There is a dynamic scene in the Gospel of John (Chapter 6). It begins with Jesus miraculously feeding a multitude of people (the men alone numbered 5000). The audience is amazed! They want to immediately make him king. But Jesus will not have it, so he slips away by himself.
That evening Jesus and the Disciples went to the other side of the lake, so the next morning the crowd found boats to cross the lake and find him. They wanted more miracle and wonder from him. And when they caught up with Jesus, he appears to be rather cross with them. He knew they were too fixated on the miracle, and blind to the meaning behind its purpose. Somewhere in the dialogue Jesus makes a powerful statement: following him is as important to living the abundant life as eating and drinking are for daily physical health. They wanted someone to fix their daily problems and to give them a sustainable source of food. If Jesus could do all that, no wonder they preferred him to be their king. But Jesus was offering something far more important: the secret to the most abundant life possible. However, it would not come through success and material wealth. It would be found through discipleship and servanthood centered upon a dynamic relationship with God.
The search for the abundant life has been a basic theme since the beginning of time. It’s in our DNA to seek and find what makes life sustainable, joyful, and meaningful. This theme is found in nearly every religion, every philosophy, and belief system. Somehow each generation and every individual must sort this out. Life itself, all the ups and downs, all the struggles and successes, presents everyone with this journey. Jesus tells us the destination is not discovered through conquering life and winning power over others. It is through vulnerability and pouring yourself out in service to others.
Jesus is not inviting us to give up on building a wonderful life (family, home, career, etc). In fact, an important part of life in our culture is doing all of this. However, it is also a means to get to the goal – but not the goal itself. The miracle of feeding the great multitude (John 6) was a teachable moment intended to point toward a much more important truth than having free food for a day. It pointed toward abundant living. I believe the journey toward abundant life has two phases: filling our life as a container, and learning to pour it our in service to others.
In the first half of life we seek to fill up the container: securing a job, building relationships and a support system, falling in love, starting a family, and making a home. But eventually we learn that having a home, a career, and a family are part of the journey, but not the destination Jesus was talking about (John 10:10). The second path begins to unfold in mid-life (although some may access it at a younger age). It’s discovered as the container of your life begins to be emptied – through loss, the cycles of life, and brokenness. Children leave home; loved ones pass away; careers end. It’s when you finally hit an emotional and spiritual wall and you need something deeper to know who you are beyond all the change and brokenness.
Jesus said that “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:54). The audience that chased him to the other side of the lake must have thought he had lost his mind. They just wanted someone to fix their daily need for food. They couldn’t hear his invitation. It wasn’t to literally to become cannibals. It was to deeply engage with him as followers. To literally ingest his way of living God’s love out loud. For only then can we discover the true “abundant life.”
If this seems to be overly mystical stuff to you, have no fear. I am sure it did to the Disciples, too. Until they saw this fully abundant teacher put to death for living God’s love too boldly. Until they became witnesses of his victory over death and sin when he arose to life three days later. In fact, the best part of their story was not the campaign of living and learning with Jesus for three years. It came when they were tested by his death, and they each discovered the second path of being poured out in service to others. And the more they served, the more they were enriched with God’s powerful presence at work in their lives.
I invite you to take the challenge Jesus offered his audience that day on the lake shore. Stop being so focused on food (home, career, identity), and seek him through pouring yourself out in service to others. The surprise of love God will reveal to you is worth the risk and the adventure.
Dr. Neil Routh is pastor at Grace Moravian Church.