August 2, 2015
There is a joke that says there are only three things that will survive a nuclear holocaust: roaches, Twinkies and Cher. I don’t know about roaches and Cher, but I can believe that about Twinkies. For years I heard that Twinkies have a shelf life of several years. You could discover a bomb shelter built in the 1950’s, and if there were Twinkies stored there, you could rip open a package and get to eating. In reality, or at least according to Wikipedia, Twinkies do not last indefinitely. They actually have a shelf life of about 45 days. It used to be 35, but the formula – I mean ingredients – were changed to add ten extra days. Yet whether a Twinkie is good for 35 or 45 days, that is a long time for a food item to remain edible.
Food is the key word. Twinkies may be classified, technically, as food. But I think that whether they are or not is a matter of opinion. I don’t want to commit libel against Twinkies or the manufacturers, but I think we can agree that a Twinkie would not be your first choice of a nutritious snack. A so-bad-for-it’s-good kind-of snack yes, but nutritious? Technically, a Twinkie is a yellow sponge cake with a creamy frosting-like filling. Sounds simple, but I don’t have to read the label to know that anything that can last on the shelf for 45 days has preservatives and ingredients with names I don’t recognize and would struggle to pronounce. Twinkies may be a yummy, guilty pleasure, but I’m not convinced they are real food. Even if they are, they are not a food of substance. If you refer to someone as a “Twinkie,” you’re implying that said person is flaky, shallow, perhaps fun to be with and easy on the eyes, but not a person of depth. Twinkie the food is kind of the same way. It may last a long time. It may taste good in the moment, but that’s about it.
But bread, now that’s a different story. Bread, real bread – not the stripped down preservative-filled stuff you can buy relatively close to where the Twinkies are sold – is substantive. After all, no odes have been written about Twinkies. You don’t hear, “A big ole Twinkie, a jug of wine, and thou.” No one comes to your door with a box of Twinkies and proclaims, ‘Twinkies, so your house will never know hunger.” Realtors don’t recommend leaving Twinkies on the kitchen counter to someone trying to sell a home so that the house will feel more like home. But it is recommended that a seller bake a loaf of bread before a showing. Because that aroma of fresh baked bread evokes memories and touches all the senses of a potential buyer. Twinkies are generally not considered to be the staff of life. But bread is. I know that there is controversy about gluten. But I wonder if that isn’t due more to the processed and preservative filled bread produced in our country. Real bread is joy in a loaf as far as I’m concerned.
Again, I’m not trying to take on the food manufacturing industry. My kitchen is certainly not preservative free. Nor do I want to make a compare and contrast statement about Twinkies versus bread. But bread is the theme of this chapter in John, and we will be talking about bread today and for a few more weeks. Last week chapter 6 began with Jesus taking just a few real loaves of bread and real fish and feeding 5,000 people with them. John does not refer to this as a miracle that Jesus performs, but a sign. It is a sign of who Jesus is and why he is in their presence. However miracle or sign, Jesus actually feeds people – a whole lot of people. Now that the actual feeding has happened, he wants the people to understand the deeper meaning of this sign. He is more than just a magician who managed to fill the stomachs of a large crowd. He not only gave them bread for the bodies, he is the bread of heaven that will nourish their souls.
Today’s particular story begins on the day after Jesus fed the multitude. Jesus and the disciples were not in the boats that came from Tiberias, and when the crowd of people realized this, they got in boats and went to Capernaum, looking for Jesus. As soon as they find him, they question why his presence there. He responds saying, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 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.”
Jesus knows that the crowd wasn’t looking for him because of this wondrous sign he effected in their presence. They want to find him because the bread and fish they ate the day before were great, but they are hungry again. Hunger is an ongoing issue, then and now. If Jesus, this rabbi, could feed them once, he could do it again.
Again, Jesus wants them to understand that this feeding was a sign of greater import than sating their hunger. They have a deeper hunger, and he has come among them to meet it. Jesus tells them that their work for bread that perishes will not sate the hunger he addresses. Instead they should work for the food that endures for eternal life. They still don’t get what he’s talking about. So they ask what works of God they must do. Jesus’ answer is simple, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Believe. That is the answer. That is the work they must do. They must believe.
But the people press Jesus for more. You say that you are the Son of Man, the one God sent, but what sign will you show us that this is true? What work will you perform? We know all about God providing bread, because God provided manna in the wilderness for their ancestors. That manna was “bread from heaven to eat.”
It would be understandable to read the tone of Jesus’ response to them as scolding. “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Perhaps he was scolding them, but I don’t think that Jesus was angry with the people for not recognizing the sign of God’s bread from heaven already in their midst. I think he was disappointed. After all, they were given a pretty significant sign with the multiplying of the loaves and fishes the day before. What more do they need?
Yet just as the woman at the well asked Jesus to give her the water of life, thinking that she would no longer have to schlep heavy buckets each day, the people want to receive this enduring bread. With this bread, they would never know hunger again.
Jesus answers with I Am. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus says I am the food that endures for eternal life. Believe in me and you will feast on this bread from heaven. Always. It sounds so easy. Just believe and you will receive enduring, life giving bread; heaven’s bread. But I suspect the people listening to Jesus could not quite wrap their minds around the words Jesus spoke to them. I suspect that they could not separate the literal from the figurative, the metaphor from the surface meaning. They wanted food that endures.
We do too, don’t we? We want the food that endures. However it seems to me that the problem lies in the fact that we end that sentence too soon. We want the food that endures. Jesus spoke of “food that endures for eternal life.” We just don’t want to be hungry anymore. Jesus knows that our bodies must be nourished, life depends on it. But we are also heart hungry, soul famished. We need food for our bodies, and food for our beings. Believing in Jesus gives us the food that endures for eternal life. But we get confused and seek out food that endures. The result? Twinkies. We want food that endures so we create Twinkies as a food product. But Twinkies as food that endures is also a metaphor. How often do we feed our bodies with stuff that really doesn’t nourish? How often do we try to feed our hearts with stuff that doesn’t nourish either? We want food that endures and our answer to that need is a Twinkie.
But Jesus offers a different food for our hearts. Jesus offers himself as the bread of heaven. We just have to believe. This does not diminish our need for real food. Food insecurity and gnawing hunger is a reality – not just in poorer countries around the world, but right next door. We know this. You only have to work one meal at the Salvation Army to know this. Jesus’ first act was to feed the hungry. This was a sign of his true identity. This was a sign to call them and us to belief, to faith. We receive the bread of heaven when we believe, but our response to that bread is to feed others. Yes, we are called to evangelize, to proclaim the good news that Jesus is the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. But we are called to feed the physical hunger in others’ first. The mind and the heart and the soul cannot be fed until the body is fed first. Jesus fed the hungry crowds, then Jesus offered himself, the bread of heaven, as nourishment for their souls.
What food do we partake of this day? What nourishment will we give our bodies and with what will we feed our souls? No bread by our hands, no matter how wholesome, endures forever. Even the bread we share in communion will eventually perish. But as we share the bread and the cup this morning, remember that what we really share is the bread of heaven, the food that endures for eternal life.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.