There’s a lovely children’s story called The Velveteen Rabbit, about a little boy and his stuffed bunny. Maybe you remember it, maybe from your own childhood, or if you have kids, maybe you read it to them when they were little. It’s about how, when you love someone—and I’m talking about a love that is true, and deep, and enduring—everything about that person comes alive for you.
And I’ve been thinking about that this past week as I pondered what it is that Jesus is saying to us in this morning’s Gospel. But before I say more about that, I want to mention a few things to put this Gospel in context.
First of all, as Father Daniel mentioned to you last week, we’re in the middle of the summer of bread, or as he called it, the Limited Lectionary Series Bread from Heaven. Every three years in our cycle of readings, we spend five summer Sundays hearing readings from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.
Now, to be honest—I guess I’m speaking for myself here, but I think I’m not the only one—a lot of us preachers do not exactly look forward to this occasion. Do I love talking about bread? Yes, of course. And it’s so important to us. But to preach five different meaningful sermons one after the other, on what seems like the same reading week after week, is a bit of a challenge. It seems as if we’ve said and heard it all before.
But this year as it happens, the same old, same old seems different. In a different year at this point in the cycle, I would probably point to the altar and say, look, we have this bread of life in abundance. Isn’t it wonderful that we’re here together to share it?
But something happened last year that seemed to change everything. One Sunday in March of 2020, all of a sudden our churches were closed. It would be months before I received communion again. It was a very painful loss. And there may be people joining us by livestream today who are still living in what seems like a desert of bread.
Did this mean that we didn’t have Jesus with us during this time? I mean, of course it doesn’t. But something about the experience was definitely changed. This time of COVID has changed so many things, but in this case—as maybe is often the case—the crisis has actually been an opportunity to think more about this gift of living bread, how it comes to us and what it means.
So let’s go back and pick up the story from last week, where Jesus had fed thousands, starting with five barley loaves. And then he had to flee because the crowds wanted to seize him and make him king.
This week’s Gospel takes up the story on the next morning, when the people wake up and realize that Jesus and his disciples are gone, and they go looking for him. They want more bread, but instead of feeding them again, he begins to talk about the meaning of this sign of abundant bread. He knows they want more free bread, but he also knows that they are hungry for something more than barley loaves. And he wants them to know that he can feed that hunger with food for their soul.
So he says, 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.
And how many of those things that we’re working for in our own lives—and again, I speak for myself, but maybe for others as well—how many of the things we’re working so hard for are really just food that perishes?
Well, the next thing they want to know is what do they have to do to get this bread. Like us, they’re very focused on doing. And doing is important. Putting our faith into action matters, but the action is empty—it’s not real—unless it comes out of a deep relationship with Christ to inform and inspire it.
So they ask, what is the work of God? And Jesus says, it’s to believe in him who God has sent. Now, believing in John is a little different from what we usually mean when we talk about believing. It’s not about affirming a set of facts. It’s rather about relationship. It’s putting your trust in someone. To believe in someone is to put your complete and total trust in them. It’s what we mean when we say to someone, I believe in you. Believing in Christ is about trusting in him, a trust and commitment to him as a person. It’s about love and something more.
So when the crowds cry out, sir, give us this bread always, what Jesus says more or less at this point is, done and done! It’s here. I am that bread. I am the bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. Believe in me and my life is yours.
So yes, we can point to the altar and say, we have the real presence of the bread of life here in church, but we also have something more with us than just those wafers. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to diminish the sacrament in any way, but we have the real, living, life-giving presence of Christ here in our church and in our lives.
That life is present through deep and trusting relationship with Jesus Christ. That living presence is here with us when we gather. Whether we are here in person or whether we joined by livestream, we are together.
It’s alive in us, the Body of Christ, in the Word broken open and shared, and yes, in the wafer. But the real bread is not the wafer alone, but the life of Jesus Christ, who said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
So at a crucial moment in The Velveteen Rabbit, the stuffed bunny asks an older, wiser toy, what is real? Great question.
And what he learns is that being real only comes through relationship. The bread we share is real only because the Christ we put our trust in is real.
We live in a world that is broken in terrible ways, a world where the prophets of death and the merchants of bread that perishes are choking the life out of us.
And here is Jesus offering us a life that endures and promising that we can have it in abundance if only we put our trust in him.
Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Doylestown, PA.