“Soul Food”

Sabbath Day Thoughts — John 6:24-35

We live in an increasingly unchurched world, filled with spiritually hungry people.  The Barna Group reports a rapid rise in churchlessness in America. In the 1990s, thirty percent of people indicated that they had no affiliation with a religious community.  A decade later, that number had edged upward to thirty-three percent.  Four years later, the number of churchless people had jumped alarmingly to forty-three percent of Americans.  This year, Gallup reported that, for the first time in eight decades of collecting data on churches, membership has dropped below fifty percent of the population to forty-seven percent.  In the northeast, including places like Saranac Lake, the percentage of people who do not connect with faith communities is likely even higher.  This leap in people who have no religious affiliation encompasses every demographic: men and women; adults, youth, and children; rich and poor; people of every race and ethnicity; those who identify as conservative, moderate, and progressive.

Despite their departure from church, people are spiritually hungry.  They long for a connection to the sacred.  They are eager for deeper meaning and holy purpose.  Two-thirds of the churchless identify as spiritual people.  They believe in God, have a sense that God is at work in the world, and long for an authentic relationship with the Holy.  Fifty-seven percent of those who are churchless insist that faith is “very important in their lives today.”  The connection they seek with God is right up there with family, vocation, and their social network as the most vital and formative aspect of their daily experience.

It’s a paradox.  Traditional religious structures are in decline, but the world is filled with spiritually hungry seekers.  We see them everywhere.  They dabble in the trappings of other faiths.  They hang Tibetan prayer flags.  They burn incense and learn yoga.  They seek the Creator in the creation.  They say they find God on the mountain top or commune with God in the garden.  They seek the fulfillment of their spiritual longing in a quest for personal excellence, hiring life coaches and making best-sellers of the latest New-Age, self-help guides.  If asked, they will say they are spiritual but not religious, as if religion is something distasteful, like lima beans or liver.  But if all the data gathered by the Barna Group and the Gallup poll is correct, those seekers aren’t finding what they need.  Instead, they feel an increasing existential longing.  All that spiritual seeking has failed to satisfy the deepest hunger of their soul.

Our reading from the sixth chapter of John’s gospel describes Jesus’ encounter with a crowd of spiritually hungry people. Just the day before, Jesus had satisfied the hunger of a great crowd of people, multiplying five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000—with twelve baskets of leftovers to spare.  As the spiritually hungry crowd approached Jesus, they were eager for yet another miracle. “What sign are you going to perform?” they asked.  They longed to know that God was still at work in the world.  They needed to believe that, just as God had once provided manna for their ancestors in the wilderness, God was active and engaged in their lives: loving, caring, and meeting their physical needs and deepest longings.

Jesus invited the crowd to go deeper, to look beyond the manna that was provided in the wilderness and the picnic they had enjoyed the day before.  They could eat all the manna, all the barley loaves, and all the dried fish in the world, yet they would still be hungry.  The bread they truly needed was the one whom God had sent into the world to satisfy their deepest hungers.  When the fourth century pastor and theologian John Chrysostum taught on this passage, he put these words in Jesus’ mouth, “It is not the miracle of the loaves that has struck you with wonder, but the being filled.”  In Jesus, God had become the bread of life, entering the world to satisfy their deepest spiritual hunger.  Instinctively, the people knew Jesus to be right, demanding “Give us this bread always!”

Two thousand years later, the faithful minority, whom George Barna would call the “churched,” we continue to feed upon Jesus, the bread of life.  We worship him with praise and thanksgiving.  We feast on him with Bible Study, book groups, and Sunday sermons.  We bring our hopes and dreams, our pain and woe, to him in prayer.  We seek him in community, whether gathering for a Zoom Coffee hour, walking together in a sermon on the trail, or serving him in the least of these who are our neighbors.  When we share in the Lord’s Supper, breaking the bread and lifting the cup, we remember Jesus, the bread of life.  We remember his saving death on the cross, and we remember that Jesus lives in those who go forth to be the Body of Christ, the bread of life for a spiritually hungry world.  17th century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal taught that, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator made known to us through Jesus.”  We who feast upon the bread of life can testify that God alone can satisfy the spiritual hunger of humanity.

It is likely that when the Barna Group and the Gallup Poll next take the spiritual temper of America, they will find us hungrier than ever.  The COVID-19 Crisis has taken a terrible spiritual toll on humanity.  Mental health professionals have described this past year and a half as a collective experience of trauma that will have long-lasting effects upon us all.  Beyond the deaths of more than 613,000 people, we are experiencing what can only be called a spiritual crisis.  41.5% of us are reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression.  We have sought to fill our deep needs with that which does not satisfy.  We have been drinking heavily and eating too much, with an average reported pandemic weight gain of more than thirty pounds.  We have seen the largest rise in drug overdoses in more than twenty years.  A study by Harvard University of children aged seven to fifteen found that, with the stress and social isolation of the pandemic, two-thirds of our kids had clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression.  Now, more than ever, folks of every demographic need the bread of life.  They need to know that God continues to provide manna in the wilderness and bread from heaven and soul food amid the pandemic.

Researchers say that some of the best resources in addressing the present crisis are to be found in places like this, in the churches which people have been leaving in record numbers for decades.  It begins with our connection to that Higher Power, who grants us meaning and purpose, but it is more.  A rich spiritual life, which features daily prayer and reflection, can actually change our brains.  The amygdala is that primal part of our brain that drives us to fight or flee and keeps us in a state of chronic stress.  Scientists say that the amygdala actually shrinks with the cultivation of a daily practice of prayerful spirituality; conversely, the pre-frontal cortex, that portion of our brain that drives higher reasoning and problem solving, gets healthier.  It thickens and grows.  Think about that: being a part of church can actually better equip our brains to respond to crises like COVID-19.

The social engagement of church, the coming together of the body of Christ, is likewise a powerful help in this time of crisis. The church is a network of caring individuals who will love and accept us in all our frailty.  Look around.  These are people who pray for us amid our troubles.  They show up with a casserole when we are too overwhelmed to cook.  They forgive us when we are crabby, critical, and hard-to-love.  They are in our corner, rooting for us, when we feel most at odds with the world.  Caring connections like these are a powerful antidote for our feelings of depression and anxiety.  It seems that church is a lot less like lima beans and liver than the churchless 53% of the population thinks.  Church, as the body of Christ, can be bread for a spiritually hungry world.

Perhaps today, we can hear in a new and breathtakingly relevant way Jesus’ words, “I am the bread of life.  No one who comes to me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty again.”  We may live in a spiritually hungry world, but we have Jesus.  We have what is needed to meet that deep need, to fill that “God-shaped vacuum in the heart.”  This week, we could do something real and tangible to address the deep longing that sends our neighbors out in pursuit of prayer flags and life coaches.  We could tell someone about our friend Jesus.  We could pray with a hurting family member.  We could come to church, bring a friend, and sit among those who love us like the Lord does.  We could tune in for Wednesday’s online communion service and feast, once again, upon the bread of life and resolve to go forth as bread for a hungry world.  May it be so.  Amen.

Resources:

George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless. Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2014.

Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time,” Gallup News, March 29, 2021.  Accessed online at news.gallup.com/poll/3341963/

Sparks, O. Benjamin. “Pastoral Perspective on John 6:24-35” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Morse, Christopher. “Theological Perspective on John 6:24-35” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Guynup, Sharon. “Why ‘Getting Back to Normal’ May Actually Feel Terrifying” in National Geographic: Corona Virus Coverage May 20, 2021. Accessed online at national geographic.com.

Hylen, Susan. “Commentary on John 6:24-35” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 5, 2018.  Accessed online at http://www.workingpreacher.org.

Photo by Bruno Thethe on Pexels.com

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