This sermon was delivered by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., on August 2, 2009.
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.” John 6:35 (NRSV)
Everyone understands how frustrating it is to talk about something with people who seem unable to comprehend what we mean. That frustration is vividly illustrated at John 6 where we read of the miraculous feeding of 5,000 people and the spiritual confusion that followed.
For some time before this episode, multitudes followed Jesus because they had seen him heal sick people. No doubt some of the followers were attracted to what Jesus was teaching and preaching about eternal life and the kingdom of God. But John 6:2 states that the majority of the followers were attracted by the healing miracles. Then, as now, many people struggled under the burdens of sickness without the ability to obtain adequate health care. So we can understand how a ministry that offered free health care would attract attention and followers. After Jesus fed the 5,000 and returned to Capernaum, the throng grew larger. The healing ministry had expanded into a feeding ministry. If you provide free health care and free food, you will be sure to have a following.
But Jesus understood the real motives of the people who followed his goings and comings. At John 6:26, we read what Jesus said to them: “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free.” Later, at verse 35, Jesus challenged the multitude by saying, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever.” (The Message) With these words, Jesus challenged the multitude to rise above a consumer-oriented approach to his ministry. Jesus had not come to merely serve customers (be they hungry or sick), but to provide eternal life.
The healing and feeding work of Jesus calls us to be about the business of compassion for people who suffer. Sickness, homelessness, hunger, and other maladies demand our sincere attention and responses. Any religious movement that ignores or increases human suffering does not deserve to be identified with the God of Scripture whose prophets fed starving people, healed sick people, liberated oppressed people, and stood up against tyrants on behalf of mistreated people. We who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ have no right to claim his name while turning our heads and hearts away from the harsh realities of human suffering and need.
Yet the work and words of Jesus carry another challenge for those who claim His name and for those who are drawn to the compassionate nature of His gospel. We must not define Christian faith and discipleship as merely God’s way of reallocating goods and services in the world. People need health clinics and food. A just society will always provide for those basic needs. People who love God must not ignore homelessness, hunger, sickness, ignorance, and poverty. But Jesus Christ came into the world to do much more than provide free medical care and food. Unless we are careful, we who follow Jesus will define ourselves and be defined by our work handing out food and medicine to people whose basic hunger and sickness is not physical, but spiritual.
Jesus reminded the multitude at John 6 that the bread he provided to the 5,000, like the manna that Moses used to feed the Hebrew people as they journeyed to Canaan, pointed to a deeper truth. The bread was a physical metaphor for the moral truth that eternal life—life as God lives—is more than physical. Living involves more than feeding physical drives and needs.
At the core, life is about meaning! A person may have a full stomach but an empty soul—that person will never eat enough. A person may have a bulging bank account but an empty soul—that person will never acquire enough. A person may have a gold-plated health plan but an empty soul—a moral sickness that cannot be cured by health clubs, fitness plans, and medical treatments. Life is about meaning!
We need “soul food” that will continually supply our need for meaning, purpose, and identity beyond the moment. We need food that fuels us to face the challenges of our times and situations. This is what Jesus told the multitude that followed Him, and this must be the constant message of His followers in every time and place to soul-hungry people. We need the Bread of Life!
Jesus fed thousands miraculously to show His divine authority and power to meet our moral and spiritual hunger. The bread and eating were metaphors for his ministry to bring eternal life to humanity. Jesus boldly declared that He is the Bread of soul life (meaning), eternal life (meaning), life (meaning) as only God can give and God can live! The people who heard Jesus talk about “living bread” wanted it, yet didn’t realize that Jesus is that Bread!
Bread is no good if people do not eat it. The nutrients that are in physical bread must be joined with our bodies if they are to be food for us. It is not enough to look at bread, read about its nutritious qualities, smell it, or even admire its nutritious value. Bread must become part of us if it is to do good to us!
This is also true of the life of Jesus. It is not enough to read about Jesus, talk about Jesus, admire Jesus, or sing about Jesus, just as it is not enough to read about bread, talk about bread, admire bread, or sing about bread. Jesus must become part of us. Jesus emphasized that His life must be joined with ours—that we must take Him into our lives—in order for His life to live in us. The Bread of Life must become life in us, with us, and for us.
The metaphor does not stop there. I cannot feed you by eating. You must feed yourself. I may serve bread to you, but you must choose to eat it. You must chew it, swallow it, and digest if, if you are to be strengthened by it. Let me be clear. It is not enough for you to grow up in a Christian home or to attend church if you will not take on the life of Christ. You can choose to go hungry. You can choose to eat poorly. You can choose to starve.
If you will not trust Christ personally, you are no more part of His life than you would be fed by merely sitting at a table with other diners yet fail to eat. As Malcolm X said so eloquently concerning racial justice, it is not enough to sit a table before a place setting. Dining is about eating! So it is with the life of Jesus. Being in Christ is not about being around church folk. It involves trusting Christ personally, following Christ personally, believing Christ personally, and living with Christ personally! Being in Christ is about choosing to trust God’s love as lived by Jesus, choosing to trust God’s forgiveness as revealed by Jesus, choosing to trust God’s power as demonstrated by Jesus, and choosing to follow God’s purposes as Jesus did. Eating is a choice!
Finally, let me remind us of something our elders often declared—”You are what you eat.” Many people suffer from physical infirmities because of poor eating habits. Many children suffer tooth decay because they eat foods that are high in sugar. Many people suffer with heart disease because they eat foods high in sodium and fat. Many people are obese not because they are hungry, but because they eat too much of the wrong food.
Many of us are have poor moral and spiritual diets. Instead of feeding on the Bread of Life, we have become consumers of materialism. Our nation is in a financial crisis because we have gorged on materialism, military adventurism, imperialism, and sensualism.
We are the richest population in the world, yet have some of the worse disease rates for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other life-threatening conditions because of our eating habits. We are the richest population in the world, yet have a growing population of poor, homeless, and hungry people because of our addiction to warfare and greed. We are the most heavily armed and entertained people in the world, yet cannot seem to get enough guns, sex, violence, food, pleasure, and leisure. We work harder, but cannot seem to earn or do enough to be satisfied. Much of our pain, suffering, injustice, and discontentment in life are because we have chosen bread that does not give life! “You are what you eat.”
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to address human suffering and need around us on the material and moral levels. We are called to feed stomachs, but must never be satisfied with people who have full mouths but live empty of divine meaning. Our efforts must always point to God and the eternal life (meaning) that God has for every person who will take on (eat) the life of Christ.
There are hungry lives around us. Let us be faithful to guide them to the food that lives, Jesus Christ and life with God. As we minister to the physical, material, and social needs of soul-hungry people, let us be prayerfully and reverently led and used by the Holy Spirit to point them to Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.