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August 15, 2021

“Soul-Food!”

(From John 6: 25-29, 47-58)  

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 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. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 

     What do you think of when I say the word “Soul-food”?  I suspect that many folks will bring into their mind’s eye a delicious piece of fried chicken with seasoned greens and other delicacies associated with traditional southern-style African American cuisine.  These foods have now become a popular dining cuisine found throughout our nation.  We immediately thought of literal “soul-food” items when the word “soul-food” was spoken.  Yet, there is another meaning of the word “soul-food” that may not have been as quickly brought into our thoughts.  Although some may argue that a meal of fried chicken and southern-style greens does quite often literally feed our hungry spirit, true spiritual “soul-food” most often has a different origin.  Soul-food in the spiritual sense is that which gives nourishment and fulfillment to our souls. Some folks are deeply nourished by the life-giving words found in the scriptures, or by meaningful lyrics of a song, psalm or hymn.  Who among us is not moved by hearing the words of Psalm 46:10-“Be still and know that I am God.” Our God is an awe inspiring God.  For some, the words of this familiar hymn are particularly life-giving and soul-nourishing–“Then sings my souls, my Savior God to thee; how great thou art, how great thou art!  Then sings my soul, my savior God to thee; how great thou art, how great thou art!”  Now that, dear friends, is some true soul-food!

     As we read and study the Gospel of John, it is important for us to recognize the contrasts that are made between the literal/tangible and the spiritual/intangible aspects of our lives. These contrasts, and the contexts and events within which they are used in this gospel form much of the foundation of John’s good news message for us.  In this gospel, Jesus often begins his discourses with his Disciples and followers with some literal aspects of life, and he then moves from these into deeper spiritual meanings and realities of life. This movement and contrast between literal and spiritual meanings is one of the unique and defining characteristics of the Gospel of John.  Its author is believed to be the apostle John, “the Disciple whom Jesus loved”, as this gospel itself identifies him.  The Gospel of John contains many stories of Jesus’ earthly encounters, miracles, and teachings that are not found in the other three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  The author is clear about his reason for sharing his Gospel message and stories of Jesus’ miraculous “signs”.  He states in Chapter 20 and verse 30, “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

     With this background on the Gospel of John, we are now prepared to delve into the meaning of our scripture lesson for today.  I began the reading before our lectionary scripture for today because it provides the context we need to understand what Jesus was teaching his Disciples in this lesson.  Many came following after Jesus because he fed them literal bread when he performed the miracle sign of feeding the 5,000.  Jesus called these folks out on their true motive for following after him—receiving of the loaves of bread he provided.  Jesus told them not to strive after food like that bread, that will perish, but for true food that endures for eternal life.  He then shared with them that he, Jesus, is the one who provides this bread that endures for eternal life.  “What must we do?” the people asked of Jesus.  “Believe,” Jesus replied, “Whoever believes [in me] has eternal life.  I am the bread of life.”

     With these words, “I am the bread of life,” Jesus had moved his discussion from literal bread, like that which the Hebrew people ate in the desert wilderness, and that which he had fed them in feeding the 5,000, to spiritual bread; true spiritually nourishing soul-food.  “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” Jesus said.  “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread I will give for the world is my flesh,” he told his followers.  Jesus was offering his followers the promise of spiritual nourishment; yet, like many of the people Jesus encountered in John’s gospel, the deeper spiritual meaning of his words eluded them.  His words were hard for them both to hear and to understand.  With their hearts and minds firmly stuck in the literal and physical world, his followers questioned among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

     Jesus was telling his followers, and us in our reading, that he is the way to true and eternal life.  It is he who came down from heaven to give of his own flesh and blood for the salvation of all who will believe in him.  To eat is to internalize nourishment. By believing in him, we are partakers who internalize, symbolically and spiritually, his sacrificial body and in his shed blood for the remission of our sins.  Each time we gather together around Christ’s table to celebrate Holy Communion, as we will do this morning, we are partaking of the bread of life, which represents to us his life-giving body sacrificed for us, and in the cup of salvation, our salvation, sealed as a new covenant for us in the blood he shed upon the cross.  Just as eating literal bread feeds the body, eating spiritual bread feeds the mind, soul and spirit.  Jesus is that spiritual bread for us.  In believing, we internalize the truth that Jesus is both our bread of eternal life and the cup, the source, of our salvation.  In our believing, we receive new and eternal life in his name.  Jesus is our true soul-food!  

     As we recall the context of Jesus’ miracle of loaves and fishes, and his teaching on literal versus   spiritual and eternal bread, we find the perfect example of ministry and mission in his words and actions.  Before Jesus offered the spiritual food of eternal life to his Disciples and followers, he provided them with literal food to feed and sustain their hungry bodies.  Hungry and needy people need to be fed and sustained literally before they can move from their physical need into the realm of spiritual needs and realities.  This lesson calls us to remember that we need to focus on both of these aspects of human need in order for the ministries and missions of our church to be successful.  People who find physical comfort and their needs met in being among us will be more receptive to our message of spiritual and eternal soul-food for them.  I believe that it is the literal, as well as spiritual, comfort and care that we offer in and to our community that will draw people to us.  The good news that Peninsula United Methodist Church is a safe and caring place where physical as well as spiritual needs are met will bring more people to us than any fancy programmatic offerings we could develop.  Just as Jesus’ reputation quickly grew among the people for whom he provided much needed physical bread, the word of our good ministry of care, such as the food and non-perishable goods we provided to the Akron Regional Food Bank, the lunches we bring to Open M, the people and organizations we help through our stay-cation mission outreach, and the donations we give to local outreach facilities that provide food, clothing and shelter for those in need, witnesses about us to our community. COVID-19 has turned a difficult life into a nearly impossible physical and financial existence for so many people.  As we consider how to minister to souls in need, let us first, in the image of our Lord Jesus, remember to care for their physical needs for food, clothing and safe shelter.  Scripture teaches is that Jesus fed 5,000 bodies and souls on that one day; how many can we feed in a lifetime of ministry?  As we gather around Christ’s table to celebrate Holy Communion today, may his grace abound in us and guide us to envision new ministries of compassion and care in the mission-field of our community.  May Jesus’ unconditional love for us empower us to offer both physical and spiritual nourishment, soul-food, to our needy world in his name.  Amen.

Hymn- “Take Our Bread”

(words and music-Joe Wise)                                                                     

 Refrain: Take our bread, we ask you; take our hearts, we love you.  Take our lives, O Father, we are yours, we are yours.

Verse: Yours as we stand at the table you set; yours as we eat the bread our hearts can’t forget.  We are the sign of your life with us yet, we are yours, we are yours.