So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “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. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “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.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
In the preceding verses to this passage, Jesus has fed the crowds and then escaped when they tried to force him to be king. Jesus was compassionate with the crowds but also resisted the imperial urge to make him a king. Jesus knew that a king was not what they needed. So after escaping via boat to the other side of the lake, the crowd eventually catches up with him the next day. And they are hungry. They have been following him around and do not have anything to eat.
I have so many questions about this crowd of people following Jesus. Why has this group of people started following Jesus? Are they all very hungry and want to get some food? Why are they hungry? How has the Roman Empire created spaces where such large crowds are hungry? Do they have jobs? Do their jobs pay enough? Are they following Jesus to be healed or to hear a great preacher? Did they bring their families or leave them at home? Do they have homes? Surely they all have a variety of reasons for following Jesus but to give up so much and put so much on the line to follow this guy, even as he runs from them, shows to me that this crowd is serious. They have serious needs and they are seeking out serious solutions.
I was trying to think of what the modern day equivalent of this crowd would be when it hit me. This group of people have many parallels with the crowds gathering at our southern border. A border that creates an us vs them but that was arbitrarily designed through conquest and war. The crowds have gathered because they are fleeing violence, because they are seeking survival for food and jobs, they are bringing their families, they are leaving their families to send money back, they are facing serious needs and are seeking out serious solutions.
And so when I first read this passage this week, I was feeling very irritated at Jesus. These people are coming to you hungry and you are saying they are not spiritual enough?!? I thought we were being taught to feed people just a few verses previously? Is it that strange that the people are hungry the next day? I feel like the spiritualization of this passage has been the primary interpretation I have heard throughout my life. This idea that the soul is more important than the body. This idea that spirituality is all you really need and if you are hungry then you just need to pray more. The spiritualization of this passage has been so common. Is this how we should react to the people at the southern border or other hungry people? Do we tell them to just pray more or focus on their beliefs? Is that what Jesus wants? Or is there another way?
So I was grateful this week when I was reading some commentary by the Rev. Nichola Torbett who suggests that perhaps Jesus means something different than the way I had read it in the past. Maybe instead of saying, you can’t come to me only for food, Jesus is actually saying that this crowd deserves more than struggling day to day for their daily bread. Maybe Jesus is challenging the crowd and the disciples and all of us to find deeper solutions to the problem of hunger than just feeding for one day. Because as Jesus reminds us God provides enough for everyone. From the Israelites in the desert receiving manna from heaven to the hungry crowd multiplying their food to us today living in a world of abundance but only ever seeing scarcity. God provides enough for everyone. (Rev. Nichola Torbett, Liturgy that Matters – August 1, 2021 – John 6:24-35, “Enfleshed: Spiritual Nourishment for Collective Liberation.”)
I recently heard a parable from one of my favorite modern authors and thinker adrienne maree brown. She talked about a fisherman who went out fishing and saw a body in the river where they fished. They jumped out of the boat and pulled the body to shore and saved them. The next day this person saw two bodies floating down the river. They quickly grabbed a friend and were able to pull both out and save them. This continued every day where more and more bodies were coming down the river and the fisherman was unable to save everyone. The fisherman got more and more exhausted trying to save everyone in the river even as they built up rafts and docks to catch as many as possible. It was never enough. The moral of this parable is to go upstream and find the reason that people are ending up in the river in the first place. (adrienne maree brown on the podcast “How To Survive the End of the World, Star Wars: A Spoiler Extravaganza,” December 29, 2017.)
I think part of the issue for the fisherman and for Jesus and even for kings is that one person, no matter how amazing, is not enough. Jesus could not heal everyone, feed everyone, or reach everyone. The fisherman would never be able to do it all. They need help. They need a community. The crowd tried to make Jesus a king but that was not the solution. Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” And who is supposed to be Christ’s body on earth? The church. So whoever comes to the church will never be hungry. If we truly believed this, how would it change our interactions with the world?
Maybe what Jesus is saying to us is that we cannot always focus on just the immediate need but that sometimes we need to go upstream and see what is going on. Of course the immediate need is important but if we only stay focused on that we will never help in the long term. Upstream we can go to the root of the problem and stop it before it affects so many lives. Upstream we can prevent the harm done instead of only focusing on caring after the damage has occured. What would this look like for our church community? How can we engage upstream and help imagine with Jesus bigger solutions to care for all people instead of just providing healing after the hurt has occurred? How can we join with Jesus and the disciples to care for the root of the issue? Because it is here that we find Jesus, in the community of faith, working for all to have their daily bread. It is in the body of Christ that we will never be hungry. And it is here at the table that we will experience this joy so that we can share it with others. Amen.