Taste and see that the Lord is good! The psalmist exults in the graciousness and generosity of God. Today is the third of five Sundays that focus on the theme of the bread of life, as we continue our gospel journey through John 6. All of our texts for today are full of stories of the good gifts that God has given to God’s people. It’s a very bready Sunday!
As I was working on this sermon, I found myself thinking about the gracious gifts that I have received in the last few weeks. A lot of them have been food! I have received gifts of fresh sweetcorn, cookies, salad, more corn, zucchini bread, eggs, and – you guessed it – more corn. I am definitely back in Nebraska! Last week, my neighbor across the street and her three kids brought over a huge loaf of banana bread that she had helped them to bake. You could see the pride on those kids’ faces as they shared something they had made with someone else. All of these gifts of food were nourishing to my body. But the sense of welcome and the love with which they were given made them something even greater: food that nourishes the soul as well as the body.
That is the kind of food that we are talking about in our readings for today, especially in our first reading and in our gospel reading. In our first reading, we encounter the prophet Elijah during a particularly low moment out in the wilderness. He has been doing battle with Ahab and Jezebel – rulers who turned away from God and started killing off all of God’s prophets – and Elijah is afraid of what they might do to him. So he curls up under a tree out in the desert and asks God to just let him die. (We’ve all been there, right?) But instead, God has compassion for Elijah and sends an angel to him with bread and water and words of encouragement. This food gives him enough strength in body and soul that he is able to walk all the way to Mount Horeb, a journey of forty days and forty nights!
The theme of food that feeds both body and soul is even clearer in our gospel reading. Jesus has just finished feeding over 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. The next day, naturally, the crowds come looking for him, hoping for second helpings. But Jesus sees that they are just looking to fill their stomachs and he tells them that they need food that is more filling – they need to fill themselves with the bread of life. And when they look at him with confusion, he says to them plainly: “I am the bread of life.” “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
Our gospel reading also has kind of a story within a story. Jesus references the story of the Israelites eating manna in the wilderness, which the crowd had actually brought up first. This story was a huge part of Israel’s self-understanding as a people who had a special relationship with God. God freed their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and then miraculously fed them with manna as they wandered for decades in the desert. Manna was a food that certainly fed the Israelites’ bodies and kept them healthy and strong. But even more than this, manna was a sign of God’s love and faithfulness. It was food that was meant to fill both body and soul.
The crowds ask Jesus for manna, but the way they ask for it seems to reveal that they have forgotten about this second meaning of manna. It seems like they’re mostly in it for another free lunch. Jesus has to remind them, “Ok, sure, your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but – news flash! – they all still died eventually!” I am offering you so much more. I am offering you the bread of eternal life! Eat it!
The crowds viewed manna – and the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 – from a very limited, human perspective. Somewhere along the line, it seems like they had learned to expect a lot less from God than what God was actually offering. Frankly, I think this is a lesson that most of us are taught at one point or another. We, too, come to expect less from God than what God is offering us. It makes sense. Living in this broken world, we are used to being disappointed. We expect to be let down, even by God. So we lessen our expectations of God. Or worse yet, we expect nothing from God at all. And instead, we try to fill ourselves with other things: TV, food, alcohol, sports, social media, and other distractions. And there’s nothing wrong with those things – but none of them will ever fill the hunger in our souls.
That’s why it makes sense to me that Jesus talks about belief in this passage. He says that the one who believes in him will never hunger or thirst. Belief in this sense is about trust and faith. It’s about expectation. Belief is about more than just accepting an idea – it’s not just “believing in God” in the sense that we agree that God exists. No. It’s believing in the sense that we put our trust in God. It’s actually closer to the root of the word “I believe” in Latin: “credo” – “cor do,” which means: “I give my heart.” Belief is about setting your heart on something. Jesus is asking us to set our hearts on him.
Setting our hearts on something, believing in something, opens us up and makes us vulnerable in a way that we’re not totally comfortable with. Having faith and expectation opens us up to the danger of disappointment. But it’s also this exact same openness that allows us to be fed. Believing in Jesus allows him to feed us body and soul. Setting our hearts on Jesus allows us to accept the gift that is freely given and to be nourished by it.
Just like with the gifts I have received over the past several weeks – the food itself is physically nourishing, but it is that same openness of heart, and the love put into it, that makes it nourishment for my soul.
God faithfully feeds us, both physically and spiritually. God offers us more than we even dare to expect or hope for. And as with Elijah, God seeks us out to care for us even when we are at our lowest, even when we want to curl up under a tree and die, even when we struggle to believe. God seeks us out and feeds us, body and soul, in ways we never imagined.
We can set our hearts on God. So, this week, go forth with the expectation that God will feed you, body and soul. Especially the teachers and students and school staff preparing for the start of another school year tomorrow – as you enter this busy, stressful time, open your hearts to being refreshed and nourished by God.
God is setting the table for all of us to be fed with the bread of life. So dig in! Taste and see that the Lord is good!