On the next day the people who remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23 However, boats from Tiberias came near the place where they ate the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the people saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. 25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Fourth Sunday after Theophany), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Today’s Gospel follows two extraordinary events in the ministry of Christ: changing water into wine (John 2:1-11), and multiplying bread (John 6:1-14). In contrast to how the other three Gospels tell the story of the Last Supper when Jesus distributes bread and wine as his Body and Blood, this is John’s way of using sacramental clues and language to recall the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
In his conversation with the people, little by little, Jesus is revealing who he is and what was really taking place. Continuing his parallel of the Exodus story, John refers to God feeding his people manna in the wilderness after they crossed the Red Sea out of Egypt. Jesus is the new Passover, leading a new Exodus of slaves out of sin and bondage, across the sea and to the Promised Land.
The previous Gospel reading ended with the disciples “immediately” reaching the other side of the shore (John 6:21). As soon as Jesus got into the boat, they instantaneously arrive, implying that their destination was not dry land, but Jesus himself. As Hovhannes of Garni prays in his daily prayer for Saturday:
Bring me to the harbor of uninterrupted peace, to the heavenly realm, where all sorts of good things are stored and where there is endless joy.
And as St. Gregory of Narek prays:
Rescue me with your love of mankind, though I forever sway this way and that, and deliver me to the port of your peace, I pray you. (85 B)
The Promised Land is something we can experience in this life, an encounter with the risen Jesus Christ. He is the Promised Land. And he is the true Bread, the true Manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:1-36) sent by the Father. Because we were created for eternal life, we cannot live by bread alone, but require the Bread of life, Jesus Christ himself.
His Interests vs. Our Interests
As we read the dialogue between the people and Jesus, it becomes clearer and clearer, not only is there miscommunication, but each party is on a different wavelength. Why? Because what interests Jesus is not what interests the people with whom he is conversing. Just as the Israelites in the wilderness refused to acknowledge or trust God for who he is, that he would provide for them no matter their situation or circumstance, those in this narrative are blind to who Jesus is and are deaf to what he is saying. Many times, we falsely assume that God is interested in the same goals, benefits, and “food” as we.
“Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus responds to the same people who just witnessed him multiplying the few loaves of bread and fish for 5,000 people by telling them they are only interested in getting more food, not because they recognize who he is. He takes this opportunity to teach them they should not be so concerned for perishable, temporal, or material food, but for “the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you.” We of course, understand Jesus to be referring to himself, but his listeners did not. Once again, he leads them deeper and closer to the truth of himself by teaching about belief (faith), and once again they miss the point because they are focusing on their stomachs. Referring to the sign of manna (bread) in the wilderness, they ask Jesus for a sign, oddly after they just witnessed him do something miraculous.
Unbeknownst to them, the true Manna was standing right in front of them. He is the Sign and to whom all signs point. How many times have we asked for a sign with the wrong motivation, and even after we already witnessed a sign? Do we, as a parish, as individuals have flawed motivations and temporal interests that blind us to who Jesus is and his will? For what “perishable food” are we hungry and prefer over the food that lasts forever? In what ways do we prefer this earthly, temporal realm over the eternal Kingdom of God, which is present even now? The epistle reading for this Sunday from St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy (3:1-12) gives us an idea of that which distracts our attention:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people. (3:1-5)
Before we pass by this list with gratitude and certainty that it doesn’t describe any of us and must apply to others, perhaps people we can name and do avoid, think how it may apply to us, how we fit into that list. Because we do. So how do we specifically oppose the truth in our thoughts, words, and actions? Do we follow St. Paul’s continued advice to Timothy? Are we willing to endure persecution for our faith? Have we been nourished with the true Manna to conform our interests to his? St. Paul continues:
Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, my sufferings, what befell me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra, what persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (3:10-12).
Jesus was showing his listeners that his concern was for their salvation. Jesus reveals the Bread that lasts forever, the Bread of Life we were created to eat, the Food which sustains our true mode of existence. This is our approach to fasting, why we observe something as important as Great Lent. We read from the prophet Isaiah:
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in fatness. (55:2)
Commenting on the words of Jesus, St. John Chrysostom writes,
I fed your bodies, he says, so that after this you might seek that other food that endures, which nourishes the soul. But you run right back to that food that is temporal. Therefore, you do not understand that I lead you not to this imperfect food but to that which nourishes not the body but the soul.
How many of us seek Jesus for no other objective than to receive a temporal benefit, to fill our stomachs? Temporal luxuries that satisfy for the moment, things that pass away can only be enjoyed in this life. They are here today and gone tomorrow. What about the riches of God, that which belongs to his Kingdom? Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. (6:19-20)
Like those in this narrative, Jesus essentially tells us, “Seek me for my own sake, for who I am.” Until we recognize Jesus for who he is, until we have an encounter with him, we will only hunger for that which temporarily satisfies. Jesus reveals that there is a deeper hunger that we suppress with selfishness, distractions, and temporal motivations, a hunger which is insatiable, because it is a hunger for the Infinite.
How do we recognize Jesus? On the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) the disciples didn’t recognize the resurrected Jesus until they opened the Word and broke bread, both of which are the person of Jesus Christ, and both of which are the pillars of our Badarak celebration, when Jesus communes with his people in two forms: by his Word in the reading of the Holy Gospel, and the by his Body and Blood in the sharing of Holy Communion. Our walk with God is like the road to Emmaus. We walk out our baptismal vows and we share the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word, the Heavenly Bread. Any encounter and recognition of Jesus comes by way of revelation as we humble ourselves and open our hearts to his will in our lives and in the world.
When we follow Jesus, then, every other thing or set of values that we consider greatest, anything or anyone that is supreme in our life must become subordinate to our love for God. When supremacy, primacy, priority, and centrality are devoted to Jesus, his interests become our interests.
The Heavenly Bread
Jesus enticed us with both the wine at the wedding celebration in Cana and bread as he multiplied five loaves for the 5,000 people on the mountain, both of which were distributed abundantly and as a gift, symbols that recall Holy Communion. Once again, in this narrative, Jesus wants to draw us to the food which nourishes our soul and gives salvation, the Bread of Life. At the beginning of Badarak, behind the closed curtain, as the priest and deacon prepare the gifts of the bread and wine, the priest prays:
O Lord our God, who sent our Lord Jesus Christ, the heavenly bread, the food of the whole world, to be savior and redeemer and benefactor, and to bless and to sanctify us; Bless now, Lord, also this presentation and receive this upon your heavenly altar.
During Badarak, the same and one bread shared with many is the same and one Christ sharing his Life with many as food for the whole world, uniting us to himself and to each other.
In the Armenian Church, we use bread in various contexts and services: Home Blessing, fasting (aghoohats), and of course, bread is essential to Holy Badarak. Bread has always been considered a staple, essential to the ancient diet, and even a form of charity, and so it was even considered sacred. Even today, for those who come from this kind of culture, to throw away a piece of bread is disrespectful and profane.
In the early Church, members brought loaves of bread as an offering. Still today, the bread used for Holy Communion is considered the gift from the people to God, offering back to God that which is most basic to our lives, representing the entirety of our lives. And so sacramental living, the life of the Christian connected to the Church, is marked by the presence of bread.
Jesus stresses that he is the true bread who came down from heaven. He is God in human flesh and blood, born in Bethlehem, which translates as “House of Bread.” He distributes himself, not just to one nation or one people, but shares his life with the whole world, to those who are willing to be baptized and follow him. Using the heavenly manna as a point of reference, Jesus is proclaiming himself to be God’s life-giving gift to the world, the true manna who walks alongside us in the wilderness when we feel as if God has abandoned us or doesn’t hear our prayer. It’s at those times when we especially need to be nourished with the Bread of Life, especially need to commune with the Church, the Body of Christ. As St. Gregory of Narek prayed while in that place of “exile:”
Still accept me, a wandering exile, defeated by wounds, faint with gnawing hunger. Heal me with your bread of life, confront me with mercy, for you are my first refuge. (47 B)
When we attend Badarak, do we, perhaps out of a sense of unworthiness, refrain from fully participating by choosing to not share Holy Communion? Jesus said “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (John 6:53).” To refrain from Holy Communion is to refrain from salvation. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes,
Let those who have been baptized and tasted the divine grace understand this: if they are sluggish or reluctant about going to church and for long periods of time keep away from the Eucharistic gift through Christ, feigning a pernicious reverence by not partaking of him sacramentally, they exclude themselves from eternal life inasmuch as they decline to be enlivened. Thus, their refusal to partake of the Eucharist though seeming to be an expression of reverence, is turned into a snare and an offense.
Jesus, the Bread of Life, the heavenly Bread, is as essential to a person’s eternal life as bread is to one’s biological life. And it is only through Jesus Christ, only through the Church, that we can experience the eternal life for which we are created. We are created to live in the Promised Land, but there is only one way to enter it. By offering our lives to the One who offered himself to us. What part of our lives are we not offering? What parts are we not allowing Jesus to penetrate with his life, mercy, love, and forgiveness? Keep in mind, he wants to heal all of it.