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Proper 18, Year B

The Meaning of Life

Readings: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51:1-13; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

During our Vacation Bible Schools we have a mission project. At one such event we had a guest come to receive what the children had collected. He talked about his mission to the children and then asked if they had any questions. A hand went up. “What is your question?” he asked a six year old girl.

“What is the meaning of life?” she asked him. While we tried desperately to contain ourselves, he was at a total loss for words.

It is a question that consumes us as humans. It eats at us. “What is life for?” questioned Leo Tolstoy, that famous Russian writer of the last century. “To die? To kill myself at once? No, I am afraid. To wait for death till it comes? I fear that even more. Then I must live. But what for? In order to die? And I could not escape from that circle.”

“Why was I ever born?” Job asked in the midst of his terrible suffering. His suffering had brought him to the point of questioning not only the purpose of suffering, but his very existence. He could no longer see any reason for his life. That is surely the most destructive type of suffering. The victim can see no purpose or meaning to what is happening. When that occurs, one gives up. One lives as if one were dead. Indeed, one hopes for death.

David is asking the same question. He is questioning God’s purpose in the suffering of his child. After all, he is the cause of the suffering. That must be the hardest thing to accept. God has told him that the child will die because of his sinful deed. He goes through a period of atonement, although, perhaps understandably, he appears to those around him to be in mourning. They see no reasonable explanation for his behaviour. One does not mourn until after a death occurs. His actions fly in the face of convention. Especially since once the child has died and he realizes that he can no longer change God’s mind, he gets over it. He goes on with his life. His period of mourning is over just when everyone thinks it should be beginning.

The Gospel for today presents not only the question, but also the answer. “What is life for?” the crowd seems to be asking Jesus. They follow him, seeking signs and wonders.

“You are looking for me because you ate your fill of the loaves,” Jesus tells them.

They miss the point. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” they ask. They have witnessed the feeding of the five thousand. If it could happen once, why can it not happen all of the time? If Jesus can perform wonders, perhaps they can harness his power in some way. Perhaps he can pass on his powers to them. Then there would be a constant supply of free food. There would be no more worries, no more hardship or struggle. That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? Like winning a lottery! Surely God would want that. By fulfilling their material needs, their suffering would end.

The problem is, they have retreated to a purely materialistic interpretation of what Jesus is saying. He wants them to understand that feeding five thousand people, no matter how extraordinary it is, is not the most important occurrence. The real miracle is the one they have missed out on. The real miracle is the one that can change their lives, not materially, but spiritually. The real miracle is the one who can give meaning and direction to their lives.

It is easy for us as we read the Gospel, to see that the crowd has missed the point. The writer wanted us to recognize it. However, similar experience in our own lives are more difficult for us to perceive until we reflect back on the impact in our lives. Things become much clearer in hindsight. The answer to the profound questions of life are often within us. We have only to accept them. Such reflections, once we allow them to surface, may leave us with a far clearer understanding of the power of God working in our lives.

I brought a painting with me to share with you this morning. It is one which I bought some years ago while I was staying in a village in the Midlands in England. It is a landscape. I bought it because of the effect it had on me when I saw it. It has a depth which draws me into it until I am part of the landscape. Trees take on texture. Sunlight dances in the leaves. Through my purchase, I got to know the artist and he shared his story with me.

He had worked most of his life in a factory, doing heavy labour. Heart disease forced him to quit. He had no idea of how he might earn a living. “I no longer saw any purpose in life,” he told me. “My life was over. I wanted to die.”

While he was recuperating, the physiotherapist got him painting. At first he scoffed at the idea. “After all,” he told me, “I hadn’t held a paint brush in my hand since grade school.” But he discovered that he had a real talent. Using water colours, he began to paint the beauty which he saw around him. He could bring life to canvas. He began to study in earnest, not with any idea of earning a living, but to renew his life. He framed a few pictures, and much to his amazement, people bought them. By the time I met him, he was making a living wage through his work. His life had new purpose and meaning. He was later awarded a prestigious prize, and became well-known throughout England. But more importantly, he accepted the gift giver. His life became a witness to the power of God working in him. That is the real miracle.

Jesus refused to give the crowd the sign that they wanted. Signs wouldn’t help. They had already witnessed signs. They had simply missed the point. What they needed, Jesus knew, was to see with eyes of faith. It is faith that would help them to interpret the real miracle, the miracle that stood before them. Faith is not something that can be achieved by following a formula. It cannot be acquired through observation. It needs to be experienced. There must be an active response. There must be a commitment in order to realize the benefits of eternal life. There must be an acceptance before the gift can be received.

Christ is present to us in the Eucharistic offering of the church. As Jesus becomes the bread of life for us, we are the bread of life to those around us. The reality of Christ giving himself totally in the Eucharist is the model and criterion of Christian behaviour. To be like Christ is to love in a life-giving way. It involves being generous, not just by providing bread but by sharing the deeper gift of ourselves. Such sharing becomes our purpose in life. It gives present and eternal meaning to life. Thanks be to God.
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