When the Israelites saw the fine, flaky substance, they said to each other: What is it? Moses told them: “It is the bread that the Holy One has given you to eat.” Moses says it is the bread God has given them to eat, but it’s certainly not actual bread. Bread here is a metaphor—and like all metaphors it is not a one-to-one correspondence with what it points to. It is bread and it is more. In this passage from Exodus, the more of this bread is a question.
What is it? This fine, flaky stuff that remained after the dew left the ground is called manna because the Israelites saw it and tasted it and wondered aloud: “Man?” which in Hebrew literally means: What? What is it? It’s not bread, made with flour, water, and salt. What is it? What does this food mean? What is God doing? What is God doing with us? What are we doing here?
The Israelites are about six weeks into their long sojourn in the wilderness. The People of God are in an in-between place, in between deliverance from slavery in Egypt and the Promised Land, or, simply, in between deliverance and what God has in store for them next. They miss the fleshpots of Egypt, heavy earthenware crock-pots that cooked huge cuts of meat all day long. I’m guessing they are spiritually hungry as well as physically hungry, hungry for reassurance, for understanding of their new identity that is forming in the wilderness. Their hunger result in grumbling, murmuring in the wilderness. Nothing is quite right.
I think this murmuring is what lets us know that the Israelites’ hunger is not just physical, but spiritual as well. Something is gnawing at them in that place in between liberation from the Egyptians and the place where God is leading them. Most of us are traveling along that in-between pilgrimage trail: between the liberation that happens at Easter, and the Kingdom of God that is within us, around us, and not yet here.
In the gospel, five thousand people have just been fed. They are not hungry in the sense of wondering where their next meal will come from. And yet, they hang around. They are curious about this Jesus, so curious that they get into boats and row across the Sea of Galilee looking for him. Something is gnawing at them, too, a deep hunger of the spirit. And they have a lot of questions.
Jesus’ first gathered community there on the shores of Galilee is not so different from our own—we live in a culture where we want to know where we’re headed. We want to know there will be enough of everything we need along the way, and we want precise language with which to talk about it. Most of us, if we’re engaged in a project, want all its ramifications before we start. We want to know how to measure success, how to decide when to give up and start something new. We want signs. We like to know that something is this, or that. What is it? Heavenly food? Or bread? Jesus’ flesh, or Jesus’ call to us, inviting us further down the road? Part of our work as people of faith, especially people of faith traveling through the Gospel of John, is to sit with the mystery of this stage of our journey, between this moment as Easter people and the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God that is, in fact, already among us here.
What is this bread of life? What does this food mean for us? That first gathered community is as mystified as we would be. Sir, give us this bread always. If this has a familiar ring to it, it’s an echo of the Samaritan Woman who says “Sir, give me this living water always. Then I wouldn’t have to go to the well with this heavy bucket every day.” No, that’s not what I mean! says Jesus. Not that kind of water, not that kind of bread. I am the bread of life.
Saying “Give us this bread always” is sort of like Peter saying “let us build three booths” to enshrine the moment of Transfiguration. Transfiguration is not that mountain-top moment, to be preserved forever. It is the movement down the mountain into the world as disciples. This bread of life is not the end of a particular journey; it is food for the journey. It is just enough for the day and it is imperishable food that lasts forever and beyond time.
If we know nothing else from the healing and feeding stories of the past few Sundays, we know that food security is a priority for God. We know that God envisions a different economy from the one in which we live, where so many lack the day’s food and shelter, while others have too much. Hunger of the spirit is the longing for God’s economy.
Hunger of the spirit is the journey of discipleship. We, too, are in an in between place, somewhere between Easter and the Kingdom of God. Along the way, maybe our hunger is for justice, for meaningful connection with others, especially those on the edge, those whom it sometimes feels as difficult for us to reach as it was for the Hebrews to reach the Promised Land. Along the way maybe our hunger is for liberation from our own attachments, from the hunger for more, more, more, rather than the just-enough that God wants to give us every day. Maybe along the way we hunger for God to reveal to us ways to impact this world and make it look more like the Kingdom.
God liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and accompanied them in their wilderness journey of becoming the people of Israel people of Israel so that they could worship this God who parted the Red Sea. When the people gathered on the Sea of Galilee asked Jesus what they must do to perform the works of God, he answered that they must believe in the one whom God sent. All of scripture is about this worship and belief unfolding as justice and love.
Last Thursday, a handful of us went to hear Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. (I’m probably going to talk more about the book and the evening in the coming weeks; it had a huge impact on me.) Brown was in dialogue with the wonderful Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil, who is known to many of you at St. Paul’s. During the question and answer period, someone asked: What is your hope for the Church? The answer was: “I hope the secular world can look at the church and say: ‘Dang…How’d you do that?...How’d you stop the school-to-jail pipeline like that? How’d you make it so everyone has a job? How’d you do that?’ “ I would add: How’d you figure out a way for people to have enough to eat? How’d you find a way for everyone to have a place to live? How’d you make sure everyone who’s sick has health care? How’d you make the world look like the Kingdom of God, where all are welcome and all are fed?
It’s not going to happen over night. Maybe not even while we live. But that doesn’t mean it’s not our path. And I know we have food for the journey.