Last Sunday Jesus fed 5,000 people with five small loaves of bread and two fish. The people were so impressed and so pleased they tried to take Jesus by force and make him their king. But Jesus wasn’t interested in being king. So, he ran off. Now, he’s on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But the crowd hasn’t given up. And they find him on the other side of the lake. Hey, man, we’ve been looking for you everywhere! What’d you run off like that for?
And there was a woman in that crowd. And she stepped forward. If you had seen her, you would have seen a woman dressed plainly, with patches where her bony elbows had worn the through the fabric of her shirt. She held her head up high, and she had a spark in her eye that warned of an intelligence far beyond what the world expected of her. So, she lifted up her voice for everyone to hear and spoke to Jesus. She said, “Yesterday, we ate our fill of miraculous bread! We were stuffed and happy! For a while we forgot our cares. (And you know what heavy burdens so many of us carry.) We laughed, and we played with our children on the grass. And when the sun set, we rolled ourselves up in our picnic blankets, and we slept under the stars to the sound of a distant storm passing us by. But when we woke up, our stomachs were empty again. You were nowhere to be found. And we were all saying to one another, ‘Why? Why am I still hungry?’”
Jesus is ready for the crowd. He expects them and this question. And this is Jesus’ way: Yesterday he had compassion for the crowd. He fed us, he comforted us. Today his compassion will challenge us. Yesterday there was overflowing, miraculous grace! Today Jesus will challenge us to respond to that grace.
We’re all very aware of this dynamic in our tradition. It’s often put into words something like this, “As we have been fed, let us go out now and feed others.” The proper response to grace received is action that reflects and furthers that grace. This goes all the way back to the beginning of our Bibles. After delivering them from slavery in Egypt, God gives this command to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai: “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” They are delivered from bondage by God’s grace, and now they carry the burden of honoring that grace in action, in law, and in responsibility.
We know this already: The first step is grace, the final response is action, productivity, justice, etc., etc. But did you know that there’s another step between the initial grace and the final response? It sometimes gets forgotten. What is it?
The crowd makes this mistake—they leave this step out. They are so eager to be full again. They want to be in control. They tried to make Jesus king—that didn’t work. Now they ask him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” In the Greek they literally say, “What must we do to work the works of God?” These people want to get to work! But there’s a mistake here. They want to work God’s works in order to get more of God’s grace, more bread. They’re not responding to grace; they’re attempting to manipulate grace. But that’s not how grace works, and it’s not how the response to grace works. There’s a missing step. What is it?
And, we should say, work is not what Jesus is looking for here. Jesus doesn’t ask the crowd to do anything, right? In fact, he tells them: Do not work! Do not work for food that perishes. Instead of asking them to work, he makes them yet another offer—an offer of food that endures for eternal life. This is the work God requires of you now, Jesus tells them, to believe in the one whom God has sent. The step between the receipt of grace and the works of grace is to believe.
The crowd runs into a problem here. There’s a man who pushes his way up to the front. If you had seen him, you wouldn’t have noticed anything much about him. He could have been any person walking past you on the street or sitting next to you in these pews. But the way he crosses his arms over his chest before he speaks—you would have noticed that. There’s strength there, but also pain, like someone who has faced hurt, who is on his guard. He crosses his arms over his chest, and he says to Jesus, “Believe in you, you mean? We might. We might do that. But, of course, we’d need a sign from you. After all, when our ancestors were led out of Egypt into the wilderness by Moses, wasn’t there bread from heaven on the ground every morning for forty years so that they wouldn’t starve? Every morning! Now, that’s a dependable schedule! If you could give us a little more of that miraculous bread of yours (on a reliable schedule), I think that’s the sort of thing that would put us on the path to becoming true believers!”
We make our belief contingent on the circumstances of our lives. We all want a sign that we’re on the right path. And we can’t think of a better sign than being perfectly cared for, cocooned from all the hardships of this world. No matter how much grace we receive today, there’s always tomorrow to worry about. Today we feel like believers. But tomorrow—well, we’ll see. Even more than the crowd, we modern people don’t know anymore what it means to be a true believer. We don’t even really understand what Jesus is asking of us.
I’ve got a friend whose little daughter called her into her bedroom. “Mommy, mommy, come quick!” When she rushed into the room there were a pair of scissors lying on the floor, and there was a great, big, giant bald spot on the front of her daughter’s head, and there was a great big clump of her daughter’s curly blond hair in the wastebasket, and (as will become relevant in a moment) all the windows were closed. And her daughter said, “Mommy, a bird flew in through the window, landed in this wastebasket, and all its feathers fell out. Then it flew back outside!” “Oh,” my friend said, “I see. And who opened the window?” Her daughter thought for just a second, and then she said, “Oh, it must have been God.”
Our world mistakes believing in God or in Jesus with assenting to (“believing in”) a difficult and complicated story that doesn’t always make sense. That’s what my friend’s daughter was asking her to do. But that is not what Jesus is asking of us. The postmodern world hears that we believe in God, and it reduces that belief down to a caricature: We think there’s a man with a beard in the sky who can open and close windows from heaven. But that is not what Jesus is asking of us.
True belief in Jesus is a commitment to a way of being throughout our lives, a total fidelity to the good news that Jesus carries within himself. It’s not about did Jesus exist or not. Did Jesus say this or that or not? Did Jesus do this or that or not? What do you think about it? Do you believe that? No. The real question is: Am I permanently attuned to God through Jesus Christ? Am I aligned to the Gospel Jesus brought? Am I committed to the values Jesus taught?
As I said last Sunday, Jesus feeding the 5,000 was the miraculous demonstration of an almost incomprehensible truth: that God aligns the abundance of heaven with the scarcity of earth. What grace! What incredible grace! And now a response is required. Since God has aligned heaven’s abundance to our needs, Jesus is asking us to acknowledge this grace by aligning our innermost core (our belief) with the Gospel. Belief in Jesus means becoming a devotee of the religion of Jesus, turning ourselves over entirely to God and to God’s purposes.
We sometimes think that all belief requires is an expression of our assent. You could turn off your brain, and it might be easier. But what is really being asked of us is to offer God the beating heart of our consent. And that is a commitment wrought hard out of every moment. God doesn’t want words or thoughts or even deeds. God wants me—all of me and all of you, right down to our motivations, our purposes, the meaning of our lives.
We confuse physical and spiritual needs. “Why am I still hungry?” I must need more bread. But that's not the way spirituality works. A lifetime of bread from heaven won’t satisfy our deepest hunger. The opposite doesn't work either. We can't be saved by our own hands. We can't earn our way to salvation. No amount of good living will open the gates to God’s Realm. So, then what are we supposed to do? We do not consume God, we let ourselves be consumed by God. We do not do the works of God, we become the works of God. That is what is meant by belief.
And that is the missing step between receiving grace and changing the world. Until we believe, we will always be saying to ourselves, saying to one another, “Why? Why am I still hungry?” God’s grace will not quiet that hunger. It merely whets the appetite. Through our good works we may attend to the physical needs of others, but we cannot quiet our own deepest hunger even in the performance of righteousness and the pursuit of justice. We will always be hungry until we hold in the center of our hearts the bread of life that Jesus is offering.
Beloved, are you still hungry? Poet Thomas McGrath wrote, “We know it is hunger—our own and other’s—that gives all salt and savor to bread. But that is a workday story and this is the end of the week.” Beloved, my prayer for you is salty, savory, end-of-the week faithfulness, where God can hold you tenderly, like bread in the palm, in the sweet spot of belief, floating steadfast in the tension between grace and responsibilities. Amen.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations