Sermon August 5, 2012


“What Are We Working For? The Bread of Pleasure or the Bread of life?”

August 5, 2012

The Reverend Dr. Joanne M. Swenson


Even before August began, I had been thinking a lot about the work for this month.  I began researching the lectionary and sketching out sermon ideas.  So, back in July, as I opened the lectionary Gospel readings for this month, I discovered that God had provided a blessing for me, because these readings are all about work.   The readings for August are the familiar Bread of Heaven discourses.  But they are really about what is driving our work – are we working for the Bread of Heaven, or are we working for the Bread of Earth – bread which ultimately perishes?

So, let’s listen afresh to John 6, and hear what God is saying to each of us about our work, and especially the work that we’ll do together in our church:

John 6:24-35 

The setting of this story is immediately following the feeding of the 5000, in which a few loaves and fishes miraculously feed a vast crowd.

24Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.  25When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

26Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.   27Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

28Then they asked him, “What must we do, to do the works God requires?”

29Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one God has sent.”

30So they asked Jesus, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?  31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’

32Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

34“Sir,” they said, “Give us this bread always!”

35Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 

May God Bless this reading to our understanding


During three sermons in August, I’m going to lean on the thought of the Scandinavian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. I found myself turning to Kierkegaard because, in John Six, we encounter three sorts of people, three types of characters, and these three types correspond strikingly with the three types of people that Kierkegaard wrote about.

I want to talk about Kierkegaard, also, because this is a good way to introduce myself to you.  My faith has been deeply shaped by his writings.

So, who was Kierkegaard?

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher from the mid-1800’s, misunderstood in his day, and largely ignored until his Danish writings began to be translated in the early1900’s.  Kierkegaard profoundly influenced some of the most of the important theologians of the 20th century, including Paul Tillich, a favorite of some of you.

He emphasized that faith in God has to come from our decision and personal engagement with God.  That faith was less a matter of objective knowledge about God and the Bible, and more a matter of passionate risk, to reach toward God when our other ways of life have failed us.  You may have heard and even used Kierkegaard’s most celebrated phrase that sums up this understanding: “The Leap of Faith.”  “The Leap of Faith.”

Well, I went to St. Olaf College, a Lutheran college in Minnesota that celebrates its Scandinavian heritage, so Kierkegaard was on the menu, alongside the Lutefisk and Lefse.  I took the school’s wildly popular “Kierkegaard Course,” taught by Professor Howard Hong, one of Kierkegaard’s first English translators.

Howard wanted us all to have our own Leap of Faith, but the most important thing about this Leap was that it be OUR Leap.  Howard couldn’t orchestrate that – that would be an oxymoron.  All Howard could do was to ask us to read Kierkegaard – NOT objectively – not like some kind of homework assignment, disconnected from our lives.  But to read him subjectively, to let Kierkegaard’s words and ideas sink into our bones, to use these words as a bridge to meeting God.

And that is exactly what Jesus is asking his would-be followers here, in this morning’s text.  To look on bread – NOT objectively, not as just some white stuff, that feeds the biological person.  But to see the Bread’s deeper reality, its subjective meaning, to see it as God’s personal nourishment for us, God’s bread of Life offered, so that we may have the kind of life God intended for us.

That’s where we’re headed in this sermon series:  to understand the kind of person who is able to see ordinary bread as Bread from Heaven, the one who takes that Leap of Faith, the one that Kierkegaard calls, “the religious person.”  So, on August 26 we’ll consider that Third Type of person.  But to get there, we have to go through Kierkegaard’s two other types, two other sorts of people.

The First, which we’ll consider today, is what Kierkegaard calls, “The Aesthete”, the seeker of aesthetic pleasure.  But, let’s just simplify matters, and call this first type, “the pleasure seeker.”  Then, on August 19 we’ll consider the Second Type, the ethical person, a person motivated to improve the world, and improve the self.  And then on August 26 we’ll look at that Third Type, the religious person.[i]

That’s the agenda for August.  And it’s all here in this sixth chapter of John: three sets of characters that correspond with Kierkegaard’s three types, really illuminated by these three types.

And now, before we move further into all this, would you pray with me?

Lord, we’ve come this morning, seeking Life, to live more deeply, with wider purpose and stronger connection to your power and presence.  Grant that, through this sermon, each of us will taste your Bread of Life, given for us.  Amen.

To begin today – the pleasure-seeker – let me tell you a little coffee shop story.  Portland, Oregon is famous for its coffee shops – which I am sure you know from watching PortlandiaPortlandia is the TV series that lampoons my former city’s eccentricities.  And it is true that we take our coffee pleasure a little too seriously.  So I was intrigued to discover that Kierkegaard wrote about his own experience in a coffee shop – a sort of “Kierkegaard in Portlandia” episode.    He wrote this in 1843, about his visit to a Berlin coffee shop:

“I went out to the coffeehouse, (which) on (my) previous visit (to Berlin) I went every day to enjoy my coffee. . .I insist at least upon good coffee.  Perhaps the coffee was just as good as before, one might almost suppose so, but I didn’t like it.  The sun blazed hotly upon the window of the shop, the place was stuffy, pretty much like the air in (New Canaan), fit to stew in.”[ii]

Kierkegaard, here, is trying to repeat a pleasurable experience: going to the coffee shop in Berlin.  But he can’t get the same satisfaction, things just aren’t right.  The sunlight hits the window too harshly now; the room is too hot; the coffee isn’t quite as good.  Pleasure perishes.  It simply can’t be repeated the way it once was.  Kierkegaard called this the Problem of Repetition, and it plagues the pleasure seeker.

That’s what is happening here, in John 6.  The crowd of 5000 has just been fed by Jesus, the story we call the Miracle of Loaves and Fishes.  And now, this same crowd is following Jesus – and why?  They’re pursuing Jesus because they want him to repeat this miracle:

“Wow, that was amazing time, our stomachs were filled, there was food enough for all, it was free, everyone got along, there was a special excitement in the air.  But then, it ended – Jesus went off somewhere, the crowd broke up, we got hungry again.  Oh, but here Jesus is again!  So, let’s just REPEAT that experience of pleasure, of excitement – of filled stomachs.”

Jesus knows this.  He knows that the crowd has come because they are driven by pleasure, and they want to just keep repeating that experience.   “I assure you that you are looking for me. . . because you ate all the food you wanted, “ he says.

That’s the Bread of Pleasure.

Jesus points to the bread God fed the Israelites, as they journeyed toward the Promised Land – the manna-bread, a story in Exodus 16.  The Israelites were thrilled by this manna, initially.  God rained down manna from the skies twice a day.  But after a while the Israelites actually got bored with this bread. They grumbled and complained.  They demanded to return to Egypt, to eat the bread of slavery.  They wanted to abandon their Exodus, and abandon the God who freed them and fed them.

Initial pleasure; there’s repetition; irritation creeps in, and finally, abandonment – abandonment of the work, the relationship, the activity.  Let’s call it the PRIA pattern – an acronym of P for pleasure; R for repetition; I for irritation and A for abandonment.  PRIA: That’s the pattern of the pleasure-seeking type of person.

We can see this PRIA pattern in certain parts of all of our lives:  I read this yesterday morning, in the Wall Street Journal:  Dear Dan, I’ve been in a relationship with a girl for almost six years.  The passion of those first days, when oxytocin levels were extremely high, is long gone.  But I still feel comfortable with her. I don’t know if it’s time to stop this all and leave her.  Should I go, or should I stay and hope to bring the passion back?  And Dear Dan writes back:  “I would say get out.”[iii]

So, is that our new metric?  Oxytocin?  That’s the PRIA pattern.

The bread of pleasure perishes.

What should we do?  What can we do?

In the early days of Christianity, people were troubled by pleasure.  They would try to escape from pleasure, renouncing the pleasures of worldly work, of marriage, of owning property. They became ascetics and monks, nuns and priests.  This was considered a higher way, a certain way to work for the Bread of Heaven.

But even the work of religion can be corrupted by worldly pleasures.  Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, looked around him and saw that the church was enjoying the pleasures of power, the pleasures of status, the pleasure of self-righteous certainty about the godliness of its work.

So, the Reformation tore down this wall between so-called godly work and worldly work, by saying, it’s not the work you do that is holy or not.  It’s your motivations that make your work holy. It’s your heart, your purpose.  Are you motivated by the bread of pleasure?  Then your work will perish.  Or, are you motivated by the Bread of Heaven?

That’s what Jesus is saying, right here.  In verse 27, He says it simply:  Do not work for food that perishes, but work for food that endures to eternal life.

What would that look like?  What would that look like in our lives?

Here’s an example, taken from a book I’ll discuss more in two weeks:  A woman rang up and bagged groceries, which was her job, working in a world that was, literally, a six foot square.  “Every day she greeted her customers with enthusiasm and concern, remembering their names and asking about their families.  She would end every conversation by saying that she was going to pray for their family.  Over time, this caused problems (at the store), for people wanted to get into her aisle, (causing long lines, while the other cashiers stood by idly). . . At her funeral, years after she retired, the church was packed to standing-room-only capacity, and she was eulogized again and again by people whom she had encouraged for years.”[iv]

The Bread of Heaven is, potentially, always there, in the tasks, the work and the relationships of daily life.   That heavenly bread can come to us and we can share it, through our daily endeavors.  That’s the point made by Martin Luther.  That’s the “religious person,” in Kierkegaard’s thought.   That’s what Jesus was trying to teach the crowd.  This daily bread, this daily work, can be the Bread of Heaven.

I need to remember that as I begin my work among you.  This job has a lot of pleasures:  the pleasures of your welcome and approval, the pleasures of living in Pollard House, the pleasure of pay, the pleasure of working with Skip.   But if I work alone for these pleasures, my work will perish.  Jesus says, it will perish.  I’ll contribute only a forgettable footnote in this church’s long history of faithful Christian ministry.

In a moment we’re going to receive holy communion, a symbol of this Bread of Heaven.  In communion we outwardly symbolize an inner action of taking into our lives the Bread of Heaven.  If you are ready to leave behind the bread of perishing in some aspect of your life, use this moment to do so.   As you take the communion bread, say to yourself, I set aside this bread of perishing in my life, and I take into my life, instead, the Bread of Heaven.


[i]  What I’m calling, “drives” are called by Kierkegaard, “spheres of existence,” or “stages.”   “Stages” is the more popular term among Kierkegaard readers, but it erroneously conveys a necessary sequence of movement, where each stage is bounded and not inclusive of qualities of the others.  This is misleading:  “. . .Stages On Life’s Way deals consecutively with each of the three stages, or “existence spheres” of life, as Kierkegaard called them, consisting of the esthetic, the ethical and the religious. While he favored the term “stages” earlier in his writings, we are not to conceive of them necessarily as periods of life that one proceeds through in sequence, but rather, as paradigms of existence. In fact, the term “existence”/”spheres” occurs more frequently than the term “stages.” In addition, many individuals might not traverse a certain stage, for example, the religious, nor can the religious be separated from the ethical.”

[ii] Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition:  An Essay in Experimental Psychology (1843), included in A Kierkegaard Anthology, Robert Bretall, ed., pg. 147.

[iii] Dan Ariely, The Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2012, pg. C12

[iv]James Davison Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford University Press: 2010), pg. 268f

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