On our family’s recent trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Ontario, I “unplugged.” I gradually stopped checking email and looking at Facebook and Twitter. Then I set my phone aside somewhere and forgot where I put it. It ran out of juice and its screen grew dark and quiet. I no longer listened anxiously for its various rings, beeps and dings. It’s not that I’m anti-technology. I think the digital world is cool and useful, and it’s just the world we live in. But for me it’s enlightening, even revelatory, to intentionally disconnect from it for periods of time. When I step out of the constant flow of electronic communication I can become more fully immersed in what is right before me. This spiritual exercise frees me for a time from the intensity of distraction we all live with all the time. It renews my capacity to pay attention in a deep and sustained way.
In this age of Googling and texting, it’s hard for us to even imagine how slow and difficult communication was in the time in which Jesus lived and the Gospels were written. Those who wished to send a message across miles could not just hit “send” or “post.” They endured the dangers of travel for days or weeks at a time. Or they had to hire a messenger, a person they could trust to verbally deliver their words or keep safe a precious fragment of parchment. When John, the Gospel writer, refers to Jesus as the Word of God, there is an implicit acknowledgement of the challenges and risks of divine-human communication, and of God’s willingness to go to great lengths to ensure that the message gets across to us. William Loader muses, “Where do we find God? In wonders? In some mighty achievements of our own or of others? John reduces the options to one: we find God in relationship. That relationship is established when we believe that Jesus is the message and messenger from God…. John makes extensive use of the image of Jesus as God’s envoy and spokesperson in the world. What Jesus brings is not primarily an array of information so much as the offer of a relationship of love and acceptance.”
In the story that precedes today’s encounter between Jesus and the crowd, Jesus fed thousands of people with one little boy’s lunch. Everyone ate and had enough. They were satisfied. And not only that, there were leftovers. Poor peasants, chronically hungry, they came to Jesus, and he healed them with God’s nourishing abundance. It is no wonder that, after tasting this life-giving bread, they searched passionately for Jesus even chasing him across the lake. Once they find him, though, things start to get complicated. Their encounter with him can hardly even be called a conversation, since Jesus refuses to answer any of the questions the crowd asks. With each non-answer Jesus gives, they formulate a new question based on their misunderstandings and assumptions. It’s a muddled mess that leaves them scratching their heads in frustration.
“You are looking for me,” Jesus said to them, “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” I don’t think Jesus was scolding them for seeking to meet their basic, daily needs. He was saying that though food is essential, it isn’t the source of our life. The bread he gave them on the mountaintop, the experience of full bellies and plenty for all to share, is not the end, but the beginning. It is an experience that points beyond itself, to the Creator, who lovingly provides for us. Jesus, in his acts of blessing and thanksgiving, breaking and distributing the gifts of creation, makes an ordinary meal into a moment of communion, an experience of life in relationship with God, a taste of the eternal, hidden, and revealed, in the here and now.
To find one of the campgrounds we stayed at during our travels, we turned off a desolate stretch of the Trans-Canada highway and wound down a back road that alternated between rutted dirt and decaying pavement. Our surroundings grew more and more wild. A fawn bounced out of the woods in front of our car. Finally, we reached the park, and, to our surprise, found it absolutely teeming with people. Children riding bikes and playing catch. Teenagers giggling and shrieking as they strolled toward the beach. We hadn’t been there more than three minutes when Sam, a little girl Eliza’s age, bounded into our campsite from across the road, looking to make friends. We met her Grandpa and her mom as well, and they invited us for s’mores and coffee and popcorn. The girls played hard until bedtime and then arrangements were made for them to swim together in the morning. At 11 am the following day, Sam’s family had to leave. When the time came to say goodbye, the two girls just stood there for a long moment studying each other, realizing they would probably not meet again.
On this trip, we adults spent many of our nights reading beside campfires, mosquito nets over our heads, children finally at rest in the tent. The novel, Still Alice, is about a Harvard University psychology professor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at age 50. I was particularly moved by the following interaction between Alice and her daughter Lydia:
Alice looked at Lydia in pieces, close-up snapshots of her features. She recognized each one like people recognized the house they grew up in, a parent’s voice, the creases of their own hands, instinctively, without effort or conscious consideration. But strangely, she had a hard time identifying Lydia as a whole.
“You’re so beautiful,” said Alice. “I’m so afraid of looking at you and not knowing who you are. I think that even if you don’t know who I am someday, you’ll still know that I love you. What if I see you, and I don’t know that you’re my daughter, and I don’t know that you love me?”
“Then I’ll tell you that I do, and you’ll believe me.”
Sorrow and struggle is ever present in the happenings of our lives and the news of our world. Our moments of joy and connection can seem so brief and fleeting. Our bodies and minds are fragile, the process of change and aging inevitable. Struggle and sin is our constant companion. And yet, the eternal presence, and the loving power of God are available to us, through it all. Sam and Eliza had less than 24 hours to cultivate their friendship. Still, there was something enduring in their encounter. Alice might lose such an integral part of herself as the ability to recognize her daughter, but the love between them will last.
Jesus tells the crowd that he will give them the enduring food of God. But they want to turn this gift from God into an achievement of their own. They ask: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus plays with their words, insisting that it is not our human work that is important, but God’s work. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent.” Our part is simply to believe, to trust, that God is present and active in our lives and our world. Our role is just to receive, to focus our attention on the source of our life, which we glimpse in our ordinary days and in our beautiful, broken world.
The crowd; however, still cannot accept Jesus’ words, cannot receive the gift he offers. Their words are filled with a tremendous and tragic irony, as they insist that Jesus prove himself once more: “What sign are you giving us? What work are you performing?” Like the loaves and fishes of old, the signs of God’s abundant provision, God’s eternal love, and God’s powerful healing, are all around us, each and every day. But they are also easy for us to dismiss and deny. The crowd tries to prompt Jesus by giving him a precedent to follow, referencing their ancestors who ate Manna in the wilderness as the standard for all current miracles. They seem to have forgotten their own story, their own ancestors’ initial response to God’s gift of manna. They peered at the flaky white stuff on the ground, and they said manna? What the heck is this stuff? We human beings are so often stuck in the expectations and assumptions created by our past experiences of God that we literally cannot see God at work in the present, acting in ways that are both powerfully rooted in our history and completely fresh and new.
Jesus says: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” What sign is God giving you, right here and now, in this place on your journey? Let us spend our best energy on receiving from God that which gives us life. Let us focus our full attention a relationship with the God who feeds us, heals us, and makes us whole. And out of this communion with God, we will gain eternal life in the here and now.
 Genova, Lisa. 2008. Still Alice: a novel. New York: Pocket Books (p. 230).