Monday, September 8, 2008

Free food

by John D Ramsey

Saturday, we cleaned most of the apples off our red delicious tree. We boxed a little less than 100 pounds of apples, and culled about as many that were smaller. Most of the apples were accessible from the ground or from a stepladder; however, some were far enough out of reach that I needed to climb the tree to get to them. This led to some awkward contortions where I was hanging on with my left hand and picking apples with my right hand. The highest apples I tossed down to Claire, and she caught them (some of them) with my old Rawlings baseball glove.

Gabby was our official apple-sizer. She used a wide-mouth Tostitos Salsa con Queso jar to measure the apples’ circumference. If an apple fit in the jar, she culled it. If it was too big for the jar, she boxed it. If a squirrel had ruined it, she pitched it into a trash bin. Lisa, Claire, and Gabby will process the culls into apple pie filling, applesauce or something else yummy as they decide.

Sunday, Lisa made salsa again using tomatoes and jalapenos from our garden. This summer we have eaten hundreds of free tomatoes with more to come. I suppose the loads of tomatoes from our garden have had a positive impact on our grocery budget. The trick for Lisa has been to make effective use of them. Likewise, our apples may also be a budget windfall. The girls are thrilled with the idea of free food, yet I wonder how much we will spend on sugar, cinnamon, and piecrusts before we realize the potential of all our free apples.

Free food is a powerful idea. Yet food is seldom entirely free. For instance, to harvest a couple hundred pounds of apples required all of us to work for one morning. It would not pay me to take a day off work to pick apples. Nor would apple picking have paid if I had injured myself falling from a ladder or from a bough of the tree. It might have paid Lisa the value of my life insurance, but that is beside the point. As it turns out, we are poised to benefit again from free food. Even so, Lisa and the girls have a lot of work ahead of them before we realize results. Free food requires commitment.

When Israel wandered in the desert, God provided them with free food in the form of manna. Still, they had to gather the manna each day, and they had to prepare it before they could eat it. While daily-manna assured them that they would not starve, the process was labor intensive. Arguably, manna from heaven alleviated the risk, but not the labor related to survival in the wilderness. About six or seven months after Israel crossed over the Jordan into the land of promise, God no longer provided manna because the people ate the produce of the land.

Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, and John 6 all give us the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Luke’s treatment is very much a summary. Matthew and Mark give us the background leading up to the miracle, and John records the events immediately following the miracle. Matthew and Mark tell us that after Herod beheaded John the Baptist, Jesus took his disciples to a secluded place to rest.

John’s execution alarmed and confused the people who had followed him. Their hopes for the kingdom that John had preached were shattered. Grieving and bewildered, they gathered by the Sea of Galilee waiting for Jesus to appear. Their gathering was spontaneous, and they did not prepare to spend days in the countryside.

When Jesus and his disciples arrived and saw the crowd, Jesus “felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Mark 6:34 (NASB) When it was late, Jesus’ disciples wanted to send the crowd away so they could find something to eat, but Jesus instead took the contribution of five barley loaves and two fish and fed five thousand men plus the accompanying women and children. When we think about Jesus feeding the five thousand we need to remember that it was five thousand families.

The people, who mourned John the Baptist’s demise, immediately sought to make Jesus their king. In response, Jesus sent the crowds away and withdrew into a secluded place. He told his disciples to sail to Capernaum, which was several miles north on Sea of Galilee. Many of Jesus’ disciples had family in Capernaum or Bethsaida, a short distance away. Jesus told his disciples that he would join them later. The disciples might have sailed close to the shore for a time thinking that Jesus would appear on the beach and call out to them. Jesus did not come as they expected. Before long, they were in open water and it was night. A storm nearly capsized their boat. In this distress, Jesus came to them walking on the water. When Jesus entered the boat, the sea calmed and they immediately reached the shore.

Although, Jesus told his disciples to sail toward Capernaum and Bethsaida, apparently the storm drove them to Gennesaret instead. When we hear God say, “Go this direction”, do we feel confused or discouraged when the storms of life take us somewhere else? Just because God gives us direction, does not mean that we are in control. Nevertheless, we can be sure that, regardless of the storms, God retains control. This insight is too good to pass up, but we are talking about free food.

In the morning after Jesus disciples started out for Capernaum, the people whom Jesus had fed set out from Tiberias sailing for Capernaum thinking that Jesus was meeting his disciples there. They expected to arrive at Capernaum before Jesus did, but they were surprised to learn that was ahead of them at Gennesaret. When they found him there they asked, “Rabbi, when did You get here?” John 6:25 (NASB) Jesus did not answer their question. Instead, he rebuked the people who had sailed the lake looking for him.

Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not work 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 the Father, God, has set His seal.

John 6:26, 27 (NASB)

The people whom Jesus fed in Tiberias had worked hard to catch up with him in Gennesaret. They expended much energy pursuing free food. Jesus said, “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life.” Perhaps they were just a little embarrassed to realize that they had worked hard for another free meal that apparently was not forthcoming.

Still, the people were curious about working for eternal life, and they asked, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?”

Jesus replied, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”

The peoples’ hearts were hardened, but they still had free food on their mind. They challenged Jesus asking, “What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? . . . Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness: as it is written, ‘HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT.’”

Jesus realized that the people were comparing him to Moses. He corrects them telling them that Moses did not bring bread from heaven. He tells them that the Father gives the true bread from heaven. The people asked Jesus “always” to give them this bread.

The people thought that they are negotiating with Jesus, but Jesus is taking the discussion far beyond their comfort level. He immediately goes beyond their ability to comprehend. Jesus tells them that he is the bread of life that came from heaven. The people demur, but Jesus continues to escalate, saying,

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.

John 6:48-51 (NASB)

The Jewish leaders among the crowd objected vigorously, saying, “How can this man give us flesh to eat?” Jesus was anticipating this question. This question divides the believers from the unbelievers; either you accept it or you do not. Jesus said,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.

John 6:53-58 (NASB)

Jesus offers himself as the bread from heaven that brings eternal life to all who eat it. This he offers freely, but it was difficult even for his disciples to accept. Many followers turned away because of these words. Jesus explained to his closest disciples, “. . . the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” Of course, Jesus is speaking in spiritual metaphor! He contrasts physical life and death in the wilderness with eternal life in him. Jesus was not talking about preserving our present bodies forever. He said, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” Eternal life does nothing for the mortal body. Eternal life does not preempt my appointment with death. It gives me hope beyond the grave.

The Jews, the people who had pursued him from Tiberias, never realized that Jesus had been speaking in metaphor all along. He wanted to give them eternal life. They wanted Jesus to feed them barley loaves and fish. His audience and Jesus were not really in the same conversation. Knowing this, Jesus stretched the metaphor as far as he possibly could, but their minds were still into sushi.

We might breathe a sigh of relief realizing that “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood” is metaphor, but before we feel too relieved we need to understand that Jesus’ words are not empty. His metaphor is extreme because his teaching is extreme. Knowing that Jesus was speaking in metaphor we still need to answer, what does it mean to eat his flesh and drink his blood?

Some Christians spiritualize nearly all of Jesus’ teaching to deflect truth that convicts them (Matthew 23:1-12, for instance), only to turn around and take Jesus literally when he says he is speaking figuratively. Go figure. Actually, their pattern is consistent because when Jesus goes one direction, they go the other.

Other Christians dismiss Jesus’ words in John 6 as if metaphors cannot be parsed. Reflecting upon the meaning of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood, I recall what Paul said about the Lord’s Supper.

Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?

1 Corinthians 10:16-18 (NASB)

Paul’s argument was not that the elements of the Lord’s Supper were literally the blood and body of the Lord, but rather sharing the Lord’s Supper is sharing in his sacrifice. He points to Israel’s example, “Are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?” That is what Jesus was teaching in John chapter six.

When Jesus says that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, he expresses that we must take responsibility for his sacrifice. Jesus died on the cross because my sin put him there. Jesus, the bread of life offers himself to us freely. Nevertheless, to accept this bread means to acknowledge my sin. I acknowledge that my sin crucified the Creator. I accept Jesus’ sacrifice as a sin offering for me. How culpable am I in Jesus’ crucifixion? I am as culpable as if I ate his flesh and drank his blood. My responsibility in Jesus’ death is not some abstract or technical guilt. I am either in or out. If I think my responsibility for his death is insignificant, then I have not partaken of the bread of life.

Accepting his sacrifice for me, I can no longer live for myself. Eating his flesh and drinking his blood means that my life now dwells in him and his life now lives in me. Receiving Jesus’ gift of eternal life, I am taken captive by his boundless love. Receiving by faith Jesus’ sacrifice for my sin is what Jesus refers to when he says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” To acknowledge less is to reject him and his offer of eternal life.

The bread of life, Jesus offers freely. Will we commit to it?

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