Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Hunger Pangs

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  John 6:24-35, 48-51


A few years ago, a national polling company took a survey of a random sample of Americans.  They asked the question “What is the phrase you most long to hear?”  The overwhelming answer was “I love you.” Which is probably not too surprising.  The second place answer was “I forgive you.”  Which is also not too surprising.   The question  again was “What phrase do you most long to hear?”  And the third place answer was “Dinner is ready!”[1] 


We want love, forgiveness and reconciliation, and dinner.  Someone could probably develop an entire theology around love, forgiveness and dinner.  Today I just want to think about dinner.  Well, actually bread. 


In John’s gospel, several times Jesus says “I Am something.”  I Am the Good Shepherd.  I Am the resurrection and the life.  And in today’s text, “I Am the Bread of Life.”  The other gospel writers tell us about the stories that Jesus told, stories with ordinary things like lost coins or small seeds or people on journeys.  The author of John’s gospel takes an entirely different approach.  In John’s gospel, Jesus identifies himself with those objects from human experience and/or religious symbols.  For John, there are always layers of meaning.  One basic idea seems to be that people’s religious needs and human longings are both met in the person of Jesus.[2]


We read just a few verses from John 6, which is a long chapter, which seems to go on and on about bread.  We did not read the beginning of the chapter, which is about the feeding of a huge crowd of people with five loaves and two fish.  That’s what happened the day before our story.  It seems that today’s crowd was present when Jesus served lunch yesterday.  They have crossed the lake looking for him.


Jesus thinks they want him to feed them again.  He says, “you’re looking for me, because you filled up on bread.” 


The staple commodities in the first-century Mediterranean world were grain, oil and wine, with grain being by far the most important.  Bread provided one-half of the day’s calories for most people.  It says that the boy who shared his lunch had five barley loaves.  Wheat was considered superior to barley.  A man who provided his estranged wife with barley bread was required to give her twice the amount he would have given of wheat bread.  Barley was the bread of the poor and slaves.  And barley bread is what Jesus accepted from the child and multiplied for the crowd.  The implication is that the crowd following Jesus is poor.  They come from the lower classes; not the upper class who have wheat bread.[3]


That’s probably not a surprise to us.  We already know that Jesus cared for the poor and that poor people were especially receptive to his ministry.  But here is what I find interesting – Jesus says that bread, physical bread, is not enough.  He says, in essence,  “you came back so that I would feed you again, but you need more than bread.”   


Jesus is speaking to poor people, people who may often go hungry.  Jesus knows that they need food.  He also knows that food is not enough.  You might know the name of Abraham Maslow.  He was an American psychologist of the last century.  He is best known for his hierarchy of needs.  He categorized human needs at various levels and said that people tended to meet the needs at the lower levels before they could move up to the higher levels.  Generally, people meet their needs for food and water and shelter, before moving up to meeting needs for relationship and love and then on up to spirituality and transcendence.  Or so Maslow believed.  But Jesus seems to think otherwise.  He seems to think that even physically hungry people are hungry for God. 


Or in the words of that great theologian, Bruce Springsteen, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”


Jesus seems to be saying that everyone needs the bread of life which he offers.  The daily bread which sustains the physical life and the bread of life which sustains the spirit.  The crowd knows their physical hunger.  Do they know that they are hungry for God? The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor delivered a lecture called Famine at Yale Divinity School. In this lecture, she talked about the abundance of words and how they are over-used and mis-used until they no longer have meaning.  She said, “Perhaps there is no proof a famine exists except the fact that people are hungry. In the land of plenty, the course of that hunger can be difficult to diagnose. It is often not until we have tried to ease it with everything else we know that we discover by process of elimination our hunger for God.”[4]


She says that we can’t hear the word of God because there are so many other words.  And expanding her thought, we realize that we do have too many words and too many things around us, so many messages about what we need to fill ourselves and our lives with.  But Jesus says, “I AM the Bread of Life.”


In Jesus’ day, making bread involved several hours of grinding grain to make flour and then cooking the bread, which probably also involved gathering firewood.  Between that and fetching water, much of a day’s time and energy went just to keep the family alive for another day.  Jesus tells the crowd not to work for bread that spoils, but for eternal food.  The crowd thinks that Jesus knows a short-cut to making better bread, so they ask  “What must we do?  What is the work that God requires?” 


In verse 29, Jesus says “This is the work of God, that you believe into him whom God has sent.”  Most Bibles have this translated as “believe in” but John has a very particular way of saying this and he says “believe into”. 


To believe in Jesus would mean to accept him intellectually, to understand that he is the Son of God with your brain. It would be the kind of thing we do when we believe that 2+2= 4 or that the earth is round.  But to “believe into” Jesus requires more than just your head, it requires your head and your heart. “Believing into” Jesus means to trust with your whole self.  It’s the difference between looking at a chair and saying “I believe that is a chair” and sitting down in the chair, giving your body to the chair and trusting that it will hold you up off the floor.


The story is told that during the bombing raids of WWII, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They were afraid of waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”


That is a powerful image of trust, a level of believing that enables one to be at peace in the midst of fear. 


Believing into Jesus is entrusting oneself to Jesus’ mission with Jesus’ people.  The verb tense here suggests ongoing or continuous action.  It is a long-term solidarity with Jesus.  The Bread of Life is like physical bread.  We require it over and over again.  It is why we are here on the Sunday after Easter when there’s snow on the ground.  The work required for the Bread of Life is not grinding grain or kneading dough, but sustaining relationship with God.


A couple of years ago, many of us heard Sara Miles speak at the annual FOCUS worship service.  Her story about hunger and bread has shaped her life.  She did not grow up as a church person, but she had lived enough of life on the edge to know, to recognize, that she was hungry for something beyond physical bread. So early one winter morning in San Francisco she found herself walking into St Gregory’s Episcopal Church. She said that it did not make sense for her to be there. She had never heard a Gospel reading. She had certainly never prayed the Lord’s Prayer. She had zero interest in becoming Christian or, as she articulated it, she had no interest in becoming a religious nut. But on that day, for whatever reason, her hunger’s voice spoke loudly to her heart, so she went into the church. This is how she describes that initial experience:


“I walked in, took a chair, and tried not to catch anyone’s eye. . . . Then a man and a woman in long tie-dyed robes stood and began chanting in harmony. There was no organ, no choir, no pulpit; just the unadorned voices of the people. . . . I sang too. It crossed my mind that this was ridiculous. We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. “Jesus invites everyone to his table,” the woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda. . . .

And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying “the body of Christ,” and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying “the blood of Christ,” and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me. . . . And I knew God, named Christ or Jesus, was real” [5] . . .


 Jesus  said, “ I Am the Bread of Life,”  I am what you need.  Jesus also said, “I love you.  I forgive you.”  We need to hear those words from him, but today, perhaps what some of us most need to know is that Jesus is the living bread, that satisfies the hungry heart in each of us.  Amen.




[1] http://day1.org/4042-living_bread

[2] Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreters Bible, Vol. IX,  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1995),  p. 601 

[3] Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John,  (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress Press, 1998) , p. 127

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent, (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 1998) p. 29

[5]Sara Miles, Take This Bread, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007), p. 58-59