In between my readings for class, studying scriptures for sermon topics and writing term papers, I have been slowly reading through the Gospel of John during my own devotional times this month. The incredible poem of praise to Jesus at the opening of the book, the late-night encounter with Nicodemus, John’s account of the Samaritan woman at the well, the healing at the pool, and then Jesus’ sermon to the Jews about the flesh and blood of the Christ combine to make the first six chapters of John one of my favorite sections of the Bible. There is a world of knowledge pressed into each passage of this scripture; it is impossible to read it carefully and not find yourself caught up in new truths that hadn’t been visible before.
One experience from my first semester that has stuck with me has been a lesson on the significance of bread in the history of our society, and in the teachings of Jesus. As 21st century Americans, we have so many options available on the dinner menu that it is hard to imagine being limited to a basic diet for sustenance. Even when we focus on a particular dietary plan, like only eating fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, or sticking to a traditional ethnic diet for cultural reasons, these limits are self-imposed. Imagine not having that choice. Imagine that, in order to sustain your life — to make it on to the next day — you had to eat a certain amount of food, and the only food available to you was bread. It’s true that bread may become dull; eating would no longer be a part of our personal entertainment cycle, but a part of our personal maintenance. At the same time, bread would carry much more significance in our eyes than it does today. Bread would be the source of life. Fresh bread would carry the same intrinsic value as clean water. For a person in need, a person struggling to get by, a person facing the very real question of “Will I make it another day?” a piece of fresh bread is more valuable than all of the gold, oil and finery on Earth — of these treasures, only bread will meet the immediate need; only bread will sustain life.
It’s tough to understand this significance of bread when the questions we really ask ourselves are not “Will I make it another day?,” but rather “Will my checking account hold up until the end of the month? Will my job opportunities remain stable this year? Will I continue moving through school at the pace I need to? Will my personal relationships continue to sustain me, or will I have to invest something more into my friends and family this week?” These questions can seem important to us in the moment, but, to borrow a line from Captain Jack Sparrow, “What it really comes down to is what a man can do, and what a man can’t do.” Without bread, a man (or a woman) can do nothing. This truth was more obvious during the 5,000 years of human history preceding my generation; who knows, it may ring true again one day.
Understanding the importance of bread is key to getting the full impact of what Jesus told the early disciples. When he said “I am the bread of life,” he wasn’t just talking to the few who preferred the taste of warm, buttery bread over chocolate cake or fish tacos. He was telling them that if they wanted to make it on in life, if they wanted to continue another day, if they wanted to do more than scrape by, if they wanted to break free from the oppression of the world and find a sustaining strength that would not fail, they needed to turn to him.
At the beginning of John 6, Jesus meets the physical needs of the people who gathered to hear him speak. In this too-familiar scene, Jesus takes five small barley loaves and two tiny fish from a young boy, splits them up among a crowd of thousands and then gathers 12 baskets full of leftovers. When the excitement of the crowd grew dangerous, Jesus went away to pray. His disciples waited all night, but then, for whatever reason, they decided to get in their boat and sail across the lake back to their starting point (they had sailed to Tiberias earlier in the day so Jesus could preach and feed the crowd). Jesus meets the disciples in the middle of the lake. “They were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid.’ Then they were willing to take him into the boat.” They made it to the other shore and rested. As morning broke, the people they had left behind in Tiberias — the people Jesus had preached to, cared for and left well satisfied the day before — they came searching for the Messiah.
When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
So they asked him, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said. “from now on, give us this bread.”
John 6:25-34 (NIV)
How often do we ask Jesus for a miraculous sign, “that we may see it and believe?” These people from Tiberias had not only spent a full day listening to Jesus preach, they had not only watched Jesus performing miracles before them; they had actually eaten the results of the “miraculous sign” Jesus had given them. Jesus even helped them pack up the leftover miracles for another day! Even Moses and the Israelites in exodus weren’t able to hang on to leftover miracles God provided for them. Still, the people needed more. Their faith was completely dependent on their proximity to Jesus.
Faith is something that is hard to nail down. It’s a very personal thing for most people, but it is best when shared in community. One way I understand faith is as a reminder of what has been, coupled with an assurance of what will come. To put this in real terms, let me use a personal example:
When I was in 9th grade, during a week-long mission trip in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, I encountered the Spirit of God in an incredibly powerful way. I felt the Presence in my body as tangibly as I felt the carpet between my toes. I witnessed my own “miraculous sign.” I understood how Jesus had been working in my life and what I was expected to do next. I was at the peak, enjoying a mountaintop experience. This was not the first, or the last, spiritual high that I had enjoyed. It was, however, the first time that I experienced the Spirit in such a real way and was able to “step back” from myself and recognize my experience for what it was — a true spiritual encounter that would ultimately last for only a brief moment in my life. I reminded myself at that moment that I was a rational, logical human being of reasonable intelligence; I examined my circumstances and I reassured myself that what I was experiencing was real, it was not a product of my own desire or imagination. I told myself to hang on to that moment, because I knew a time would come when I would feel so far apart from God, so separated from Jesus and the power of the Spirit, that I would doubt whether this experience had really happened. I stored this experience up, and I drew on it several times during the years that followed.
I don’t mean to say that faith is something that can be described logically; nor could my experience have been quantified and documented by independent research. But just as the physical self (the life we live, the choices we make and the things we do) is a direct reflection of the spiritual self, maturity in faith is connected, at least to some degree, to our emotional and mental maturity. As Paul says, we can still be babes in Christ and rest assured that he has us firmly wrapped in his loving arms, but how much better it is to be growing in Christ, to be living in a dynamic relationship that always pushes us to the next level of understanding.
At times I still fall into the same rut the people from Tiberias did, but then I stop. I think. I remember what Jesus did for me yesterday. I dig into the leftovers and I patiently wait for him to come again.