Proper 13(B): Transcendent Things
By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor
I always find it interesting (and, if I’m honest, somewhat frustrating) that in many instances when Jesus performs a great miracle or work he tells people not to say anything about it, or kind of begrudges their being impressed by it. I always want to be impressed by them. I always want to appreciate the “wow” factor involved. That isn’t always a bad impulse, but getting consumed by the superficial, material-level “wow” factor in religion or in something important that God does in the world can really cause you some problems now and again (just ask Lot’s wife.) It seems like Jesus sometimes does these things, manipulates the physical realm, to draw our attention more deeply into transcendent things.
I don’t want to go down the road that leads to declaring the physical world meaningless by establishing some either/or relationship when it comes to physicality and spirituality. In fact, I think that this text leads us to consider a more transcendent, Eucharistic idea that God’s presence in the world both involves material things and presses beyond them.
When the people who were impressed by Jesus feeding the five thousand came to find him the next day, they discover him on the other side of the sea (away from the place where he had just made his big splash.) They are curious about this, as many would be. Who doesn’t like to bask a little bit in the glory of their own accomplishments? But that wasn’t Jesus’ style. Somewhat surprisingly to those searching for him, they found that Jesus had removed himself from the location of all the action (and all of the social glory that would have come with it.) As soon as they get to him to see what’s going on, he comes at them with a mini-sermon. He says they aren’t coming to find him for spiritually significant reasons, but rather for practical ones—they know he can give them food, since they know he has done it before.
Jesus cautions them about this. He reminds them not to let their life’s work be consumed by food that perishes, but to orient themselves towards that which endures forever. This is one of those times when Scripture really hits home. How many of us let our life’s work get consumed by things we are going to in-turn consume? Industry and economics are built on these very concerns. This isn’t to say that having food or other things is bad, but it is a question of priorities and of ensuring that we do not get consumed by our quest for consumption. Jesus doesn’t want them to confuse temporary things with eternal things.
This could be a great challenge for some. They might wonder, if not blanket consumerism, what would we use to drive the economies and wealth of nations? How would we define meaning in one’s work or life accomplishments, if not by salary, investments, homes, and so on? If one isn’t careful, it could cause an existential crisis. Even so, perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Repentance is, after all, about renewing our minds.
For others, this message may be a great consolation. For the poor, the dispossessed, and the oppressed, it can be a blessing to hear that their worth isn’t wound up with physical or material or social capital, but rather in something more transcendent and divine. Additionally, when times are troubled, as ours are now, there is a great temptation to equate what we have in the moment with what will always be. What we have now, in this moment, may be less than perfect. It may be bad. It may be flat out wrong or evil. Fortunately for us, this is the bread that perishes. In this passage, Jesus declares himself not just bread that sustains life, but the bread of life, that is, the very essence of life itself. He invites folks to come to him and find in him that they will never hunger or thirst again.
This is a blessing and a challenge to consider in light of increasing poverty and humanitarian crises all around the globe. It is also a hopeful thing to consider. As the bread of the world perishes, the bread of heaven is in the world, with us, keeping us and sustaining us beyond the shallow things that simple materialism and consumerism can satisfy. We hunger and thirst for food and water, but also for love and compassion, for justice and goodness, for peace and support. We may turn to many places for consolation in a hungry world, but Christ directs us to his eternal, Eucharistic presence as the reliable source of divine endurance and sustenance in a world which is, by nature, always perishing.
The Reverend Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Mebane, North Carolina where he lives with his husband, Logan, and dog, Dandy. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.