One of my favorite things about the Gospel of John is how it highlights the depth and symbolism in everything Jesus does and says. John records several instances in which Jesus will do or say something, and then lead a whole reflection on it. He just keeps on unpacking and unpacking and unpacking. Chapter 6 of John, which we read from today, is an example of this. Right after performing the miracle of feeding 5000 people, Jesus gives a long teaching unpacking it, all about how he feeds us spiritually. He tries to convince us that, in contrast to all the things we turn to to try and satisfy the various hungers that are part of being human, he himself is actually our true food, what he calls the “Bread of Life.”
If you’ve been around a liturgical church for a while, when you hear a phrase like “Bread of Life,” you immediately think of the Eucharist. Jesus had not instituted that sacrament when he spoke the words we heard today, but the Eucharist is for us the ultimate place where that direct encounter with the being of Jesus Christ as our food happens. Just as he tells us to in John 6, we eat his flesh and we drink his blood, right here at this altar. The things he says in John 6 are not limited to the Eucharist, but all of them point to the Eucharist.
This is such an important teaching that our lectionary asks us to spend 4 weeks with it. What’s more, each week the John passage is paired with a reading from the Old Testament that (when we read it as Christians) foreshadows some aspect of how Jesus feeds us in the Eucharist. So Deacon Chris and I have decided that we’ll take this as the occasion for a series of sermons, looking at the four aspects of the Eucharist that are highlighted in these Old Testament readings.
This week we’ll be considering the Eucharist as manna or provision, next week the Eucharist as strengthening or comfort, Aug 16 the Eucharist as wisdom, and Aug 23 the Eucharist as covenant – and on that final day, just like those people in John 6, we’ll actually all be breaking bread together at the Emmanuel Grillfest. That climax to the series is not something I intentionally planned, which only goes to show that the Holy Spirit is better at putting details together than I am.
So today: the Eucharist as manna, as God’s provision. We’ll start in the passage from Exodus. In our reading for today, the Israelites have been set free from slavery and they are in the wilderness, and they start getting homesick for the food they got used to as slaves. They complain to Moses, accusing him of liberating them only to kill them with hunger. Now God has a very interesting way of responding to this ingratitude. He doesn’t say: being freed from slavery wasn’t enough for you? He doesn’t say: could you maybe milk the cows you brought along and roast a goat or two? He doesn’t say: make an effort and you’ll find something to eat. No, he says “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you.” And then a few verses later he adds, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.”
And you can see at the end of the passage that this is what happens. A flock of birds mysteriously shows up in the evening – roast quail for everybody! – and then the next morning the people wake up to find that the whole landscape is covered in an odd, flaky, edible substance. The Israelites have never seen anything like it before and they say “What is it?” which in Hebraic languages sounds a little like “Manna.” Manna, Moses tells them, is “the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” Now there are a number of theories about how exactly this substance got there each morning – was it a plant resin, was it from an insect? – but what’s more interesting than how God provided manna is why. What is he saying by providing for them in this way, and how does what happens ring true to the way people are and God is, and what does this imply about the way we engage with Jesus in the Eucharist as our provision?
First, what’s God saying by providing bread in this way? You might have noticed that I skipped one thing God said. He told Moses, “each day the people shall go out and gather enough manna for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.” That manna’s going to keep coming every morning; all they have to do is take what they need for that day. It’ll be there again tomorrow; you have God’s word for it. He’s going to give you all the manna you need, but he’s going to do it one day at a time.
So what do they do? Do they follow God’s instructions? Well, since you are all human beings, I bet I don’t have to tell you that the answer is no. They do what most of us would do; they try and gather extra to store up for themselves, in case God doesn’t come through. But what happens, if you try to hoard manna so that you can control when you get fed? It rots overnight and it’s full of worms in the morning. God is repeating, day by day, a crucial spiritual lesson: the idea that we are our own providers is an illusion. The idea that we are in control is an illusion. It is for him to provide, and for us to trust his provision. And this is so hard for us to accept that we can barely pull it off, even one day at a time.
God is saying, then, that he provides; however, we struggle to trust that he will. Our second question, then: does this ring true? Of course it does. I doubt there is a human being alive who likes the fact that this is the way God does things. People want manna, sure, but we want it on our terms. We don’t really want provision. We don’t want to be provided for; we want to earn a paycheck. One of the most challenging parts of living life as a disciple is this call to accept that God is providing for us and trust that he will keep on doing it on the terms that are best for us -- which are his terms, not ours.
Let’s turn to the Gospel, now, and compare it. Very similar phenomenon. The people have come to Jesus, but for what Jesus says are the wrong reasons. They want something from him, but they want it on their terms. They want to define what he should give them: either more free food like the loaves and fishes, or the chance to see something unusual and exciting like the miracle of the manna in the Old Testament. They want to trust their own ideas of what they need, but to use Jesus as the supply chain. They are trying to turn Jesus into one option they can use to keep providing for themselves.
Jesus sees right through this --- he always does – and he tells them they need something entirely different. They don’t need what he calls the food that perishes; they need what he calls the Bread of God or the Bread of Life. “The food that perishes”: what a trenchant way to put it. As long as we keep defining for ourselves what we need, trusting in that, and trying to use God to get it, we are going after the food that perishes. Jesus wants to, he exists in order to, provide us an entirely different food, the food for which we are all starving: the Bread of Life, which is another way of saying: Himself.
A favorite preacher of mine puts it this way: Most people go to God to get stuff; Christians go to God to get God. Christianity isn’t about seeking stuff we have decided that God should provide for us (whether that’s say, a new car, or inner peace). It’s not about using God as the supply chain to get something on our terms. It’s about coming to accept God’s terms. Once we begin to listen to what Jesus says about what we need, and begin to practice trusting him enough to receive from him on his terms, we can be nourished inside and out with our true food, the food we’re designed for.
And all of that is wrapped up in him. The life of God, which is so new that we can hardly conceive it until we receive it, is what Jesus came to give us access to through his death and resurrection. We cannot produce that life. We cannot control it. We cannot hoard it. We cannot earn the right to it. We have to receive it, on our knees, with empty, outstretched hands every time.
When we come that way, we discover that God just keeps giving. His generosity is breathtaking. In the Old Testament, he feeds the people with manna -- even the ones who to the very last day try and hoard extra, in case this time God doesn’t come through. He does the same kind of thing for us here at the altar. Jesus feeds each of you with the Eucharist whether you’re a committed disciple, or someone who’s never really decided what you believe. Whether you have failed spectacularly to get your life together, or whether you’re subtly trying to put God in your debt by having it all together. Whether you are coming to God to get God, or coming only to use God to get stuff. He still provides.
God doesn’t feed us based on what we bring to the table. He feeds us based on what Jesus brings, which is himself, his life and death and resurrection offered up for us, right here, at this table, one day at a time, one Mass at a time. He is the bread which the Lord has given us to eat, and the wine which God has given us to drink. He is here -- on his terms -- as our manna, our provision. And he will never turn you away.