Have you seen those signs on the wide of river walks? The ones that scream at you—“Don’t Feed the Ducks!” Did you ever wonder why not?
It turns out, bread is terrible food for ducks, no matter how much they like it. They gobble it up—too much of it. But it doesn’t have the nutrients they need for healthy growth. Bread stunts their healthy growth, paradoxically, by making them both malnourished and overweight at the same time.
It also makes them unable to learn to find good food since they become dependent at an early age. When we feed the ducks, it causes overcrowding and aggression —sounds like church sometimes, right?
This Advent at church, we’re working through some of Jesus’ I AM statements. Several times he told the people who he was. More importantly, he showed them. It always rang true. He was/is who he said he was.
Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life. I AM the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6.27, 35)
Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last. I don’t know about you, but so much of my life at times seems filled with working for food that doesn’t last. Not tangible food I ingest. Food of other sorts. Praise. Appreciation. Perfection. Bylines or likes on a page. Numbers of people tuned in to a church service or a live video. “Food” that nourishes our egos, but what about our souls?
It isn’t that these things aren’t important. They are. I’m not going to get on a soapbox about how promoting a brand or a church, or a book is somehow ungodly and a waste of our precious one life. I don’t know that this is true. The Holy Spirit gives us gifts, and God enjoys them when we use them for our fulfillment and others’ benefit. I don’t believe God looks at our promotional efforts and shakes a head at how pointless they all are. God loves when we bless others through our work, and we can’t bless others who don’t know we exist. It isn’t the actions themselves or the need for them professionally or personally that causes malnourishment of the soul.
It’s the need for them for our identity.
Using that kind of bread to feed our souls isn’t sustainable for long because it was never meant for that purpose. It doesn’t fill the holes hungry for real love and acceptance that hang nothing on what we produce or how profound or witty we are online.
We hunger, deep in our spirits, for food that will satisfy those gaping holes of being loved for who we are and being wanted in someone’s space, no conditions attached. So when we exchange those likes, tweets, and shares for acceptance, we’re gorging on food that doesn’t last. That space empties so quickly, needing to be filled again every day, just like our stomachs.
The people who crowded around Jesus the day he made this statement had a similar experience. They hung who they were and how valuable they were on the thing they could see, like the bread and circuses so popular and familiar in their Roman/Jewish world.
They wanted to measure Jesus like this too, but he defied them. After he’d fed the crowd miraculously, he left them, but they tracked him down, wanting more.
“I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate all the food you wanted. Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life.
They asked, “What must we do in order to accomplish what God requires?”
Jesus replied, “This is what God requires, that you believe in him whom God sent.”
They asked, “What miraculous sign will you do, that we can see and believe you? What will you do?
Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.But I told you that you have seen me and still don’t believe.”
Jesus knew they came for the show. He knew they wanted to be defined and valued by their proximity to the sparkle and glitter. He knew they would define him by what he could deliver, and they would turn on him once he did not.
So Jesus showed them who he was.
Maya Angelou famously said— “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Usually, we use that quote to remind us that if someone shows us an evil side, we should be very careful. But If someone shows you who they are, and who they are is dazzling, believe that, too. Jesus shows them who he is.
He gave them bread. Then he offered life.
Approaching the bread and circuses world in which we live, believing we can find who we are and what we long for from it, is asking for food that will not last. Yet this is where we live, so how do we find the balance between living there and gaining our value there?
Drawing near to Christ, to the Jesus who was born in a feeding area and lived moving toward a cross, is our touchpoint. The Christ of loaves and fishes and water and wine is beautiful and generous and abundant, but this was not his daily life. Jesus didn’t materialize fish and fries for his disciples at every meal. His presence was the bread of life, not his miracles.
When we gain our identity through proximity to his humble life rather than a shiny show, we can learn to manage that show as a helpful tool but not as our main source of nutrition.
The world this year seems to have grown both closer and lonelier. More people than ever long for acceptance in another’s space, without conditions attached. We haven’t been in others’ space much, and when we have, we wonder if the wrong word or opinion might sever the relationship.
Interpersonal strains, writ large by how much we’ve been in the same space for so long together, have brought more of us to the point of recognizing that we need love for who we are, even when we are at our worst.
Jesus offers to fill those hungers that nothing else can. The miracles of feeding 5,000 aren’t about food. They’re about love. Abundant, magnificent, extravagant love that knows no bounds of physical reality that would count loaves and fishes and find them not enough. The miracles are about filling our hearts with the bread we need—the nearness of a Savior whose love can’t be put in a box of opinion, dogma, or party.
It can, however, be put in an animal trough. It can come blazing hot on a winter’s night, lighting up our hearts and filling them with food that will endure for eternal life.
It’s that food that grounds me when I launch into a world where identity and love can be bought for a large enough following. We do need daily food. It’s not a bad thing. It’s fine and good to work for. But it’s not the same thing as eternal food. We cannot confuse the two.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.