Living from Relationship

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When the 29 year old runner Zach Bitter broke the US 100 mile record in 11 hours 40 minutes, he did so at an average pace of 7 minutes a mile. To put that in context, to have a pace fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which is a life goal for many distance runners, requires a runner Bitter’s age to have completed a marathon in less than 3 hours and five minutes. Bitter did that nearly four times, back to back.

How did he run so fast with so much endurance? A lot of training of course, but what stands out about Zach Bitter in the world of endurance runners isn’t so much his running routine as his diet. Bitter eats an extremely low-carbohydrate diet with at times fewer than 5% of his calories coming from carbs. His breakfast is eggs and spinach, his lunch a Cobb salad, his dinner a steak.

Why eat like this? All of us, even the leanest of athletes, have a tremendous energy source in the form of stored fat. The problem is that fat is often the last thing our bodies go to for energy, especially when we feed ourselves a steady stream of complex or simple sugars that are easy and quick to burn. But by eating very little sugar or anything that can turn into sugar, our bodies become efficient at drawing on our nearly endless fat reserves, which is important if you want to run 100 miles in less than 12 hours.  

Few of us here are likely aiming to break the 100 mile record, or could imagine running even a mile as fast as Zach Bitter. But if you said “Amen” a moment ago, then you share in an ambition that is far greater and more significant than any ultramarathon. We prayed in our collect that we would “think and do always those things that are right”; that we would “live according to [God’s] will.” Those are tremendous ambitions and our Epistle reading begins to spell out what those ambitions actually look like. We must not harbor anger, we must be kind and forgiving, we must become “imitators of God.”

As I think of my own life, just the prospect of not letting the sun go down on my anger is hard enough, but to be an imitator of God? It seems like an impossible task, and of course it is an impossible task if we don’t have the right training and we don’t learn how to live from the deepest source of energy and life available to us. We don’t need to be fat adapted for the achievement of godliness, but we do need to be able to live from a different source than the quick burning energy that normally feeds our lives. We need a bread that will never leave us hungry.

In our Gospel reading, when Jesus tells those gathered around him that he is the bread that has come down from heaven, they are skeptical. This is one of seven statements in the Gospel of John in which Jesus describes himself with an “I am” statement. These statements were a kind of trigger for his audience, for good or ill, because they indicated a claim of divinity. When Moses had asked for the name of God he’d been told, “I am who I am.” Now Jesus is saying “I am the bread that comes down from heaven”, a mix of the claim to divinity with a reference to the miracle of manna in the book of Exodus. They are outraged by this idolatry from a local boy whose father they all presumed to know, but Jesus responds by explaining the nature of this bread and its source.

It is a complex passage but it centers on a comparison between the manna that the ancestors ate and the bread of life found in Jesus. In the wilderness, as the people were being brought out of slavery in Egypt, God had provided them with a miraculous food called manna. But like so many sources of fulfillment in our lives, it’s satisfactions didn’t last. The meal of manna was meant to be an outpouring of God’s loving relationship with his people, but instead the Israelites ate it like a passing satisfaction, a quick fix.  As the poignant language of Psalm 78 puts it,

He rained down manna upon them to eat *

   and gave them grain from heaven.

So mortals ate the bread of angels; *

   he provided for them food enough…

So they ate and were well filled, *

   for he gave them what they craved.

But they did not stop their craving, *

   though the food was still in their mouths.

These lines describe so much of my life and the lives of so many people I know: “They did not stop their craving though the food was still in their mouths.”  Sex without relationship, work without meaning, food without nutrition–there are myriad ways in which our world seeks fulfillment outside of the contexts that bring true satisfaction.

And it is into that world that Jesus comes, the new Bread from heaven, the new gift of God around which we are invited to gather to the family meal of the Kingdom. Again, as before, the Father calls us to come and gather, but now this source of life is not a passing meal that can easily be eaten and forgotten, burned through until we need another fix of sugar. The new manna is a person and the very food before us is a relationship, our lives entering into God’s life through abiding in the life of Jesus. In Jesus we are invited to the table through which our bodies become his body which is resurrected, our lives become his life which is everlasting.

But like Zach Bitter learning to run long miles from the stored energy of his fat, we do not realize this profound life without work. As the wise teacher Dallas Willard often said, grace is without earning but not without effort. I was reminded of this over the past week as I worked on this sermon. Again and again I was tempted and too often turned to the fleeting manna of this world–achievement, and pride, and self-satisfaction to name a few of the loaves I quickly burned through. But with each I felt drained and fell deeper toward despair. And then, as I struggled with this Gospel reading, I heard a small voice inside say, “practice what you preach.” I realized that I was not living from the bread of life, I was not drawing my energy from the boundless store of relationship with Jesus. And so with grace, I returned through silence and prayer and scripture to Jesus, the living bread offered to us all.

Like any good thing, I’m sure that distractions and temptations will lead me back from time to time to the junk food of the soul that is everywhere in our world, but I also know that the more I feed from the living bread the more I will hunger for it alone; no substitute will satisfy.  I hope that all of us will share in that hunger until we find the bread that will never leave us hungry. It is only then that we will be able to move toward the challenge of godliness, the greatest height to which any of us could aspire. The world so needs people who can put aside their anger, who can speak truth to their neighbors in love, who can offer forgiveness and kindness and words of blessing to all those around them. May we run toward that finish line, feasting on the bread of life, all along the way. Amen.

Ragan Sutterfield