Updated: Oct 22
To say this past year and a half has been tumultuous would be a colossal understatement. The Global Covid Pandemic has left pretty much all societies and most organizations full of uncertainties. These include our Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement through the Diocese of California to Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez
For many years now, American Church attendance and membership have been shrinking. Leadership has spent much time, thought, and prayer looking for strategies to reverse the trend or reimagine a new Church. Then the Covid-19 pandemic spread through the world, causing most churches to enact reimagined ways of worship.
We went to virtual worship via live streaming with Spiritual Communion. As the Covid vaccines reduced the infection rate and hospitalizations, we have begun regathering with hybrid in-person and live streaming worship. The only problem is it appears only a small number of people are returning for in-person worship. There have been discussions as to why and what the church can do to help remade the problem. Most of them have been very insightful, but many suggestions were to attract people back by offering more food, picnics, barbeques, and fun things to do. These are all righteous things, but we risk becoming like the crowd that followed Jesus in today’s Gospel.
The Christian missionaries to Asia in the 19 th century coined a name for persons who came to church because they were hungry for material food. They converted, were baptized, joined the church, and remained active members as long as the congregation’s generosity met their physical needs. But once their prospects improved and they and their families no longer needed rice, they drifted away from the church. Hence missionaries called them “rice Christians.” In the 1970s and 80s, before the liberation of eastern Europe, people flocked to the churches in East Germany and Romania. The church was displaying courage, and pastors were speaking out against Communist regimes. The people came to cheer the church on and join the congregation in its opposition to the oppressive state. But after liberation from the heel of the Soviet boot and local dictators, the crowds dispersed, and the churches began to look as abandoned as they had before the stirrings of political liberty took hold. The crowds that followed Jesus to Capernaum to find him after he fed the five thousand in the wilderness are like those who see faith and church membership transactionally, as something they can choose for themselves to use for their own needs or to pursue their interests. Christians like the rice Christians of the nineteenth century and expedient Christians of eastern Europe are not a new problem but are as old as the Gospel itself.
The crowds of people saw the feeding miracle as an end in itself rather than as a sign pointing them to faith in the living God and in the Son whom God had sent. They followed Jesus to Capernaum, wanting to make him king. That’s why he went away from them. Jesus told them they were not to work for the food that perishes but were to perform the works of God that lead to eternal life. In John’s account, those who hear this teaching are still obsessed with physical manifestations, upon that which satisfies their personal experience. So, they ask the Messiah for another sign. They have had a sign, and still, they don’t believe in him. Jesus reminds them, Moses did not give the bread that came from heaven. It was God who gave the bread that satisfied their hunger for one day only. The same God now gives them bread from heaven that will benefit them forever. In response to his teaching, they ask him for this bread. Jesus says he is the bread of life who will satisfy hunger and quench thirst forever. The bread and the fish that Jesus had distributed to the crowds were there to lead the eye, the mind, and the heart to the true gift of God to his people. The signs were there to open their understanding that the new Passover. The new Exodus was taking place right in front of them and that Jesus was leading it. The previous day, Jesus fed their physical hunger with bread and fish, and the crowd sought him out once more. Jesus points them to their spiritual hunger, which is what he wanted to fill. God created people to love God and love others as they loved themselves, and in chasing after other needs, they risked getting further from the true nourishment they needed.
We often forget how to pursue what is most important. We are accustomed to inviting people into the community of faith for all kinds of wrong reasons, and I confess that I am guilty of some of these: for the “right” type of worship; for political engagement on behalf of the poor and oppressed; for the sake of a Christian America; for a robust youth and family ministry; for the opportunity to practice mission in a downtown location, or to go on mission trips to Hati or Central America. These all are or can be righteous motives in themselves, but what the church must offer is Christ and by Christ and because of Christ—first and foremost is “spiritual food,” that nourishes our souls and does not change with the changing circumstances of the church or the world. It is the spiritual food that we desire and spiritual food in which we will rejoice long after our bellies are full, and our lives know justice in a free society. The spiritual food that we receive is in its simplest form, LOVE. Love that comes from and leads to a Jesus-centered life. Everything Jesus did – who Jesus was and how he acted – is part of God’s revelation to us. We cannot separate one part of his life from the rest. Nor should we have a Christian part of our lives separate from the rest of our lives. We are to take Jesus’ whole story and make it part of our entire story. This is much more than hearing the word. It is word and deed. The real aim of all the miracle stories – if they are not to be seen as mere wonderworking is to strengthen and illuminate faith: that is, a relationship between Christ and the hearer.
The Our presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, has laid out seven steps that lead to a Jesus-centered life. These are: (1) Turn – Pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus. (2) Learn – reflect on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus’s life and teachings. (3) Pray – dwell intentionally with God each day. (4) Worship – gather in community weekly to thank, praise, and dwell with God. (5) Bless – Share faith and unselfishly give and serve. (6) Go – Cross boundaries, listen deeply, and live like Jesus. (7) Rest – Receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.
By following these steps and offering them to the world, we, as the author of the letter to the Ephesians says, continue building up the body of Christ until all of us come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God. Amen.