Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo.
One of the occasionally amusing (and often annoying) things about living with young kids is that they tend to believe the world revolves around them and their desires.
My family and I stopped at a rest area in Ohio when we were traveling there a few weeks ago. On our way back to the car, my six-year old declared that she wanted a lollipop. I refused, wanting instead to get back on the road as quickly as possible.
She whined, “But I want a lollipop!”
I had a snappy comeback: “And I want kids that aren’t whiny!”
“Well then,” she said matter-of-factly, “you should have bought me a lollipop.”
I lost. She still didn’t get a lollipop, but I still lost the argument. To be honest, I didn’t even feel all that bad it. I was more impressed than frustrated. That was a remarkable amount of witty logic for a six-year-old to employ in the heat of the moment, but it was all in the service of satisfying her own desires.
That’s the way kids are, isn’t it? Their needs and their wants take precedence over every other concern. My experience as a parent is confined to the world of babies and toddlers, but I’m told that teenagers are the same way.
And it’s not just kids and teenagers either. A few years back, I read a book on relationship advice with friends. The theme of this book, like so many self-help and pop-psychology books on the market, was “how to structure your relationships so that your needs will be met and your desires fulfilled.”
All in all, it wasn’t a terrible book, but I noticed how the author kept putting the individual’s needs and wants in first place over the needs of the relationship, the family, or the community. The book assumed that a self-centered view of reality was normal and healthy.
So, it’s not just kids that do this. Adults too are capable of selfish temper-tantrums. People of any age can fall into that trap of Me! Me! Me!
Jesus found himself in the middle of just such a group in today’s gospel reading. This passage comes directly on the heels of last week’s reading, where Jesus miraculously fed a crowd of five thousand people with only five loaves and two fish. This event got people’s attention, so they start following Jesus en masse.
And then, Jesus turns around and shines the blinding light of truth on their self-centered obsession with their own needs and wants. He says to 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.”
People are interested in Jesus because of what he can do for them. He has demonstrated an ability to meet their needs and fulfill their desires, therefore they are interested in following him (but only because “[they] ate [their] fill of the loaves”). Their own selfish needs and desires still sit enthroned at the center of reality. They are only interested in Jesus because of what they think he can do for them.
But Jesus isn’t about to start playing that game. His reason for performing this miracle was not to meet their needs, but to serve as a sign. Sign is the term the author uses for Jesus’ miracles in John’s gospel. They are called signs because the point is neither the miracle itself nor the need being met, but the deeper truth to which the miracle points.
Jesus’ goal is not to cater to their whims and desires, but to direct their attention toward the truth on which their lives are founded. This is why he tells them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life”. It’s not about the bread, it’s not about their needs, it’s about God. God is the true center of reality, not us with our individual needs and desires. Therefore, our relationship with God is never a means to an end, but always an end in itself.
When Jesus’ multiplication of loaves and fishes draws comparisons between himself and Moses, who gave the Israelites bread (manna) in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus once again directs the people’s attention back to God: “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.”
Notice the difference in verb tenses here: It’s not about Moses, who gave (past tense); it’s about God, who gives (present tense). God gives us each day the things we need (i.e. “our daily bread,” so to speak), not to fulfill our desires, but to remove the obstacle of our constant obsession with our own needs and wants so that we can then focus our attention on what really matters. If we stay focused on our own needs, then we’re missing the point.
I think people tend to remain stuck in this self-centered existence because, in a practical sense, they are atheists. Regardless of whether or not they profess faith in a God or practice a religion, they live their lives as if there was no God, no one looking out for them, no one loving them, and no arms holding them now and for eternity. This “practical atheism” (as Dr. Martin Luther King called it) is far more dangerous to Christian faith than the “philosophical atheism” held by some people. Practical atheism, living as if there was no God, keeps us trapped at the center of our selfish little universes, driven by the force of our own insatiable hunger.
Jesus comes to set us free from all that. What Jesus ultimately wants for us is a life that is deeper, richer, fuller, and more abundant than a shallow, self-centered existence driven only by urge to satisfy our desires. Jesus gives us this day our daily bread so that we can look past the bread itself (i.e. “the food that perishes”) and look to Jesus himself as the “bread of life” (i.e. “the food that endures for eternal life”).
We are called upon to do that very thing each Sunday in the Eucharist: with the eyes of faith, we look past these elements of bread and wine and see in them the real spiritual presence of Jesus himself, the bread of life. We are fed here with the bread of his Body and then sent back out into the world, where we can stop obsessing over our own needs and desires and look past the elements of our circumstances to “seek and serve Christ” in everything and everyone.
This is what it means to live a Christian life, a life that is centered in Christ. This is the “abundant life” that Jesus offers us in the sacrament. It’s not about us and our needs; it’s not about bread; it’s about Jesus, and Jesus is “the bread of life. Whoever comes to [him] will never be hungry, and whoever believes in [him] will never be thirsty.”