I was hiking in a hard rain one August afternoon with our youth backpacking contingent. We were raising money for ELCA World Hunger. Everything was soaked; you could wring out socks and fill a tall cup of water.
In the muddy path, I considered all the young faces through the years, all the asking “how much further?” and why these three-day trips matter. I thought of a curious man we once encountered in an Appalachian Trail shelter in Tennessee.
He called himself Hardwood. We discovered that everything the man owned in this life could fit in his pack. With funds depleted, Hardwood found a temporary job until he could walk some more.
It soon became clear that this curious hiker was willing to part with what little he did have, asking us more than once if we needed anything. When we awoke the next morning, he was cooking pancakes for the whole group.
I sensed in our youth a wonder about this gentle man. When we parted in opposite directions, I pondered whether four breakfast cereal choices and six salad dressing options in my cupboard at home were truly needed.
After Jesus fed 5,000 until they were patting stomachs and pulling out toothpicks, the crowd is expectant about what else he might do. They search for Jesus, who has crossed the sea during the night in an unorthodox fashion. Baffled, they ask, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (John 6:25).
Jesus’ reply is among the most devastating in any gospel. He essentially says, “Look, you really don’t want me. You’re here because I gave you a free meal and now you want more.”
I was in the crowd that day, and maybe you. Jesus continues and says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life …” (6:27).
Jesus is forever talking this way in the Gospel of John, full of double-entendre and mystery. This teaching seems to collide with our Lutheran anxiety concerning “works righteousness” and the sheer gift of eternal life. Why does Jesus encourage us to work for such food? Theologian Dallas Willard (1935-2013) is helpful here: “Grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning.”
What kind of food for the soul are you consuming these days? We know about the perishable items, even if most of us are too exhausted to do much about it.
In his book, What Are People For?, author Wendell Berry wrote: “Close inspection of our countryside would reveal … sinkholes filled with broken toasters, television sets, hair dryers, microwave ovens, and toys of all kinds. The truth is that we Americans, all of us, live our lives in the midst of a ubiquitous … mess of which we are at once the victims and the perpetrators.”
Our main problem in the world today is not terrorism, drugs, violence or any daily headline. Our central challenge is spiritual.
We are born with omnivorous desire, seemingly assuaged with the perfect job and accompanying predictable possessions. It’s tempting to feed perishable food items, so to speak, to our spiritual hungers. But it doesn’t work. Never has worked.
So Jesus says, honestly and in love, “I am the bread of life. You’re looking at the person who can feed you better than anything or anyone. Sign on with me and I’ll satisfy any hunger or thirst.”
If this is true, it behooves the church to regularly examine how much time we spend with the man on a daily basis instead of farming out material desires to bogus sources that claim to satisfy and quench but never do. There are so many landfills of the landscape and the soul in this beautiful country of ours.
Find a trail. Locate a sidewalk in your neighborhood. Take a walk in the rain. Recall your baptism. Smile and give thanks—the things that truly satisfy us in this life can never be bought or sold.
Jesus supplies the food that truly endures.
Work for that food.