Following Our Stomachs

Sunday closest to August 3 Exodus 16:2-4,9-15, Psalm 78:23-29, Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:24-35

I have learned recently that I am Not Very Nice. Now I know that many of the people in this room could have told me this, but you are all far too nice to ever say such a thing.

The revelation of the fact that I am Not Very Nice shone the brightest on a warm spring morning. Now I live on Main Street, between Starbucks and Kilwins and very often there will be customers sitting on my doorstep consuming their ice cream and frappucinos. My door opens outward and has no peep hole, and the result as you can imagine is that at least once a week I open my door into some people sitting on the step.

So I realised that I am Not Very Nice when, one morning in the Spring, I opened my door into a group of people, and stepping out of my door my foot made contact with a paper starbucks cup, launching it into the middle of the sidewalk. And as my foot came to rest, I felt there was a rectangular object beneath it.

Yes, a cell phone. Being midway through my stride I was too far into the swing to change tack and placed all of my body weight upon it. The group who were gathered at my doorstep nervously looked up at me, and picking up their things, they profusely apologised.

And in the heat of this moment I looked down at them, and I said

“uh-huh”

And then I hastily walked away down the street.

I am Not Very Nice.

I wish I were, and I DO desire to be kind and patient and gentle but such ideals it seems do not come naturally to me. I am often too busy or too distracted to give to strangers the dignity due their worth.

And quite frankly, I most often fail to love because I am hungry. And it is hunger, for food or for comfort or for company, that typically draws me to forget the calling of Christ to be holy as God is holy.

Our First Lesson this morning comes from the Exodus story, when God liberated his people from slavery in Egypt. God caused Pharoh to let them go, and Pharoh immediately regretted this and sent his army after them. God parted the Red Sea for Israel to cross over and then drowned the Egyptian army in the waters. God led them by a pillar of cloud in the day, and fire by night, and led them out of captivity. And just a few weeks after seeing God work these wonders, the people grumble.

A few weeks into their new life, all it took for them to think fondly of their old chains, dreaming of meat pots and bread, cursing the God who had saved them, was an empty stomach.

But God is patient and does not become enraged at his people for being short sighted and beset by needs. He knows that their faithfulness and faith rests not on the promises they made once a long time ago, but rather depends on his continual goodness and love toward them. Their life as God’s people is not a dry kind of piety, a resentful rule-following, but rather is a daily experience of receiving the things their bodies need from the generosity of God.

I like to think of myself as a Nice Person, or at least I did until the contrary became abundantly clear. I liked to think of myself as generally pious and upright, because I had made a decision to follow Jesus and surely I can keep my own word. God did something for me 2000 years ago on the cross, and because I am so very grateful I can easily repay him by devoting my life to following his Son.

But nothing could be farther from the truth. Much like Israel, I see that if my needs are not met, I quickly lose the will to live the life to which I am called, which Christ has called me to live in the Gospels. My empty stomach tells me that God cannot help me, and that I must help myself. My empty stomach tells me that I do not have time in the day to stop and be kind to a stranger who has frustrated me. My empty stomach tells me that I do not have the patience to answer the phone. My empty stomach tells me that my needs right now are more important than anyone else’s needs.

One way in which I might continue would perhaps be to try harder and be more shrewd and efficient. I want to carry on feeling like a good and upright person, who is at least adequately following the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, so if I can avoid difficult people or situation then I don’t have to confront the fact that I might feel as though my needs are not being met. I can endure the nagging hunger because nothing too demanding is asked of me. After all, God saved me 2000 years ago on the Cross and now I am paying him back by living for him.

At least the Israelites were honest. They grumbled against God because they were hungry. More often than not I am embarrassed by my hunger and try very hard to hide it from others and especially from God. This leads to a very uninteresting prayer life, of course, because if you never ask for anything why should anyone be surprised if they receive nothing in return. The Israelites have at least the guts to tell God that they are hungry. And God did not hate them for doing so.

I am certain I could have saved myself many years of angst if I had been half as forthright with God as they. Telling a giant flaming pillar of fire that you would rather have not been saved from slavery is a unique kind of bravery isn’t it?

In the story of the Exodus this daily provision of bread and meat is the only way to make sense of the high and difficult calling which is placed on Israel as they proceed through the wilderness. As you read the Torah, the identity of Israel is forged with revelations and laws until they reach the promised land. But this calling to be a holy people, a kingdom of Priests to minister to the rest of the world, cannot be understood without grasping that these people were not some moral heroes who could make lofty commitments and then keep them forever, rather they were a hungry and needy people who learned to trust that the God who fed them every day was more than able to sustain them as they grew into the distinct and awkward and odd nation they became.

God did not command them to try and leave behind the limitations which come with being a finite creature. But rather he taught them that he is trustworthy not only because of something he once did for them, but rather because he cares for them every morning when there is bread, and every evening when there is meat.

Our Gospel Lesson this morning follows on from the feeding of the 5000 men and the calming of the storm. Jesus had crossed with his disciples over the Sea of Galilee after providing food for what may have been 20,000 people if we are assuming women and children were present. The crowd had followed him and Jesus is under no illusions as to why

You are here because you ate your fill of the loaves.

Now it can be tempting to read this as a rebuke, as an angry word.

How DARE you be here because you were given food. If you weren’t so evil and unspiritual you’d have come to find me because you knew who I am. But there is no reason to see it this way. Jesus is pointing out the very same thing the Israelites showed us: That we human beings are weak and needy, and always so afraid our desires will be ignored that it is only after we can be assured that we are cared for, that we will begin to trust. Miraculous signs do not make people trust in Jesus. Its the ordinary stuff, the simple meal of bread and fish, which allows our relationship to him to become something more interesting.

Jesus calls the crowd, who have eaten of the bread, to understand that there is more provision for them than just full stomachs. But the crowd misunderstand, they say “what sign will you give us that we may believe”. Its a rehashing of something so natural to us, to think that to encounter the divine we must forget we are human. In other words they are saying, if Jesus gives us a clear enough sign then we will all obviously be more than willing to dedicate ourselves to following you. This kind of moral heroism has never worked before, but perhaps they suppose that if there is a good enough, memorable enough sign or miracle then they will make their commitment and never have any doubts.

Its basically the faith I had as a teenager.

The great multitude ask Jesus for a sign like the manna, because in their imaginations the manna would be very impressive and would give them enough inspiration to follow the things he taught. But Jesus reminds the crowd that they are asking the wrong question. They want to be impressed enough to remove all doubt, but God didn’t give them the bread in the wilderness to impress them, he gave it to them because he cared for them and knew that they were weak. See an impressive sign is persuasive to someone who might be strong and self-sufficient, and if there is something so significant before my eyes one might give a moment of their time to listen to the one performing the sign. But the manna was not about persuading the Israelites to listen. The manna was a test, yes, but a test to see whether the Israelites would trust God to provide for them.

It is a test of humility not of strength. The test of daily trust, not some kind of pious posturing and dramatic decision-making.

Jesus, then, manages to show this crowd the truth which they did not want to admit. They asked for a sign to impress them into obedience, but Jesus told them that he will give them life just as the manna gave life, which is to say, provision every day. He draws out of the crowd the truth they did not want to admit, and that is that they are a people of need and are desperate to know that those needs can be met.

Sir, give us this bread always.

They say.

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

Jesus’s reply is too wonderful to believe. It cannot really be the case that all my needs can be met, can it? Can I really trust that I will be ok?

Perhaps we might want to talk about the fact that Christ feeds us from his table whenever we celebrate Communion, and perhaps we might talk about the fact that when we gather as God’s people at God’s table we can have our needs met from his providence and grace, as we open ourselves to God and one another. Perhaps we might think about the meals we share together or the things we learn from each other or the small ways we serve each other, receiving life from God through our prayers and our worship and our love.

But I think it is more wonderful to comprehend, that no matter how mean, impatient, and Not Very Nice I am, amongst God’s people and around God’s table I have always received everything I need.

But only when I am honest enough to ask.

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