Awakening Our Hunger [Taste & See]
Taste & See - Sermon #3 - Awakening Our Hunger
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • May 29, 2016 • Anna Hillaker, Pastoral Associate for Formation & Care
Good morning! We are so glad to have you all here with us today. We are in the midst of sermon series called “Taste and See,” and we have been exploring the idea that we are all given a place at the table. Regardless of our past experiences with the church, with people of faith, or with Jesus himself, there is space for each of us at the table of God. You are welcome here. You have a place. If you haven’t already, I invite you to hop up and grab a Bible off the cart towards the back as well as sermon notes if you find those helpful. We’ll be camping out in John chapter 6 today, so it might be helpful to have the text in front of you. It will also be on the screen behind me.
I. Awakening to our Hunger
We all love samples, right? I was in New York City recently, where there is a ton of gluten free food. I went into a gluten free bakery and was overjoyed to find samples! Samples I could eat! Naturally, I tried them all. There is something so endearing about a little, promising bite of goodness. Samples are just good enough to be true. It’s generosity we can understand. We can accept the premise of samples because we understand the dynamics. The idea is that we are offered a small, but not overly-generous, amount of something in the hopes that we will want to buy more. But our trust of the goodness of free things only extends so far. As soon as something seems too generous, too good to be true, we shut down. As wholeheartedly as I ate those samples in New York, I also scurried away from countless people trying to sell me something too good to be true. A handbag that looks just the like the real thing! The cheapest theater tickets you can find! We often don’t even hear these offers out. We avoid eye-contact. We walk faster. We quickly reply “No thank you,” before they have finished their sales pitch, if we respond at all. But what if, what if, we encountered an offer, a too-good-to-be-true offer, that was true? Would we be able to recognize it?
II. Coming Hungry
For the past few weeks, we have been talking about fellowship at a table. We are all invited. And I want to take this time to ask, what exactly are we being invited to? It is not an empty table that we are invited to. So what’s on it? To explore this question a bit more, we’re going to spend some time this morning in John chapter 6. We will pick up the story starting in verse 22. Just prior to this, two incredible things have happened: Jesus fed over 5000 people simply with 5 barley loaves, 2 fishes, and his gratitude for the Father’s provision, and then he walked on water. That’s a lot of excitement! And the people around Jesus are picking up on that. After witnessing Jesus’ incredible acts, they start to follow him. Not metaphorically. They actually start following him around. When they see that Jesus has left, they load into boats, and head to Capernaum, “seeking Jesus.” And interestingly, the reason Jesus left in the first place was because he knew they were about to force him to become king! They were pretty excited about this bread.
They track him down and start asking him questions, beginning with how he managed to get over here without a boat. But Jesus, being the perceptive man that he is, redirects their question: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” First of all, pay attention to this phrase “truly, truly.” Jesus uses it repeatedly in this story, and usually when he is about to turn the expectations of those listening to him upside down. If you start to pay attention to the gospels, you’ll notice that Jesus has this annoying habit of answering questions that people don’t actually ask him. So pay attention to what follows. “You’re not here for the reasons you think you are,” Jesus tells them. “It’s not about flashy signs. You came because you were hungry, and you ate your fill. Something in you was satisfied in a meaningful way.” He then continues to confound them by addressing something deep and unspoken in their pursuit of him: “Do not labor for food that perishes,” he says, “but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” Not only is Jesus answering a question they did not ask, but he is challenging his hearers’ basic expectations of what it means to live faithfully.
Their unspoken need is to know what to do, to know what is required of them. As soon as Jesus addresses this underlying need, they respond by asking “ What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Notice that they don’t ask him about this food that does not perish. The food that is given to them. They do not ask about eternal life. They don’t ask about food at all. They ask, “what do we do?” We love to know what to do. I do, anyway. Jesus has just answered a question they didn’t ask, and I think they want to get back on even ground, to get to a place where they understand what is going on, where they have a grasp of what their role is. But again, Jesus’ answer confounds them. In verse 29, “Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him who he has sent.” Hm. I get the sense that Jesus’ followers wanted something a little more concrete than that. Maybe some sort of holiness program. But Jesus’ answer is basically “believe in me.”
So, of course, they push back. “We’ve done this bread thing before!” they think. “We know how this is supposed to go.” So they ask him to show them proof, show them something they can hang their belief on, something that is familiar to them, something they understand. They ask for manna. “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness;” they say, “as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” They think they see where this is going. And, as will become clear, they are kind of hoping to get back on the manna train.
- Israelites released from slavery
- Into the wilderness where they think they’re going to die
- God provides daily bread for them
- At first they’re excited, then they get really sick of it.
The people of Israel have this tendency of idealizing certain aspects of the past. Daily Jesus bread! Sounds awesome! They just conveniently forget how much they actually complained about it.
But then Jesus responds. “Truly, truly, I say to you…” Uh-oh. Those pesky words again. Here comes the subversion of their expectations: “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Wait, “the bread of God is HE who comes down?” The true bread of God, Jesus says, is a person. Somehow, Jesus’ followers don’t really manage to hear this. “Sir, give us this bread always,” they say. It sounds to me like they’re still looking for an actual loaf of bread. Jesus’ new daily bread subscription—a fresh baked, artisanal loaf delivered to your doorstep each morning. Sounds amazing! But Jesus doesn’t let them miss it. He’s about to upend all their expectations once and for all. “Jesus said to them, “I, I am the bread of life.”
III. Not the Feast they Expected
Jesus now offers them an incredible promise. Truly, an amazing offer:
“I, I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”
Jesus offers a lasting, profound meeting of our deepest and most basic need— to be fed. And even more, he places no requirements on his offer. “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” Let’s hear that again. “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” This is our place at the table. The space is open. It has your name on it. If you approach the table you have the promise that you will not be rejected. You will not be turned away. Nothing is required of you except the trust needed to sit down and be fed.
But here’s the crazy thing. This sermon of Jesus’, this invitation, is resoundingly rejected. It looks like a complete failure. Let’s remember that this chapter began will over 5,000 people seeking after Jesus, and that some of them wanted to force him to become king. That’s a lot of popularity. By the end of this chapter, Jesus has 11 faithful followers remaining. Eleven. What is it about this beautiful promise that is so difficult for his followers to engage? Why are they turning away from the most incredible, satisfying, meaningful offer they will ever receive?
So now the Jews are grumbling. They’re annoyed. Who does this guy think he is? We weren’t asking about eternal life! We weren’t hoping for our deepest desires to be satisfied! We weren’t looking for a banquet feast, we just wanted samples! So they did what people usually do when they encounter something too good to be true, something they can’t understand. They try to bring it down to size, to reveal the scam, to vindicate their skepticism. “They said “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” We know you’re not from heaven! They say. We know your parents. We know your siblings. We knew you when you were a little kid running around, and when you were a teenage apprentice in your dad’s carpentry shop. You can’t fool us.
And Jesus, in wonderful, typical Jesus fashion, remains unfazed and continues to undermine their expectations:
“Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws her. And I will raise her up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— not that anyone has seen the Father except he who comes from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (v. 43-51)
Now the Jews are really peeved with him. This is not the answer they wanted. They wanted a new Moses to give them manna. They did not want their eyes opened to a deeper hunger. And Jesus does something particularly interesting here. He is basically telling them that they cannot believe, cannot trust his offer, because they cannot admit to their own hunger. The proof, he says, is right in front of them. “If you’re truly seeking the Father, truly learning from God, the path will lead to me,” Jesus says. The real test of bread, is whether it is life-giving. What is the good of food if it does not sustain us? It is empty. As actual bread gives us enough life to go on for a little while, the true bread from heaven will give us all the life we will ever need.
The analogy is this: when we eat regular bread, we digest it and it gives us the sustenance that we need to live for a little while. So if Jesus is the true bread, who gives us real, enduring life, there must be a way for us to “digest” this life, to absorb it. “Truly, truly, I say to you” Jesus says in his final turning of the tables in our passage today, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” He goes on to articulate why this is the case. Jesus has been sent by the Father, through whom he has true life. If we are to have true life, we must take Jesus’ life into ourselves, we must take the true life that he offers into our own bodies.
But let’s face it. The way Jesus explains all of this sounds pretty gross.
- Jesus doubles down
- Allusion to Jesus’ death and resurrection and the communion meal
- His body broken. His blood shed. For us. At the heart of it, we are deeply uncomfortable with this lavish gift.
“This,” Jesus insists in verse 58, “is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” But here’s the thing. We struggle to accept food if we don't admit that we have a need for it. It is important to note that there are two different words for hunger used in the NT. The hunger Jesus is talking about, the hunger the he is encouraging, is not the hunger of deprivation or starvation. It is the hunger of desire. The hunger of longing. Jesus’ followers here are struggling to admit that they crave something deeper than physical bread each day. They were drawn to Jesus by their physical hunger, and Jesus’ miraculous ability to meet their needs. But they cannot acknowledge their spiritual hunger, their need for true life, abundant life, joyful life. They wanted a snack, and Jesus offers them a seat at the banquet feast. I find it telling that their questions to Jesus focus on the work that is required of them. They are willing to accept what Jesus offers as long as they get to work for it, to earn it.
But here’s the thing. If you’re hungry enough, you don’t care. Our hunger itself becomes the proof of what we’re seeking. When we embrace our hunger and become familiar with it, we are able to recognize the only thing that can truly satisfy it when it shows itself to us. I love the description that Robert Farrar Capon, a food-loving priest whose work was immensely helpful to me in writing this sermon, uses:
“That is the inconsolable heartburn, the lifelong disquietude of having been made in the image of God. All [humanity’s] love is vast and inconvenient. It is tempting, of course, to blunt its edge by caution. It is so much easier not to get involved— to thirst for nothing and no one, to deny that matter matters … But that, it seems to me, is neither human nor Divine.” 189
And that’s what Jesus is saying here. When you are seeking after God, when you are hungry to be close to the Father, hungry for the life that can only come from heaven, you recognize it when you run into it. Your eyes grow wide, your stomach rumbles, and you sit down at that table.
IV. Invited to the Feast
This is the amazing, wondrous thing. Jesus offers us life as bread gives us life— and it is offered indiscriminately. No one who seeks it will be turned away, everyone who hungers and thirsts will be given satisfaction, will be given new life. This, as one commentator notes, is an invitation where the bar is kept as low as possible, a meal that is as accessible as it can be. All we have to do is hunger for it. And our work, our difficult work, is to trust Jesus’ love enough to sit down and be fed.
And the truth is, all our feasting points us back to our central hunger. There is something inside us, something a bit wild that longs for more than we usually give it. When we do feast— when we take the time to relish our food, absorb the company around us, to laugh and to share and to linger over a meal— it does something to us. As profound and enjoyable as these feasts are, they actually don’t eliminate our hunger. They cause it to grow. Capon writes: “the most splendid dinner, the most exquisite food, the most gratifying company, arouse more appetite than they satisfy. They do not slake [humanity’s] thirst for being; they whet it beyond all bounds” (188).
This is a feast that we approach with the hearts of children— with wide eyes, and eager anticipation, with celebration and with gratitude. And that’s the beautiful thing. This table, this grace, that Jesus offers us, this glorious feast, is not a high-flung spiritual metaphor. We are given real bread. We are offered real wine. God is a “lavish giver,” who understands our need for the concrete, the practical. This life that we are offered, this grace, is mediated to us through a real man’s actual body, and likewise, his grace flows to us in the real act of feasting together, the nourishing of our bodies around the table. “From the beginning,” writes Alexander Schmemman, a Greek Orthodox priest whose work was immensely helpful in preparing this sermon, “all our hunger was a hunger for Him and all our bread was but a symbol of Him, a symbol that had to become reality.” (For the Life of the World, 42-3). The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word that means to give thanks. This meal is a gift, a meal of gratitude and joy. Jesus says in John 15:11, “ These things I have spoken to you the my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
And this is not new, this has always been God’s posture toward us. Isaiah 55:1-3a reads:
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.”
Our hunger draws us to God. If we allow ourselves to feel it, if we trust the image of God that was planted deeply in each of us, we will be able to recognize the true bread of life.
V. Practical Tips
Our practical tip today is both simple and very hard. I invite you to feast. To recognize the lavish goodness of God and allow it to whet your hunger for true life. We will do this first, together, in the act of communion. Friends, we are given a chance to take in true life. Jesus tells us that he meets us here, that he is giving us more than a little bit of bread and a little bit of juice. Jesus is offering us the life, the true life, that only he has to give. And, because he know us well, he is not just offering an idea, a concept to assent to, something to believe in. He gives us something physical, something that actually nourishes our bodies and encourages our souls.
This week I have baked bread. You may have noticed that it has been sitting up here next to me throughout the sermon. Care went into this bread. I measured, mixed, and let it rise, shaped it, and baked it. And even though many of you probably have low expectations for gluten free bread, it’s actually good! So when you come to communion today, taste the bread. Actually taste it. Recognize that Jesus’ love, provision, and life are flowing through you in the concrete, physical act of eating. Let it whet your appetite for more. And see that you are eating at the banquet table of the Lord. Look around you at all of the people who have been invited. See how no one is turned away.
And as you head into this week, find a concrete way to feast. This may simply mean choosing one meal and slowing it down. Light a candle. Make something a little fancy. Take your time. Taste your food and be grateful. Savor the fact that this gift is nourishment— that is transformed into the energy that gives us life. This may mean eating with other people, or inviting someone over for a meal. Let the giving or receiving of that hospitality remind you of God’s glorious welcome to us. I love how the writer Flannery O’Connor prays: “God is feeding me and what I’m praying for is an appetite.” Feasting is a way of awakening our appetites for God’s lavish gifts for us. Each of us is invited to God’s table. No one who seeks will be turned away. Even if your feast is not elaborate, take the time for at least one of your meals to serve as a concrete reminder of the profound, life-giving sustenance that Jesus offers to each of us.