How did you eat this week? If you’re like other Americans, it was all over the map. Some of you probably had a meal or two at a table, conversing with other people and taking time to enjoy the experience. And if you were graced with a certain kind of a week—who knows?—maybe you went on a picnic! Do people still go on picnics? But for most of us, odds are, we are not eating meals the way our parents and grandparents did.
We grab a protein bar or a smoothie and get in the car.
We drive through a fast food joint and eat at our desks.
We eat at a table with another person or people, but everyone spends the meal watching a TV show or glued to the computer or checking their smart phone.
We are a society that has forgotten how to eat. We are people who are deeply hungry for more than food. We are hungry for abundant life.
And by abundant life, I don’t mean an iPad 5. I mean: a life of peace and purpose, joy and meaning, with fulfilling work and joyful play and deep relationships and service to others. But that’s just me. What’s your definition of abundant life?
For Job, a biblical figure who is more parable than history, abundant life is one in which he is “blameless and upright, one who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:1b). It is also a life of significant prosperity—Job’s holdings are large. He’s the “greatest of all the people in the east,” which puts him in Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates territory.
But the thing that moves me most about Job is this: We are told that his grown children sit down together at table, often—the brothers “hold feasts,” and invite one another and their sisters, from house to house. And Job, having raised ten children who appear to be productive members of society, doesn’t leave it there. He watches out for their spiritual well-being too. After the feasts are over, Job offers sacrifices to God on their behalf—not because he believes them to be sinful, but “just in case.”
A blameless and upright and prosperous man, striving to keep his children on the right side of goodness. This is Job’s model of abundant life.
Jesus, in our passage, provides another.
Jesus’ disciples have just returned from their mission trip, but instead of rebuilding houses, they’ve been rebuilding lives: they’ve been healing and telling people about the love of God. And Jesus listens as they tell him everything they’ve done… he wants to hear the stories, about the broken lives made whole, about the Spirit filling them with just the right words, about the demons yielding and fleeing. After he has heard the stories, he takes his disciples to a city called Bethsaida, probably on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s pretty clear from the way this is described—it says, “he withdrew privately”—that Jesus is looking for some down time for all of them, time to regroup, to have what my daughter’s Presbyterian Camp called “TWG”—Time With God. No one, not even Jesus and his followers, can pour from an empty bucket. They are trying to take time out to fill up again, on rest, on time together, on time in prayer.
Too bad for them. Because, as I’ve mentioned, they’ve been healing people. They’ve been telling people about the love and grace of God. They’ve been doing the kinds of things that are awakening in the people all across Galilee a kind of hunger for abundant life, a hunger that has people telling their friends, and the new and bigger crowds come clamoring for more. The people follow them to their Bethsaida retreat.
And you know what Jesus does. He doesn’t turn to Peter and say, “Man, they’ve found us, let’s get out of here.” You know what he does. He welcomes the people. Of course he does. Because, thank God, he’s Jesus. He EMBODIES the welcome of God. He IS the welcome of God. He welcomes them. And he tells them about the love of God. And he heals them.
And when it’s time to eat, he feeds them. You know the story, the great Math Fail of the New Testament: Five Loaves + Two Fish = Plenty of Food for 5000 Men, Not Counting the Women and the Children.
Imagine with me what that must have been like. Imagine throwing aside your work for the day… leaving the boat and the nets by the lakeshore, and leaving the bread to rise and rise but never be baked. Leaving the laundry, leaving the fields. Leaving it all because there is someone out there who is going to tell you things you need to hear… things about God’s love for you—for YOU—and things about God’s desire for you to be healed. And then, you ARE healed. This is not hypothetical. This is happening. And at the end of it all, you are not sent away to fend for yourself on the long walk home. You are encouraged to sit in and with the great and motley company of Jesus-followers to be fed by him. And… your work still awaits you at home. The nets still have to be untangled, the bread still has to be baked. But you are changed. You are changed forever by the knowledge that your life has value, and that God wants for you, healing, wholeness. Abundant life.
There are other images in scripture of abundant life. What’s yours? And how can Jesus help you find it? Is it healing you need? You’re in the right place. Is it the opportunity to sit down at table with a gloriously diverse group of God’s children? You’re in the right place. Is it comfort? Consolation? Encouragement to get out of your rut and help change someone else’s life for the better? Again, you are in the right place. Abundant life.
At the heart of the Presbyterian understanding of abundant life is this table, the Lord’s table. Our official Directory of Worship instructs us to have the Lord’s Supper frequently enough that is will be recognized as a “regular” part of Sunday morning worship. For us, that works out to 13 times each year, because we celebrate it monthly plus on Christmas Eve. And it is to be a regular part, not just of the worship of the adult, confirmed members of the congregation, but of every baptized child, too. We don’t withhold communion until our children understand it because, for one thing, none of us on this side of heaven fully understands it. And, to use another analogy, we don’t withhold food until babies understand nutrition. The grace we receive at Lord’s Supper—the entirely free gift of God’s presence—doesn’t depend upon our understanding, thanks be to God, any more than the grace we receive at baptism depends on it. This table is about God’s grace, the grace that promises abundant life.
And our promise for abundant life does not end here. I think it’s pretty clear that the gospels present a very “here-and-now” theology of abundance: God invites us to a great feast that is based on the assumption that there is enough, and we can help to ensure that by our actions, and our caring for one another. But there is also a promise here, a promise of another great feast that is to come. At that feast, God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more. We will sit on the grass with new-old friends and long lost loved ones, and when we rise again, not only will our hunger be satisfied—at last, and for good—but our bodies will be transformed. In that feast, God will make each and every one of us new, whole, and well, once and for always. Live abundant and eternal. This is the promise. This is our faith. Thanks be to God. Amen.