700 years ago, a Christian mystic named Meister Eckhardt wrote this – “There are people who want to see God with the same eyes with which they look at a cow – and they want to love God in the same way they love a cow – for the milk and the cheese”. I’ll come back to this later but if the sermon is boring, that bit of wisdom from Meister Eckhardt is worth thinking about.
For now, however, I want to ask whether you ever pause to think about the signs that surround us? They inform us – instruct us – teach us – inspire us. They are a form of indispensable communication between and among us but sometimes we don’t appreciate what they signify. So look about this room – and tell me what signs you see. Mainly I want to invite you to think about the difference between a sign and what the sign signifies.
Some things are simply what they are in themselves – and never in the strict sense a sign – things like stones and cattle and roads. But words, for example, are signs of the things the word signifies – much as a sign over a business tells us the things that are for sale. Some things, however, are signs of other things.
There was a time when pants and skirts were signs of gender – but nowadays those things may be signs of other things. I might say parenthetically that this is exactly what’s happening now in the arguments about Civil War memorials – these things are signs that signify other things – and therein lie disagreements.
The Bible is also rich in examples of things that are also signs of other things. Think of the ram that Abraham offered as sacrifice instead of his son – and how the substituted ram (a thing) was a sign of another thing, viz., Abraham’s obedience to God. Or think of the bread that fed 5000 and Jesus saying that bread is a thing that is a sign of himself who is the true bread from heaven. But not every thing is a sign of something else.
In John’s gospel, signs are important – but not as important as what they signify. So John frequently complains about – and even quarrels with – a faith that does not penetrate beyond signs to the thing itself. When Jesus instructs his disciples to labor not for earthly bread but for the food that endures to eternal life, he makes that point emphatically clear. John says early on in his gospel that the Son of Man came down from heaven to give us ‘bread from heaven’.
These stories about feeding and bread mean to underline the important difference between a sign and the thing it signifies. They show that each time the crowds and the disciples are fed they misunderstand – they are satisfied merely to eat and be filled – and each time Jesus proceeds to give the correct interpretation, viz., that he has given them the bread of eternal life – and later, that he himself is ‘the bread of life’.
My great-great-grandfather emigrated to the US from Donegal, Ireland – and somehow settled in the piney woods of Jones County, Mississippi. Jones County, I’ve learned, is an internally contradictory place. It was among those places in the South that seceded not only from the Union but from the Confederacy as well! So it came to be known as the “Free State of Jones”. My grandfather, John O’Donnell – together with other residents – devoutly believed that local autonomy and independence are the signs that signify a ‘free state’.
In college I learned that there were many other fervent republican pockets in the South and that their sense of sovereignty extended to having their own county militias posted at the county lines, refusing to allow any troop movement or foraging in the county, by either Confederate or Federal troops! These republican pockets, that are best-known in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, were widely scattered throughout the south. However, and historians have said that, while they were not the material cause of the South’s defeat, they significantly contributed to it.
I’ve recently re-read a fascinating little book about the 15th Mississippi Infantry, 10 companies that were composed of volunteers from 5 counties in north-central Mississippi. I lived in 2 of those counties. I played high school football and basketball in all 5 of them. I graduated from a school named for one of the delegates to the state secessionist convention of 1861 [which met in Jackson, MS, on 7 January].
So Ben Wynne’s book held an existential interest for me. It’s not a military history so much as it is about the social relations of the men and boys who were locally recruited relatives and friends. They were commonly in the same company. They elected their own officers and they were deeply distrustful. Sometimes they refused to fight under commanders from other states when their own officers fell in battle. One of them, Joel Harvey, spoke for most of them when he announced to the congregation of the Pilgrim’s Rest Church that “I don’t owe allegiance to Jeff Davis or Abe Lincoln”. Those 10 words are a striking affirmation of individual autonomy. They reminded me of a broad and deep streak of independence in modern American culture, and myself as well.
Nobody speaks for me but myself. My loyalties and commitments are my own. I am not bound to anybody or anything or to any entangling alliances. ‘I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul’. Most of us cut our moral eye teeth on this American ethic which instills in us an irreducible sense of self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and self-governance, together with an unyielding self-respect that is fueled by pride and self-indulgence.
In striking ways, I think those fellows in the 15th Mississippi Infantry shared the same kind of truncated loyalties as the Israelites in the wilderness and the 5000 Galileans who were fed from 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. It struck me that there is an organic connection between Ben Wynne’s account of these 19th century Mississippi infantrymen; the self-indulgence of David and Bathsheba, the immaturity of the Ephesians to whom Paul wrote, and the Galileans who thronged around Jesus. All of them failed to see what the signs in their lives signified.
So if you’re wondering what all this has to do with today’s propers, the connection I make is that in all four lessons appointed for today the people of God are also caught between two worlds. They are urged to abandon their old world and go forward into a new one. In last Sunday’s sermon I looked seriously at John’s account of the feeding of 5000 with only 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. I reflected sacramentally on how that miracle continues to impact our lives. Today’s gospel recounts events of the next day, when the multitude noticed that Jesus and the disciples were gone and loaded themselves into boats and headed to Capernaum to find them.
When they found Jesus, he didn’t seem very receptive. My free translation of what he said to them goes something like this: ‘It’s pretty clear to me that you’re not looking for me because of the real gifts I can offer you. You’re looking for me because you were hungry and got well-fed.’ In effect, I think that Jesus was saying, ‘You don’t care about me. you’re just looking for a free meal. All you want is what I can give you: the sign, not what the sign signifies’.
Meister Eckhardt put it this way – “There are people who want to see God with the same eyes with which they look at a cow – and they want to love God in the same way they love a cow – for the milk and the cheese”. Lots of us do that. We love God for what he can give us. We love other people for what they can give us. It sounds harsh, but I think that may be a fair characterization of the crowd that came to Capernaum looking for Jesus. They weren’t looking for Jesus the Savior, the Son of God. They were looking for another free lunch.
So Jesus says to them, “Don’t work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you”. I don’t think he’s saying that food is unimportant – at other times he taught his disciples to pray for daily bread. We will do that when we pray the prayer he taught us. But now he challenges this crowd to look beyond the sign, the bread they received on the mountainside, and join him on his messianic journey, to acknowledge that they need ‘the food that endures for eternal life,’ spiritual food. What’s more, he offers to give them that food!
He’s right of course that we tend to make too little of our lives, to live as though there were nothing better than food, or money and the things it can buy, or maybe sex, or a secure job, and the satisfaction these things bring. As Eckhardt suggested, we are forever tempted to treat God as our sacred cow who provides our earthly needs and wants. But Jesus reminds us ‘that life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.’ [Lk 12:23] It’s not that money, or a secure job, or food or sex, or anything God created, is bad. They’re all good when we use them to honor God, when we treat them as gifts from God, when we see them as signs of God’s providence and love.
Jesus offered those people on the mountain something more than mere bread. He called them to seek the food that endures for eternal life. Then he offered to give it to them.
Today’s gospel reading reminds us that he makes us the same offer. It’s arguable that Paul came to the point more directly than Jesus, that he was more blunt when he said, in effect, to the Ephesians: “Stop living like pagans! Put off your old nature that belongs to your former manner of life…and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God”.
The Israelites wanted to go back to the fleshpots of Egypt. The 5000 Galileans wanted a king who could magically multiply barley loaves. The Ephesians persisted in living lives of futility predicated on cherished commitments that contradict Jesus’ teaching. Partial and selfish loyalties and commitments are part of our heritage, too, and our great temptation. Like that of the Israelites in the wilderness, like that of the Galileans along the seaside, and like that of those soldiers in the 15th Mississippi Infantry, our great temptation is to seek refuge in the comfortable familiarity of what was, what has been, what used-to-be. The 7 last words of congregations are “but we’ve always done it this way”.
Today’s propers tell us, however, that it’s a mistake to long for the world’s kind of security, for deep freezers full of food in the event of another hurricane, for IRAs to guarantee comfort and safety in old age, for 100% insurance against medical or hospital malpractice, for a checking account always under drawn. The injunction in today’s readings is to give up thinking and believing that way, to give up living as pagans, and to live by faith in God alone. The Bible is full of that kind of advice the people of God. That’s among the reasons we read the Bible every time we assemble for worship. When the Israelites asked Moses about the manna on the ground, he said to them, “It’s the bread that the Lord has given you to eat”. For us, the Holy Eucharist feeds us on our journey. The ‘true bread from heaven’ is what nourishes us on our pilgrimage. Thanks be to God.
HARMON L. SMITH is professor emeritus of moral theology in the Divinity School, Duke University. An Episcopal priest, he is the author of numerous books and essays on Christian ethics and medical ethics.