A Sermon preached on August 2nd, Pentecost X, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a, Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:24-35
If I had studied Hebrew at seminary, instead of Greek, I would have known long before our Bible Study last Wednesday what the word manna meant. No, not ‘bread’ – its literal meaning is “what is it?” Only two months in to what will be a 40 year trek through the wilderness and the Israelites were already complaining of hunger and near starvation. So the Lord promises to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven.” (Exodus 16:4) But when the Israelites first saw the “fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground,” “they said to one another, ‘manna,’ or ‘what is it?’” (Ex. 16:14-15) Probably followed by, can we really eat it or what does it taste like? But of course they do soon eat it as they are starving!
In this morning’s Gospel passage the people who follow Jesus around the lake also have a lot of questions. When did you come here? What must we do? What sign will you give? What is this bread of heaven, bread of God, or bread of life that you promise us? And implicitly, who are you?
Although they don't really understand why, they are instinctively drawn to Jesus as the answer to their questions and deeper desires, to the one they really need, much more than any physical bread which perishes and does not fill for long as Jesus tries to explain to 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. 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.” (John 6:26-27)
But, as we will hear over the next weeks as we continue to work through this chapter of John’s Gospel, they were not yet hungry enough to actually try the food Jesus had to offer, they did not go beyond their questions, they were unable to recognize and believe in the one whom God had sent, and so did not know Jesus, the bread of life, although they would have never known hunger or thirst again. What they have in common with so many people today is that the God-shaped space everyone has within them, made as we are in God’s image, remained and remains unfilled.
And unfortunately when we do not acknowledge what we are really looking for, or when we actively ignore or refuse it, that space, that hole gnaws and nags at us; it becomes an aching emptiness that we desperately try and fill with something else. We look to alcohol or drugs, to wealth or success, to power, privilege or sex or even violence to satisfy the deep hunger, the hunger of our hearts.
But these false alternatives do not really work and they certainly do not last – their effect perishes or wears out – and soon we are looking for more, and find ourselves on the path to addiction. One of the books that the Franciscan priest and author, Richard Rohr, has written, looks at the connection between the Twelve Step program used by AA, and the Gospel. Provocatively Rohr says that in some way we are all addicts, that “human beings are addictive by nature.” Addiction, he says, is just “a modern name and honest description for what the biblical tradition called “sin,” and mediaeval Christians called “passions” or “attachments.” He describes the process as follows: “Addicts develop a love and trust relationship with a substance or compulsion of some kind. ... It is a momentary intensity passing for the intimacy they really want, and it is always quickly over.”
Addiction really is not just about something physical or chemical. Listening to the story of King David, Bathsheba, and Uriah the Hittite this and last week, (2 Samuel) I can’t help but feel that David was addicted to power and to sex – and as is the case with addictions it nearly drove him to destruction, and caused great harm to many people, before he was able to admit to God, to himself, and to Nathan that he had gone wrong. In their search for fulfillment and meaning the young men and women who join IS become addicted to violence, power, and to a false glory. And we can become addicted to much less violent things too - to the past, to a particular way of doing things, to a narrative in which we were always and absolutely right and others were totally wrong … but these addictions or dependencies can be dangerous and destructive too.
It’s worth looking at the Twelve Steps that the founders of AA developed and that many other organizations that combat addiction have adapted and use successfully, even if we do not accept the idea that we are all addicts, as they are good Christian spiritual practices. “Belief in a Power greater than ourselves” and “making a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” are two of the steps, others emphasize the need for prayer, meditation as well as repentance, forgiveness and healing. “Nothing new happens without apology and forgiveness” as Richard Rohr puts it.
The first step in filling the God-shaped space within us is our decision to believe in the one whom God has sent (John 6:29) thereby allowing us to begin to be filled with the Spirit of God that, as Paul puts it, Christ has sent down to fill all things. (Ephesians 4.10). Filling the space within us is not a one-off process. It needs constant reaffirmation as we run into doubts and difficulties, at least I do. It is a process of growth and development – until, again in Paul’s words, “all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13)
Our decision to believe in the one whom God has sent allows to start leading a life worthy of the calling … with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” (4:1-2) Paul describes this process as something organic: “Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, … promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.” (4:16) Filling the God-shaped space is not the blind craving of an addiction, but the fulfillment of a basic need and element of our very being. Addiction causes harm – the sign of true fulfillment is harmony. Addiction is destructive both to ourselves and those around us, fulfillment is constructive as it builds up the body of Christ. Addiction is lonely and selfish, fulfillment is generous and sociable. Just as Paul uses the metaphors of the body and of mutual ministries to show us that fulfillment is meant to be in community, so Jesus uses the images of food and drink and of meals to describe what he offers, something that is both necessary for life, and most commonly shared.
Believing in the one whom God has sent is not a condition for our salvation, it is our salvation as the only true way of satisfying the hunger of our hearts and souls.
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." (John 6:35) Manna? What is it? I invite you to come to the Lord’s Table to eat the bread of heaven and drink from the cup of salvation and to find out for yourselves what it is and what it means.
 Richard Rohr, Breathing under water, (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011), xxii
 Ibid, 116
 Ibid, 49