Deacon Sue Nebel
People are on the move. Leaving one place, heading to another in two of the readings we heard this morning. In the passage from Exodus, the Israelites have escaped from slavery in Egypt. Led by Aaron and Moses, they have set out on a long journey to the land promised by God to the descendants of Abraham. The going has gotten tough. They are in the wilderness, hungry and tired. Complaining loudly. Hearing their desperate voices, God promises Moses to send food. And God makes good on the promise. In the evening, God sends a bunch of quail. The next morning when the people wake up, the ground is covered with a fine flaky substance. Not knowing what it is they ask Moses, “What is it?” Moses replies, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” A new kind of bread. Sustenance for the journey.
People are on the move in the Gospel lesson as well. After the feeding of the five thousand, the story we heard last week, most of the crowd has dispersed. The disciples and Jesus have headed across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum. It is now the next day. Those who stayed behind after the miracle of feeding, want to find Jesus. Having seen the disciples leave in a boat the previous evening, they too get into boats and head across the water. In Capernaum, they find Jesus. They are, no doubt, delighted to see this worker of miracles. Jesus, who recognizes a teaching moment when he sees one, seizes the opportunity. Assuming they have pursued him because they were fed, he tells them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” As he so often does, Jesus shifts the conversation to a different level. He is not talking here about ordinary food. He is talking about a different kind of food, food that endures. Bread from heaven. His listeners know about bread from heaven. They know the story from Exodus. It is part of their heritage, their spiritual DNA. That bread, Jesus reminds them, did not come from Moses, but from God. The bread Jesus is talking about “. . .comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” This bread sounds good. His listeners want it. “Sir,” they say, “give us this bread always.” And then Jesus hits them with this zinger. He says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” A bold assertion, a new image for Jesus: bread of life.
Bread from heaven. Bread of life. It may be hard for us to grasp how startling these words were to the people gathered around Jesus. Every time we reach our hands to receive the communion wafer, we hear the words, “The body of Christ. The bread of heaven.” “I am the bread of Life” is a hymn that we sing fairly often during communion. For us, these are familiar terms, familiar images. They are part of our spiritual DNA. But, for Jesus’ listeners here it is all new, strange. Jesus is challenging them to stretch their minds. To see things in a new way. To broaden their understanding of who and what he is: the Son of God, the bread of life. The Gospel lesson ends with Jesus speaking. We don’t hear how his listeners react. However, we can imagine the puzzled looks and the head-shaking. The discomfort, even resistance, to Jesus’ claim that he is the Son of God and the bread of Life.
The experience of stretching our minds, of broadening our understanding, as painful as that can often be—that we can understand, even sympathize with. We know what it is like. Experiences of entering into something new and unfamiliar are part of the fabric of our own lives. Changes—sometimes expected, sometimes not—are part of life’s journey. We all have stories of what that has been like for us. Stepping into unknown territory: a new school, a new job, or the status of having no job. Traveling to a new city, perhaps another country. Struggling to find our way, to communicate with strangers. Getting the diagnosis of a serious illness or health condition. Learning to live with the reality of limited abilities or negotiating a long path of treatment. Our own experience, or that of someone close to us, of finally affirming and claiming a sexual orientation or gender identity that is contrary to expectations. With the death of a spouse, saying goodbye to a relationship and a familiar role in life. Wondering how to move forward in unfamiliar territory. As a newly-widowed friend of mine said to me recently, “As a couple we had a balance. We balanced each other in so many ways. Right now, I feel off-balance. I know, in time, I will find a new kind of balance. It will be different.”
As a faith community we are feeling somewhat off-balance ourselves these days. Our Rector Kristin is leaving. She will soon enter her own time of stretching and growing, as she relocates to a new city and begins a new job with the Episcopal Church there. So too for us. We will move into a new phase in the life of this parish. A time of examination and exploration. A time to stretch our minds. To envision what kind of future we hope for in this parish. What kind of leadership we will look for. We will move forward into this new, unfamiliar territory together. We will move forward as people of faith, with the knowledge that we are grounded in God. God who gave us life and sustains us. God who journeys with us and in our individual lives and in our life together at St. A’s. The experiences and stories of our lives are taken in and embraced by God. They become part of God’s on-going life, part of the fabric of God’s on-going life. It is God who sent Jesus to us. Jesus, the Bread of Life. To sustain and strengthen us. God who has entered into our lives in Jesus. Jesus, the Bread of Life.
In this time of newness, some things will not change. We will keep coming here to gather together. We will come to be fed by the words of Scripture and preaching. To grasp the opportunity to stretch our minds and our understanding. To offer prayers for each other and for the world. To be fed the bread and wine of the Eucharistic meal. We will keep the promise of our Baptismal Covenant, to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”
Sunday after Sunday, we will come forward and stretch out our hands to receive bread. To receive Jesus, the bread of life. One Sunday, several years ago, in the first parish where I served as deacon when it was time to come forward for communion, a young child stood up in the pew. He turned to the people behind him, and proudly announced, "I’m going to get me some Jesus now.” That’s what we all come here for, isn’t it? To get us some Jesus..
Bread of life. Bread for the journey.
Proper 13; Year B (Track 2)
Exodus 16:22-4,9-15; Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesians4:1-16; John 6:24-35