A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 2, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: John 6:24-35
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was in Cleveland several weeks ago attending General Synod, I took an afternoon off and went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They had a special exhibit on Paul Simon that I found interesting. To me, Paul Simon is much more half of the Simon and Garfunkel duo than he is the guy who helped bring World Music into American pop culture – which is probably more a comment about my age than anything else. If I had known I would be wanting this sermon illustration now, I would have taken notes then, so I’m relying on my memory. I remember a significant display about Simon writing music for the 1967 movie, The Graduate, and I remember something about his resistance to the project. I find that amusing since “Mrs. Robinson” was a major Simon and Garfunkel commercial success.

There is a line in the song, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.” I’ve read that in a 60 Minutes interview, “Paul Simon mentioned that some time after the song was released, he received a letter from Joe DiMaggio in which DiMaggio expressed his befuddlement at what in the world that song could mean.  DiMaggio wrote, ‘What do you mean “Where have I gone?” I haven’t gone anywhere! I’m still around – I’m selling Mr. Coffee.’ Then Simon smiled wryly at Mike Wallace and remarked, ‘Obviously, Mr. DiMaggio is not accustomed to thinking of himself as a metaphor!’

“But then, who is? Most, if not all, of us see ourselves as real people with literal, descriptive identities.”[1] For instance, I am a pastor, a brother, an uncle, a community organizer, a volunteer, a son – but all of these descriptors are straight forward, literal expressions of who I am in relation to other people. Like most people, I have a hard time conceiving of myself as a symbol for something, as a kind of metaphor that represents something beyond myself.

I think it’s easier to create a metaphor for someone else. I can imagine someone saying, “My spouse is a shelter from the storms.” But coming up with a metaphor for yourself?

“I am the oil that lubricates the church.” “I am the antibody that fights off the infection of commercialism.” I had to work hard to come up with those. And if I were to introduce myself like that, people would think I’m nuts or pretty darn egotistical. Yet that’s were John’s Jesus goes in today’s reading.   And Jesus’ metaphor for himself is much more obtuse than the ones I just offered for me.

In last week’s reading, we heard about Jesus going off into the wilderness with his disciples, a crowd following him, and how he fed the crowd with meager supplies of bread and fish. The crowd was so impressed by this that they wanted to force him to become king, so Jesus split into the hills. Later that night, the disciples left in their boats for the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus followed, walking on the water.

Now, before we go any further, I remind you that Spong says that we mustn’t read the fourth gospel literally. It is written by a Jewish mystic, so the whole gospel and all of its parts are to be read with a Jewish and a mystical sensibility. As I said last week, this gospel was “written just after the followers of Jesus were kicked out of the synagogue, but the authors still identified themselves as being Jews. They also came from a mystical tradition, one that understands the oneness of humanity and God (perhaps all of creation and God) and that seeks to more deeply connect to that divine permeating presence that can open one to a new dimension of consciousness.”[2]

As a result of Spong’s book,[3] I have found myself no longer asking, “What did Jesus mean by that?” Instead, I’m asking, “What did John mean by having Jesus say that?” So we get to today’s reading with the crowds realizing that Jesus is gone, they go looking. When they find him in Capernaum, they have a conversation with Jesus. And we hear Jesus saying things like, “Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life,” and “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” and (now we get to that self-referential metaphor) “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Spong summarizes these sayings: “John’s Jesus [makes] the claim that he is himself ‘the bread of life,’ which satisfies the deepest hunger in the human soul; in addition, by locating this feeding episode at the time of the Passover, John consciously identifies Jesus with the paschal lamb. He will make this identification overt later by refusing to view the Last Supper as a Passover meal, in contradistinction to the earlier gospels. He chose, rather, to have the crucifixion of Jesus occur on the day of preparation for the Passover so that Jesus will be crucified at the exact moment that the paschal lamb is slaughtered. Recall that John the baptizer has already referred to Jesus earlier in John’s gospel as the ‘lamb of God.’ …

“After the multitude is fed Jesus begins to teach them about the meaning of the food they have just consumed. The food that Jesus brings is not to be confused with food that satisfies temporary hunger. It is, he says, the food which ‘endures to eternal life.’ To make sure John’s readers get the point of this feeding story, John has Jesus relate it directly to Moses and the wilderness, but then he raises it to another level, a higher level. When one eats, he says, to satisfy physical hunger, the satisfaction is never permanent. One is always hungry again. Only the bread of God that gives life to the world will ultimately satisfy the deepest human hunger.”[4]

I’ve come to worship having skipped breakfast and by the time we get to communion, I’ve wanted more than a little cube of bread. I want a piece that is big enough to fill my tummy. But the bread of communion isn’t meant to fill our stomachs. The bread of communion is meant to satisfy a different hunger, and the cup of communion is meant to satisfy a different thirst. The thing is, we sometimes confuse the two hungers. I think this is probably typified in my circle of friends by the ones who will do “a little shopping therapy” if they’ve had a string of rough days. I know I’ve been guilty of this – purchasing a piece of electronics I want (but don’t need) because subconsciously I think it will make me feel better, that it will fill some void I’m feeling.

The problem with this behavior pattern is that is never truly satisfies. And it doesn’t matter what department of the story you go shopping in. “Whatever piece of the pie that you’re hungering for – whether it’s a bigger slice of acceptance or riches or gratification of your urges – you’re going to find yourself hungry for more and more and more.”[5] And it can get out of control. “In our consumer-driven world, in which many people literally work themselves to death accumulating a never-fully-satisfying abundance of things, Jesus’ words challenge our society’s misguided substitutes for ‘life.’”[6]

This is a danger that affects the church and pastors. “Well-run churches and sermons that are easy to listen to may appeal to us at first, but they do not satisfy our deep spiritual hunger.”[7] It’s the same problem Jesus faced in the crowds in our reading. “Feed us, entertain us, and we will adore you,” they say. Well, that’s a paraphrase, but it’s pretty accurate: “What sign are you going to give us the, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?”

The Jesus we meet in John’s gospel knows that people – that we – want a quick fix, an easy answer, instead of entering into the mystery with heart and soul open to receiving the new life that discipleship brings. We resist the deeper invitation and we each junk food hoping it will satisfy our deepest hungers. And still, Jesus invites us: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

I know it’s unfair to do this to John’s gospel, it’s unfair to do this to any book in the Bible – to reference a passage from another book as if the author of the first book was purposefully connecting his or her writing to the second – but I’ll do it anyway. When I hear these words from John’s gospel, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” I can’t help but think of a verse from Matthew’s gospel. From the beatitudes, sayings that start off the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

I know I often hear the word “righteousness” and think of “piousness.” But that misses about half of the meaning of the Greek. The Greek, dikaiosynē, is about relationship – our relationship with God and our relationships with each other. “Righteous action is action which conforms to the requirements of the relationship and in a more general sense promotes the well-being and peace of the community.”[8] So, the word is very much related to the biblical (as opposed to the legal) notion of justice. Hungering and thirsting for God includes hungering and thirsting for justice.

I love the Blaise Pascal quote that’s printed in your bulletins: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.” I just think it’s not completely accurate.

I believe that there develops a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of people. We are born filled with God, but somewhere along the way, we lose track of that. Perhaps it is a natural part of the maturation process, where we seek to become autonomous and so we buy into the lie that we are separate from the rest of creation. Perhaps it is the exposure to injustice, and we realize that the unity and balance of the universe is off kilter. It seems as if there is an emptiness. And so we hunger and thirst. It’s just that we usually don’t know what we’re really hungering for.

Jesus reminds us of what our real hunger is. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”


[1] Scott Hoezee, “Comments and Observations,” quoted in an email from sermons.com dated 28 July 2015.

[2] Jeffrey Spencer, “Give Me Your Lunch Money,” a sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California, on 26 July 2015. Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer.

[3] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (New York: HarperCollins, 2013).

[4] Ibid, 130-131.

[5] Steve Wilkins, “Are You Hungry,” quoted in an email from sermons.com dated 28 July 2015.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos, The Great Themes of Scripture: New Testament, quoted by Michaela Brusses, “Food that Endures,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/food-endures (accessed 28 July 2015).

[8] Milne, B. A. (1996). Righteousness. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 1020). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.