When I read this morning’s gospel lesson, I couldn’t help but think of something Annie Dillard wrote in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It’s a wonderful and thought-provoking little book, by the way, full of wisdom and pithy nuggets that get right to the heart of things as she thinks about life, and nature, and God. Anyway, here’s the part that came to mind as I read this morning’s gospel. She had been listening to a mockingbird singing from her chimney, and she found herself wondering, “What is she saying in her song?” But then she paused and thought, “No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. If the mockingbird were chirping to give us the long-sought formula for a unified field theory, the point would be only slightly less irrelevant. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?”
Why is it beautiful? That’s a transcendent question. That’s a question that leads us more directly into an encounter with Christ’s presence in the song the mockingbird sings. Why is there something in me that finds that lilting melody beautiful? Why is there something built into me that thrills to life when I encounter beauty? Why does anything that’s truly beautiful—the song of the mockingbird, the colors of sunrise or sunset—why is it that something that’s truly beautiful creates in us a sense of longing? If you start to ask those kinds of questions, you are on your way to encountering the sublime presence of Christ that surrounds us all the time and everywhere; you’re on your way to what Richard Rohr calls “falling upward” into the Ground of All Being in whom we live, and move and have our being.
You can’t find the right answers if you’re asking the wrong questions.
That’s one of the things that’s happening in today’s gospel. The crowd is asking Jesus the wrong questions. They had followed him across the lake to the outskirts of Tiberius, and when they got hungry, Jesus fed them—the whole multitude—by sharing out 5 loaves and two fish that a young boy had brought with him. At nightfall, Jesus slipped off into the hills to be alone for a while and the disciples quietly sailed off for Capernaum.
The next morning, when the crowd saw that Jesus and the disciples were gone, they headed back across the lake to Capernaum to look for Jesus. When they found him, the first thing they asked him was, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”
It’s the wrong question. It doesn’t lead to anything—at least not to anything Jesus is interested in discussing. So he cuts to the chase. “I tell you the solemn truth,” he says. “You are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate the loaves and had all you wanted.”
He sees right to the heart of their motives. Our motives. How often do we seek out God, how often do we come to Christ saying, “Take care of my needs. Satisfy my hunger. Fulfill my desire.”? We may not be saying it out loud, or we may be saying it in very prayerful language, but how often when we come to Jesus are we basically saying, “Jesus do the magic again. Solve my problem. Fill my belly.”
“Do not work for the food that perishes,” says Jesus, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Change your focus, says Jesus. You’re overlooking what matters.
But do they say, “Tell us more about that food that endures for eternal life. What is that? Who is the Human One—is that you? What are you talking about exactly?” No, they don’t say any of those things. Instead, when they realize he’s not going to do the bread trick again and give them a late breakfast, they ask him, “What do we have to do to perform the works of God?”
Once again, they ask the wrong question. It’s a controlling question. They want to know how they can get God to do what they want. They want Jesus to teach them the magic trick. It’s clear that they don’t really understand what they’re asking. They ask how they can do the works of God, but they don’t even know what the work of God is.
So Jesus once again redirects. “This is the work of God,” he says. “Believe in him whom God has sent.”
And now they’re finally starting to catch on that he’s talking about himself. So they say to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?” And then they go on about Moses giving their ancestors manna in the wilderness. “Bread from heaven” they call it. It’s more than a little ironic, really. You want a sign? Did you not eat your fill at yesterday’s picnic—that little miracle that started with 5 loves and 2 fish? Have you not seen all the healings? Once again Jesus has to redirect.
“I tell you the solemn truth,” says Jesus, “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Well then give us this bread all the time!” That’s their response. And it sure sounds like they’re still thinking about, well, bread. Magic bread, maybe. But bread. They asked for the right thing this time, but they’re still thinking of it in the wrong way. They’re missing the point. So Jesus spells it out for them.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; the one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty again.”
Blaise Pascal once said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.” Jesus is the bread of life who fills that hunger. Jesus is the living water who quenches that thirst. But we won’t come to a useful understanding of what that means if we’re asking the wrong questions or getting distracted with trains of thought that don’t go anywhere. If we’re just thinking about physical food, we’re going to completely miss the spiritual nutrition that Jesus is providing.
You are what you eat. When Jesus says that he is the bread of life, he is telling us to swallow him whole, to take him completely into ourselves so that we can be completely complete in him. That’s what the sacrament is all about. It’s a sign—not merely a symbol, but a sign. It points to Christ. It tells us what to do. Take and eat. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. He wants the deepest level of intimacy possible with us. He wants us to be completely infused with who he is and what he is about and how he lives in and loves us, and how he lives in and loves the world through us. He wants to be part of our very cells so that wherever we go, he goes, too.
But we won’t get to that level of intimacy and understanding if we’re always asking Jesus the wrong questions or focusing on the wrong things. Learning to ask the right questions is vitally important in your own relationship with Jesus, and it’s also hugely important in our life together as the church.
What are some of the wrong questions we’ve been asking as a church? I know I’ve been asking, “Lord, how can we get more people into the church?” Maybe what I really should be asking is, “Lord, how can we bring the church to more people?” or simply “Lord, who are we missing and why?”
Or maybe we should be asking for something even more basic and broader than that. Maybe we should be asking, “Jesus, help us to see you more clearly in, with, and under all things. Help us to see the image and likeness of God in every face we face. Help us to love them as deeply and completely as you love them. Help us to fall upward into the fullness of you.
And when we hear the mockingbird sing, help us to understand why we find it so beautiful and what it is we’re longing for.