

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through anxious times, so that we who are wearied by the changes of this life may rest in your eternal steadiness. Keep watch, dear God, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Genesis 22:15-18 – Faith, Obedience, and Blessing

Blessing to Abraham

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (NIV)

The biblical character of Abraham is synonymous with faith. And for good reason. God had told Abraham that he would have a son with his wife Sarah. This was especially unusual because the couple were well advanced in age, and Sarah was incapable of having children. Infertility is not just a modern problem; it has always existed.  Yet, despite all the contrary evidence of age and ability, Abraham believed God. Years later and with a mix of patience and impatience from the would-be parents, the promise from God was realized.  Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac.

“The child of the promise.” This was Isaac’s moniker – which made the command from God so perplexing: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2). Huh? I can easily imagine Abraham saying to himself, perhaps not out loud, “What the [insert favorite expletive]!”  But it only seems strange and super-weird to us. We get no reaction from Abraham, no questioning, no talk back.  He just goes about the business of saddling up the donkey, chopping some wood for the sacrifice, and takes his only son with him on the journey to the mountain.

While you and I might try and figure out if we really heard God or not, Abraham had a history of talking with God. He knew God’s voice as well as he knew his own. Abraham was well down the road of relationship with the God he served. We get an insight from the author of Hebrews into Abraham’s thought process, a line of thinking that is consistent with a person who has a regular habit of talking with God:

“Abraham had been promised that Isaac, his only son, would continue his family. But when Abraham was tested, he had faith and was willing to sacrifice Isaac, because he was sure that God could raise people to life. This was just like getting Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:17-18, CEV)

Abraham did not try and figure out God’s mind. He picked no fights and chose not to debate with God about the contradiction of ethics he was being asked to do.

Abraham simply obeyed.

He reasoned that it did not matter if Isaac were killed because God could raise him from death. This, of course, is not what happened. It was all a test of faith. Abraham knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is the Lord who provides. After God stepped in and provided a ram for the sacrifice instead of Isaac, Abraham named that place “The Lord Will Provide.” (Genesis 22:14)

You and I most certainly do not always know why we are facing the circumstances we must endure. We very much are rarely privy to know what in the world God is thinking. Yet, like Abraham, if we have a spiritual history of walking with God and hearing his voice, there is no hesitation to respond with obedience. We are convinced that God will provide. Obedience for the follower of Christ is not a burden; it is a privilege, even when we are being tested beyond our seeming emotional ability to do it.

Blessings come through obedience. They are not willy-nilly thrown into a crowd like some cheap stadium trinket between innings of a baseball game. When the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, this very connection between obedience and blessing was re-emphasized:

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God…. The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. (Deuteronomy 28:1-2, 9, NIV)

A simple observation about the blessing of Abraham: It took nearly five-hundred years before that blessing was realized. Furthermore, in the Christian tradition, it then took another fifteen-hundred years before the blessing was fulfilled in the person of Jesus. And, I might add, all the promises of God to his people will be fully consummated at the end of the age when Christ returns. For a contemporary society which prides itself on timeliness and efficiency, taking the much broader scope of all history might seem unacceptable.

So, we come back around again to trust. Just as Abraham trusted God, even when it seemed like nonsense fraught with major moral implications, so we are to exhibit patient and persevering faith. Although the scope of history is massively large, the only moment we have is the now. It is now, today, in which we put one foot in front of the other and toddle forward into the next moment – by faith.

We simply obey.

Then, we obey again… and, again. It is in such continual small steps of faith and obedience that we will discover the blessings of God in the middle of our path.

Sovereign Lord, your ways are sometimes strange.  Yet, I know that everything you do is always right, just, and good.  It is to your gracious and merciful character that I know you will guide and provide. My allegiance is to you as I anticipate your divine blessings in my life through the Name of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.