06/27/21 “Obedience School: Care and Feeding”

John 6:24-38

We’ve come to our last session of Obedience School—our look at what obedience training for our canine friends has to teach us about faithful discipleship. We’ve learned to come, sit, and stay. We’ve learned to heel, and we’ve learned what it means to fetch in Jesus’ name. But, one thing is true of even the best obedience training: neither dogs nor people can learn without the right environment. Certain needs have to be met before learning can take place and for obedience training to last for the long haul. We need to be fed and cared for. So, this week we’re going to finish up by looking at the care and feeding that makes faithful and  obedient discipleship possible.

A dog’s basic requirements are actually pretty simple. One web site says that when you bring home a new puppy or an older dog, you need a water bowl and a food bowl, a leash and collar with license and ID tags, appropriate dog food, a source of clean water, and shelter. Those are the essentials.

Other supplies can be added, depending on the owner and the dog—things like a bed, toys and treats, a crate, and various grooming supplies. These aren’t strictly necessary for the physical health and safety of a dog, but they can make life more pleasant for everyone. And, it would be the rare pet owner these days who doesn’t want more for their dog than the bare necessities. The American Pet Products Association surveyed pet owners last year before Christmas and found that pet owners expected to spend upwards of $50 on Christmas presents for their pet, including toys and seasonal apparel.

Back in 2016, New York’s Kennedy Airport was making plans to offer much more than the basics for non-human travelers. They were planning a new terminal for animals, called the ARK. At a cost of $65 million dollars, the ARK would provide luxury accommodations for all kinds of animals. But here’s what jet-setting pooches could look forward to. Dogs could lounge in comfort in their very own hotel suites in a 20,000-square-foot luxury “resort” run by a company called “Paradise 4 Paws.” Amenities were to include bone-shaped splash pools and in-room flat-screen TVs. Pampered puppies could get a massage or a “pawdicure” with colored nail “paw-lish.” Owners could check up on their four-legged darlings via webcam. Apparently, the port authority and their partners believed that dog owners want much more for their dogs than what the dogs strictly need.

We, too, have a Master who loves us so much that he wants us to have more than the basics. He doesn’t offer us just the bare necessities; he goes way beyond that. He doesn’t ignore our basic needs, of course. Being fully human, he certainly understood our material needs—our physical hunger and thirst, our need for rest, our need for a safe place to live. But, out of his love and care for us, he wants to give us everything that is good for our bodies and our spirits, and that eternally.

The problem is that we’re willing to settle for so much less. That’s certainly the case with the crowd around Jesus. They want food. Just the day before the encounter we read about in today’s passage, Jesus had fed a crowd of five thousand on the hillside. The crowd’s bellies had been filled with bread and fish—”satisfied,” John tells us. This would have been an unusual and wonderful feeling for people who weren’t sure of a good meal on a day-to-day basis. Their stomachs had been filled, and they liked the way that felt. It’s no wonder that they wanted to experience that fullness again. So, they went looking for the one who had given them the feast.

When Jesus saw them, he knew what they were after and why they’d come looking for him. He didn’t even bother responding to their initial question about his arrival time in Capernaum after leaving the mountainside. No, Jesus gets right to the point: “You’re looking for me because you ate your fill of loaves,” he says. “That’s what you want more of—bread and fish.”

But, at that same meal, he had given them so much more. He had gone beyond the bare necessities. He had given them a sign that the kingdom of God had come near, in him. The meal was a sign that pointed to something greater than the simple bread that filled their rumbling stomachs. It showed that God’s promised kingdom, with all its abundance, had arrived! But that’s not what they want more of. They just want their bellies to be filled again. That’s good enough for them.

Now, it’s not wrong for the crowd around Jesus to want more of the body-sustaining bread they’d received the day before. It wouldn’t even be wrong if they’d wanted more than bread—if they’d wanted more fish, too, and maybe a few quail like their ancestors had been given in the wilderness, along with the manna.

We’re not so different from those people in the crowd. We want to have our basic needs met—to have sufficient food, water, air, clothing, and shelter to ensure our physical survival. It’s not wrong to want those things. It’s not wrong for us to want the modern-day equivalent of fish and quail either, or the human equivalent of the extras dog owners supply for their beloved pets. We want security in our jobs or in our retirement. We want a comfortable cushion of savings and adequate health insurance. We want self-esteem and respect from others. We want love and acceptance and a place in the community. We want the chance to express our creativity and our morality, and to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Jesus wants us to have these things. He was human, too. He knew what it felt like to be hungry. He acknowledged our physical needs when he fed the five thousand. He knows that we need the bread that sustains our bodies. But that bread only fills us temporarily. It can’t eternally fill our need for spiritual nourishment. So, Jesus gives us the Bread of Life, which is so much more wonderful than a slice of Wonder bread.

But, too often, the bare necessities are good enough for us, just as they were for the crowd that followed Jesus. We may know more about Jesus than they did. We may understand what he was talking about when he offered them the Bread of Life. But, like them, we are willing to settle for less than our Master is willing to give.

Jesus tries again to show them how much more he’s offering. He tries to explain to them that, in him, they can experience another kind of bread—spiritual bread. This is bread that won’t get dry or moldy after a few days. It won’t run out. This bread will satisfy the hunger of their souls, and satisfy them always by allowing them to enter into God’s kingdom.

They don’t get it. They’re still focused on the bread that comes from long and difficult days in the fields and hours standing near a hot oven. They’re focused on bread that someone has to earn—bread you have to work for. Even though Jesus is promising to give them this bread, they figure there must be a catch. If this bread is coming from God, they must have to do some kind of work for God. So, they ask a reasonable question: “What must we do to devote ourselves to the works of God?” Jesus’ answer must have seemed way too simple: “The work of God that you need to do is simply to believe in the one whom God has sent.”

In a way, there is a catch though. Believing isn’t just an intellectual decision to agree that something is true. It’s having faith in someone—here, to have a soul-deep faith in Jesus. It’s to have what Paul describes as a hope in things unseen. It’s trusting that Jesus will do what he says he will do. This isn’t a wink and a nod. This is a decision to trust that God will take care of them, and that God will do it through the One God has sent.

Light begins to dawn as Jesus explains that it was God who provided the manna to their ancestors, and it’s God who gives true bread to them now—the gift of life, not just for them but for the whole world. The crowd decides they do want this bread that Jesus is offering. “Sir, give us this bread always.” That’s when Jesus clarifies the nature of the bread they’ll be given: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

The true bread that Jesus holds out to us goes far beyond our material needs. The bread of God comes down from heaven with life-giving power—for us and for the world. And, there’s an endless supply of it. We’re fortunate if we don’t have to worry about having nothing in our cupboards or on our tables, but earthly food of all kinds can run out: the comfort of a home we’ve lived in for years and the companionship of the one we’ve devoted our life to, the security of our bank account  and the satisfaction we get from the things we accumulate, the ego-boost we get from the approval of others. When these run out (and they do), they leave us with a hunger that can’t be satisfied.

When we believe in Jesus—when we trust him with our lives—we enter into the kingdom of God, where the spiritual food we need is available for the asking. By entering into the God’s kingdom through our faith in Jesus, we need never go spiritually hungry again.

In the moment that we accept Christ as our Lord and Master, we get a taste of that wonderful bread. In that moment when we believe in Jesus, we have access to a bountiful feast of spiritual food and the strength that comes with it through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a feast so lavish, we can’t take it in with one bite. That’s the good news. And here’s the even better news. As wonderful as that first taste of the true bread is, there’s more where that came from.

Like the dog owners who go beyond the bare minimum for their beloved canine companions, Jesus offers us so much more than the bare necessities. He makes sure that we never go thirsty, providing a never-ending spring of water gushing up to eternal life. He makes a home for us—a dwelling place he prepares, a house not made with hands but eternal in the heavens, as Paul says. He offers us joy and peace and love in such endless quantities that it takes a lifetime to take it all in. The only question is, why would we stop with the first taste, when Jesus offers us so much more?

Even after we’ve accepted Christ’s gift of the Bread of Life, we’re in danger of falling back into being much like the crowd around Jesus—willing to accept less than what he offers. Why is that? I think it’s because what we have is so wonderful, that we can’t imagine having more.

When My husband and I go out to dinner, our meals often end this way: He asks me if I want to order dessert. I always say no, because I’m plenty full after eating my dinner. Then he asks to see the dessert menu, and still I resist, insisting that I am too full for dessert. He orders dessert. And, wisely, he always asks for two spoons or forks, because he knows that when the dessert is placed on the table, I will find that I do have room for more after all.

I think we’re a lot like that about the bread Jesus offers us. We think a basic assurance of God’s love and care for us and confidence in Christ’s promise of eternal life is sufficient. That’s what I hear when someone says something to the effect of “I’m saved; I’m good.” As long as our final destination is assured, we don’t want or need anything more. We’ve had the main course and we’re full. “No more for me, thanks.”

But there’s so much more for us to experience—more joy, more peace, more love. There are so many more ways to experience God’s grace. The well of Living Water is limitless. The peace of Christ is nothing like the peace the world gives. The supply of heavenly bread is delivered daily and it’s endless. Why would we ever sit back and allow all that bread go untasted?

My prayer is that, when it comes to savoring the Bread of Life which Christ gives us, we won’t settle for the first taste, or the second, or the third. I pray that no one will think, “I’m saved and that’s all I need to know.” I pray that none of us will settle for what we already have, and that all of us will have a desire for more. I hope we’ll all be like Oliver Twist, holding out our hands and saying, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

I hope we’ll all want more intimacy with God in our prayer, more knowledge of the riches to be found in Scripture, more meaning in our lives through service in Christ’s name, more of the peace that comes with a greater trust in God, and more of the joy that comes from being loved by the One God has sent—the Bread of Life who satisfies all our hungers.

If you think you’re full enough, it may be hard to dig in for more. But I encourage you to do just that. If you don’t pray and read your Bible every day, start. If you do, read and pray some more. Be part of a Bible Study or Sunday School (or both!). Connect with someone else and set a regular time to talk about what you’ve read or learned or are questioning. Make a commitment to go on an Emmaus Walk.

These are all ways of saying yes to Jesus’ lavish offer of bread that sustains us far beyond the minimum for survival. They help us absorb the nutrients we need as we’re being sanctified—as we strive to become more Christ-like throughout our lives, by the power of the Spirit. They provide the environment the Holy Spirit needs to do the work of perfecting us in love. They provide the conditions we need so that we can grow in faithful obedience to our Master.  They save us from the temptation to settle for too little when we are offered so much.

Our Master knows that for us to grow in obedient discipleship, we need the right kind of care and feeding. We can settle for the bare minimum, but that’s not what Jesus offers us. He promises that we will never go hungry or thirsty unless we turn away from the table. Our Master isn’t satisfied with offering us only what is necessary. He offers us far more. Our Master cares for us with limitless living water and an eternal home. He comes to us with food that never perishes, food that lasts for eternal life. He feeds us with a limitless supply of the Bread of Life. He gives us himself. Thanks be to God. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young