A Sermon Preached at St. Andrew’s by the Sea in Rye, New Hampshire
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 2, 2015 (Proper 13, Year B)
What a joy it is to be here with all of you this morning. I’d bring you greetings from my own parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham which is on the South Shore of Boston, but I’m on vacation this week and they have no idea where their rector actually is. Nonetheless it is great to be here at St. Andrew’s during this Summer of Bread — that’s what clergy call these five Sundays that show up every three years as we go through the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. It started last week with the Feeding of the Five Thousand and we’re now on week two. So plenty of carbohydrate-laden passages to get to over the next few weeks. Dr. Atkins must be rolling in his grave.
And as I looked at this morning’s passage, I couldn’t help but think about going to a concert. It’s alway a little disappointing when the house lights come back on. You know, you’ve been to a fantastic show and you just don’t want it to end, the band’s done a couple of encores; everybody’s screaming for just one more song; but at a certain point the show’s over, the lights come on, you trudge back to the parking lot, sit in a little traffic, remember you forgot to pick up milk for the morning, and make your way home. Back to reality.
That’s precisely the way our gospel passage begins this morning — with a dose of reality. The five thousand who had been miraculously fed by Jesus had been on a high. It was an incredible evening. A potentially desperate situation — with lots of hungry people — had been turned into one giant party. There was laughter and neighborliness and everyone was talking about how this man named Jesus, with help from a group of his friends, had saved the day. No one could quite wrap their heads around the fact that everyone had had their fill when all anyone could drum up were five loaves and a couple of fish but whatever. They slept well that night out under the stars, their hearts and bellies full.
Yet as the sun rose the next day, they realized the lights had come back on. The party was over. Maybe it was like that depressing moment the day after you host a successful dinner party when you walk down the stairs, go into the kitchen, and remember you left all the dishes in the sink. As great an evening as it had been, it’s a downer to have to grab the sponge, squeeze some ironically-named Liquid Joy onto it, and start scrubbing. Once again, it’s back to reality.
It is in this moment of anticlimax that we encounter the five thousand. We don’t tend to think about what happened to them the next day or the day after that or how the rest of their lives unfolded. But eventually the sun came up, all those who had experienced that magical evening opened their eyes, stretched, probably realized they were hungry for breakfast, and then immediately noticed Jesus was nowhere to be seen.
Jesus, of course, had given them the old slipperoo. Not because he didn’t care about them but because they completely misinterpreted what he was all about. They were so fired up about what had happened they wanted to take him by force and crown him their king. And while Jesus is indeed a king, our king, it is a kingdom not of this world; a heavenly realm that couldn’t possibly be understood until after the Resurrection. So he left. John tells us he withdrew to go up a mountain and be by himself for awhile. Which is codeword for prayer. Jesus didn’t go away to revel in the miracle; he went away to spend some time with his heavenly Father — to nurture his relationship with God — and to pray for all whom he had encountered that day.
And at that moment, when the sun came up, the crowd wanted two things: bread and Jesus. Bread because they were hungry and Jesus because they knew he could feed them. But in fairness it wasn’t just the physical bread they were after. Many of them wanted to recapture the moment; to recall the magic of the previous evening. And you can’t blame them. For that brief time they were filled with hope and joy and a sense of purpose and belief in something larger than themselves. And when they realized it was gone they wanted it back. Which is why many of them poured into boats to chase after it, to chase after the dream, to chase after that feeling, to chase after Jesus. And also to get some more bread.
And once again, the crowd misinterprets what Jesus is about and who he really is. You can’t blame them for asking a lot of questions here. Mystery — and that’s what miracles entail — breed questions. So once they find him they understandably start peppering him with questions: “When did you come here?” “What must we do?” “What sign are you going to give us?” “What work are you going to do?”
And Jesus does two things. He talks about identity and relationship. His identity as the son of God and what he has to offer to those who seek him. So, the conversation is about bread but it’s not really about the bread. Just as with the woman at the well the conversation is about water but it’s not really about the water. This happens a lot in John’s gospel and while it’s easy to get caught up in the weeds, as the crowd does, it’s important to remember throughout this long summer of bread, that it’s really about identity and relationship.
Because relationship with Jesus Christ isn’t about a single meal or even several. It’s not about a single memory or even several. It’s about an ongoing meal, served up in the sacramental bread of the eucharist. It’s about an ongoing memory, told through the story of Scripture. Because ultimately it’s not the miracle that endures but our ongoing relationship with Jesus. Jesus remains with us the morning after, the next day, the day after that, and every day. And that is the miracle here.
That’s what Jesus is trying to convey to the crowd that chases him down. It’s not about reliving a single evening or getting a few more loaves of bread. It’s about something much deeper and broader than that. And that’s what he’s trying to convey to you and me. Jesus isn’t merely the bread that gets put out at a fancy restaurant that’s nice to have but not essential. Jesus is the bread of life. Your life. The bread that sustains and endures and offers hope and meaning to your very existence.
So, relationship with Jesus isn’t a matter of having to get back to reality. Relationship with Jesus is reality. The incredible living reality into which we are invited and beckoned again and again and again.
© Tim Schenck 2015