Preached on 5 August 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13, Year B (Thematic track)
Conversation Matters. It is fundamental to being human. Through conversation, we build relationships; we share our joys and our sorrows. We solve problems using conversation – not only our own personal problems, but societal problems and those we face as a nation. Conversation gives us a way to begin to address major issues of our day such as racism, poverty, climate change, and epidemics. Conversation helps us make meaning of our lives. It helps us understand scripture, discern God’s presence and opens our eyes to what God is revealing to us.
Conversation or dialogue is a key characteristic in John’s Gospel. Whenever Jesus performs a sign, he then interprets the sign through dialogue. That’s what we have in today’s gospel. When we come into the story, the crowd has been looking for Jesus and finally finds him.
Last week, we heard about a day earlier, when Jesus fed them all, 5,000 of them, with just five loaves of bread and two fish. The crowd experiences the sign, but they don’t seem to understand what it means or even that it is a sign at all. So, Jesus engages them in dialogue.
When we have an encounter with God, it can take quite some time for us to process it; for it to sink in that it was God or what it means, what God might be revealing to us.
When it comes down to it, an encounter with God is first and foremost an experience. While we try to describe it or explain it with words and understand it with our minds, there’s more to it than that. We encounter God on all levels and God touches us through our emotions, our spirit, our soul.
In this story from John, there are many, many layers of meaning; not only in the sign itself, but also in the dialogue that follows, in Jesus’ words. So, let’s look a little deeper at the conversation Jesus has with the crowd that comes searching for him.
Jesus suggests to them that they did not come searching for him because of who he is or because they understand the sign, but because they were fed and were satisfied. On one level, yes, their bellies were filled and their physical hunger was satisfied. On another level, perhaps they recognize that some other hunger was satisfied as well; that they were in the presence of something more, although they may not understand it or be able to articulate it. And so they go looking for him.
Jesus helps them understand what they have experienced; he helps them understand who he is and something about the nature of God. When the crowd points to their ancestors’ time in the wilderness after fleeing slavery in Egypt, when they ate manna from heaven, and ask him for a sign, Jesus draws a parallel. Manna perished if they kept if overnight. But he gives food that endures for eternal life.
“It wasn’t Moses that gave you manna; it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven,” he explains. This is about God’s ongoing providence – he switches to present tense; and it is about Jesus’ identity. God is his father. Jesus is the bread that has come down from heaven; that has come to give life to the world.
If we were to read chapter four, we would hear a similar conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman when she recalls the well given to their ancestor, Jacob. Jesus says he would give her living water and “the water he will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Whoever drinks will never be thirsty again.
Just as God provided sustenance in the desert, Jesus provides sustenance for eternal life, living bread and living water. Abundant life with God is now.
Jesus told them that they should work for food that endures, not food that will perish. They ask what work they must do. “Believe in the one whom God has sent,” he says.
Believe in Jesus; give your heart to him; be in relationship with him. By the end, they say, “Give us this bread, always,” almost as a prayer.
Do you see how Jesus draws them deeper into their experience of the sign? They move from knowing they had full bellies to beginning to have an idea that they are in the presence of God incarnate; to prayer.
They’re just beginning to get it, though. We still have three more weeks of Jesus drawing them ever deeper; just as Jesus invites us ever deeper into relationship with him.
As I said at the beginning, conversation matters. There are so many different conversations we could have, beginning with this gospel lesson. Any one of them could be an invitation from Jesus to go deeper; to see God revealed. Here are just a few conversation starters:
The crowd experiences a sign – Jesus feeding the multitude with just a few fish and loaves of bread, and they miss it. What signs might we be missing or just plain taking for granted?
The people go across the lake seeking Jesus because he fed them. Where, when, why, and how do you seek Jesus? Talk about your own encounters with God or Jesus.
Most of us have no personal experience of famine and we are rather distanced from the source of our food. And yet, in the United States, 50% of all the food produced ends up in landfills while many people are hungry and can’t afford food. What can we say about that?
In the world of the gospel, as soon as one meal is finished, they have to think about where the next one will come from. They look to God for the basic sustenance of bread and water. How does God sustain your life?
What other subjects come to mind?
With so many possibilities, let’s have some conversations.
Let’s seek Jesus.