Texts: Exodus 16: 2-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul emphasizes the unity of God’s people above all, and describes how there is room for diversity within that unity. There are many different gifts, but the same Spirit who gives them. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” And yet, Paul also warns the Ephesians to be on their guard against harmful interpretations of Scripture, those “winds of doctrine” that have tossed them to and fro.
So where is the line? What is the litmus test? How do we tell what is simply another diverse idea and what is “deceitful trickery?” As children we are raised to believe that there is an answer to every problem in the back of the book; every question has one correct response, and every adult has all the answers. Then, when we reach adulthood, we realize that we are all of us standing in the midst of an immense wilderness with no compass, no map and sense of where we are; we are all just trying to make our way the best we can. Because of how we were taught, we still look for the “right” answer, the “right” solution, but in the real world, problems have multiple solutions, questions have multiple and often contradicting answers, and there is no way to reliably tell which one is best because often there is no best.
The Israelites found themselves in the middle of such a wilderness. It’s easy for us to be hard on them for their grumbling and murmuring against Moses and Aaron and against God; but that’s because we know that God has a plan for them, a destination and a timeline in mind. They did not know that. From their perspective, Moses led them out of Egypt and then seemed to stop leading when they got just beyond the border. They didn’t know if he or anyone else had any plan for what happened next. Can you blame them for wanting to go back to a life they at least got 3 square meals a day?
It is in the midst of this grumbling that it begins to emerge that there is indeed a method to God’s madness. Had God shared with them the itinerary and the justification for what was ahead, they may have been more patient; after all, they had for generations lived according to a schedule, always knowing what was coming next. If you ever had any doubt about what you had to do, just ask the overseer; but God takes them into the unknown because God doesn’t want to be their new overseer. By bringing them into the wilderness, God is preparing them for a life that doesn’t follow an itinerary, a life that doesn’t keep to a neat schedule. In short, God is preparing them for real life in the real world; a world outside of slavery, a world in which they are people rather than farm animals and construction equipment.
The first thing God does to prepare them for this real world is to teach them to trust and rely on God. The Israelites trusted that the Egyptians would feed them because they knew the Egyptians needed them strong to work. God has no use for this people, nothing for them to do; can they trust this God to feed them when God has no reason to? This is the first lesson: like the Egyptians God is reliable; but more so because God sustains them not because God needs them, but because God loves them. The Israelites learn to live on God’s love for them. As they wait to see where Moses will take them next, as they wander around for the next 40 years, every single day they learn anew that God will keep them alive simply because God loves them and God has chosen them.
We continue to tell this story because even though we are not nomads wandering a Middle Eastern desert, its truth still rings clear for us in our own metaphorical wildernesses. In the midst of uncertainty and doubt, we, too, continue to learn daily that God will provide for us what we need. Unlike the Israelites, however, what we need is not just bread.
This is the message that Jesus gives to those hungry crowds who followed him across the sea from the shore where 5000 were fed. They come looking for more bread, but Jesus tells them that bread is not their most urgent concern. “Don’t work for bread,” he says, “life is about more than just surviving. If you are going to work, work for food that doesn’t fill your belly today and fill the sewer tomorrow.” And so they ask: “What must we do to perform the works of God?”
In John’s gospel, people have a habit of asking Jesus the wrong question, and Jesus has a habit of answering the question they should have asked, rather than the one they do ask. When the crowd asks, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” he doesn’t tell them what they need to do, but instead tells them about what God does: “This (i.e. Jesus himself) is the work of God, in order that you might learn to trust the one whom God has sent.” Just like the Israelites in the wilderness, God is still teaching us to trust God, to listen to God, and God does this by sending Jesus.
Jesus is the answer to the question we should be asking: not “what must we do to perform the works of God?” but “where is God leading us?” Jesus himself is where God is leading us: he is, as John’s gospel so eloquently states, the way, the truth and the life. As we question whether or not we are rightly following God’s instructions, whether we are correctly interpreting God’s will, whether we have adequately understood what God is doing, Jesus is the one God has sent to lead us through the wilderness and sustain us on our journey. He is both our guide and our manna.
And yet, this still does not mean that there is a neat answer in the back of the book for everything. As we follow Jesus, we will find that we each follow differently; and that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay: it is good! It is holy! It is how God wants it! God doesn’t call us to be slaves mindlessly obeying instructions; God doesn’t want to be our new overseer. God calls us to be thoughtful, intelligent, creative, imaginative people; people who use the many and various gifts that God has given us in new and surprising ways. Our guide for how to use those gifts is Jesus; everything he does is to build up the community—the body of Christ—in love. As long as we are using our gifts as he does, we are doing it right, even if it’s not the same as how somebody else does it; and if we’re not right, God’s grace abounds.
So there’s still no one single path through the wilderness. We still resemble those wandering Israelites more than we care to admit; but the promise is that as we kick around the wilderness, God will continue to sustain us—not just with food and water, but with life itself, with meaning, with purpose. Jesus is our bread: he is the one who fills us and gives us the strength and energy to grow into the people that God is calling us to be. Every time we come to this table, we are reminded that God is trustworthy. Every time we come to this table, we learn anew that God is continuing to care for us and sustain us and even to call us to loving service to the world—not because God needs us and not as slave labor, but simply because God loves us and chooses us.
As we approach this table, the question on our lips may be “What must we do to perform the works of God?” but the answer we receive is bread and wine—the body and blood of Christ himself. This is the work of God: that God’s diverse people are brought together around this one table, and that we are fed with God’s love and will be for as long as it takes to get wherever we may be headed, even if it takes an eternity.