When we look at the bigger context of today’s gospel reading we see it as follows: Jesus has been healing the sick. Then he performs the miracle of feeding the 5000. Then Jesus walks across the water towards the disciples. All of that directly precedes today’s story. What happened in the passage we read for today? The disciples, and the people, literally “the crowd” are looking for Jesus. When they find him he says that they are looking for him, following him, not because of what he has said and not even because of the “signs” he has given, but because he has fed them and they are filled, they are satisfied. Jesus acknowledges that being filled is very important. It is so important that people work hard for it. They are also willing to follow and want to be led by someone who will fill them, who will feed them. But, he says, they are focused on having their bodies fed. They are not focusing on what will really satisfy them, really bring them peace and wholeness, which is seeking after spiritual bread, after truth, after relationship with God, after following in the way, which is Jesus himself. That is what will really fill them, but they can’t seem to change their focus from that of getting basic physical needs met.
That is the central focus on today’s text. But as I sat with this text there was a sub story, related but not the focus, that really stood out for me. And that has to do with the next part of the story.
After all of this: after hearing what Jesus says to them, after being told what they really want is to be satisfied and not with just physical bread but the bread of life: after they have been miraculously fed and after Jesus has walked on the water and after all of the healings he has performed, then this outrageous thing happens and they then ask Jesus for a sign! Apparently, they’ve forgotten all the signs he has just produced. Or perhaps they simply weren’t satisfied with the healings, they weren’t satisfied with the feeding of the thousands, they weren’t satisfied with him walking on the water. They don’t want to have to do anything except be fed, be healed, be attended to. And so, when Jesus asks them to do something in return, when Jesus asks them to follow him, they want proof, more proof, that this effort on their part will lead to them continuing to be fed, to be healed to be attended to. They ask for another sign. They point to Moses saying, “well, he fed us manna, so give us a sign so we can believe.” (again, obviously what they are really asking for is a very specific sign: they want Jesus to feed them again). But Jesus corrects them saying that Moses didn’t do that, God did that. And that Jesus is there to feed them, is feeding them, has been feeding them: but at this moment, not in the way that they want to be fed, are demanding being fed.
I think this is the key point here, actually. They want to never be hungry again, physically. They want to be fed in a way that makes them feel safe, physically. They want to be shown that they will never suffer again, never hunger again, never be in need again. And when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never hunger again,” they are still thinking in terms of physical hunger, physical bread, physical needs being met.
We still do this. We all want life to be physically easier, to be smoother. We don’t like to suffer, and we don’t like to see others suffer, especially people we love. So we, too, beg and plead for something different, for a bread that will satisfy us always, without us needing to do anything. We want to be children, taken care of. More, we want a Santa Claus God whose job and role is that of answering our every need, but also our every wish.
And what this shows me, what this says to me, what should be obvious looking at today’s culture and at the world and into our own hearts as well, is that people have a hard time believing. They have an even harder time committing to their faith and to living that out. They have a hard time trusting in their faith, trusting in God, trusting in what they’ve even been experiencing through these miracles. They’ve been given signs. They’ve been fed. They’ve heard the Word of God spoken again and again, and yet they still ask for more proof, more feeding, more signs. They still struggle to believe in a God who loves us beyond our imagining but also calls us into action. They want to believe in a God who will feed them constantly like a mother bird, without them needing to do anything. But they struggle to do so. They need constant reassurance. And because of that, no matter what Jesus did, they would ask for more: more signs, more feeding, more proof.
Frederick Buechner, in his book “Wishful Thinking” speaks eloquently for us in his essay on faith when he says, “I can’t prove the friendship of my friend. When I experience it, I don’t need to prove it. When I don’t experience it, no proof will do. If I tried to put his friendship to the test somehow, the test itself would queer the friendship I was testing. So it is with the Godness of God.”
He continues, “The five so-called proofs for the existence of God will never prove to unfaith that God exists. They are merely five ways of describing the existence of the God you have faith in already. Almost nothing that makes any real difference can be proved. I can prove the law of gravity by dropping a shoe out the window. I can prove that the world is round if I’m clever at that sort of thing - that the radio works, that light travels faster than sound. I cannot prove that life is better than death or love better than hate. I cannot prove the greatness of the great or the beauty of the beautiful. I cannot even prove my own free will; maybe my most heroic act, my truest love, my deepest thought, are all just subtler versions of what happens when the doctor taps my knee with his little rubber hammer and my foot jumps.
“Faith can’t prove a ...(darned) thing. Or a blessed thing either.”
There is something very human in a desire for some kind of “proof” at times of God’s presence. There is something very human in a desire to know for sure that Jesus is God’s son. There is something deep within us that wants God to shout out in clear and concrete terms what we are supposed to do and be with our lives, what God wants for us in each moment. There is something very human in this deep desire to be fed, cared for, taken care of, without needing to give and serve and trust in order to experience that satisfaction and fullness. And some of the time, at least, we probably feel that the signs God does give just aren’t clear enough.
In reflecting on the nature of signs and presence and feeding in our lives, I was reminded of the movie “Bruce Almighty.” He’s driving down the road demanding, insisting on a sign from God. He passes a sign that says “caution ahead” which he ignores. He prays more and begs with even more insistence for a sign. He sees another sign, “turn back!” which he also ignores. He crashes into a pole and gets out of the car cursing and yelling at God to answer him! To respond to him! And then his pager goes off. We know the person paging Bruce is God, but Bruce doesn’t know that. Instead, he takes the pager and yells at it, “Don’t know you. Wouldn’t call you if I did.” And we are left both laughing but also reflecting seriously on the truth of that. He didn’t see God when God was right there, answering his prayers, responding to his pleas, even calling him and asking him to listen. He didn’t know God. He didn’t call the God who is real, who exists, who is not Santa Claus, just there to dole out what we believe we need at any moment. And if he had known this God, Bruce probably would not have called on that God. “Don’t know ya. Wouldn’t call you if I did” was all too accurate a statement from this man begging for a sign.
But while it is entertaining for those of us watching the movie to see how blind and unaware Bruce is to God’s presence and direction for his life, we have signs in our own life as well. For us too, these signs are not always so easy to discern. We are each given and we each use eyes that are sometimes foggy as we look for God in our world. These visions and insights into God’s will for us change depending on our gifts, our moods, our circumstances. What you and I fail to see may be obvious to those around us. What you and I do see as signs of God’s presence may completely elude others.
There is a person in my life whom I am very close to. We’ve known each other forever, and have been close for a long time. In our adult lives, we share a dedication to education, we both have a love and interest in psychology (one of my majors was psychology, she has a PhD in psych). Our children are near the same age and we share a similar parenting style. Politically we are in a similar place and we tend to agree on almost every issue of real importance. But this person is also different from me and especially so in one area. This person I will call Jane is an atheist, as devout an atheist, I believe, as I am a Christian. She cannot understand why I believe in God when to her, science, chance, luck can explain the Universe and everything within it. To her my faith is nothing more than superstition, and, I believe she would say, an unhealthy superstition at that. In answer to her questions about how I can possibly believe in a God, I really have only my experience as an answer. There is no book and there are no signs which I can offer her which she cannot answer with some historical, scientific or rational explanation. And yet, there are no experiences that I can recall in which I do not see God’s presence, see God’s hand, see God’s sign. I experience God’s presence in the extraordinary, but perhaps even more so in the ordinary. I experience signs of God’s presence and love in the very things which she experiences as scientific and mundane.
What signs would make her believe? If the world were to crumble tomorrow and angels and devils jump out of the earth, I doubt that these would be signs enough for her of God’s existence. While for me, if I never were to experience a “miracle” again in my life, I would still see the signs of God’s presence and care all around me. We see the world and God’s signs differently. That doesn’t mean though that there aren’t times when I too find myself wanting, needing, even asking for a sign of God’s will for my life.
God understands us and accepts us as we are in all our humanity. God knows that we are people who are unsure. God knows that even the most blatant signs are sometimes hard for us to see, and that we cannot help but ask for them once in a while. And so, while Jesus seems to scold those who could not simply trust and believe, Jesus also gave the signs that were asked for. And Jesus did feed them. I want to say that again because all of us need to hear it. God does not reject our need for signs, or our need to be fed, but gives them in spite of the fact that what God wants for us is for us to focus on spiritual hunger, on our need to eat more fully of things beyond food. In today’s passage, Jesus does remind the disciples of his feeding miracles. Jesus did appear to Thomas and encouraged him, not only to see, but to hear, to touch, to experience the risen Christ to ease his doubt.
In light of this what are we to do? Jesus proclaims himself to be the bread of life. He also proclaims himself to be the way and he declares that any who would come, who would seek out this bread of life, must be willing to take up his/her own cross to follow. We experience this bread of life, we experience the wholeness God wants for us, we feel what it is to be truly filled when we are communing with God, when we are doing what God asks us to do, when we are following on the way. And while there are many ways to do that – sitting in beautiful settings such as this one, meeting with others who are faithful, experiencing an incredible sunset, I think we need to take what Jesus says about this very seriously. He invites us to be fed by following him in his actions. And those actions, that WAY, is one of loving one another, especially the oppressed, the displaced, those without justice, those without compassion, those without food. We are not called to be people who simply sit at Jesus’ feet and beg for more signs and more bread. We are called to be disciples and it is in being disciples that we will find ourselves fed to the core of our beings.
One of the many mission trips my congregation took was to replace the flooring in a mobile home that after one of the storms that hit the Eastern seaboard, had destroyed the roof which then meant the rain and other elements had destroyed the flooring of this woman’s house. She was extremely poor. She was extremely bitter. For the first day that we were there, she watched us work while she sat on her porch smoking and complaining. She complained about her neighbors, she complained about how unfairly life had treated her, she complained about what we were doing – (that doesn’t look perfectly matched, I don’t like that color, I’m sure I’d picked something a darker shade of brown). We encouraged everyone to listen because we felt sure that the most important part of our mission work was not just the flooring, but seeing people, hearing people, treating them as the children of God they really were. The listening opened a door, but it was a small crack. The change came, though, when she offered us something to drink and made us all some lemonade. I know that sounds strange, it sounds odd, it sounds tiny. One of our folk didn’t want to take the lemonade from her because “we were there to serve her” but we just emphasized that accepting hospitality was as important as giving it. And what we saw was nothing less than amazing. In allowing her to serve us, we did several things. First we equalized the playing fields. We became people who were serving each another. Second, it gave us a pause in our work to sit and really talk with her – an equal exchange of stories, in which we all saw that there are blessings and challenges for every life. That act of drinking together, which eventually became eating together, sharing a meal of care, of service, of faith became an opportunity to see the face of God in one another.
Jesus fed people. He also allowed others to feed him: giving the woman at the well the opportunity to give him water, allowing the sinful woman to wash his feet with her tears and hair, (Luke 7:36-50). Those who were most in need were not just cared for, but were allowed to give care as well.
When we want to be fed, it might be well to ask ourselves how we might feed others. It is in this exchange – in this communing with God, that we are truly fed. And it is in truly being fed, that we find our proof of God. Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.” God is all around us, just waiting to be seen. The best way to see God is to serve and love God’s people. Amen.