What Must We Do…?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 08/02/2015
Based on John 6:22-38
In nineteenth century China there was a name for people who came to church because they were hungry for material food. They would convert, be baptized, join the church, and remained active members as long as their physical needs were met through the generosity of the congregation. But once their prospects improved and they and their families no longer needed rice, they drifted away from the church. Missionaries called these people “rice Christians.”
Similarly when the churches in East Germany and Romania were manifesting courage, and pastors were speaking out against Communist regimes just before the [fall of the Berlin Wall] – people came to cheer the church on, and to join the congregations in its opposition to the tyrannical state. But after the liberation from the hells of the Soviet boot and local dictators, the crowds dispersed and the churches began to look as straggling and abandoned as they had before the stirrings of political liberty took hold. Feasting on the Word, Vol3, yr B pg 308, O Benjamin Sparks.
The same thing happened in America after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. For months our sanctuaries were filled with people who were looking for comfort and answers. Then over the next few months, their need for spiritual comfort waned until the church was once again filled with empty seats. I have seen this familiar behavior in families when a sudden tragedy strikes. Surviving members will often attend worship services as a part of their grieving process, looking to have that empty space that comes with the loss of their loved one, filled. Once that empty space has healed, they forget where they found that healing solstice and stop coming to worship.
We can see in the crowds that followed Jesus to Capernaum to find him after he fed the five thousand in the wilderness are like those who see faith and church membership as something they can choose [at will] for themselves to use for their own needs… Feasting on the Word, Vol3, yr B pg 308, O Benjamin Sparks. It is a mentality of “What can the church do for me?” As an example, last week eight churches (including Mountain View) came together in a joint worship. There was in the neighborhood of around 230 people who gathered for that worship. It was a great time of gathering and it felt like a lot of people were there. Yet, not everyone from these eight churches came to that worship. If they had, the sanctuary would not have been large enough to hold everyone. Each church had probably 2/3’s of its typical attendees choose to take that day off from worship. Why? Well there are many reasons I am sure, but ultimately it comes to a truth that most American Christians use worship and church membership as something they can choose to use for themselves.
The late President Kennedy once said in a speech to the youth of America, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” This is what is being discussed in this morning’s text. When the crowd that Jesus had feed the day before discovered that Jesus was not with them, they assumed that he had gone with his disciples across the lake to Capernaum. It just so happens that there are a number of boats from Capernaum pulling into dock and they get into the boats and go across the lake looking for Jesus. Once they find Jesus, He confronts the crowd about the reason why they are seeking him out. It wasn’t because of spiritual nourishment but rather for more food.
Their reason for seeking out Jesus might sound shallow on the surface, but we are talking about a people who were living in extreme poverty. Food was very scares and if you find someone who can make five loaves of barely bread and two fish feed five thousand or more, why wouldn’t you go looking for him? We have the advantage of “hindsight” as we read these Gospel stories. And too often with this “hindsight” we forget to think about the humanity that is in each of these stories. When Jesus is confronting these seekers, He sees the trials and tribulations that is compelling them, but he also sees something that will enrich their lives and tells them not to look for the perishable’s of life, but rather seek out and work for the non-perishable. We read the same theme in the story of the woman at the well, where Jesus is telling her that there is water, should she chose to drink it, that will satisfy her thirst. She asks to drink it so she will not have to come daily to that well and get water. She was looking for a perishable solution and not seeing the imperishable being offered by Jesus.
Do we not have that same hunger, that same thirst in our lives, today? There is always going to be the need for food, there is always going to be physical hunger, but Jesus tells us that worrying and striving to have enough of the physical is never going to satisfying. For like the “rice Christians”, or the Eastern Europe people who lived under communism, or those who went flocking to our churches after 9/11, or families who attend church after the death of a loved one, once their immediate needs have been met, leave because they never truly integrated into their hearts how God was involved in their receiving. They saw only the perishable, what can the church do for me. This may sound harsh to our liberal ears, but doesn’t the habits in attendance of the average Christian reflect the mentality the “what can I get from Church” instead of the heart asking “What can I do for the church?”
Jesus had to correct the understanding of the crowds when they asked Jesus for a sign saying, “that their ancestors had been feed Manna by Moses. So Jesus, what can you give to us?” Jesus pointed out to them that it was not Moses who provided the Manna, but rather God. In the same way, Jesus was explaining to them that the multiplication of the five loaves and two fish, was not done by Jesus, but was an act of God.
In this story, we see that the crowd doesn’t see God in their midst when they are asking Jesus to “give them a clue about who he is.” I wonder how many of us would truly recognize Jesus if he were to step foot into this congregation this morning. I wonder if in our wondering through life, how often do we recognize God in front of us? Former Sociology Professor at Eastern College and Professor of Theology at Eastern Seminary, Dr Tony Campolo once posed the question of “how would we treat each person we meet, if we saw the face of Jesus, in that person.” It’s a profound question that we should be asking ourselves.
I think the question that Dr Campolo asked reflects the response that Jesus was giving to the crowd in his answer, “The real significance of that Scripture is not that Moses gave you bread from heaven but that my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread. The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world.” Jesus is saying that God is presently giving bread and this bread is life giving. Jesus then states, “I am the Bread of life.” When we hear the “I Am”, it is saying, “God is present”, present among us.
We all are starving in one fashion or another. It can be from physical hunger, or from physical needs, or from emotional issues. Loneliness, low-self image, mental illness, hunger, lack of shelter, an abusive home life, the list is as long as there are the number of people living. Trying to meet these needs with external Band-Aids will never treat the real causes, for that is perishable food. What we need to do is to take the nourishment that God is offering us and feed our hearts – by recognizing, truly recognizing that God is present in our lives and through his bread, is giving us life that will not parish. As the people finally asked Jesus, “What can we do to get in on God’s work?” We, coming this morning to Christ’s table, should be not asking, “what can God do for me”, but rather “What can I do for God!” At this table this morning, let us feast not just on the physical elements but on the spirit of God’s presence in our lives. Amen.