11th Sunday after Pentecost

August 3, 1997

Trinity Lutheran Church
Alameda, California

Gary Pence


John 6:24-35

24 When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were [beside the sea], they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" 26 Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 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." 28 Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" 29 Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." 30 So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" 32 Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." 34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always." 35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.


As those of you who are experienced in weddings know, they are not just a matter of ceremonies. There are the invited guests, the refreshments to revive them after their 2 1/2 hour drive along remote winding country roads to the farm, the wedding dinner and the rented tables and chairs to sit on while eating it, the umbrellas to protect from the bright California sun, the multi-tiered wedding cake that must be picked up in Oakland on Friday and transported up the Pacific coast and over those winding roads on the floor of the parents' van. Then there are the buckets of flowers to adorn the tables, the bands to entertain, the programs. And not to forget the thermal urns of Peets coffee the friend has agreed to pick up in Berkeley on Saturday morning and which might have arrived at the farm well before the cutting of the cake if the friend had not mistakenly driven as far north as Willets. Any of you who have experienced weddings know they can become fairly extensive events.

And a lot of the festivity connected to a wedding has to do with food and drink. You will remember that the very first miracle attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John was to replenish the host's lagging supply of wine at a wedding.

For our family there was also the trip last weekend to Bret's family home up in the redwoods of Humboldt County for a reception to meet family and friends who were unable to make the trek southward the previous weekend. So there was more food, more beverages, more cake, in fact, three cakes, tables, chairs, canopies, the whole bit all over again. After the wedding and the multiple receptions it is definitely diet time for the wedding family.

Well, the food was plentiful and delicious, the flowers beautiful, the scenery spectacular, the musicians delightful, the weather graciously friendly. But none of that was what really made the wedding day or the family gathering the following weekend. Bread is good. Cake is great. But, as Jesus once said, "You can't live on bread or cake alone."

What made the wedding day and the family gathering so wonderful and so moving and so memorable were the friends and family gathered in each place to share the joy and promise of the occasion. Here were people expressing their love and affection. Here were people who could share memories, stories of experiences they had enjoyed with Julie and Bret. Here were people joined together by common bonds, common loyalties, common commitments, common love, respect, and care.

Bread is good and absolutely necessary. Cake--if not necessary--adds flavor, fun, and festivity. But it is the bonds of mutual love emanating from family and friends that make a wedding a real celebration.

Now when Jesus says in the Gospel today that he is "the true bread from heaven, the bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world," he is suggesting that the bread fed to the 5000 and the manna rained down on the Israelites during their wilderness journey are only small morsels of the rich life overflowing that God gives to the world. And when he adds that "whoever comes to him will never be hungry and that whoever believes in him will never be thirsty," he isn't talking about filled stomachs and comfort for parched throats. He is talking about the full life to be lived by people who feel themselves held lovingly, protected and cared for in the hands of an attentive and compassionate God.

The Bible doesn't uniformly describe such a loving God. The Old Testament reading this morning tells about the Israelites being fed in the desert by quails and manna sent by God. The emphasis is on God's generosity and dependable care, and God's patience with the Israelites, who anxiously complain to Moses and Aaron that, after escaping from Egypt, they're just going to die of hunger in the desert.

But, then, the text adds one little item that doesn't fit. It has God say, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not." Now why should God need to test his people? Why, just as he is about to shower them with the food they need to stay alive under very arduous and dangerous conditions, does he need to test their obedience and trust? This turns him from being a loving parent into a sermonizing school-master or suspicious prosecutor or judge or the kind of distrustful parent that drives kids crazy.

Similarly, the section of the Psalm we read today celebrates the giving of the manna in the desert. But the two verses immediately preceding the section we read have God responding to the Israelites' complaints like this: "when the LORD heard, he was full of rage; a fire was kindled against Jacob, his anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith in God, and did not trust his saving power."

And the verses immediately following the selection continue: "But before they had satisfied their craving, while the food was still in their mouths, the anger of God rose against them and he killed the strongest of them, and laid low the flower of Israel. In spite of all this they still sinned; they did not believe in his wonders. So he made their days vanish like a breath, and their years in terror."

It's passages of the Bible like these that create a picture of God whom Alice Miller, a Swiss psychologist who has written 7 or 8 books on child abuse, has compared to an "irritable, hypersensitive, didactic, authoritarian father. The Bible," she writes, "speaks of God's omnipotence, but the divine deeds it describes contradict this attribute: for someone who possessed omnipotence would not need to demand obedience from his child, would not feel his security threatened by false gods, and would not persecute people for having them." Alice Miller suggests that theologians may have created an image of God on a model they are already familiar with, a God who looks like their own fathers may have been--"insecure, authoritarian, power-hungry, vengeful, egocentric.

"As far as our flesh-and-blood fathers are concerned, the more they make a show of being mighty and authoritarian, the more certain they are to be insecure children inside." But that is not how a loving God would be. "A loving God," says Alice Miller, "would not burden us with prohibitions. He would love us as we are, would not demand obedience from us, not feel threatened by criticism, not threaten us with hell, not fill us with fear, not put our loyalty to the test, not mistrust us, would let us experience and express our feelings and needs--confident that this is what we need if we are to learn the meaning of a strong and genuine love, a love that is the opposite of fulfilling one's duty and being obedient, a love that grows only out of the experience of being loved.

"A child," she writes, "can't be raised to be loving by being beaten or by well-meaning words. No reprimands, sermons, explanations, good examples, threats, or prohibitions can make a child capable of love. A child who is preached to learns only to preach and a child who is beaten only learns to beat others. Only vitality and freedom open the wellsprings of a genuine capacity to love."

But Jesus was different. Jesus told stories. Jesus healed people of their pains and suffering. Jesus fed hungry people. Jesus was kind and friendly to people whom others shunned. When he spoke he spoke with authority, but he was never authoritarian, never sought power, never took revenge, lived for others and not for himself. In all of this we Christians understand him to be the revelation of God's true nature.

And it's in that sense that Jesus is the bread of heaven, the bread of life. Jesus washes his disciples' feet. Jesus welcomes little children onto his lap. Jesus professes his love for sinners, outcasts, and nobodies. Jesus even accepts unjust death as his ultimate gift of self because of his total commitment to the care of those in need. And Jesus, we say, reveals what God is really like.

Heaven is sometimes described as a banquet, even as a wedding feast. I thought about that as I was enjoying the company of all those friends and family members at Julie and Bret's wedding. The music was nice, the food was great, the weather and the scenery were perfect. But it was the company of these people that made the day. It was a day when not a single harsh word was spoken. If there had been hard times, none of them was mentioned, only love and affection and good wishes, and a spirit of helpfulness, a mood of hopefulness. That is what heaven is like. And this wedding, I thought, is a taste of heaven, a foretaste of the feast to come.

But when we believe that Jesus is the revelation of God's true nature, the bread of heaven, every day becomes for us a taste of heaven. Every day becomes our opportunity to notice and taste, smell, touch, hear, and see the goodness of God that Jesus reveals, for that goodness is all around us. Not reprimands, criticisms, or condemnations from an angry God, but the beauty and gracious generosity of a God who loves us all.

At Julie and Bret's wedding I read a poem, my favorite poem I think, which expresses what I am trying to convey. It speaks of the inexhaustible bread of heaven contained within the very creation constantly renewing and refreshing us all. By the Victorian British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, it's called God's grandeur:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. So why do humans now not reck God's rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade: bleared, smeared with toil;
Wears human smudge, shares human smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights of the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs -
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Healing Religion's Harm
Gary Pence, Ph.D.