Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”
This past Friday was the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits. By coincidence, as I was preparing for this sermon I read a commentary on John chapter six that referenced a book in my library on the Jesuit spiritual practice known as the examen, entitled, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. The authors explain the title, writing,
“During the bombing raids of WWII, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”
The people in today’s gospel lesson seem to be searching for essentially the same thing: the reassurance that, having been fed by Jesus yesterday, they will eat again tomorrow. “Sir, give us this bread always.” In response, Jesus offers himself to the people as “food that endures for eternal life.” He does so by inviting the people to “believe in him whom [the Father] has sent.”
But what does it mean to “believe in” someone? We often hear people say they either do or don’t “believe in God,” and we rightly take that to mean that they either do or don’t believe that God exists. But there’s a more foundational, relational meaning to that phrase, “believe in,” namely: do you have confidence in God? Do you trust in God? Here, Jesus is inviting us to put our confidence in him, to trust in him, and to enter into a living and active relationship with him.
Sometimes, however, we are like those refugee children in World War II. The Church, at its best, is like one of those refugee camps. The Church feeds us with Word and Sacrament and provides us with good pastoral care through its clergy and lay ministries. And yet, we live in a war-ravaged world, both literally and metaphorically. Our lives are disrupted by illness and death, by family and work stress, and by the daily anxieties that simply come from working for our daily bread—the “food that perishes.” We don’t know what it means to work for or to hold on to “the food that endures for eternal life.”
At such times, hearing that Jesus is the Bread of Life is not enough. What will it take to believe in him? How can we sleep with the Bread of Life, to hold on to Jesus, so that we are not simply assured that he is with us, but so that we can actively connect with him? For it is one thing to believe in him in a general way, and another thing entirely to believe in him in a practical way that actually nourishes us day after day, until our dying day.
That’s where this Jesuit book on the examen I mentioned before comes in. The spiritual practice of the examen is a way of connecting with Jesus as the Bread of Life. In its simplest form, it works like this: at the end of every day, take a few minutes to become aware of God’s loving presence, and ask yourselves two questions: “For what moment today am I most grateful?” and “For what moment today am I least grateful?” Then reflect on what you found most life-giving about that moment for which you are most grateful, and what you found most life-draining about that moment for which you are least grateful. Then bring your reflections to Christ in prayer. If you are on your own, writing in a journal may help you process your thoughts; or it can be undertaken as a conversation with another person, or as a family, or in a group. The point is to connect your daily life with your daily Bread of Life, and having made that connection, to hold on to him.
On Thursday, I visited two different parishioners in their homes. In each instance, I anointed them with oil for healing and gave them communion from the Reserved Sacrament. Before doing so, knowing that this would be our Sunday lesson, I read, “I am the Bread of Life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” In each instance, I reflected on how hard it is to trust in these words when things are not going well in life. But the point, again, is not merely to “believe in” these words as a claim or a proposition demanding some sort of intellectual assent, but to connect with these words of Jesus in a way that actually leads to connecting with Jesus himself.
And so I offer the examen as one tool for connecting with Jesus our Bread of Life. The examen is but one way that I hope we might together and individually continue to take responsibility for our formation as Christians, because if you ever feel that coming to Church, hearing a sermon and receiving communion is not enough to connect you to God, you’re right. Sometimes, it’s not. Thankfully, sometimes, it is, but you shouldn’t count on the quality of my sermons to keep you connected to Jesus! I’m not that great of a preacher. No, at best all I can do is point us all in the direction of the Bread of Life, and invite us to come to him, not simply trusting that if we do so, we will find his promises to be true, but knowing that in order to find out whether his promises are indeed true, we need to enter into an active relationship with him to begin with. And to do so, I believe that sooner or later, most if not all of us will find that it takes more than coming to Church.
If you are hungry for the Bread of Life, it is my belief that you will indeed get a nutritious serving of it at St. John’s every Sunday. But I don’t think for a minute that what we have to offer here on Sundays can ever be enough. To find the Bread of Life that truly satisfies, we need to connect with and hold on to the one who gives us the Bread of Life every day. For me, that includes such practices as the Daily Office and the occasional use of the examen. What might connect you with the Bread of Life on a daily basis? What do you need in order to know that “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow?” And how can you share the Bread of Life with others? These and other questions I leave with you as part of our ongoing focus this summer on growing as a church. I look forward to hearing your answers, if you will share them with me, and to engaging in conversation together, as we seek and find our daily Bread of Life.