This week’s scriptures present us with two very different kinds of meals – yet each helps us think more deeply on what Jesus might mean when he proclaims, “I am the Bread of Life.”
The first meal is the one we read about in 1 Kings. This meal reminds me of those moments when I’ve been too anxious, sick, or scared to eat. Usually my appetite decreases when I have learned of the death of a friend or family member, though severe illnesses can have a similar effect.
In this passage, Elijah is being chased by the king and his cronies, because Elijah has killed the king’s prophets. He’s rightly afraid for his life, and he thinks–rather than be taken by his enemies– that he will simply steal into the desert and pray for God to grant him death.
God does exactly the opposite. Like the proverbial grandmother who complains that you’re too thin, you need to keep up your strength, and commands you to eat the mountains of food she’s lovingly prepared for you, God leaves Elijah some bread and a jug of water, and commands Elijah to eat. Not just once but twice! So Elijah eats and finds the strength to keep travelling all the way to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God.
Essentially God offers Elijah a choice between life and death. Take God’s food and continue on the journey (life). Or, stay here in this desert wilderness (certain death, whether from his pursuers, or from lack of food and water in this wasteland, we don’t know).
Food is life. I imagine that’s one of the reasons why pretty much every congregation I know about has a funeral dinner committee and a cadre (of mostly women) who give this gift of food to grieving families and friends. Funeral ministries are so important not only because they remind those who are deeply grieving to eat – but also because they remind all of us that food is life.
The food reminds us that God is there, even despite unbearable grief or pain. Food is life because it is a way of continuing on, of living into hope even when all hope seems lost as it seemed for Elijah. It is a way of marking – even and especially in those times when we do not want to say it – “I am the Bread of Life” and God will journey with us till we come, at last, to God’s own mountain.
Of course, then there are the other times when we can and do eat. The meal in today’s Gospel reminds me of the block party earlier this summer: cold lemonade, sweet tea, yummy-smelling things on the grill, and my next door neighbor’s special potato salad, and then thick, chewy brownies, and some homemade ice cream to polish off the meal. I was happy and satisfied with the food and the company.
That kind of meal maybe gives us a picture of today’s Gospel context. As we know from a couple weeks ago, the people have just eaten a full, satisfying meal of fishes and loaves, and they are surrounded by friends, neighbors, and Jesus himself. Yet when they wake up the next day, they discover that Jesus has disappeared. So they follow him across the sea and demand to know what’s going on.
Jesus admonishes them that they’ve only taken the trouble to follow after him because they’ve had a nice meal. “Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Then Jesus drops the real zinger: “I am the bread of life” and “I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
These people that Jesus has fed have real trouble with that one. After all, they know him, they’ve grown up with him, played games with him. What can he possibly mean by saying he’s the bread of life come down from heaven?
All of a sudden the loaves and fishes meal takes on a new serious tone. It’s not just for slaking hunger and celebrating with friends. Those of us who eat this meal – we’ve got work to do, and this bread is our food for the journey, much like Elijah’s was.
It is difficult work, as Paul reminds us. We at Ekklesia Project are very likely to understand just how tough it is to be angry but not to sin, to work honestly but also to share the proceeds of our work, to speak to each other only in ways that build each other up, and to forgive.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say each one of us likely knows how difficult it is to do Paul’s words in a divided world like ours. So no wonder we need God’s own food, Jesus’ very self, in order to proceed. When Jesus proclaims that he is the Bread of Life, he means to be food for the journey. Let us take him up on his kind offer.