By Dcn. Eric Whitehair on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name ✠ of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In some ways, the things that our Lord said to the folks following Him may have been a little hard to understand. They were looking for bread, very literally, for bread. He was speaking of bread, but by the end we see that He is speaking of bread in a way that, dare I say, we might think of as metaphorical, not a literal bread that you would hold in your hand, but the bread of life. But metaphor might be a little bit – not exactly correct. I’m not certain that when we come to the Eucharistic feast, that what we’re holding in our hand is merely a metaphor.
I’m always a little careful when I come to a Gospel reading, especially one like this, which could have a couple of meanings that seem very straightforward. When I was being trained in how to do preaching, homiletics, we were taught about exegesis; that’s a word that probably some folks here are very familiar with, exegesis, pulling things out of the Word that are there, bringing things out from Scripture and helping to make them apparent. But I have to be careful, and this is perhaps my own word, perhaps not, of exogesis, that is, taking my own things and putting them into Scripture.
If you can’t see why that might be a danger, for me personally, then you haven’t known me long enough. It is more important to me to hear what Scripture is speaking to me than perhaps what I have to say to Scripture. So, with that in mind, let me tell you what hopped out the reading this week for me, the conversation I had with myself, the conversation I hopefully had prayerfully with the Lord, and hopefully I share with you what I have been led to believe. That is perhaps the wisest thing that I have ever been counseled: that whenever talking about Scripture, whenever talking about spiritual matters, it is always good to remind yourself, if preface what you’re saying with, “This is what I have been led to believe.”
Why? Because, because I have my own things that I put into Scripture, I have my own things, my own understandings, my own, and this is the really important part, misunderstandings that I bring to Scripture and to theology. It is important to speak with God, to have conversations with God, with Scripture, with prayer, in prayer, but always understand that at the end our understanding is a human understanding and human understanding, by definition, is fallible and that I may be guilty of exogesis; I may be putting into Scripture something that was not previously there, something that, quite honestly doesn’t belong there.
Here’s what I saw. Upon the first reading, I asked myself, “What is being said here?”
“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on Him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to Him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”
Well, that seems rather easy, doesn’t it? Okay, so that’s my first clue that I might not be reading everything correctly. If I’m reading something Scripture, and if I’m reading something that my Lord is commanding me to do, and the first thing that pops into my head is, “Boy, that sounds easy,” I might not be reading it 100% correctly. Believe on Jesus, we’re done. We don’t have to feed people, right? That’s the bread that passes, right, don’t worry about that, believe in Jesus, and your work here is finished. My work here is finished. I’m just waiting now, right, for the end, however I come to meet Jesus, face to face, all I have to do is believe in Jesus, and you know, my work here is finished.
That might be exogesis. I might be putting something into the Bible that is not there. I might be putting something into Scripture that is not there, because Jesus said this to folks after He fed them. He did not say, “I’m sorry you’re hungry. But really, you just need to believe in me.” He fed them first, and then reminded them that there is a spiritual side, too.
If we take a look at the readings from the entire set of readings in lectionary today, we do see a real encouragement to look at making sure that our sustenance is not physical only, but spiritual. To make sure that we are being fed spiritually, and that, as Christians, one of the cornerstones of our belief is indeed faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. It is belief, that is true, and in every single one of the readings, your Deacon of course is going to remind you of this, there are physical feedings happening as well. Indeed, being fed spiritually is important, and, indeed, feeding people physically is important.
Mohandas Gandhi, a spiritual man in his own right, if not a Christian, said that God can appear to a starving person only as a morsel of bread. And he spoke literally when he said that. God can only appear to a starving person as a morsel of bread. So if I think that the words of our Lord are saying that it relieves me of my responsibility, my earthly responsibilities, and my physical responsibilities to feed, literally feed, my neighbor, then I fear that I may not be reading what is actually in Scripture, I may actually be putting in what I hope is true, that I don’t have to do any of the physical labor, I just have to believe and my work here is done. Physical feeding happens along with spiritual feeding. And like our Lord and like the numerous places in Scripture where it talks about sustenance, it is important to understand that, yes, we are to feed each other spiritually. We are to encourage each other’s faith. We are to build each other up in belief. We are to seek spiritual sustenance. But at the same time, remember, the physical sustenance is also part of what we do. That to one of our starving brothers and sisters, I might not be able to feed them spiritually until they have been fed physically first.
“I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” And perhaps there, perhaps, is also instructions for us on how we are to feed the world spiritually and physically at the same time, so that our brothers and sisters are not hungry or thirsty in any meaning of the word.