July 31, 2015 by Pastor Ben McIntire
It’s August, and that means five weeks in a row when the Gospel readings in the lectionary come from John, chapter six which are all about bread. Jesus feeds 5,000 people on five barley loaves and two fish and then, when the crowds follow him around, he explains that he himself is the true bread from heaven that satisfies our spiritual hunger. It’s such an important event that the “feeding of the 5,000” is the only miracle that is told in all four of the Gospels. The crowds that followed Jesus around the Sea of Galilee flocked to him because he had just fed them all until they were filled up and satisfied completely, something that just didn’t happen in that time and place of scarcity.
Like most children, my daughters love animals. We’ve been to the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha for each of Phoebe’s five birthday parties, and that’s where I think I found the perfect image to go along with this story. If you’ve been to the zoo, you have probably crossed the bridge over the koi pond, and seen the kids throwing in the breadcrumbs, popcorn, and feed pellets to watch these massive goldfish swarm to the food. I’m sure you get the picture, just a seething, writhing mass of mouths trying to eat the bread that falls from the heavens.
That’s where we find Jesus in this story, surrounded by a mass of people, hungry mouths wanting more bread from this miracle-working man. You might say, they were following the “trail of breadcrumbs,” like Hansel and Gretel in the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale. Remember how Hansel broke off crumbs of bread to leave a trail so he and his sister could find their way home through the woods?
But as you already know, the Son of God, didn’t come down to earth just to feed people bread. Jesus tells the crowd that bread is a sign; and a sign that they are ignoring, in fact. They have only come to him to fill their bellies again.
That reminds me of a sign that Ole and Sven had posted out on a gravel road next to their church. It read, “Turn yourself around, the end is near.” Just as they finished pounding the signpost into the ground, a man came driving by. He leaned out his window to shout, “Get a life, you religious nuts!” As his car went around the bend, Ole and Sven heard a great splash. Ole looked at Sven and said, “Vell, you t’ink we shoulda yust wrote ‘Bridge Out’ ?”
You see? It’s not about the sign! It’s about what the sign is pointing to: something else, a greater something. Think about a billboard with a big juicy cheeseburger on it. That billboard is a sign that is meant to point you to the nearest McDonalds, not to attract a bunch of people to sit around on lawnchairs and gaze up at the billboard! That’s what Jesus’ miracle with the loaves and fish was supposed to do, to lead people toward a greater understanding and a deeper meaning—like a trail of bread crumbs meant to lead them home, toward their true “home” in God’s Kingdom (both on this earth in this life, and ultimately to our eternal home in heaven).
So it’s ironic that the crowds demand, like angry little kids: “What sign are you going to give us, so that we may see it and believe that you are sent by God?” Jesus just fed these 5,000 people the day before—they had already seen the sign and still they say, “Our ancestors at the manna in the wilderness, Moses gave them bread from heaven.” Jesus’ response is that it was not Moses, but God who provided the manna that sustained the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings. Manna means literally “what is it?” in Hebrew. And what else was it but a “trail of breadcrumbs” that God rained down from Heaven as he led Israel to their new home in the Promised Land. Certainly the manna kept the people fed, but it too was a sign of God’s love and faithfulness in keeping his promises to his people; even though they whine and complain and rebel against him at every turn.
And guess what, times haven’t changed much since the Israelites wandering in the Desert around Mt. Sinai 4,000 years ago; or 2,000 years after that when the crowds followed Jesus like koi in a fishpond, all the way down the years to us today. God still reaches out to meet us in the midst of our complaining and our rebellious sinning to give us a physical sign. Do you know what that sign is today? It’s yet another trail of breadcrumbs. In Holy Communion, Jesus Christ offers himself to us in these small crumbs of bread. He told the crowds, “I AM the bread of life, the True Bread that comes down from Heaven. Whoever comes to me will never again be hungry.”
Now does that mean that when you receive communion, you will never be hungry again? Of course not! What this means is that when we receive the bread of Christ’s body in the sacrament, we are also receiving a promise from God that will sustain us through life and even death. You see, this story in John 6 is the sacramental story in John’s Gospel. There is no Last Supper scene in John’s version. Here is where John describes the theology behind Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on behalf of the world. When we eat this bread, Christ becomes part of us spiritually and physically, strengthening us to serve others in his name while we live this life, and strengthening us spiritually by reminding us that we are forgiven for our sins and made righteous in God’s eyes so that we may share in the resurrection to eternal life.
This whole story is really about one thing—learning to trust God. It’s about trusting God to love us even when we are unlovable sinners, to provide all that we need for this life, to keep his promises about forgiveness and eternal life, and ultimately, to be in control of all things so we don’t have to be.
We can trust God and let go of our demands, our fears, and our sins—we can turn all those things over to Jesus Christ and just follow the trail of breadcrumbs to our true home in God’s kingdom.
Heavenly Father, thank you for all that you provide in my life, including my daily bread. Remind me of the needs of others that I have the ability to help and provide for out of the abundance you have entrusted to me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.