Sermon delivered at Valley Mills Friends Meeting
Reading: John 6:24-35
When I was a student at Barclay college, I took a class on missions. In this class, one of the topics that came up was that of “Rice Christians”. Rice Christians is a term for the people who call themselves Christians because they believe that they will receive bags of rice. It is the idea that people want to become Christians so that they can get something from the missionaries.
At that time, I really didn’t understand all of the conversation. While it was clear that “Rice Christians” were not a useful addition to the fledgling church, it is hard to see what the issues are. Even after graduating, it was somewhat hard to see what the issues were. You see, I have done some work with food pantries, and with the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army in my home town has a huge building that is full every day of the week, except Sunday when only its small congregation is there. When I’ve worked at a church food Pantry, the days we hand out food attract far more people than Sunday worship.
It has been hard for me to figure this out, partially, because it is outside my experience. My experience with food relief is that Christians hand out food because people are hungry — and people accept the food, because they are hungry. I’ve never noticed anybody expecting those who hungered to be church members, or even Christian. I’ve even thought from time to time that it would be nice to see them some other time, such as Sunday morning.
When I think about it though, this means that I did not really know what it meant to have people coming to church, just because they wanted the church to keep giving them bread. The Christian organizations I worked with did not expect those who received food or other aid to be there on Sunday morning, so there was no reason for rice Christians.
More recently, I’ve been in a position where I could see that there are people who are around only for what they can get out of others — I’ve seen people who attend churches as long as the Benevolence fund helps — but leave angrily when it runs out. I’ve seen people who try to assert their power and control the work of their local churches instead of seeking God’s will together. I’ve even come to realize that when people talk about networking, some of them actually do mean that the purpose of forming relationships is to promote ourselves — that we ‘win friends’ and ‘influence people’ in order to increase the sales volume — and the church becomes merely a place to make more contacts.
I find it interesting how the people who came to Jesus just came because they received bread. The bread that they received was distributed miraculously. When Jesus asked them to believe, they asked what signs he’d demonstrate so that they might believe — as if feeding 5000 people out of a boy’s lunchbox was not enough of a miracle. The feeding of the 5000 was at the start of this chapter — a crowd that could not be fed with 6 months wages, even if so much food could be bought at the last moment. This passage is literally the next day.
When Jesus preached, he preached that people should be generous to those in need, and to feed the hungry. Jesus went so far as to miraculously feed those who came to listen to him because he knew that they must be hungry. Jesus cared about the physical needs of others, but he cared about more than just the physical.
I am amazed at the idea that the people were so focused on their stomachs that they missed the miracle that fed them. They also completely missed out on the message. Jesus told them: “I am the bread of life.” They were so focused on their hunger that they had no interest in their starving spirit.
The result of this exchange, which we see at the end of the chapter, is that the crowds left Jesus. When Jesus spoke of something other than healing the sick, and when he offered spiritual food, but did not hand out food for the body, the crowds left him. Even the bulk of Jesus’ disciples left him. In a day, Jesus went from having thousands of people following him, hoping to find healing or food to having his own disciples leaving him. When he asked the twelve: “Will you leave us too”, Peter had a rare moment of getting it, answering: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy one of God.”
Jesus, in a matter of days saw his ‘congregation’ drop from several thousands of people and nearly 100 leaders to the point where he asked the twelve if they would leave him too. After the church growth movement, churches everywhere are seeing many of the people who were brought in leaving again — many churches don’t know how far this decline will go. How many wanted food, or health? How many really were not willing to go to Jerusalem and possibly die with Jesus?
Sometimes, I am pretty nervous about numbers — right now, every church I’ve been involved with seems to have fewer people than they once did, and the people who are there seem to have less time and energy for church. I remember how the church growth movement taught us that if we were not growing the church, we were failing to live up God’s calling to make disciples.
What this passage reminds me is that the crowds might not be disciples. Those who come for the services that are offered, may not have any interest in the bread of life. Those who come for fellowship might not be willing to stay if faith is no longer respectable. Those who came for connections might leave when they see that there are other ways to network. Those who seek power might leave when they realize that the church isn’t supposed to be about power and control.
Unfortunately, this kind of growth can make us forget who we are. Growth can distract us, causing us to worry so much about the logistics of all those people that we forget to make disciples. Growth can be great crowds of people who are neither disciples, nor have any idea that there should be disciples. It seems that Jesus needed to chase away the crowds, and focus on just a few people who knew he brought words of life. Jesus fed the crowds, healed the sick, preached good news to the poor — but, he needed time and space to make disciples.
Perhaps we have an opportunity to refocus, and experience personal growth as disciples, and into the name Christian. Perhaps when people talk about the need for spiritual revival, they are confused. Maybe, right now, we need to become small enough that we can rediscover a devotion to Christ. Maybe we were so distracted by having a real influence on the world around us that we put our trust in politics rather than Christ. Perhaps we have an opportunity to discover that our faith is not about winning, but about being faithful and walking with Jesus