My cousin Don has often joked that I am his “direct connect with God.” That I am his avoid damnation for free card. While I assume Don is only joking, the fact is, many of us today are looking for the easy route to righteousness and salvation. Or more simply put, the benefits of faith without the work needed to build a full and lasting relationship with God.This is not all too different from this morning’s Gospel. After having witnessed the feeding of the five thousand, the crowd again seeks Jesus out. But why? What are they looking for? Are they physically hungry once again? The answer isn’t clear, but Jesus assumes it has little to do with deepening their relationship with God and more to do with filling their stomachs. Once again the crowd fails to get the point when Jesus confronts them. Instead of accepting the miracle they just witnessed as being from God, they want further proof. They want to see with their own eyes the miracles Jesus can perform before they are willing to commit their lives to Christ.
Unfortunately, this is not how faith works. Faith is not about empirical knowledge, but a willingness to trust in our experiences of the Divine. Faith is not about having a relationship with Christ handed down to us on a platter, but requires an active desire to grow in relationship with God. In essence, Jesus grows frustrated with the crowd, not because they sought him out, but because they were not willing to take the risks or do the work they needed to in order to build, or to partake in the spiritual food he was offering them. It is not that different from the frustration we, as a congregation, have felt over the years as countless numbers of young couples have approached us to baptize their children without being willing our even interested in becoming part of this or any other community of faith.
I am not sure the issues Jesus struggles with this morning are all that different from the ever growing phenomenon of being spiritual but not religious. The desire of modern culture to reap the benefits of grace without the struggles of being a part of a faith community. And, is this so different from the countless numbers who attend to their weekly obligation of attending Church to receive the sacrament only to run out the door as quickly as possible while leaving Christ and the community behind until the following week or whenever Sunday attendance is convenient once again.
All of these scenarios are part of what Jesus speaks out against with this morning’s crowd. We enjoy the benefits of the sacrament, the community, baptism, etc., but we fail to see or to seek the deeper reality they are designed to lead us towards,if only we were willing to take the risk and allow ourselves to engage more deeply with Christ.
This is exactly what Jesus is telling the crowd when he rebukes them by saying, “do not work for the food that parishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which is the Son of Man.” Seeking baptism for a child without the church, seeking community solely for the social life it offers, seeking communion without the desire to connect with any other part of parish life simply connects us with bread that parishes. Until we are willing to take the risk, to put, as they say, some of our own skin in the game of faith,” and enter into the struggle of relationship with Christ, we cannot experience the food Jesus desires for us. For it is in the midst of the struggle where faith is found, trust in God is established, and grace is won. For that is when we realize the whole of our lives are dependent on God and God alone.
This is what Jesus counters with when the crowd claims it was Moses who fed their ancestors manna. No, Christ tells them, it was God. For forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert searching for and seeking the promised land of Israel.
The desert is a barren and desolate place. The desert is a harsh environment that does not support or sustain much in terms of life or sustenance. It is in the desert where the Israelites take refuge from the bondage of Egypt, and it is in the desert where they nearly starve to death when their provisions from Egypt become exhausted. It is in the desert where they learn to rely wholly on God. And it was God who provided their daily bread of manna. As the story is told, God provided enough manna each day to sustain their needs for the day but not enough to store. When the Israelites attempted to store the manna for another day, it rotted in the night. The Israelites’ forty years in the desert was an object lesson in fully trusting God. It was a lesson In having faith, not just in God bringing them to the Promised Land, but also towards accepting that God would provide for them in the midst of their struggle from bondage to freedom, from being a nomadic people to becoming an agrarian society.
Yes, Jesus tells the crowd, “I can feed you.” “Yes, I can continue to show you signs. But to fully partake in what I have to offer, the food of eternal life, you must be willing to entrust the whole of your life to me. You must be willing to step out in faith.”
This is a consistent message of the Gospel. To fully participate at the banquet we must first be willing to risk the whole of ourselves by stepping forward in faith. The woman who hemorrhaged for twelve years, is healed, not because she touched the robes of Jesus, but because she took the risk to reach out to God for healing. The man at the pool of Bethsaida, must risk falling and trust in Jesus before he can stand, pick up his mat and walk. The disciples must risk their boats, their nets and all that they have in order to go back into the sea and fish a second time late in the day. They too had to trust that Jesus would provide.
So often when it comes to God, we want to play it safe. We want to reap the miracles and enjoy the gifts of grace before we are willing to risk anything for Christ. But Christ has told us otherwise. He has fed us, he has given his life for us. Now the days of miracles and signs have come to an end, and it is we who must risk it all. It is we who must be willing to surrender, and it is we who need to give up our lives and walk by trust. Trusting, it is God who will provide for us, it is God who will feed us, it is God who will heal us and it is God, and only God who will sustain us as we wander the deserts of our lives.