“Survival is insufficient.” This is a quote from an episode of the TV show “Star Trek: Voyager.” But, I read it in a novel called Station Eleven. Station Eleven was written back in 2014, so I read it way before the pandemic. It tells the story that was, at the time, nearly unimaginable—the story of life in a world where civilization as we know it has been wiped out by a lethal flu pandemic. No wonder HBO Max made it into a miniseries last year.
The main characters are an unlikely troupe of musicians and actors called “The Traveling Symphony.” They travel throughout the wilderness once known as Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, giving concerts and performing works of Shakespeare in the little communities that are eking out an existence of some sort, trying to beat the odds against their survival.
These performers devote their lives to a seemingly frivolous pursuit in world with no electricity, no form of communication that isn’t face-to-face, where food, shelter, and clean water are hard to come by, and where medical care is medieval at best and non-existent at worst. But, they believe that merely keeping the body alive is not enough. As the Symphony Director has written on the vehicle that carries their props, sets, and costumes, “Survival is Insufficient.”
Jesus could have used the same words as he spoke with the crowds and then to the religious skeptics around him. He knew that there is more to living than simply not dying, and he offered the pathway to true living. He showed them—and us—a new and fresh kind of nourishment that offers much more than mere survival.
This story in our passage had begun a day earlier on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had fed thousands on the hillside. Out of a little boy’s lunch, Jesus produced enough food to feed more than five thousand people. They liked that so much that they wanted to make him king—by force, if necessary. Jesus and the disciples end up on the opposite shore—the disciples after a rocky boat trip and Jesus by walking on the water. when the crowds realized that Jesus had left, they got in some boats and followed him to Capernaum.
Jesus knows what they’re looking for. They’re looking for breakfast. They’re looking for the means to survival. In response, Jesus offers them more than physical nourishment for their stomachs. He said to them, “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.” But, they don’t get it. They think they’ll have to work for this bread, just like they have to work for the loaves on their tables.
“No,” Jesus says, “God sent me to give you this bread.” Well, this is pretty hard to believe, so they ask him for a sign—a sign like the manna their ancestors ate. Jesus tries to make it clear—he is that sign. He is the true bread—not falling from the sky but sent from God’s side. He is the bread that gives life to the world—not mere physical survival, but life, eternal life.
The crowd wants this bread: “Sir, give us this bread always.” But Jesus knows that, although they’ve seen him, they don’t believe he is who he is or what he is. Jesus concludes his words to the crowd with an invitation and a challenge: “Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; I have come down from heaven to do the will of him who sent me…This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life.”
Now, as we pick up with our passage for today, Jesus has to contend with the religious authorities, whom John simply labels “the Jews.” This whole business of Jesus himself being the bread that came down from heaven with the authority and power to give eternal life is ridiculous to them and best and blasphemous at worst.
First of all, who is this guy Jesus to put on such airs? He came down from heaven? No way. He came straight from his dad’s carpentry shop. If we had been there, we’d probably be saying right along with them, “We know your mom. We know your dad. We know your brothers and sisters. We probably know every shirt-tail relation on your whole family tree. We might be on your family tree! Come down from heaven? What an imagination!” This “coming down from heaven” stuff is as unbelievable to them as it would be to us if the neighbor kid made such an announcement.
These skeptical religious leaders know something about bread. They know what it means to the Jewish people. The rabbis often referred to the cherished law of the Torah as the bread of life that leads to salvation. And, of course, there was the unleavened bread of the Passover meal, which symbolized the Hebrew people’s surviving the Angel of Death in Egypt and the subsequent journey into freedom. And, certainly, they know about the manna God provided in the wilderness—the miraculous food that literally came down from heaven and ensured their physical survival by preventing starvation.
These particular Jews know that bread can be more than physical nourishment. They know it can have theological significance. It can be a channel of God’s care for the people. It can symbolize all that God has done to help them establish and maintain their relationship with God. Yes, this bunch knows their bread. But they don’t understand this fresh bread that Jesus is offering any better than the crowds do. Heaven-sent bread in the form of a human being (and especially a human being they know all too well) is beyond their comprehension. So, they complain. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Jesus responds, but not with the explanation or defense they were looking for. He attributes all that is happening to God. “If I were only what you know of me,’ he says, “people wouldn’t be drawn to me. This is the work of God. It’s God who’s drawing God’s own people to me. It’s God who’s teaching them to recognize the truth when they see it, just as God promised through the prophets. Remember God’s word, spoken through Isaiah: “All your children shall be taught by the Lord.” Remember God’s word, spoken through Jeremiah: “No longer shall people teach one another [about me] . . . for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” Jesus says to them, “Everyone who has heard and learned what the Father has taught comes to me. It’s the Father who draws all people to me, so that they can receive the bread of life.”
This fresh bread is fundamentally different from all the kinds of bread that the Jews have experienced before. It’s not like the bread they find on their plates each day. It’s not like the metaphorical bread of the Torah. It’s not even like the manna their ancestors ate. Jesus clearly spells this out for them. He says, “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.”
The manna kept the Hebrew people’s bodies alive for a while, but eventually they died. It ensured their physical survival, for a time. But survival is insufficient. There is a difference between simply “not dying” and living the abundant life God desires for us, now and eternally. Jesus, the bread that comes from heaven, offers more than survival. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever. The question is the same for us as it was for the crowds of ordinary people and the religious authorities John calls “the Jews”: Will we choose survival or life?
Survival is a getting-along kind of life, where everything is basically OK, but something is missing. It’s possible to do what we have to do to “not die” and still not truly live. We can eat right and exercise. We can work hard and follow the rules. We can take care of our families and friends. We can look for work and play that we feel good about doing and that makes us feel good about ourselves. We can take our vitamins, brush and floss, and look both ways before we cross the street. We can do all that and “not die,” but still have the nagging feeling that we’re not living fully either.
Some marriages fall into that pattern. Spouses get along OK. There aren’t any big issues, no emotional confrontations. But there’s little or none of the life-giving intimacy that helps each partner live fully into who they could be. There’s no joy in being part of something bigger and more meaningful than each person can be alone. The marriage isn’t dying, but it’s not fully alive, either, and neither are the people in it.
Our jobs may keep us afloat financially or professionally, but they can drain us of energy and creativity. We aren’t dying, but we aren’t able to be the people we could be either. I felt that way in my first job out of college. It was at WSPD Radio, and I hated every minute of every work day. It paid for the groceries and the rent while Marc was in law school, but it certainly wasn’t life-giving. I could have told you then that mere survival is insufficient. But, the people who know this best are those for whom surviving is an actual daily struggle, and you don’t have to go to a developing country to find them. Having enough to eat and a roof over their heads is essential, but they long for a life that allows more than simply surviving.
We might feel the same about our spiritual lives. We serve, we come to church, we say our prayers, and we read our Bibles. But, it’s possible to do all the right things and still feel like we are just spiritually surviving rather than truly living into the deep, life-giving joy that Christ offers us. Living on spiritual manna, we aren’t dying, but we’re not truly living either. We’re hungry and thirsty for more.
Jesus knows what will fill us up. He comes to us as fresh, living bread. He steps into our lives and declares, “Survival is insufficient.” Simply “not dying” is insufficient. He offers us so much more. When we believe in Jesus, he gives us the bread that doesn’t just stave off death, it gives us life—life for now, and life forever. He gives us the peace of knowing that our sins are forgiven. He gives us the joy of knowing we are God’s beloved children, so beloved that Jesus was willing to die for us. He gives us the assurance that we can always be with him, in earthly life and after our earthly deaths. He frees us from the earthly concerns that make us doubt our belovedness and frees us for abundant, eternal life. When we believe in Jesus, mere survival is off the table.
God makes it possible for every person to come close enough to Jesus to accept the gift of living bread. It is God who draws us to faith in Christ—drawing us close like the smell of freshly baked bread draws us into a bakery. When I was a little girl, every overnight stay with Grandma Greenlee included a stop at Nickels Bakery. Grandma would just walk onto the bakery floor, call out a hello to the workers, and buy a loaf as it came off the conveyer belt. We could smell that bread in the parking lot, and we could hardly wait to get to Grandma’s so we could have a slice—or two, or three. There’s a reason that grocery store vent their bakeries near the entrances. There’s a reason Panera switched from baking overnight to baking during the daytime. The aroma draws us in, and it tells us that something good and satisfying awaits us.
In the same way, God draws us to Jesus, the living bread. We have a fancy name for that aroma-like thing. We call it “prevenient” grace. We are surrounded by God’s grace even before we know that we need God, just like the aroma of bread makes our mouths water before we even know we are hungry. Prevenient grace invites us to come closer to Christ before we realize that he is the one who has what we so desperately need for life. Prevenient grace is what helps us see that nothing but the living bread of Christ can fill what Blaise Pascal described as a “God-shaped hole” inside us. Prevenient grace reveals that mere survival is insufficient, and that believing in Christ is what takes us from “not dying” to real living.
God uses many ways to draw us close to Jesus. Maybe you had a parent or grandparent or neighbor or friend who was your role model. Maybe there was a Sunday School teacher or Bible School leader, a camp counselor or pastor who helped you to meet Jesus. Maybe you watched as Christians served others, or you went on an Emmaus Walk. Maybe you witnessed a spectacular sunset, or the vastness of the ocean, or felt the grip of a newborn’s finger. There is no limit to the ways God can draw us near to Jesus. God may even use us as the means by which someone else can learn that survival is insufficient, and that Jesus has more to offer.
God’s grace surrounds every person as surely as the aroma of freshly baked bread draws us toward the bakery door. But, Jesus doesn’t force this bread on us. We have a choice to make—we can accept the living bread or not. Some people choose not to take any of this fresh bread for themselves. Even those of us who have accepted it may choose just to nibble on it. We content ourselves with little bites that are easy to swallow. We avoid bigger helpings that might challenge us—the Bible Studies that call into question our long-held assumptions, or new and unfamiliar ways of worshiping or serving or leading. We keep our faith to ourselves rather than risk having others watch us as we eat. We put ourselves on a low-carb diet that deprives us of the full enjoyment of Christ’s life-giving bread.
How much better it is to take big bites of the bread of life, savoring all of its goodness! “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” the Psalmist says (34:8). How good it tastes when we dive into the words of Scripture, alone and with our brothers and sisters. How full of energy we feel—empowered to serve in the world. How close to Christ we grow, when we know that this bread is Christ himself, who came to be the food that fills our spirits. How much more heartfelt is our worship when we dedicate ourselves to the one who sent Jesus to be the bread of life for us and draws us close enough to him to receive the gift of living bread, bread that lifts us out of survival mode into eternal life.
In a few minutes, we’ll come to the Lord’s table. We’ll take a small piece of bread, but it will remind us of the great love with which it’s given. It will serve as sign that points us to the fresh bread from heaven, sent by the Father, different from any other kind of bread we know. In that bread, we receive what we need to live fully as God calls us to live now.
In offering himself to us, Jesus says to us in no uncertain terms that “survival is insufficient.” Christ offers us more—much more: more peace, more joy, more fully human lives. Drawn by God’s grace to the Bread of Life, we come to know God. We take in the precious bread of Christ, who gave his own body for the life of the world. We take in the living bread that came down from heaven, and we enter into eternal life, now and forever. Amen.
~~Pastor Carol Williams-Young