Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. (John 6:11)
If you’re going to follow Jesus—I mean really follow Jesus instead of being a sort of casual fan or a distant admirer—you have to answer two fundamental questions about him.
Who is he?
What did he do? Or as we’ll see in a few minutes, what is he still doing?
Oh, and you can’t just answer these questions any old way. You have to answer them just as he taught his followers to answer them.
|Tintoretto’s “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes”|
For starters, you have to say that he is God incarnate, the only son of the living God. That’s what he means when he says, “I am,” all those times that John records. In Greek, that’s exactly the name God gives himself talking to Moses from the burning bush.
The “I am” tells you who he is. It’s the second bit that tells you, in various ways, what Jesus did.
I am the light of the world, the good shepherd, the true vine. Jesus gave us seven “I am statements.” Each tells us who he is and what he came to do for us.
Today, we’re considering one of them: I am the Bread of Life.
In today’s Gospel, we don’t hear Jesus actually calling himself the Bread of Life. But he is certainly working his way up to it.
Jesus feeds a crowd miraculously. He famously multiplies a few loaves and fish. That miracle is the first paradoxical step in a long and challenging lesson.
Here’s what’s paradoxical about this first step. Jesus feeds the people to help them see that they’re hungry, and that they are hungry for something more than, something different from, the physical bread that Jesus initially gives them. And so are we.
Our physical hunger is a sign of a deeper and a different kind of hunger. The bread that Jesus feeds the multitudes symbolizes a different kind of sustenance.
Jesus comes to address this spiritual hunger. And here is yet another paradox, when he gives us what we want and need we become even hungrier. And that hunger becomes the source of indescribable joy.
I’m going to explain what I mean by considering three questions:
What is the nature of our spiritual hunger?
How does Jesus feed us spiritually?
What does being spiritually well-nourished look like?
Let’s start with that first question. What is the nature of our spiritual hunger? A contrast with physical hunger—the contrast that Jesus himself started with—will probably help.
We routinely talk about physical hunger on analogy with being empty. We eat to get full. Physiologists and dietitians would be much more technical about it, but it’s a parallel that most of us find useful.
Some people then go on to say that spiritual hunger is similar. I’ll bet you’ve said or heard someone say that we have a God-shaped hole in our hearts that we seek to fill.
But the biblical image of spiritual hunger is really quite different. The Psalms are filled with images of God’s greatness, a greatness that exceeds our power to encompass it. And yet the Psalmist yearns to know more of God.
|Nicolaes Maes’ “Prayer Without End”|
Spiritual hunger is not like physical hunger. We yearn for God’s presence within us. And even as he fills us, we discover that we are too narrow to receive all of him. There is more, and we yearn that God will stretch us so that we can receive more of him.
Physical hunger is a kind of pain. Our only desire is to eradicate it. Spiritual hunger is a kind of joy. We want to increase it.
There’s an analogy we sometimes experience with other people. I did especially with my children when they were younger, although truthfully I still do from time to time.
When they were infants I would look at them and feel as if my heart would simply burst. It wasn’t big enough to hold the love I had for them. That sweet ache was not a pain. It was the tender, vulnerable feeling of a heart being stretched to accommodate a love I had never even imagined and for which I realized I had been created.
And so it is with God, except infinitely multiplied. We want more of him than our narrow hearts can contain. Our hunger is not for a full heart, but an expanded heart, a heart stretched by love for more love.
The Bread of Life
And that brings us to our second question. How does Jesus address our spiritual hunger? How does he stretch our hearts?
There is no limit to the ways that Jesus feeds us. He breaks open our heart with the beauty of creation, he broadens our heart with compassion, and stretches our hearts with forgiveness.
But let me briefly list some spiritual practices that Jesus explicitly directs us to exercise.
The Word of God stretches us when we sit with it, pray with it, and listen for God himself in it. Holy Scripture has a way of making us take a second look at things, reminding us that we don’t actually have God and other people all figured out.
The Holy Eucharist stretches us. Jesus gives us himself, his presence, his very life. We ingest the Son of God and his eternal life becomes a visceral part of us.
Living in community stretches us. Being with one another in our ordinariness and our imperfection week in and week out makes space for dimensions of Christ himself that only others can share with us. And not necessarily on their best days. Making a habit of dealing graciously with our differences and our rough edges enlarges the space within us for Christ.
Finding Jesus in the stranger stretches us. The stranger could be rich or poor, wearing a bow tie or sporting tattoos, physically fit or could use a few hours at the gym, arriving in a stroller or pushing a walker, about to leave for their summer home or just rolling in from a night under a nearby bridge. Whoever the stranger is to you is an opportunity for Christ to stretch you.
Following Jesus means that we will be spiritually well nourished. And that bring us to our final question.
The Well-Nourished Soul
What does a well-nourished soul look like?
One of my favorite saints gives us a clue. St. Benedict is known for the pattern he set for monastic life. The vows that Benedictines take are in fact three principle marks for any follower of Jesus.
So let me share them with you. They are stability, obedience, and lifelong conversion.
Stability does not have to mean being closed up in a monastery all your life. Instead, it means that we stick with each other. Following Jesus is not a solo flight, and we are at our best when we seek the face of Christ in a community that is imperfect and who accepts us in our own imperfection. In other words, we commit to real people for the long haul because sticking together can be hard work and that work stretches us.
|Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”|
Obedience takes a bad rap these days. It’s largely a misunderstood spiritual practice. Being obedient does not mean following rules mechanically. Instead, being obedient means that we really expect God to speak to us. In the Scriptures. In the Sacraments. In the voices of other faithful people. In the beauty and goodness of the natural world. In the still, quiet places of our own hearts. Obedient people are careful listeners and what we hear keeps stretching us.
Our commitment to lifelong conversion counters the common misconception of Christians as smug, self-righteous, judgmental people. We are aware that we have not arrived. God is making more of us so that we can have more of him. And that leads us to see others in the same way. God is not finished with us. God is not finished with anyone else. We are all works in progress, and we remain open to God’s work.
We are all hungry, hungry for God himself. God designed us that way. That is because he yearns to feed us.
But no matter how much we have of God, there is always more, and God never tires of expanding our hearts to make room for more of himself.
This sermon was preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, West Monroe, Louisiana.