So, I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I played football in college, and that you will all get used to my football stories. Well, that begins now. I remember this one game I played in college. I started as the left guard, which, if you’re unfamiliar with football terminology, is the position to the left of the Center, the guy who hikes the ball. But I was starting at LG and we were down by a few touchdowns and We were trying to cover large chunks of the field, so we were running a lot of pass plays. And during the one play, the QB threw the ball, only to have it blocked by a defensive lineman who had jumped up and swatted it. Now, any time a ball is swatted at the line of scrimmage, it’s bad news because you have 5 or 6 players from each team, in very close proximity, fighting for it. So, as offensive linemen, we were always taught that if a ball was swatted at the line of scrimmage, you never catch it; but you knock it down to the ground to make sure it doesn’t fall into the hands of the other team.
Now, I think we all probably know where this is going. I, being an unassuming lineman who never got any of the glory of scoring touchdowns, saw that ball in the air for a split second and my eyes got wide and I snapped into wide receiver mode. Now, mind you, this is like 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage so, if I did catch it, I was putting my team in pretty bad field position. But, apparently, I didn't care very much. So, I sprinted toward it and did a full lay out to try and catch this ball. But, because I’m fat and unathletic, I did not catch the ball. And when I got back to the bench after that drive, my coach made sure that I knew, in very explicit terms, that I was not a wide receiver and that there is no reason I should ever touch the ball. And then I think he actually said something about me being fat and unathletic, which I thought was totally uncalled for. But the fact remained that what I did was wrong. It’s bad enough that it was the wrong end to pursue, but I pursued it for the wrong reasons and that’s almost worse.
Our text today is about the things we pursue; the things we strive after versus the things we shouldstrive after. And in our lives, we’re often wont to confuse these things. This is the accusation Jesus levies against the people following him in our passage. They’re looking for him after he had left their town. Remember, this comes on the heels of last week’s text, the feeding of the 5000. And when these people found him, he says “you’re looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” In other words, you’re looking for me, not because you actually believe in me or what I’m doing, but because I was able to pay some of your bills; not because you want to be a part of the revolution, but because you merely want to reap the benefits of it.
Being the flawed human beings we are, we frequently tend to confuse, consciously or otherwise, the ends with the means. I think most all of us would agree that one of the ends we’re pursuing is happiness. Now, I’m not talking about fleeting moments of pleasure or unpredictable moments of joy. I’m talking about a deep-seated feeling of contentment and meaning in the life you’ve been given. I think that’s something most of us are probably after. And there are things which can aid us in that pursuit, things like financial security, shelter from harm and daily sustenance. And while these things are often needed and necessary to the journey, they’re not the things we’re really pursuing, and the second we start pursuing them is the second we start worshipping an idol.
Jesus says are much in verse 27, this famous line: “Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures.” Working for the food that perishes is like playing a game of pool and just shooting the cue ball at whatever you see first; it’s all about the short game, with no thought given to the long-term good. It’s pursuing a certain end for the wrong reason, just like Jesus’ followers were pursuing him only because he bought them a nice dinner. So, the question packed in here directed at all of us is an obvious one: are you working for the bread that perishes or the bread that endures? Are you following Jesus because you want something or because you want to offer something? Let me ask it this way: Are you a Christian because you’re interested in what Jesus can do for you, or because you’re interested in what you can do for Jesus?
My faith has been influenced by a lot of different people, but few have influenced it more than the 20thcentury scholar named Albert Schweitzer. Some of you have probably heard that name before. He was trained as a biblical scholar. He wrote a 1000-page book called “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” which, being published over a hundred years ago, is still considered a masterpiece. And the writing of that book landed him a cushy, tenured university professor job in Germany. Now, all of our Bucknell profs out there will appreciate the fact that he accomplished all this by the time he was 30. But by the time he had accomplished all these things, he felt a longing to do something more for the world and he accepted Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 as his own personal imperative: “When you’ve done this for the least of these, you’ve done it for me.” So, he resigned from his tenured teaching position and went back to school: medical school. He studied for five years, passed all his exams, and set off to become a missionary doctor in Africa, and from that point on, he spent the rest of his life in the Congo, tucked away in the jungle bringing medical care to those who had none.
For years, Schweitzer has been the great saint over my life; the one to whom I often turn in times of difficult decision-making; the one I remember when I’m overwhelmed by the all the pain and suffering in the world. Because he just wanted to do something wonderful with my life for Jesus. He wanted to do his part in the work of the kingdom of God on earth. He wanted to pursue the bread that endures. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we have to do what Schweitzer did, but we have to do something.
Thomas Merton, one of my favorite Catholics, said “the things we love tell us what we are.” We’re defined by the things we invest in, whether it’s the bread that perishes or the bread that endures. And this applies to us on an individual level but it also applies to us as a church. Do you come to Beaver merely because you eat your fill of the loaves – because it allows you a place to socialize and find solace from the world – or because you see signs of the kingdom here and you want to contribute to the ministry happening? As a church, do we do things merely because it’s the way things have always been done or because we believe it’s indispensable to the mission of the gospel? If we do what we’ve always done we’ll be what we’ve always been. And we should never strive to be what we’ve always been. We should never strive to just get by, whether it’s as a church body or as an individual believer? Being content with mere subsistence – whether financial or spiritual or whatever – is nothing more than being content with the bread that perishes. The Jesus that I worship came to bring life and to bring it abundantly. He came to bring a life to the world that endures. And that life is his own.
Jesus tells us at the end of our passage, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” In his coming into the world, Jesus has brought us a life that has not perished, but endures. And the evidence of that is right in front of our eyes. Looks around. Look at your brothers and sisters who have come together this morning out of love for Jesus. Thatis the bread that endures; a community joined together in radical love, respect, and inclusion of one another. As we prepare to celebrate the sacrament of communion, I encourage you to keep that in mind. Because it is only through Jesus and the sacrifice he made that we’re able to partake in, and work for, the bread that endures.