The Diet God Provides

Not empty calories, but bread that nourishes, satisfies, and builds us up to be the Body of Christ on earth. -- a sermon for Proper 13b

Proper 13b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, You are looking for me 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. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.

You have no doubt seen the news stories about how Mayor Bloomberg is moving to outlaw serving large portions of sugar-sweetened beverages. He and a number of medical experts agree that these soft drinks are a leading contributor to the obesity problem many people, especially young people, face. The problem is that these high-calorie but low-fat and low- or no-protein drinks provide lots of calories but don’t make you feel “full” — that’s what’s meant by “empty calories.” They can put the weight on without really providing much in the way of wholesome nutrition. A milk-shake or a smoothie might have just as many calories, but it will make you feel full, and provide some protein as well as calories and fat, and maybe even some fiber, which the body needs for good health — and you are unlikely to sit down and drink a quart at one sitting!

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In our Gospel passage today, Jesus similarly refers to three kinds of bread, only one of which has the power to nourish unto eternal life. And it is true that all three forms of bread described in our readings today come from God’s bakery, so to speak: the bread in the form of the loaves that Jesus multiplied in his miraculous feeding of the multitude — that’s a contemporary response to the miracle of the manna which God showered on the people in the wilderness, as they slowly wandered their way towards the land of promise. But even miraculous bread — whether multiplied from a few loaves, or falling from the sky like rain upon the wandering Israelites — even truly miracle bread only satisfies for a while. The ancient Israelites had to gather the manna day by day, and the scripture tells us they would pound it or grind it to make mush or to bake into johnny-cakes. But they would eat it and then grow hungry again. They would be filled each day only for each day as they received their daily bread. So this bread from heaven — miraculous though it was — was rationed out, and only fed the people one day at a time, or two on the sabbath — and even then they continued to complain because at the end of each day they grew hungry again.

The bread Jesus multiplied on the mountainside was much the same — though in this case the people really eat their fill and were absolutely stuffed, to the extent that there were many leftovers afterwards. Yet still they sought after Jesus for more of this bread. They were filled, but not satisfied, and they continued in their craving for more.

Finally, Jesus promises them, there is a third kind of miraculous bread that comes from God’s bakery — the true bread that comes down from heaven, bread that doesn’t just satisfy for a day, like the manna, or a few hours, like the bread of the wilderness that Jesus multiplied: but bread that gives life to the world, and endures for ever. And when the people insist that Jesus give them this always-bread, this eternal and ever-nourishing bread that comes down from heaven; not food that perishes but endures to eternal life — when they ask for this bread, Jesus responds with one of those powerful and mystical statements that identify him as the living presence of the power of God: the great 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.”

Here at last is food that nourishes and satisfies, — not empty spiritual calories, but good solid nourishing sustenance — as different from that other bread as a rich, nourishing fresh-fruit and yoghurt smoothie is from a colored-water, sugared, empty soft drink. This is food that, as Saint Paul said, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up, through and by means of the power of God and the love of God shown most clearly in Christ’s gift of himself, to be bread — bread for the life of the people he has called and chosen to be his own.

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Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven for the life of the world. He commits himself to us, in his Body and his Blood, which we are privileged to share at this altar-rail, as we consume the Body and the Blood, the Bread and the Wine, through which his presence is made real with us, among us and within us. This is no ordinary bread, no ordinary wine. This is the food we are given to assist us and empower us as the church — the body of Christ on earth — to do the work that God gives us to do with gladness and singleness of heart.

Saint Paul makes a list of those works, the works we do, which as Jesus said begins with that work of believing in him — for it is only in him that we are nourished to take up all those other works, that Saint Paul lists: Some are apostles — the ones who go out into the world to bear the message of hope to friends and family and co-workers; some are prophets — those who are given the power to speak the truth that God has given them to speak, to confront the powers and principalities of this fallen world, and to call them to account when they are unjust or hurt the children of God; some are evangelists — who spread the good news of God’s salvation in and through Christ, to promote belief in him, which is the beginning of that salvation, the work of God among us; and some are pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up that body of Christ, until all of us come to that unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, the measure of the full stature of Christ.

This, my friends, is the goal of the nourishment we receive: the food that builds us up into the Body of Christ, to attain to his stature. Let us pray that God will give us this food always, that we may, if we hunger, hunger only for righteousness, and be filled with the nourishment that God provides so that we may serve him well in this life, and share with him for ever in the next.+